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.
I recently wrote about the Clean Marina organization that is starting to control what member marinas can and can’t use in and around their properties. The goal of this organization is to help marinas and boat yards reduce and manage their hazardous waste and implement improvements to restore our waterways and protect the environment.
One of the rules we need to start following at marinas that belong to this organization is that we can only use approved boat soaps. This means that no matter who is washing your boat, whether it’s you or your boat detailer, only certain boat soaps can be used. Biodegradable means nothing anymore. They must also be phosphate-free AND leave no suds in the water. I mentioned some boat soaps in my article about the Clean Marina organization last month. In this article, I’ll go into more detail about three soaps you can use if your marina belongs to this organization.
Green Doesn’t Necessarily = Clean
What we’ve found with the “green” soaps that have less chemicals in them and are phosphate-free is that although they are more environmentally safe to use around waterways and don’t irritate the skin or nose as much as other stronger cleaners might, they sometimes aren’t strong enough for the extra dirty boats. Ideally, a boat should never be left uncared for that it gets so dirty that it requires strong chemical-laden cleaners or soaps in the first place, but unfortunately that happens all too often.
The more often a boat is washed, the cleaner it will be and therefore the mild soaps and cleaning products will work just fine and because your boat is cleaned often allowing you to use milder cleaning products, those mild cleaning products will strip less wax so your boat is protected better and longer not allowing water streaks and bird droppings to set into the gel coat but instead wash right off. I agree, it’s a vicious cycle!
Boat is cleaned often > able to use milder cleaning products > strips less wax > boat stays cleaner.
Boat is not cleaned often > must use stronger cleaners to clean away dirt and mildew > strips wax in the process > boat gets dirtier faster because it doesn’t have a layer of wax protecting it > stains soak into gel coat easier.
Now let’s review some of those more environmentally-friendly boat soaps that will help you keep your boat clean if done on a regular basis. I recommend washing your boat at least every three weeks, buffing and waxing the whole boat once per year and buffing and waxing the topside again about six months later if it’s starting to fade a bit.
Starbrite Sea Safe Boat Soap
This is one of the more common (easier to find) boat soaps we’ve been using that is both phosphate-free and doesn’t leave suds in the water. It will suds up a bit in the bucket but it rinses off almost suds-free. I’ve found it to do a good job at helping wash away dirt and it seems to get the boat nice and clean.
Captain John’s Yacht Shine
This was the only boat soap we could find at this time that actually had an “approved by Clean Marina” sticker on it. However, this soap did leave suds in the water, so I’m not sure if they actually tested it or if we just got a stronger mixture this time. It did an alright job of getting the boat clean, but we had to use a bit of extra elbow grease to get some tougher stains out. It’s a soap we often use at the more strict marinas so we can show the harbor master the seal of approval if asked about our supplies, but it’s not typically our first choice for washing.
Zaal Sea Solve
This is a boat soap that was introduced to me a few weeks ago and we’ve been using it ever since. It’s was first designed as a boat soap that was very good at removing salt spray and crystals but it became so much more. It’s phosphate-free and is made of mostly natural ingredients and smells great. Your boat will literally smell like fresh fruit. It’s really good at cleaning tough stains and works well to get dirt out of teak decks. It has a de-foamer in it, so you won’t see suds in the bucket or the water. At first, you feel like you’re just using a bucket of water to wash your boat with since you can’t see any suds, but after a while you get used to it and realize that it’s doing a good job cleaning. However, this soap is almost three times as expensive as the other soaps. We save it for our large yachts and boats with special finishes.
Tips On Green Cleaning
You can try to wash your boat with baking ingredients, such as vinegar and baking soda, but let’s face it, in some cases when there’s more dirt than you bargained for, those ingredients are better for zucchini bread than boat washing. Unless you wash your boat on a weekly basis, completely pure ingredients may not be able to cut through strong stains, heavier dirt or green and black mildew as quickly or as easily as something with a specific cleaning agent in it that is meant for the job.
I’ve always said that cleaner wax is one of the best cleaners you can use because it stays on your boat. You can use cleaner wax to remove scuff marks made by the shore power cord, fenders or lines. Cleaner wax can also brighten up stainless, remove marks in non-skid, remove stains left from bird and spider droppings and leaves, clean and polish plastic windows and remove stubborn water streaks in between your big wax jobs.
One thing I’d like to point out is that some of the spray cleaners that are meant to remove specific stains or that are considered “green” such as Simple Green can remove wax over time. You’re main goal is not to use a cleaning product that removes wax. That’s not doing your gel coat any good. Better to use cleaner wax as a cleaning product before you reach for the spray cleaners.