The trouble with… new teak

Fixing old boats is what I do most of and an awful lot of what I get to fix is made of teak. Prima facie this seems quite reasonable and sensible. Teak rubbing strakes, toe-rails, decking, saloon furniture; They all get damaged and need, ideally, like-for-like replacement. However, when like-for-like means sourcing timber of questionable political origin, astronomic price, limited availability and dubious quality we need to start finding better solutions. I don’t think that I have a solution to this or even a hint of one but need to start by telling a story as an example of what can go wrong when people get hung up on an idea like ‘I need a laid teak deck’.

I’m currently in the process of replacing the aft king plank (rotten) on a Spey Class Motor Sailer. The deck is 1″ laid teak, rather fancy for a boat built in Buckie but it looks, to me, about right. Nothing unusual about that you might think for a boat built in the late 50’s. However, when I tell you that the deck was completely re-laid 10 years ago you might raise an eyebrow or two. What could have happened to the job such that 10 years later the teak king plank had rotted, the deck had started leaking and, of course, the deck beams had rotted as well.

Once the old plank had been dug out it was pretty clear what had happened. The teak was soft and spongy and when I cleaned up the end grain you could see that the growth rings indicated that the tree had been putting on 12mm of girth, each side, year after year. This, if I have ever seen it, is fast grown plantation teak suitable, at best, for paper making.

So, whose fault is this: the timber supplier; the client (who supplied the timber to the yard); the yard or the the shipwright? The supplier would try to claim that this is all that was available on the market, the client would claim that he purchased teak (and everybody knows that teak does not rot), the yard would claim that the client supplied the teak and the poor shipwright probably knew that the deck would not last but just did as he was told.

More important than the particular party at fault in this case is the general climate in which a large number of people ask for a particular natural resource (in this case teak) which is is in increasingly scarce supply and all expect to obtain access to the ‘real thing’. There just isn’t enough material, at any price, of a quality suitable for boatbuilding. We, as boatbuilders (or whatever) have to have more imagination in proposing alternatives and be more aggressive in saying ‘no – this wood is not good enough to go in a boat’.

As a jobbing boatbuilder (working here as a subcontractor) I got on with the job, scarfed in repairs to the deck beams and made up a new king plank using the supplied teak. I pointed out that decking and especially a king plank, however tight the growth rings, really really does need to be quarter sawn but when is the last time that you saw a 200mm wide quarter sawn teak board? If there is no option of doing the job properly because the materials are not available on the open market there is little motivation for the yard to tell the client about this impossible option. There’s no doubt about it, I’m part of this consumption conspiracy.

This post is not meant to be a whinge or a rant but is, I hope, a way of phrasing a few questions.

  • What happens to wooden boatbuilders when wood suitable for boatbuilding is no longer available?
  • What happens to all the old wooden boats that need to be repaired?
  • What happens to all the fancy superyachts when they need new teak decks?

I know that people have been saying this sort of thing for generations but for us it really does seem to be the end of the line, for using tropical hardwoods in boats at any rate.

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4 comments

  1. Hey Charlie,
    Couldn’t agree or identify more with your conundrum. I know this may sound heretical but have you thought of using American hard maple instead of teak. I know one’s white the other honey coloured but they both weather to grey and the maple is available, rot resistant and bloody hard.
    All the best,
    Tiernan

  2. Thanks for the suggestion. On checking … both of the commercially available hard maples (black and sugar maple) are rated by the US DOA as having ‘low decay resistance’. Have you used maple outdoors for any time?

    I’ve seen hard maple used in kitchen cabinets but had never considered it for boatbuilding.

  3. Tiernan.

    Kebony makes sense. I had not appreciated that it could be made from maple. The other ‘treated timber’ alternative, for which there seems to be more technical data, is Accoya. If these stabilised timber products can be used for decking it might also be possible to use them for framing – or even planking. More research and tests to be done I think. Thanks for your contribution!

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