Farewell to the Wood-trimmed Boat?

Posted by at 09:08AM - Comments: (11)

The Estero's gelcoat caprails depart from the Island Packet norm.

Do we still want exterior wood on our boats today? Is synthetic a fair substitute?

When I stepped aboard the 36-foot Island Packet Estero last week for a test sail, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to see that the familiar teak caprail was gone. For more than 30 years, the varnished caprail (usually finished in Cetol these days) has been one of Island Packet’s signature features.

With a teak bowsprit and additional teak trim in the cockpit, IP yachts held the course that most production boatbuilders had left behind by the mid-1990s. If you see exterior wood on a Hunter or Beneteau these days, chances are its synthetic teak. That teak toerail on the new Beneteau 34? Synthetic. The Hunter e33 I sailed last month had teak pushpit seats, the rest—including a cockpit table top (to keep the salsa bowl from sliding, I suppose)—was synthetic. Catalina dropped exterior wood years ago. If history is any guide, even the faux wood trend may soon run its course. "Good riddance," some might say.

A boatyard favorite: the Ford Country Squire.

There was a time, as some of us fondly remember, when real wood-trimmed cars were the rage. Then faux-grained vinyl replaced the real stuff, sustaining the illusion that a gas-guzzling, eight-cylinder station wagon was somehow consistent with a "back-to-nature" ethos. The faux-wood trend lasted longer than most carmakers will care to admit. Beginning with the vinyl grain on the Ford Country Squire station wagon of the 1960s, America’s love affair with faux wood on cars lasted 30-plus years. All told, the transition from real wood to none at all took nearly 60 years. (The vinyl-sided Chrysler Town and Country minivan of the 1990s clung to a look that traced back to the classic T&C Barrelback of 1941-42.)

I imagine that production boatbuilders will take much longer to abandon wood. While the functional value of wood on boats has diminished, tradition and aesthetic appeal run deep.

Maine boatbuilders like Morris and Sabre have long histories of building with wood, and Tartan still trims its boats in real teak. But wood trim also adds to the bottom line, and except for teak’s excellent nonskid properties, there is little practical payback.

Teak trims the head of the Coast Guard Academy's new Leadership 44.

I wasn’t surprised to see the new Leadership 44, built by Morris Yachts for the U.S. Coast Guard Academy (see the upcoming August 2012 issue for a full report) had only a teak cockpit sole. I almost expected to see no wood below. Then—surprise, surprise—wood trim in abundance, including an elegant fiddle around the head sink, a notorious trouble spot for wood. (I took this as a reflection of Kyle Morris's committment to keeping his talented craftsmen working, or perhaps to give the Coast Guard recruits something to practice their maintenance skills on.)

Are we seeing the last of the wood-trimmed boats? Walk the docks in any marina with more than 50 sailboats, and it is a pretty sure bet that there’s a caprail or coaming that needs refinishing. Horizontal surfaces, exposed to the full force of the sun’s UV rays, are the toughest test of wood finishes. Even our best wood finishes from our past tests will wither under these conditions in short order.

Island Packet isn’t saying which way it will go in the future. The Estero, I gather, was the maker’s toe in the water, and owners' reactions will likely decide whether the teak-less look sticks. And, if not, then there’s always the other option.

 “A little teak can add a lot to the appearance,” said Bill Bolin, Island Packet's vice president of sales and marketing. “But more people today want minimal maintenance . . . Some of those synthetic wood products have gotten pretty good.”

Comments (11)

I've owned a Hans Christian in Seattle for 8 years that is loaded with teak--caprails, grabrails, wheel, cockpit, winch-bases, boom-crutch, butterfly hatch, blocks, etc. I spend a long weekend each year applying 2 refresher coats to half of the teak, so everything gets done every other year. I keep a boat cover on during the winter and sometimes put a sunshade cover on during the summer. I live in a condo so the upkeep of the teak is a tradeoff for no lawn mowing, house painting, landscaping, etc. I love the teak look and take pride in maintaining it myself.

Posted by: Jim S | July 9, 2012 1:26 PM    Report this comment

We own a 2005 Hunter 36, kept in freshwater but we liveaboard 6-8 months out of the year. So it gets a lot of use. And yes it is cold living aboard in MI in November March and November. Our boat has no teak trim on deck but we do have a dozen teak strips on the pushpit seats and some additional teak trim around the companion way. Our prior boat was a 1989 Catalina 30 with lots of teak, handrails, trim strips, steps, companionway dropboards and more. The solution was rather simple and not that expensive. Sand, epoxy base coat, 3 coats of cetol and then we had covers made for all exterior teak. Except when the boat was "in use," meaning actually being sailed, we kept the covers on. On our current boat the teak was done is 2008, and has not been touched in 4 years. Still looks great, the seat covers and the cover for the companionway were professionally made and cost a total of $300 for material and labor.
Of course it is not practical to have this done for an entire deck or maybe even toerails. But for smaller pieces of teak it is well worth the time and money.

Posted by: Eric V | July 9, 2012 9:18 AM    Report this comment

My boat was built in 1964. The exterior has a teak toerail, bowsprit, handrails, hatch coamings, Dorade boxs, The interior is mostly teak with a splash of white paint. No fiberglass pan. I have to say it is the wood that makes me smile as I walk or row away. When sitting in the boat she feels beautiful and warm. The answer is yes I spend time maintaining but as the years roll by she looks less and less like other boats in the marina. In my mind, that is a good thing.

Posted by: Chris H | July 4, 2012 9:30 PM    Report this comment

Can anyone identify the year and make of the vessel directly behind the station wagon?

Posted by: STEVE W | July 4, 2012 1:33 PM    Report this comment

My beloved Island Packet 35, which I have owned since new in 1994, has plenty of exterior teak. When she was new, I accepted the extra work this entailed and watched in great disappointment how the newer boats had less and less. Now, I spend so much time maintaining it, there are times I wished I had none. The interior teak however, is relatively maintence free and adds a lot to visual appeal. No need to change that in my opinion.

Posted by: GP_Pirate | July 4, 2012 11:45 AM    Report this comment

Keep the wood for nice warm looking interiors. I love the Hallberg-Rassy interiors. Keep synthetic teak for decks. Keep real teak for some cockpit trim & wheels. If not wood trim, how about more titanium instead of low quality stainless! The price might come down on titanium in the future-praying.

Posted by: RICHARD S | July 4, 2012 11:39 AM    Report this comment

Love the look, hate the maintenance.. In Louisiana where we sail all year and the sun and rain is brutal, even Cetol is an every-year maintenance item. The new synthetics are pretty good looking and useful for exterior trim.. I am converting slowly

Posted by: CLAUDE L | July 4, 2012 11:01 AM    Report this comment

Timely article. I just got a quote from a boatworks for refinishing my exterior teak. No deck teak, just toe rail, hand grab rails, companionway brackets, and 2 equipment pads. For epoxy base coat with varnish finish coat it was $3500. For Cetol sans epoxy it was $2500. Teak doesn't look so good any more! Perhaps that practical, though ugly, aluminum fenestrated toe rail is a bargain.


Posted by: Geoffrey K | July 4, 2012 10:59 AM    Report this comment

I think there will always be a place for some exterior wood, real or synthetic. However, for financial and upkeep reasons, I believe the use of exterior wood will eventually be relagated to cockpit areas. I think days of even wood grabrails is limited, let alone bowsprits, dorad boxes, decking and caprails.

Posted by: Sailorman33 | July 4, 2012 10:27 AM    Report this comment

Synthetic trim,or no trim at all,is absolutely the way to go. My favorite sailboat (one I'd love to own) is the Presto 30. The Presto 30 has no trim visible on the outside and minimal trim in the interior. Exterior trim, when it ages, has sealants and fasteners that eventually leak. One of my major gripes with my previous boat was the inattention paid to where things like handrails are fastened. The teak handrails were fastened down on non-slip areas making them impossible to mask effectively during refinishing. With many of the finishes being very runny, this was a major frustration. Give me reinforced plastic or stainless steel handrails. Enuf said

Posted by: HERMAN S | July 4, 2012 10:24 AM    Report this comment

I have no problem with synthetic wood products! I love the look of teak trim be it real or no

Posted by: Unknown | July 4, 2012 9:14 AM    Report this comment

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