Sailors and traders visiting India and China in the early 1800s were caught up with the wood they found in widespread use as seagoing stock. Teak, with working and structural properties surpassing even those of their traditional oak, soon became the prime nautical wood of Europe and America. Weather resistant, tough teak still ranks as the favorite for boat decks and trim. But, it's the story of how this hardwood arrives in craftsmen's hands that rivals its history.
Teak harvesting begins with the girdling of selected trees deep in a Southeast Asian rainforest. This allows the timbers to die and dry on the stump over a period of years, making them tons lighter at logging time. Because of the terrain and its remoteness, elephants play a major role, moving the massive logs miles to a river. There, the teak lies for months, awaiting monsoon rains to fill the banks so it can float from the interior. In traditional forest harvesting, this seasonal reliance often results in a five-year delivery time.
Teak (Tectona grandis), a native species in the rain forests of Burma, India, Laos, and Thailand, now grows in about 40 countries throughout the tropics. In Java, for instance, teak was planted generations ago, and the trees are managed for sustained yield.
Naturally occurring teak grows to heights of 100' and diameters of 12' or more in about 300 years. Plantation-grown teak gets taller, but never as large in circumference, although it can be harvested in 60 years.
If size alone didn't distinguish teak from other rainforest trees, its enormous leaves would. They can measure a whopping 24x36", and their top surface is rough enough to sand with!
Teak has a thin layer of yellow sapwood, but it's never seen by woodworkers. Importers and dealers instead favor boards of only coarse-textured, golden-brown heartwood. Teak, though, depending on its growing conditions, may have a greenish tint, small stripes of yellow and darker colors, or an occasional mottle figure. At about 40 pounds per cubic foot dry, teak weighs slightly less than oak.
Silica, which the growing tree extracts from the ground and distributes throughout the wood, gives teak an oily feeling and causes finishing problems. Freshly sawed boards also carry the aroma of old shoe leather.
Because it defies the elements, teak makes the perfect candidate for garden furniture and outdoor structures. Indoors, teak always has been prime stock for clean-lined furniture, as well as all forms of cabinetry.
The Burmese set the grading and pricing standard for teak more than 100 years ago. That's why teak's price goes up with the width and length of the board. For instance, First European Quality teak boards 1" thick will be at least 8" wide and bring a premium of $8 or more per board foot. Narrower boards cost less.
Prime teak-faced plywood runs considerably more than red oak or cherry panels, but at around $85, falls below the cost of walnut. Veneer prices fall into the $1.50 per square foot range of most imported species.
Woodworkers with lots of experience working teak say that in old-growth trees from Thailand and Burma, the silica in the wood has broken down, making it easier to machine. However, younger, plantation-grown teak has practically the same performance qualities as old-growth, and you'll notice little difference in machining, although the color may vary, depending on the conditions at the location where it grew.
Because teak does vary in color according to its origin, try to buy all the boards you need for your project from the same shipment so the overall tone of your project will be uniform. When working it, keep these tips in mind:
- Due to its silica and oil content, teak slides easily over a machine's iron bed. You'll have no problem planning and jointing it, except that teak does dull blades more quickly than other hardwoods.
- In spite of its hardness, teak rips and crosscuts more easily than oak. Always use carbide blades.
- Teak poses no routing problems, but it quickly dulls bits.
- With proper woodworking drill bits and high speed, you can put clean holes in this wood without breakout.
- Sanding teak requires frequent stops to clear its sticky dust away with a stiff brush. Caution: Some people have an allergic reaction to teak dust.
- Epoxy or resorcinol adhesives work best when joining teak. But first scrub all wood to be joined with acetone, and then let it dry.
- Finishing teak poses the most difficulty. The wood doesn't take stain exceptionally well, and traditional clear finishes (except lacquer) can be a problem. For instance, regular polyurethane won't set up. But two-part polyurethane, the type for marine use, will. That's why teak is frequently coated with a penetrating oil, such as tung or teak.
- For outdoor use, teak doesn't require a finish, only an occasional scrubbing with soap and water to clean the surface. The wood will eventually weather to a pleasing gray color.
Teak ranks high in hardness, but you can carve it with chisels and a mallet.
- The wood takes fine detail. However, the silica in the wood dulls chisels in no time.
- Take shallow cuts, despite how easily the wood seems to slice away, or else your cutting edge may wander in the coarse-grain.
- Power carvers should arm themselves with carbide cutting burrs to endure this wood.
Except for its tendency to dull tools, teak turns exceptionally well in response to shearing cuts. Some teak, though, primarily from India, may be somewhat brittle and coarse-textured, causing chipping or splintering.
Compiled with woodworkers: Jim Boelling, Jim Downing,
and Sam Radding
Illustration: Steve Schindler