Teak is a fascinating hardwood. It has a charming golden brown color and the abundance of natural oils in its grain makes it weather-resistant and unaffected by dry rot. For these and other reasons teak has always been the number one lumber for the marine industry. One big problem with teak is its atrociously high cost, as you probably know if you deal with boats or with outdoor furniture. So the answer to the question what to do with old teak could be to avoid it entirely!
When we bought Tranquility she came with the original teak features on deck: forward and lazarette hatches, companionway and seahood, toe rails. Not a full teak decking, but a classic nautical touch. If not protected against UV action with constant application of a finish, teak ages and loses part of its oils, turning grey and forming deep grooves and cracks, and after 50 years in the elements all we could see on deck were grey wrinkles on the surface of the hardwood. We were ok with some ugliness and cosmetic imperfection, we had definetely bigger problems to deal with at that time.
But the teak onboard didn’t have only cosmetic problem. Unfortunately hatch doors are built with teak in combination with plywood. The plywood used as a supportive panel for the teak strips has rotted away, and with this supportive action compromised the hardwood also started to rot and break. Trying to waterproof such a damaged door was impossible without taking everything apart and rebuilding it. When we did the first part of our refit in New Bedford we didn’t have time to repair and restore the teak doors and many other nuisances all over the boat. We had other priorities to make the boat sail before winter. This way we spent the trip learning about every single leak and taking mental notes of a future job list. All the doors leaked badly and that didn’t make for a very comfortable winter cruise. Both the forward and lazarette hatch leaked and their plywood was basically gone, and the water coming from the seahood and companionway was an enigma we couldn’t solve while we were still living on board.
Once we got in sunny Georgia we resumed our list of repairs and improvements and so came the time for woodwork. While we could protect the companionway with a tarp, we couldn’t do the same for the hatch doors so I started dealing with the lazarette and forward hatch. At first I tried to save as much as possible of the original teak, but after discovering all the damage it was clear that if I wanted a new hatch I would have to build it from scratch.
Being always on the cheap side of a budget I first considered other options to build a less classic door. But then a little voice started to suggest how I may wanted to keep a little accent of nice teak on deck. I followed this voice and looked around for teak. I was lucky enough to find the access to a scrapwood pile of teak. All the pieces came from different projects and those were the ones left behind and discarded. I put much labor in cutting, planing and sanding the scraps down to useful size but eventually I cobbled up enough wood to build a whole hatch. Taking the old rotten hatch as model, I first assembled four pieces of teak lumber to form a rectangular frame and joined them with screws and thickened epoxy (West System resin and 406 filler) at the extremity.
Once the frame was finished I cut a piece from a 3/4 inch plywood sheet, fit it and screwed it in place. Every gap was filled with thickened epoxy and the lower side of the hatch coated with clear epoxy resin. Even if the plywood won’t last forever and it will eventually rot the epoxy will protect the wood from moisture and prolong its life.
The following step was to put in place the teak strips. In order to do that I decided to use #8 screws to set the distance between the strips.
When the dryfit was satisfactory and after correcting the math a couple of times due to my metric system bias (I have to be honest, imperial sucks!), I used several batches of thickened epoxy spreaded evenly on the plywood to set the teak strips in place. The scrap pieces formed a rough uneven surface, so when the epoxy was set I used a belt sander to shape the wood uniformly and a router to round the corners. The result was well above my expectations.
The finishing part took a good deal of work too, especially filling all the gaps with black caulk. Once everything was completed I applied three coats of Semco teak sealer, to protect the wood. The result pleased me so much that I understood I was going to do the same with the second hatch door, and problably with the rest of the teak on the boat.
These two project made me fall in love with teak and woodworking in general and even after assessing many alternative ways to fix my equipment onboard I decided I would do the same for the companionway and the toe rails. The companionway (seahood+ sliding hatch) is made out of a solid thick lumber, massive enough that I can still reuse the frames without fear. The toe rail didn’t survived that well as it is more exposed to impacts, chafe and other mechanical stresses. I would have to replace them completely as many part are broken or missing. For this specific project I found a deal on Ebay 0f 4×4 inches teak posts that will do the job. Again the cheaper price means that I will have to transform rough lumber myself into the desired shape and I started to think I am being a little masochist lately.
Right now I am rebuilding the sliding hatch. I started removing the rotted plywood from underneath and with great surprise the teak strips came out without breaking. Considered that they are still 3/8″ thick and in overall good shape I sanded them down to reuse it. With a bit of work and time spent in cleaning up the old teak I now have perfectly fitting strips and I can avoid cutting and planing them. Not the same luck with the seahood hatch. It was in worse shape and broke as I started taking the thing apart. To replace the old teak I will be cutting the strips out of a big plank that a friend of mine bought on a big sale so I am having it for a very competitive price. If I account for the money I spent in buying wood since we got Tranquility I may be reaching the 1000$ very soon.
Using teak on your sailboat deck may not be the cheapest or most practical way to fix your boat but for me it is very enjoyable and motivating, more than using fiberglass and epoxy again. I did enough fiberglass work this past summer and too much of something becomes quickly boring. Now it’s woodwork time again as I try to comfort myself imagining how good a little bit of teak will look on deck when I will be finished.