Woodsense: Spotlight on Teak

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Teak

The all-time weather-beating wood for land and sea

By Pete Stephano
Technical consultant: Larry Osborn

In the Southeast Asian rain forest, teak trees attain heights of 100' or more and a circumference of 12' feet (5-6' in diameter). When plantation-grown (the most common source for the wood today), teak may be taller, but have a smaller girth.

Due to the large size of rainforest teak, getting the logs to market presents a significant challenge. Harvesters must girdle the trees (cut through the bark to the sapwood) around their circumference. They then let them die on the stump and dry out over several years. When dry, the tree is felled, cut into log lengths, and hauled to a river (sometimes by elephant or water buffalo). Here, the logs are floated to the closest mill and/or port. Without girdling and drying, the freshly cut teak logs would prove far too heavy to float!

Teak, one of the world’s most valuable woods, varies in color from a golden brown to rich chocolate, but darkens after exposure to sunlight. It’s not uncommon to find teak wood with nearly black streaks. Over time in sunlight the wood turns gray.

While teak features a coarse, straight grain that is easily worked. The occasional mottle figure (which somewhat resembles a tortoise shell) is highly prized for cabinetry. However, the most notable benefit lies in the wood’s resistance to insects, rot, and wear. Its low shrinkage ratio makes it ideal for applications where it undergoes periodic changes in moisture, as when used in ship- and boatbuilding and making outdoor furniture.

History in woodworking

Teak first rose to fame as a tough, durable, weather-resistant, seafaring wood employed as decking and trim on every thing from yachts to warships. But it has also long been used for expensive home and office paneling, flooring, as well as high-end furniture for use indoors and out.

Where the wood comes from

Teak (Tectonia grandis) is a tree species native to Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar), Cambodia, India, Laos, and Thailand, but it been nurtured to grow in nearly 40 tropical countries, including Costa Rica and other South American countries. On the Indonesian island of Java, for instance, the Dutch established it in plantations centuries ago and it is still grown there for sustained yield.

What you’ll pay

For centuries, the Burmese have been setting teak pricing-and-grading standards. Unlike most other lumber, the unit (board foot) price of teak goes up with increases in the thickness, width and length of a board. For instance, forest-grown, First European Quality (FEQ) boards of 1" thickness and at least 8" wide bring a premium price of about $25 per board foot.

Teak

Flatsawn teak

Plantation-raised teak can cost nearly 50% less, but the wood has a lighter, more variable yellow color and contains more silica. Rough, unplanned boards always cost less. Figured stock (mottle) is uncommonly found and will cost double that of straight-grained stock. A 4×8 sheet of paper-backed veneer runs a bit over $100.

It’s a fact that…

Teak has the largest leaves of any known tree. Measuring up to 20" in length and to 14" in width, the rough-textured leaves are utilized by local villagers as an abrasive, much as woodworkers use sandpaper!

How to select the best stock

The chemical compound of silicon and oxygen (SiO2) extracted from the ground by a growing teak tree and distributed throughout its trunk, gives the wood an oily feel (on top of its natural oil). In old-growth trees, the compound will have dispersed throughout the larger trunks, making their wood highly desirable and thus more costly. In other words, the wood of older trees has a higher value.

Because teak’s color can vary depending on where and how it was grown, attempt to buy all of your needed stock from the same imported shipment, something easily done at reliable specialty wood dealers.

Working teak in the shop

Machining teak is a pretty straightforward process as long as you keep the following observations in mind.

Despite its hardness, it rips, crosscuts, and routs more easily than red oak. And while the wood’s silica content may helps boards slide across tablesaw and jointer tops, be aware that it is brutal on blades and knives and causes blunting in short order. If you use hand tools, plan to dedicate extra time for sharpening: silica wreaks havoc on plane blades and chisels, and scratches up plane soles as well.

When drilling teak, use high rpm for clean, chip-free holes. You’ll find that sanding requires frequent stops to clear the abrasive of the wood’s somewhat sticky dust (to which some may have an allergic reaction). Using open-coat or stearated paper reduces this task. Resorcinol adhesives or epoxy work best with teak, and you’ll get the best results when surfaces to be joined are first wiped with acetone or other potent solvent.

Teak doesn’t take stain well, and the best clear finishes seems to be either a penetrating oil (tung or teak) or lacquer. Avoid plastic-based finishes, such as polyurethane. When used for boat decking or trim, the wood is normally left natural without any finish for it to eventually weather to light gray. Only an occasional scrubbing is needed to clean it. The same goes for outdoor furniture and structures.

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