Golden and soon gone, or gray and here to stay — how do you take your teak?
When it comes to teak decking, how it’s cared for depends on which priority is most important to the owner — looks or longevity. If maintaining that golden brown gleam is what matters most, maintenance would include the one-two punch of a cleaning plus brightening approach: scrubbing with a detergent, followed by an acid wash to bring the teak’s weathered gray back to its original rich golden color.
But Capt. Ethan Lee, who aims for longevity, swears by another method. He prefers cleaning teak decks lightly and keeping them dry, with a light sanding only every two years. Although the teak will look golden again for only a short time after the sanding, he says he is OK with its natural fade to gray. He learned this routine from New Zealander Jeff Gibbs, of Jeff Gibbs Teak Deck Repairs, based in Fort Lauderdale.
“We all agree that there is a life span for a teak deck and that it will eventually have to be replaced,” Capt. Lee said. “But if you do a light sanding every two years, you’ll get the longest span.”
He began implementing Gibbs’ method in 2004, when he was the engineer on M/Y CV9, a 130-foot (39.9m) Delta. “She’s done extensive traveling, owned by an adventurous owner who custom built her,” he said. “We were averaging 20,000 miles a year. On that boat, we replaced the deck, and then I applied what I learned from Jeff and proved to the owner that it was the proper maintenance program.
Five years later, after a three-year absence from the yacht, he returned as captain. “I saw that half [of the teak] that was there five years prior was gone. Also, we had standing puddles of water that were constantly tearing up the remaining material even quicker.”
Trevor Gibbs, who took over Jeff Gibbs Teak Deck Repairs when his father retired, said their recommended regime of gentle cleaning as needed, followed by a light sanding at regular intervals, is not rocket science. Here’s why: “The two-part cleaning solution includes a cleaner that’s made out of sodium percarbonate, and the second part is oxalic acid, which helps clean and brighten the teak. It does that by removing the soft grain of the teak, so when you scrub it, you see gray water coming off the deck. There’s a misconception they are getting the dirt out, when in reality they are scrubbing away the teak.”
Because a yacht is cleaned and washed constantly, the idea is to keep the deck in a condition where the wood and the caulking in the seams are at the same level so that water can flow off and drain, he explained. “If the wood the composition of the boat, it can cause corrosion — and that means you have to tear the deck up, and you need more aggressive repairs.”
Ideally, they recommend sanding the decks every 18 months to two years. “That might sound counterintuitive, because every time you sand you remove a layer of teak,” Trevor Gibbs said. “But we only sand away the minimal amount necessary.”
Look for areas that remain wet after the rest of the deck has dried, which may indicate spots where caulking has broken away.
As for heavy-duty acid washes, Alan Brosilow, vice president of sales at Teak Decking Systems, had this to say: “If you had a piano, would you wash it with acid? Well, that’s what you do with two-part cleaners. They are basically oxalic acid. They wreck the surrounding paint job, and they remove the soft grain of the teak, making the teak grainy.” What’s more, he pointed out, “when that stuff goes into the water, you are polluting the water and killing fish.” The only advantage of the acid washes, Brosilow said, is that they make the teak look brand new. “But you do the least damage if you sand every year or two and use the mild cleaners in between.”
His company offers two choices of cleaners: Echo 300, a liquid cleaner, and Echo 100, a powder that needs to be mixed with water. Both are Green Marine- and MARPOL-approved. “The 300 is easier to use if you have just accent trim and railings,” he said, “but for a superyacht, the 100 works better because it’s easier to store and you can mix it to the concentration level you like.”
Brosilow suggests using the cleaners once a month, washing against the grain. “Do not use the hard bristle brush — we like 3M,” he added. “And annually or biannually, lightly sand the deck, because the caulking rises once the deck wears down.”
Capt. Jeff Huffman agreed that keeping teak decks looking golden all the time by using a harsh acid is not worth it. “I can assure you this: If the owners are involved, they are not willing to replace their decks.” He estimates that on his boat, 126-foot (38m) Sanlorenzo, it would cost $400,000 to replace the deck, “and no owner will want that.”
Capt. Huffman, who’s been in the business since 1989, said on his first boat, the captain used Tide and an electric scrubber. “And with that in your hand — it has current going through it, and your hands and feet are wet — you get shocked. Not for me.” Instead, he uses Cascade powder detergent diluted in warm water to clean the teak. “It needs to be sitting overnight to completely dilute. Then four of our crew scrub it across the grain.”
One captain swabs his decks with Snobol toilet cleaner. Although it has oxalic acid in it, it’s not as harsh as other products and still gives that golden look.
Two or three times a year, after cleaning the decks, Capt. Huffman uses Snobol toilet cleaner to brighten the teak. “Snobol does have oxalic acid in it, but it’s not as harsh as other products,” he said. “We squirt it on and spread it out with a wet mop and get that beautiful golden look that we all are looking for. The decks do revert to gray, but they’ll look good for the summer.”
Capt. Herb Magney, who has been in the marine industry for years and currently works as a relief captain and compliance consultant, described the process he used when he captained a 164-foot (50m) Trinity for four years. “We would use MARPOL-approved products for required cleaning, whether monthly or every two months,” he said. “Every six months, we would get hands-down and shave the caulking down so it was flush with the deck, and roughly every two years we would lightly sand the decks to get them nice and even.”
In between, Capt. Magney said, they would wash the deck with soap and water. And for spot cleaning of things like salad oil or crushed potato chips? K2R carpet cleaner. “That dries into a powder and sucks the oil out,” he said. “And that’s about it.”
TEAK DECK CARE
• Check the deck’s condition after cleaning and flushing it. Look for areas that remain wet after the rest of the deck has dried, which may indicate spots where the caulking in a seam has broken away from the teak, or a plug is failing. Repair these areas immediately to prevent water from getting under the deck.
• Never use a pressure washer, which will destroy the soft wood and leave ridges in the teak.
• Be careful using chlorine bleach; it makes most caulking products thick and sticky and will damage seam integrity.
— Alan Brofilow
Teal Decking Systems
Click to view a video demonstrating how to clean and extend the life of a teak deck.
MAKE YOUR TEAK LAST LONGER
“With proper cleaning and regular maintenance, the teak deck should last 15 to 20 years before you have to replace the deck, overall,” Trevor Gibbs said. He offers the following tips for longer-lasting teak:
- To avoid big repairs, keep the deck flat and fix failures by removing and replacing caulking where seams are broken.
- Do regularly scheduled maintenance sanding every 18 to 24 months.
- Don’t use harsh chemicals on the deck and don’t clean excessively; it can shorten a deck’s lifespan by half.
- Don’t wait too long to sand, because even if the crew uses the right cleaning products, the decks are still exposed to the elements.
When there are too many caulking failures to repair, it’s time for a complete re-seaming. “Caulking has a life of 12 to 14 years max,” Jeff Gibbs said.
— Jeff and Trevor Gibbs