If you ask Google, there are millions of ways to clean your teak. If you ask, what’s so special about the properties of teak, it’ll tell you "Teak is naturally water-resistant and physically very strong and durable. It is not prone to significant expansion or contraction with humidity changes. The oils in teak are what make it weather-resistant and it requires basically no care when left outside." This of course, is a lie-- if you want your teak to look a certain way. As with most questions, I find that the answers to teak care tend to be ‘it depends’. Luckily, we can guide you in directions.
*Disclaimer, we’re talking about real teak here, Tectona grandis, not the popsicle stick stuff.
So, getting down to it. First things first would be an assessment. We already know the teak is gray and probably old. If it wasn’t, you likely wouldn’t be reading this. How old though, makes a difference; some people say you should expect 20 to 40 years or more out of the life of a real teak deck. Everyone agrees, teak that hasn’t been maintained, will die young, or be in serious need of repair. Just how much repair? Well, ask yourself a few questions. Is the caulking (black stuff in lines between the wood) ‘standing proud’? Cut it down, or replace it. Are the panels dished? Ready the Dremel and belt sander, or hire someone who knows what they’re doing. Maybe the teak is just gray, and it would be nice to give it a scrub and bring it back to a nice brown color, or even, dare I say (the highly coveted) ‘honey’ color? You may think pressure washer, but you’d be wrong. It’s starting to sound like work now.
If you spend too much time on YouTube, you’ll find yourself bouncing around between an ancient sailor, down on hands and knees scrubbing the deck of his sailboat with a stiff bristled brush and a bucket of salt water uttering the phrase ‘across the grain’ till it hurts, to a teenage deckhand in the Mediterranean on a superyacht, scouring powdered dish detergent or into the teak with a 3M doodlebug, to some guy in Florida who swears by scrubbing his teak swim step with Coca-Cola. Seriously, it’s like, pick whatever channel you want, you’ll find variations on a lot of themes, but I assure you, some of the ideas out there get pretty wild.
If you ask the boat makers, the shipwrights, the shapers and mounters, the installers of the elephant harvested teak from Myanmar, they will give you a list of rules about what to do and what not to do and it will typically look something like this.
1)accept the fact that the wood will become gray, or don’t and see what happens (you’ll probably be just fine)
2)do, always scrub gently with a soft or medium/soft brush across the grain (don’t use stiff bristle brushes, don’t scrub with the grain)
3)increase intensity of cleaning product strength from regular boat soap to white vinegar and water to a small amount of bleach or ‘mildew remover’ and water to oxalic acid, Bon Ami powder, powders of all types, some say various detergents, then we enter the realm of two step acid washes, a realm where some dare never venture- but if you’re after that honey color it’s really your only option, that, or sanding
Ask yourself, how do you like your grain? I’ve noticed the grain effect on super yachts (given the doodlebug treatment) I would describe as ‘smashed, but pleasant underfoot’. I once knew a guy who liked to use pickle juice on his teak, he said the smell helped keep the birds away. One thing that really degrades a deck (other than obviously scrubbing it too hard or using a pressure washer) is marine fungi. Yeah, you heard me, fungi. Mold, mildew, lichen, even mosses (especially here in the Pacific Northwest)-- its all part of the re-composition, where in, nature turns your teak deck back into soil. Fungal communities feed on algae that quickly establish onboard your vessel and yes, there are plenty of hydrocarbon loving fungi out there too, who love even the diesel in your boat engine. Those ones are the sludge makers, also known as Hormoconis resinae. If you’re not paying attention, the fungi will absolutely move in, birds poop it in on the wind, maybe. It’s just out there, man. Don’t feel weird about it though, there’s even molds mildew and fungi that live on the International Space Station. Completely anerobic and even salty environments are a non-issue for many fungi and also rusts (queue blog foreshadow). This is something not many talk about when we’re talking about teak, I know. But, to put it bluntly-- you do have to ‘keep it clean’ if you want it to last-- what this translates into is quite simply, regular maintenance washes.
Whether its boat soap, vinegar, bleach, what have you, keeping your teak clean is the key to longevity. Once the fungi has moved in, and if bleach (mildew remover) isn’t cutting it, then you may have to decide which acid treatment is right for you, or get to sanding. Pretty much every commercial teak cleaner doesn’t pass the EPA smell test for discharge into any waterway, and although some work very well, in essence it’s a chemical sanding. The real key is, once you’ve got it clean, keep it clean. Need a sand? We can’t help there, but we can help keep it clean, and this should always be the ultimate goal for maintaining your teak. Leaving nutty pickle juice guy behind, we’ll venture into the realm of “to seal or not to seal” on our next analysis paralysis session of this teak deep dive. We’re going to be talk oiling, staining, painting, maybe dip a toe in popsicle stick flooring and all things imitation teak.
When we talk about washing boats, dirt and mildew tend to get a lot of attention, especially in the Pacific Northwest. But, one thing folks don’t talk much about is the need for some serious UV protection, especially for unhoused boats that spend their whole life out in the open. Just as with our own skin, the sun causes the vast majority of damage to your boat, or your boat’s ‘skin’-- which is a good way to think about the exterior of your boat.
Sure, you can get dirt on your skin, it just washes off. But there is a reason your dermatologist tells you to be sure to put lotion on after you shower (and then sunblock, of course). A conditioning protectant is essential to, not only save you from the ashy, chalky look, but also to create a barrier layer between you and the free radical, oxidative stressors inherent in environmental exposure. So, the moral of this story is, as odd as it may sound, after you’ve washed it, lotion your boat. We’ve found the best nautical cosmetics counters and have been conducting extensive boat beautification testing for decades. We can vouch for several great products.
Don’t worry, we’re not greedy, and won’t keep these secrets to ourselves; because we don’t believe in information hoarding at Deckhand Detailing, we’ll go ahead and list some the best products on the market for all those times, between buff and wax Spa Appointments (once the boat has been cleaned) where you’ll want to ‘sunblock’ your boat’s skin. Putting these ‘lotions’ on your boat every month or two will go a long way in fending off crows-feet, never mind the nautical folliculitis that happens when you don’t keep your boat’s skin clean and protected.
A wonderful, top-shelf product is 303 Marine UV Protectant. Its safe for use on several surfaces, but it works especially well for vinyl seating. Use it on your dinghy tubes, dash area, it really is a fantastic UV blocker and also repels dirt and dust. It’s spray on, wipe off application makes it especially quick and easy. Meguiar’s 59 Quick Wax is a real gem to use on your gel coat; again, the spray and wipe application makes this especially quick and easy, and you can use it everywhere. Using a product like Rain-X (StarBrite also makes a similar product) on your glass, also goes a long way to help prevent the formation of water spots and aids in repelling dirt and preventing mineral deposits caused by hard dock water. Plexus and IMAR Strataglass Protective Polish work very well on any type of isinglass or plastic windows.
I will keep one outstanding product line in this arena a secret, for now, but will tell you all about it soon, we promise. So, whenever you think or hear ‘don’t forget the sunblock’, remember to share that love with your boat too.
Buckle up as we take a ride on the teak highway, from Lake Union in Seattle all the way to Myanmar. We'll be doing some time travel as well, so put your helmet on, and get ready to hit a few destinations along the way including the Netherlands, en route to the land of unemployed elephants. At the end of this leg of the journey, you'll understand why the question "where did your teak come from" is the new "where did your diamond come from".
When I talk with boat owners who are interested in 'the how and why' of all things having to do with boats, I usually find myself quite capable of being longwinded. If there is a teak deck involved, sometimes this conversation could go on for hours. There is so much to say about teak, and this is why Google will give you 2,090,000 search results for "how to clean teak on a boat". You're probably all like, yeah, yeah, I came for the blood diamonds part. We'll get into it, I promise. To be truthful, given the breadth of the subject, this may need to become a multi-blog topic, but I'll try to cover some ground here, starting with a disclaimer.
When I say teak, I'm talking about the real deal, Tectona Grandis-- not the fake stuff, which I like to refer to as 'popsicle stick flooring', or the various other iterations of imitations in foam and composite. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate what the alternatives are trying to accomplish, they just happen to be a nightmare for detailing. Teak decking is also a nightmare for detailing. As with the diamond trade, many people have little inkling of the ramifications that go into the acquisition of these raw materials, and the varying shades of associated 'legality' depending on country of origin. Now you may be thinking you were promised a ride on a highway, not a rollercoaster but by now you're strapped in already, helmet on. PPE, check. Keep your hands and arms inside the ride, remove dark soled shoes, here we go.
In 2006 Djimon Hounsou, Jennifer Connelly and Leonardo DiCaprio brought the complicated topic of 'conflict diamonds' (mined in war zones and sold to finance conflicts in Sierra Leone) to the American zeitgeist via the silver screen, with the movie Blood Diamond. In part, the growing consideration for where and how ‘items’ or ‘materials’ are 'harvested' was spurred on by this film, and gave rise to the now highly sought after 'conflict free' diamond, along with notions of becoming an educated consumer. Terms like 'fair trade', 'sustainably sourced', 'ethically sourced' started hitting the mainstream around this time and all of the sudden child labor became a consideration when you popped into Sephora to pick up a new eyeshadow pallet and had the thought, "where does mica come from", never mind the diamond you've been after.
Like most diamonds, teak has no real markers on it to say where it came from, or how it was sourced and likewise the usual answer to either question on teak or diamonds origin, is typically answered with a shrug and an 'I don't know' or ' couldn't say'. In 2013 the EU implemented strict rules surrounding 'illicit timber'. What a provocative term! In 2014 Myanmar (the country also known as Burma and current worldwide winner, for longest civil war) banned the export of wild teak logs. This was big, because Myanmar has all the good teak, having the most tropical forest in Southeast Asia. Despite the issues around deforestation (especially in the regions known for teak) and the governments ban on export, Uncle Pennybags demands only the best teak for his yacht building and all logs must be harvested using elephant labor. But for real, apparently, it's like, a big problem in Myanmar-- what to do about all the out of work elephants, especially during the pandemic. I know, it all sounds a bit like theatre, but I swear its true! The below photo is courtesy if the Dutch Police from a multi-pronged teak raid in 2019 of smuggled Burmese teak found in numerous locations in the Netherlands via the Czech Republic.
I kid you not. Apparently the Tectona grandis is, no joke, hotter than drugs and the authorities are looking to crack down. The yacht makers (some names have been named in media reports) must have their Burmese teak fix though, and will not be denied. Sure, there is a myriad of ethical questions one could consider, from the laborers (my god, the poor elephants) to the environmental impacts, but ultimately, those lawsuits are being played out in high courts in other countries and the powers that be are charging the middlemen in the supply chain-- the 'dealers' and the 'shippers'. By the time your new teak deck arrives in the Pacific Northwest, as a mere user-- one can assume those fines have already been paid. But the now, illicit nature of it does make the status symbol of having a deck teak more of a rarity and it will become increasingly more difficult to acquire as raids and unavoidable restrictions increase.
These developments in the teak market and global trade have only added to the mythos of having a teak deck. This also makes it all the more important when a boat owner has to weigh decisions about how to care for and maintain their teak, especially with an understanding of the unicorn-like nature of both a new or old teak deck. Stick around as we peel back the layers and layers of teak care. We're going to talk caulking, sanding, washing, scrubbing, oiling, brightening, products, tips and tricks, things to look out for and then, we'll talk same on all variations of 'fake teak'. For now, the ride is coming to a stop. Keep your dark soled shoes off, summer is nearly here. Leonardo did not win, although he was nominated in 2007, for best actor. You may remove your helmet, we'll pick back up with this deep dive into teak in the next one.
What are the water streaks on your boat (sometimes referred to as black streaks) and why do they keep happening? Where do they come from, how can we remove them, and once they're removed, how can we keep them from coming back? Keep reading for tips and tricks to learn how to keep your boat looking it's best year round in the Seattle area with Deckhand Detailing.
Q: There are several deck brushes to choose from at my local boating supply store, but I can’t imagine I need one of each. Which one or two do I absolutely need on my boat?
A: You only need two deck brushes – one that is soft to wash gel coat and most other materials with and one that is lightly scratchy for non-skid. Shurhold offers three types of deck brushes. The blue one is very soft, the yellow one is lightly scratchy and the white one is very scratchy. West Marine offers their own brand of deck brushes, as well, however their yellow brush is soft, their blue brush is medium-course and their white brush is scratchy. Each manufacturer will have different colors for the different grades of their deck brushes, so when choosing the soft one, run it across your face and if it feels at all scratchy, then it’s not the best brush to be used on smooth gel coat.
When washing your boat with the soft deck brush, it’s perfectly fine to use it on glass windows, vinyl seats, canvas, boat graphics and non-skid. However, do not use even the softest of deck brushes on plastic windows, such as Isinglass, Strataglass or Lexan. It is best to use a microfiber rag (not terry cloth) and a spray cleaner meant for those materials such as Plexus Plastic Cleaner or Mer-Maid’s Plexiglass Cleaner and Polish.
Q: I have a DA (dual action) polisher that I use on my car. Can I also use it on my boat?
A: Yes! There are areas where a DA polisher can come in quite handy if you don’t want to spend a lot of money on a variable speed buffer and if you just want to keep certain areas of your boat polished yourself in between the big yearly wax jobs.
As I just talked about in the previous question, a DA polisher can be used to keep colored stripes buffed and polished on a regular basis to keep them from fading. DA polishers, because of their smaller size, are also great for getting in those hard to reach places such as around corners, under rails or between areas of non-skid.
One area where we often use a DA polisher is on gel coated cap or toe rails. These areas often fade quickly because of their horizontal surface that bakes in the sun (UV rays hit them more directly causing them to fade faster). A DA polisher is also great for buffing the topside of a ski boat or sailboat that has a lot of nooks and crannies.
A DA polisher isn’t as “aggressive” as a variable speed polisher when it comes to removing heavier oxidation, so I wouldn’t recommend using one on your whole boat, such as the hull, brow or transom. They’re best used for smaller areas that you can do more often to remove light oxidation and add a layer of wax throughout the season as needed.
Q: Is it OK to use a pressure washer on my boat?
A: We get asked this question a lot. You come down to your boat in early spring and are amazed at how dirty it is with green mildew actually growing on the gel coat and canvas and black mold in the non-skid. It would be tempting to use a pressure washer, but even set at a lower pressure, we highly advise against it for many reasons. First of all, you’ll be removing any wax that was left on the gel coat. Even if you’re planning to wax your boat soon after, using a pressure washer won’t improve the gel coat’s condition for waxing. You’ll still need to use a buffer with rubbing compound, so it’s not saving you much time. Especially when there are many things that can go wrong when using a pressure washer on a boat.
Even the lightest of pressure can put a hole in older canvas. Medium pressure can remove fittings and ruin teak. On a colored hull or topside, a pressure washer can make areas look uneven or splotchy because of the spray pattern. On a painted boat, the pressure can easily remove paint. In the end, a boat “washed” with a pressure wash will still require you to clean certain areas by hand and the boat will need to be waxed immediately after in order to keep the gel coat from oxidizing further.
We see a lot of boat detailing companies out there attach a dirty boat or teak decks with a pressure washer and we cringe every time we see this. Fittings go flying off into the water, paint starts to peel and teak decks end up with wide open grain and ugly spray patterns. It’s always best to spend some extra time washing your boat with a good ole’ bucket of soap, a soft deck brush and a soft hand brush. It’s the best way to remove the dirt and know that you’ve touched every inch without ruining your boat along the way.
Deckhand Detailing, established in 1990, offers affordable and high quality boat cleaning and detailing services including boat washing, buffing and waxing, interior cleaning and more. We're experienced, friendly and easy to work with because we love what we do!