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 to 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 completely.
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
Add More Cockpit Seating With DIY Stern Perch Seats
Make This Fold-Up Paper Towel Holder
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19 Comments Add yours
Just this morning I removed all of the interior wood on my Precision 23 and plan to follow your good instructions. Just curious – did you treat the mildew the same as you explained for your outdoor teak restoration project?
My interior teak was in pretty good shape so I didn’t have to, but I would have done it the same.
Good luck with your project!
OK, the mildew in your “before” picture must have come off during sanding. I’ll hope for the same. By the way, the links to Daly’s Wood Finish in your exterior teak page are dead – you might want to update these especially if it helps pay for a few bills!
Exactly right, Tom. It was just on the surface and came right off with light sanding. The exterior mildew had penetrated deep into the wood so it had to be treated chemically.
Thanks for the heads-up about the links. They’re fixed now.
Love your site! I am a Navy Veteran in SoCal looking to buy a cheap Catalina 25 for my first boat. You have given me inspiration to not only go ahead searching but great ideas for getting a great discount for things that look like easy DIY.
Dear Stingy Sailor,
I bought a Catalina 22 ( 70-something) just a few weeks ago. I’m toatally in love with it.
The bed in the front is just to small for me, so I’m thinking about removing the ‘wall’ between the front and the bench on the stirn side.
All catalina 22 but one that I’ve seen on the net have this metal bracket that seems to connect the mid stay to this wall.
Do you have a reccomendation: is it really neccesary the keep it there or not so much?
Hope I’ll here from you.
Yes, the forward wooden bulkheads between the V berth and the main cabin area are CRITICAL structural components. They transfer the force of the upper shrouds down to the hull. If you remove them, you could severely damage your sailboat.
Instead, I’d recommend you remove the galley from the starboard berth so you can stretch your feet out under the cockpit. It’s narrow, but it should be long enough for you. Another alternative is to lower the dinette table to make the port berth and use the portable toilet compartment cover boards and an ice chest to fill in the center aisle and make a large berth in the salon area. This is how my wife and I sleep when anchored out. It’s quite spacious. You can see how we do it toward the end of How to Sew Cabin Cushion Covers
Thanks for your question.
Met Vriendelijke Groeten,
Am I understanding you correctly? You oil outside teak and then varnish it???
That’s right, Jim. Especially if you bleach it first. That takes almost all the color out of it. The oil brings it back.
$tingy, earlier this week I started the task of conditioning the teak on my Cat 22 with teak oil. I started with the crib boards and now am planning to move interior. I am a little apprehensive to pull the interior teak out. More so, just not sure how to go about it. Any tips?
It all comes out pretty easily without many tricks. All of the fasteners are relatively easy to access except the four small machine screws along the bottom of each forward bulkhead. The nuts are inside the adjacent lockers so you have to be a bit of a contortionist to hold them yourself or have a helper hold them while you remove the screws.
Label each piece so that you know where it came from and keep the fasteners together for each piece. Sandwich bags work well for this. Taking pictures as you go can help too. There are several different sizes and types of fasteners used and it’s important that you replace the same sizes in the same locations.
The trickiest part of the job is reattaching the pieces. The screw holes can be randomly spaced and difficult to realign, especially for the long, thin strips along the hull/deck joint. But once you get a couple screws started, the rest should go easier.
It’s also important that the bulkheads are firmly anchored at the top by the chain plates and the bottom by those four machine screws. The bulkheads transfer the force from the upper shrouds to the hull so you don’t want them to be loose or your rig won’t stay in tune. For that reason, be sure the bottoms of the bulkheads aren’t rotted and soft.
Best of luck with your refinish. Let us know how it turns out!
Hello $tingy, I have my exterior teak sanded, bleached and ready for finish. Have you heard anything about using Starbrite teak sealer for a couple coats, then varnishing with the same varnish you used for another 5+ coats? Also did you use varnish on your interior or just the teak oil? If just teak oil, did it have a bit of gloss? Thanks for ALL the helpful tips!
I haven’t heard of anybody using sealer only under varnish but someone may well have tried it. I don’t see much purpose to it, though. Seal coats are typically just thinned varnish so that it penetrates, which is the same process that Epifanes recommends when applying their varnish.
I use only teak oil on my interior teak and yes, you can build it up to a nice gloss if you want to but it will take 3-5 coats to get there, whereas you could just apply one or two coats of varnish over one coat of teak oil and achieve much the same result.
Hope that helps!
Thank you for sharing this informative article! All the information provided by you is really very helpful for all. I agreed that by using tack cloth you can keep your project dust-free and it is useful for cleaning fine dust off a surface. Everyone should follow the tips provided by you, it will make their work easier. Keep Posting! Keep Sharing!
This couldn’t have come at a better time for me, just about to do some interior teak work before we fit a new teak and holly sole
I really appreciate your article. I am in the process of stripping all of the think varnish from the teak handrails and fittings on my grand banks trawler and was thinking about going with just teak oil instead of using a urethane finish. Does the oil leak on to the gelcoat over time? Was also considering maybe using awlwood which is water base but requires 8 or more coats.
No, it dries hard like the linseed oil in oil based paints.
We tried to take unbolt the starboard bulkhead where the chainplate is located due to some rot at the bottom the bulkhead after a leak started from the plate of the middle shroud the top of the chainplate on deck. It was very difficult to reach in and get a hold on the bolts! We also found that the bolts were not flush with the teak plywood wall. But were hanging out a few inches. Can the bulkhead be taken out by itself without removing other pieces? How do you get a grip on the bolts inside the interior area?
We are fixing the deck leak with cleaning, polyurethane sealant, new slightly longer screws, backed up by Butyl tape.
Also, I am considering using Git Rot for the bottom of the bulkhead rot for this season and taking out this bulkhead in the fall. Do you think that is a good solution? Thank you, Doris
Yes, they’re hard to reach but critical that they provide a strong connection between the bulkhead and hull liner since they transfer all of the load of the upper shrouds to the hull structure. You might need to have a helper hold the nuts while you turn the screws. The original screws aren’t extra long so it sounds like a previous owner installed whatever they had on hand. You can remove the bulkhead for repair or replacement after slackening the shroud and disconnecting the chain plate. I recommend that over any quick fix that might not be strong enough.