Restore Your Exterior Teak to Better Than New

This is one project that I was not looking forward to doing but it needed to be done. Our topside woodwork was badly damaged and downright ugly.

BEFORE - Faded, scratched, and flaking
BEFORE – Faded, scratched, and flaking

Refinishing anything is just a slow, tedious, messy undertaking to do well. But the results are very gratifying when you get to the end. It was the same with the Interior teak restoration project, so I dove in.

Who knows what evil lurks beneath your teak?

Work began by removing all the exterior teak trim pieces. That sounds simple and it should be, but it was actually the hardest part of this project. The previous owner had used 3M 5200 sealant/adhesive when they last refinished the wood. It does a really good job at being an adhesive! I literally had to cut the pieces off the boat by working a sharp putty knife under the length of each piece together with a lot of pulling, prying, twisting, and patience.

The weather board was so glued to the companionway hatch that it pulled off some of the gel coat with it. So for your own sake and the sake of anyone that will ever have to work on your boat, don’t use 5200 on any parts that will ever have to be separated. Use the more forgiving 4200 instead if you must.  Better yet, use Butyl tape, which never hardens completely.

What happens when you need to take apart 3M 5200
What happens when you need to separate parts caulked with 3M 5200

After repairing the gel coat, the next step was to strip off what was left of the old finish. I haven’t found a chemical stripper yet that works any better, faster, cleaner, or greener than a heat gun and a sharp putty knife. The old finish came of easily and revealed the sun bleached, weathered, and mildewed wood underneath. Since I have a large, stationary belt sander in my shop, cleaning off the last bit of finish, damaged wood, and smoothing was easy as well.

After stripping and sanding
After stripping, sanding, and bleaching

Bleaching, or “Is that your teak’s natural color?”

After I got down to solid, useful wood, the coloring needed to be evened out and any remaining mildew in the wood’s pores destroyed. I decided to try a series of bleaching agents, starting at mild and progressing to wild, to see what would be the most conservative product that would work.

At first, I tried a paste made with Bartender’s Friend, which has a mild Oxalic acid component to it. It did nothing. Next, I tried the expensive two-part West Marine Heavy Duty Teak Cleaner Kit that gets many positive reviews. I could barely see a difference. It was time to bring out the big guns. I purchased some relatively inexpensive Oxalic Acid Crystals from a local woodworker’s supply store. I mixed as much as would dissolve in a container of hot water and followed the instructions to bleach once and neutralize three times. It took two full treatments this way to even out the teak’s coloring from the abuse it had suffered.

Teak oil works miracles

Finally, the wood was ready to start bringing it back to life. I began by applying two generous coats of Dalys SeaFin Teak Oil. Those warm, rich colors that we love about teak jumped to the surface. Teak being a naturally oily wood, after letting the oil dry for several weeks, I wiped down all the pieces with Acetone to remove any remaining surface oils so that the varnish would adhere well.

After two coats of teak oil, ready for varnish
After two coats of teak oil, ready for varnish

Time to varnish, finally

To make it easier to varnish all sides of the pieces at the same time, see my tips on Simple jigs for varnishing parts.

For the varnish itself, I chose Epifanes Clear Varnish. Every owner who has done this job seems to have their own personal favorite finish. I don’t have one yet, so ask me in a few years if I chose wisely.

The application process consisted of one coat of varnish thinned 50%, followed by one coat thinned 25%, one coat thinned 10%, and two coats unthinned. The varnish can be tricky to work with unthinned as it’s the consistency of molasses. It helped that I kept it warmed double boiler-style over a hot plate.

I lightly sanded with a maroon Scotch-Brite pad in between each coat except for the next to last coat. For that one, I waited two weeks for the varnish to cure before sanding with 220 grit paper. I wiped the pieces with a tack cloth before each coat. It took all of two pints of varnish for the hatch rails, weather board, crib boards, the companionway trim inside and out, the winch cover panel, and the inside step board. I did not varnish the hand rails because I left them off to make room on the roof for the lines led aft project.

Depending on the weather, it can take weeks for the varnish to cure completely so wait before reinstalling the pieces and don’t take on this project if you plan on using the boat soon after.

Weather board before and after varnish
Weather board before and after varnish

Edge armor

The edges of the crib boards wear first and are the places most likely for water to seep in and ruin them. So after the varnish had cured, I masked off each edge about 1/4″ on the front back of each board and brushed a coat of slightly thickened epoxy on the edges. This gives them a hard coating that seals them completely and will protect them for many years to come.

Epoxy wear protection on the crib board edges
Epoxy wear protection on the crib board edges

The fun part

Reattaching the parts is a downhill run. I used Butyl tape at every joint between wood and fiberglass for a watertight seal. Finally, it was that time we all love when we can stand back and admire a job well done.

The woodwork never looked better
The woodwork never looked better
The companionway hatch rails restored beautifully
The companionway hatch rails restored beautifully. Compare to the first picture.
Original hasp lock replaced with a cylinder lock and lift ring
Original hasp lock replaced with a cylinder lock and lift ring

The Bottom Line

Suggest price: n/a
$tingy Sailor cost: $59.98
Savings: n/a

If you have refinished your teak woodwork, what’s your favorite varnish and why?

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23 Comments Add yours

  1. Ryan Wallace says:

    Where did you get your cylinder lock and lift ring? Is it a marine part of something meant for general outdoor use?

    1. kbilling says:

      Hi, Ryan

      I got the lock from Advantage Marine Supply on eBay but the same thing is available from several online retailers.

      Something else to mention: due to the length of the cylinder relative to the thickness of the front of the hatch, the tang on the lock isn’t flush with the inside of the hatch. There’s about a half inch gap that would make it easier to break into the cabin. I made up the difference with a small block of teak epoxied behind where you see the four hasp screws in the pictures. Still, if someone really wanted in, the could force the hatch open. The lock isn’t as stout as the original hasp. You might also consider replacing the tang with a longer and/or stronger one so that it wouldn’t bend as easily.

      The main reasons that I installed the cylinder is because we kept hitting our heads on the lock when the hatch is closed but the crib boards were out of the companionway. Maybe you keep your lock on the hatch too but cracked like we did so that it doesn’t get misplaced. This lock also prevents you from accidentally locking the cabin with the keys inside. Been there, done that. You can’t close this lock from the outside without the key, so problem solved. Plus, it just makes for a better looking installation, I think.

      Hope that helps!

      Ever windward,
      $tingy

      1. Love the look of that lock, too. I used to keep my lock on the hasp also when not being used, but have since moved it so as to avoid the scars that are possible from banging forehead into it.

        One thing I’ll point out about having a lock requiring a key is the obvious potential to lose the key. I solved that issue by installing a lock that uses a 4 digit combination. Never a lost key now.

  2. OK…so I have been “thinking” about (or shoudl I say putting off) doing my teak on my Cat 25. After reading this post last weekend, it motivated me to start mine this weekend. I love the work you did on this and I am hoping mine turns out. I started with the tiller handle and pop top handle to see how difficult this is going to be and I must say it isnt as bad as I had been thinking. I have to wait till the weather clears up a bit to remove all of the other pieces now that I know its fairly easy. Using the heat gun to remove the old finish was the best tip!! Thanks! It makes it so much easier then using chemical or mechanical stripping means. That was the part I was dreading, dealing with the stripping and thats why I was putting it off, but the heat gun made the stuff peel right off with the putty knife. Thanks for the tip!! Great site! Some of the things you have on here are stuff I already have done or on the bucket list for my boat.

    1. Hi, Mike

      I’m glad the tip helped you to get over the hump of procrastination with your teak. I know too well what that’s like.

      Now that you know it won’t be a major chore, you should be able to work through it at a pretty good clip. When the oil and/or varnish go on and you see it come alive again, you’ll be anxious to get it finished.

      When you get done, leave another comment back here to let us know how it worked out!

      1. Sure will. I already have the oil on the two parts I started with, going to let that dry for few days before proceeding with the varnish

  3. How is the edge treatment holding up? Sounds like a really good idea, the edges are where mine show the most wear. Did you put the epoxy on after the varnish or before? I now have two of my crib boards sanded down and working on the 3rd.

    1. It’s holding up really well so far, Mike. I’m glad I did it. In fact, if anything, the trim channels that they sit in are getting more wear than the boards now. I might give their wearing surfaces a coat or two of unthickened epoxy for good measure. Good luck on your boards!

  4. Richie says:

    Stingy, great information and website. I just finished up redoing my teak utilizing your method of support the pieces in a form and on footings allowing all sides to be done at once. Thanks, Richie

    1. Hi, Richie

      Glad to hear this site helped you!

  5. Frank STein says:

    My brother is a career private megayacht captain 100ft plus life-of-the-rich-and-famous kinda yachts. He turned me on to Petite Captains Varnish. Its amazing in that you get a glass like finish with seriously less coats of varnish. On the yachts he does not stop till there is no grain to be felt in the varnish, sand and apply repeat till the surface looks like glass. Captains goes on very thick and flows beautifully with great surface tension. Apply till you get the surface you want then hit it with 600 wet or dry and do the “money coat” an extremely thin whetting of the surface just to gloss the surface. That’s how the pros do it…

    1. I’ve heard others who like Captain’s. I may have to try it on my next project. Thanks!

  6. Michael says:

    Stingy: great website, very helpful.

    In this article you said: “For the varnish itself, I chose Epifanes Clear Varnish. Every owner who has done this job seems to have their own personal favorite finish. I don’t have one yet, so ask me in a few years if I chose wisely.”

    So, may I ask – did you choose wisely?

    1. Hi, Michael

      It’s been a few years now and the finish is holding up really well. It still looks new and wet but that’s to be expected since up to now, I’ve kept my boat under cover when it wasn’t sailing. If I had to do it over again tomorrow, I’d pick the same finish.

      But any finish is going to look great when it’s that protected. However, we recently moved and starting this year, my boat will be in the water 5-6 months of the year so I’ll be watching to see how it holds up to more exposure to the elements.

      Ask me again in a few more years 🙂

  7. Robin says:

    Great article. Have all the exterior teak off my Catalina 25, and it’s all sanded. Getting ready for the oxalic treatment. Was wondering if anyone had a resource for the cylinder lock assembly that replaced the original (ugly) hasp setup? Thanks

  8. Wow, just beautiful work.

    We have been looking at the teak on our boat for a few years now, but our biggest stumbling block has been the holes where the screws go. Most of the plugs are either lost or cracked, there are multiple diameters (none of which fit exactly) that we need, and I don’t know of a good way to get a plug perfect in height so it will fit and work once the teak is in place again. Any advice?

    1. Hello Gretchen,

      Unless you need to replace the screws, you shouldn’t remove the plugs. They are just to hide and protect the screw heads from the elements. Just remove the nuts and washers on the underside and pull the handrails up leaving the screws intact. Refinish the wood and replace in the reverse order.

      If you do need to remove a screw for some reason or replace a damaged plug, carefully drill out as much of the plug as you can without enlarging the hole. A little hand carving might be necessary to get it all. Replacement plugs are available from most marine suppliers. Here’s a link to various sizes on Amazon. Glue the replacement plug in place, trim it flush, sand smooth, and finish as usual.

      1. Thanks, I definitely don’t want the extra work of replacing plugs. Unfortunately we’re missing a few already, so I am stuck with at least some of them needing to be replaced. Thank you so much for the advice! Are there any tools better or worse for trimming the replacement down as close as possible without (accidentally) damaging the teak next to it?

      2. If you have woodworking tools or know a woodworker who can help you, use a fine tooth handsaw to trim off the excess plug to within 1/8″ of the handrail. Then use a sharp chisel or utility knife to round over the top of the plug almost flush to the handrail. Use two or three grits of sandpaper starting with the coarsest to sand the plugs smooth before finishing. Teak is very hard so use very sharp tools for the best results. It will also take more sanding than you might expect. But that’s why it’s used on boats, because it’s so durable (and beautiful)!

  9. Tom Beetham says:

    Hi, I leave my Catalina 22 out in the elements about six or seven months out of the year. It seems that some people suggest not varnishing wood in that case. I would like to varnish as you have. Do you have a prediction as to whether it will hold up and look nice for years to come? Maybe that’s asking the impossible. 🙂

    1. Hi, Tom

      Going unfinished is the lowest maintenance option but that means your brightwork becomes dullwork and not everybody appreciates it, especially for such beautiful and rare wood as teak. If you finish your teak like I describe in this post, it will last a long time if you maintain it. The varnish has built-in UV inhibitors but you should repair all deep nicks and scratches as soon as possible before moisture gets under the surrounding finish and causes it to blister or peel. When the finish gets worn enough, a fresh topcoat applied with the parts still on the boat may be needed to restore it to like new again. Even with that, you will need to refinish it all again eventually if you keep the boat that long.

      Thanks for your question,
      $tingy

      1. Tom Beetham says:

        Wonderful! Thanks for giving me a sense of courage to take it on. I’m looking forward to making it look pretty (and keeping it that way with the varnish!) It is amazing how quickly the nice look faded last time I did the teak… looking forward to seeing the beauty last!

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