Farewell to the Wood-Trimmed Boat?

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 09:08AM - Comments: (20)

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 we stepped aboard the 36-foot Island Packet Estero 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 we tested 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 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.

Despite the material's drawbacks I believe there will always place for teak trimmed boats—just as there will always be wooden boats. Teak is a beautiful, durable material for boatbuilders, but the challenge is ensuring it is either reclaimed or harvested sustainably. Although the maintenance of exterior teak can overwhelm an owner who has little time to carry out the regular maintenance, there are few boat maintenance jobs that offer the instant (almost) gratification of laying down a glossy coat of varnish. 

Comments (20)

[Ed note 7/21/2017: text altered to clarify the preference for sustainable or reclaimed teak]

Posted by: sailordn | July 21, 2017 11:19 AM    Report this comment

In today's world there is no reason to be using Teak woods for anything. The environmental impact of the teak industry has been horrible. This combined with the upkeep of teak and the readily available synthetic material renders it obsolete.

I find it reprehensible that the author doesn't mention the environmental problem with teak and why we should be avoiding it. Instead he rambles on about the old days and the beauty of wooden boats and teak trim. He is either ignorantly blind of what has been going or doesn't care. Both are sad traits to have. His last paragraph is particularly disturbing. I'm also a little concern that the editors of Practical Sailor published this article. It does not speak well for them either.

Posted by: mjwellman | July 21, 2017 8:40 AM    Report this comment

There is room for both!
I have been building my retirement boat over the past 4 years. After research, I opted for PlasTeak (out of Ohio) for the deck covering because of its thermal barrier and maintenance properties. Cap rails, cockpit sole, companionway hatch, grab rails are teak. Down below, teak sole and mahoghony fixtures throughout. There is a place for teak and a place for synthetics. I love the wood but really couldn't justify the extra cost of an all teak deck - with the maintenance and heat.

Posted by: SvTwinbrothers | July 20, 2017 8:08 PM    Report this comment

My 2" teak planked Chinese Junk was built somewhere around 1900. Still as strong as ever. She is currently up on the hill for new caulking and electrical work, but old-growth teak is still perfect and beautiful, except for one spot where fresh water made mush. As long as she stays in salt water, her teak petrifies. I prefer her to my previous English junk, which looked more like a Clorox bottle, but sailed perfectly. Just not very satisfying to my eye, or my ears. I love the silence instead of feeling I'm living inside a drum as I did on my fiberglass junk.

Posted by: MandarinStar | July 20, 2017 5:47 PM    Report this comment

On our 1983 Olson 40, that is being refit right now at Finco Fabrication in Santa Ana CA, we have removed all the exterior teak. Finco has fabricated strong, beautiful, graceful, and appropriately minimal handrails and toenails from stainless steel tubing. The exterior teak was fastened with many dozens of holes in the deck.

Fortunately, George Olson and Pacific Boats really knew how to build with balsa core, so there was only about 2 square feet of rotten core: one adjacent to a short piece of track installed long after the boat was built, the other was about an inch around the depth sounder transducer. So the boat structure is wood -- balsa core. But the wood is gone, and every one of those dozens of holes has been filled, glassed, ground smooth, and painted over on deck and below.

Below, nearly all the wood has been sanded and repainted. Just a couple of areas of the mahogany plywood were covered over with new wood, the rest looks really great now. The teak trim below is all in great condition now, again after sanding and all new varnish.

So the warmth and beauty of the wood below has been retained, and I really like how it looks. Yet the problematic wood on deck is all gone now.

Posted by: David Smyth | July 20, 2017 4:15 PM    Report this comment

I own a custom built Farr design cold molded 44' sloop tat was built in Santa Cruz. It HAD teak decks screwed over teak plywood. Looked beautiful, but what a nightmare. She lives in the SF Bay Area, with hot, dry summers and wet rainy winters. I continually chased leaks. Re-caulked the seams twice. Finally ripped the entire decks off, including the teak plywood that had sustained too much damage. Replaced it with teak plywood (the interior headliner is the teak plywood), sealed it with resin, and an overlay of synthetic teak. I have now gone three years without chasing a drop of water. People always mistake it for real teak. Can be a little hot on bare feet, but that is my only complaint.

Posted by: TimoteoT | July 20, 2017 12:27 PM    Report this comment

I have a 28 ft Rhodes sloop built in1971. It has teak toe rails, hand rails, and teak deck.
I do all the coaming, rails and hatches with Cetol Natural Teak. I hand wipe (not sand) the wood with mineral spirits and apply two coats. I do this every ten months so that I do not have to sand. It does not take long. The deck just gets cleaned. Wonderful to look at and live with.

Posted by: Rhoades 28 | July 20, 2017 12:19 PM    Report this comment

Maybe I'm in the minority, but I love the look of weathered gray teak.

Posted by: Ben L | July 20, 2017 8:32 AM    Report this comment

No exterior teak is the most practical but some teak inside is appreciated for that warm feeling. Those who "paint" over teak should be arrested for their lack of appreciation.

~ ~ _/) ~ ~ MJH

Posted by: MJH | July 19, 2017 2:50 PM    Report this comment

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.

Geoff

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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