Teak-Natures Gift to Mariners
Teak — (Tectona grandis) is considered by mariners to be the world’s most valuable and versatile hardwood. The rare beauty of teak, its rich golden brown luster, decorative grain and unique properties or strength, stability, resistance to wear have made it the most demanded wood for marine use. Teak is known as the King of Woods. There are many uses for teak and very few substitutes. Teak is a pillar of the shipbuilding industry. Teak has been used on aircraft carriers, tall mast graceful clipper ships, exquisite cruise ships, refined yachts, dinghies as well as rugged workboats. For centuries teak decks have been the paragon of excellence but few people know all of the remarkable benefits and applications of this unique wood. On the exterior teak decks are specified because teak is the only wood that can withstand the harsh dramatic changes of the sea water and broiling sun and does not split, crack or warp. The decks of the Titanic were covered with teak. The wood is as good today as the fateful night, 15 April 1912, when she sank. The author of this article spent a year in Myanmar (Burma) recovering sunken logs from the Rangoon River, some that had been under water for more than 150 years. The heartwood was just as durable and golden brown as the day the tree was felled.
In boat interiors where there is high humidity teak is ideal for doors, hatches and cabinetry because it does not warp, twist or expand which could make opening doors and drawers difficult or impossible. Most woods when in contact with water will readily crack. Teak, because of natural oils has a very low coefficient of expansion and contraction so it remains stable even under months in the hot sun or submersed in ocean waters. Teak has high silica content. Silica is sand which gives traction to those walking on a wet teak deck. Most of us have stepped on a wet oak or pine plank and had our feet go flying out from underneath us but this will not happen with teak. In a marine environment metals corrode easily turning woods in contact with the metal black with oxidation but not so with teak by virtue of its natural oils. Teak needs no paint or varnish and over time will develop a silver gray patina. Severe winter snow storms, monsoon rains, tropical heat and even the scorching dry conditions of deserts do not diminish the strength of teak. Teak has natural resins called technoquinines that naturally repel termites, marine borers and resist rot. Teak is a relatively easy wood to machine or work with hand tools. Craftsmen and sculptors revere its attributes. There is no other wood or man-made material that has the versatility of teak.
Teak is a precious resource. Only four countries in the world, Burma, Thailand, Laos and India have natural teak forests. Thailand once had 100 million rai (3.25 rai= one acre) of natural teak forests but these have been dramatically reduced to a few thousand rai. Felling of teak trees in Thailand has been banned since 1982. Teak forests are tightly controlled because of their enormous monetary and ecological importance to the nation. Teak is probably the best-protected commercial species in the world. Elephants are still being used extensively to extract teak because of their low impact upon the environment. Elephants do far less damage to forests than heavy caterpillars and other logging equipment. Burma (renamed Myanmar) exports 80% of the world’s natural teak supply. Teak is not a tropical rainforest species. It grows sparsely in mixed deciduous forests. In its natural environment there are only 1 to 5 trees per acre in the best growing areas but Burma established plantations in 1856 with the assistance of some very farsighted foresters who saw the need to treasure these renewable sustained yield resources for future generations. Teak seeds from Burma have been to start plantations in Africa and Central America. Many companies are anxious to invest in teak plantations because potential returns are enormous.
Teak from other regions of the world cannot match true Burma teak. Varying climatic conditions, topography, soil type, drainage, elevation, rainfall, length of dry season, lack of proper silviculture techniques and professional management result in vast differences in quality, hardness, texture and coloration vastly inferior to Burma grown teak. While plantation wood is suitable for parquet flooring, garden furniture and other small mouldings, it is generally not unsuitable for marine use.
Due to the high price of teak many yacht builders have tried to replace teak with oak, ash, maple, mahogany or cherry. Since teak is such an expensive commodity others have tried to promote
substitutes species such as Iroko or Afromosia as “African Teak”. These woods may be suitable for various applications but only teak, Tectona grandis is indispensable in any and all applications on a boat. Many of these boat builder have returned to teak to avert the potential hazard of customer complaints and simply for the shear beauty and dependability of teak. As long as ships ply the sea genuine Burma teak will be an integral part of shipbuilding.
Burma Teak is truly a gift of nature for the marine industry.