One of the things about older sailboats that I appreciate most is their abundance of teak woodwork. As a woodworker, I admire good craftsmanship, creative design, and a fine finish. It’s harder to find on today’s modern sailboats. Teak is in short supply so it’s more expensive than it once was and most modern sailors don’t want spend time maintaining their brightwork. For the rest of us, beautiful teak appointments are an opportunity to set our sailboat apart from the rest and a sign of pride of ownership. Few improvements freshen up a sailboat’s interior like well maintained woodwork.
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Catalina Yachts was generous with the teak woodwork in their first generation sailboats, less so in the “new design.” The forward bulkheads and removable panels except for the locker lids are marine grade teak veneer plywood. Solid wood was used where it made the most sense: handrails, trim, compression post, and moldings.
The down side of wood in a sailboat is, of course, water damage. Teak is very water resistant; it contains a lot of natural oil. But it’s not invincible and if neglected for too long it will begin to look more like firewood. Ultraviolet light can bleach the color, persistent deck leaks can delaminate plywood, and sustained humidity can foster mildew and add to that old boat smell. The best defense is a durable finish.
An inch of teak is a terrible thing to waste
You have a lot of options to choose from for a finish. They run the spectrum of cost, ease of application, performance, and appearance. Some finishes are better choices for some locations on a sailboat than others. Protection from the elements is most important for topside brightwork; UV resistant and waterproof. Below deck, the finish should also be water resistant but ease of application is also very important so that the finish can be repaired or reapplied without having to remove all of the woodwork from the sailboat as I show here.
Most experienced skippers have a favorite finish that they recommend and there is little consensus among them. Before you begin refinishing your own woodwork, it’s worth spending some time looking at other sailboats and talking to their owners to help you decide on a finish for your own sailboat. If your teak already has an aftermarket product on it like Cetol or a spar varnish, it might be best to stick with that product rather than try to strip it all off so that you can apply something else.
The finish that I prefer for most interior teak is simple teak oil, specifically, Dalys SeaFin Teak Oil. It penetrates deep into the wood for protection that doesn’t flake or peel over time. Multiple coats can be applied to produce various degrees of sheen. One or two coats produce a matte or satin finish. Three or more coats can produce a semi-gloss or glossy finish. It’s easy to apply with a foam brush or rag so you don’t have to worry about brush marks. That makes it easy to apply for touch-ups or to occasionally add another complete coat with all of the parts left in place. Generic teak oil is readily available most anywhere that sells paint and it’s inexpensive. Teak oil has been used for ages so there’s little worry about the formula not being available in the future.
For woodwork that gets a lot of use and abuse, like the companionway step lid on a C-22, consider applying a more durable finish like polyurethane, epoxy, or non-skid material like I describe in Turn Carpet Remnants into Custom Floor Mats.
Get started on that finish
Here are the basic steps that I follow to refinish interior teak:
1. If the wood has never been refinished or if the existing finish is in poor condition, remove it all from the sailboat so that you can work on it easier and apply the finish to all the surfaces.
2. Remove all attached hardware (screws, snaps, etc.) and other non-wood materials like vinyl welting.
3. If there is any visible (black) mildew, apply a mild acid like white vinegar or diluted laundry bleach to remove it completely, especially in the grain and any recesses. Test first in an inconspicuous spot. You might have to bleach the entire part to get even coloring. For more about bleaching prior to applying a finish and using oxalic acid, see Restore Your Exterior Teak to Better Than New.
3. Use a sanding block with 220 and 320 grit open face paper to sand all the exposed surfaces smooth. Since the wood is so hard and oily, it takes such fine sandpaper to remove all the sanding marks and bring out the beautiful grain and coloring of the teak.
4. Wipe all the parts thoroughly with a tack rag to remove all sanding dust from the pores and grain.
5. Wipe all the parts thoroughly with a clean cloth wetted with acetone. This will remove surface oils that can prevent the finish from soaking into the wood.
6. Apply the first coat of finish. If you chose a spar varnish, thin it with the maximum amount of thinner recommended by the manufacturer. This will help the first coat to soak in more and provide an excellent base for the subsequent coats. With the first coat of teak oil, the color of the wood will really warm up and the grain will start to show some depth. It will get better with every coat.
7. When dry, if you chose a spar varnish, lightly sand with 220 or 320 grit open face sandpaper to remove any dust particles that may have settled on the surfaces.
8. Apply additional unthinned coats to achieve the desired thickness and appearance. If you chose a spar varnish, sand after each coat except for the last coat. If you chose teak oil, lightly polish after each coat with a clean cloth while it is still damp, then allow it to dry completely before applying the next coat.
9. If your sailboat has welting where the wood panels meet the fiberglass hull liner and they’re ugly or decaying, now is a good time to replace them. You can make new welting out of synthetic cord from a fabric store covered with vinyl or another material. For more on making welting, see How to Sew Cabin Cushion Covers.
10. Replace the parts in the sailboat but leave it open with good air circulation until all the fumes dissipate. If you chose teak oil, it is slow to harden and it can take a couple of weeks for the fumes to go away.
After you refinish your interior teak, it might make the exterior woodwork look worse. To read about my different process for refinishing topside brightwork, see Restore Your Exterior Teak to Better Than New.
I’ve worked with tropical woods before in various woodworking projects, but I’ve come to love teak for its golden, irregular coloring, interesting grain patterns, weather resistance, and durable hardness. After you work with it, you’ll understand why it’s been the go-to wood of boat builders for hundreds of years. I plan to use it in several future projects that I have in mind. For some easy and practical woodworking projects and how to use other hardwoods that look like teak but are more economical, see Make a Door to Storage Space Under the V Berth, Make a Door for More Storage Under the Galley, Make this Easy and Elegant Wine Glass Rack, and Add More Cockpit Seating With DIY Stern Perch Seats.
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