Cleaning the Teak: What Works, and What Works Faster?
Nine teak cleaning products are put to the test on the weathered decks of one of Practical Sailors test boats.
Nothing tugs a sailor’s heart strings quite like a boat loaded with beautiful, golden-hued teak—especially when it’s someone else’s boat. Maintaining a boat’s wood finish is a love/hate affair for most owners, but fortunately it is something that teak lends itself to easily. You can clean and oil or varnish it, or take the more laid-back approach, and let it weather to its natural, silver-gray color.
Regardless of a boat owner’s maintenance philosophy, most teak will eventually need a thorough cleaning—be it in preparation for fall layup, spring commissioning, or when readying the wood for oiling or varnishing. For regular washing of teak decks, we recommend using a soft-bristled brush or scrubbing pad and a mild detergent—or none at all—scrubbing across the grain of the wood, rather than with it (to avoid removal of the softer wood). But for less frequent, more intense cleanings, or for areas being prepped for a wood finish, a teak cleaner can be the solution. There’s no shortage of teak cleaners available, but which one to use? From one-steps to two-steps, pastes, powders, and gels, Practical Sailor scanned the market to find the most effective teak cleaner available.
What we Tested
To narrow the field, we divided the products into two categories: stand-alone cleaners and cleaning duos (two separate products applied one after the other, often a cleaner and brightener). This evaluation covers the solo cleaners; the twosomes will be reviewed in a future PS issue.
Captain John’s Boat Brite
Captain John’s Boat Brite Teak Cleaner is billed as a 100-percent non-toxic, phosphate-free, biodegradable way to deep clean teak while restoring its natural beauty. Made by the New York-based Brite Group, the paste was the only product tested that advertises being compliant with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Clean Marina and Clean Boating guidelines. Its formula includes sodium cocoate (a derivative of coconut oil), emulsifiers, and water. It was noticeably less harsh than other products tested and actually had a light, pleasant smell.
Captain John directs users to apply the cleaner with a soft-bristle brush and leave it on for several minutes to allow for the deep cleaning of imbedded dirt. PS testers let the product sit for about 7 minutes before rinsing with fresh water.
One issue testers had with this product was its small, tub-style container. When cleaning larger areas, you have to transfer the product from the 12-ounce tub to a deckbrush or the deck. Captain John reported that the cleaner will be available in larger containers later this year.
As with most "green" products these days, being eco-friendly comes with a price: At $20 for a 12-ounce tub, Captain John’s was the most expensive cleaner tested. But in this case, being gentle on nature also means being gentle to your teak.
Bottom Line: Boat Brite cleaned its test panel well, and its nontoxic nature means no worries about it damaging adjacent surfaces.
Dalys SeaFin Teak Cleaner
Dalys is a family-owned, Seattle-based manufacturer of wood finishing products. Dalys SeaFin Teak Cleaner is advertised as a one-step cleaner for restoring weathered teak prior to applying a new finish (such as oil or varnish). Active ingredients include sodium salt of benzylsulfonic acid and sodium meta silicate.
This cleaner is concentrated and must be mixed with water prior to use. While the mixing adds a step, it also means you get more applications from a single container. Product labeling calls for a ratio of 1:2, cleaner to water, and a dwell time of 3 to 5 minutes. Adjacent surfaces (anything other than wood) must be rinsed immediately to avoid damage if they come in contact with the cleaner.
Dalys also offers its SeaFin Teak Oil, which will be reviewed in our upcoming report on teak oils.
Bottom Line: The SeaFin teak cleaner performed well with minimal dwell time and moderate scrubbing. That being said, it had one of the more potent chemical odors of all products tested.
Interlux Yacht Finishes is a leading supplier of high-performance marine coatings. Its Interlux Premium Teak Restorer is advertised as an environmentally friendly, water-based formula that safely cleans and brightens teak in one step. The liquid’s active ingredients include citric acid and oxalic acid, a relatively potent organic acid. This gives it a slightly strong, but not unpleasant smell.
It calls for no heavy rinsing after application, and as far as testers could tell, it lived up to its claim that it would not bleach, damage, or raise wood grain. It also claims to be safe to use around fiberglass, wood, metal, and painted or varnished surfaces. While we didn’t test it on metal, we saw no sign of any damage to the fiberglass and wood near our test patch. This is a big plus as cleaner invariably finds its way onto adjacent surfaces.
The Interlux does have a seven-minute dwell time, one of the longest in the test. For follow-up protection on decks, Interlux suggests its Premium Teak Oil. (Stay tuned to find out how well it performed in our upcoming report on teak oils.)
Bottom Line: Interlux Premium Teak Restorer worked well, and its inclusion of wood brightener saves a step for those planning to use a wood brightener anyway. Cons include the use of harsher chemicals and a comparatively long dwell time.
Iosso Teak Cleaner
Iosso has been manufacturing environmentally responsible cleaning products for over 25 years. Its teak cleaner comes as a powder (a 16-ounce jar makes 4 gallons of cleaner) and claims to safely remove dirt, black algae, and mildew stains without harsh chemicals.
We’re not sure what Iosso uses in lieu of "harsh chemicals," as it simply lists the ingredients as "Trade Secret." According to Iosso, the cleaner emits no harmful vapors, is biodegradable, non-toxic, and won’t harm fabric, metal, fiberglass, or plastic surfaces. It had essentially no smell and appeared fairly benign from a "harshness" standpoint.
To activate the powder, mix it with warm water—1 scoop makes a quart, 4 scoops a gallon. It calls for a dwell time of at least 10 minutes.
It claims it can be used on both horizontal and vertical surfaces, but the soupy mix is really no better for vertical surfaces than liquids.
At $14, a 16-ounce container generates 4 gallons of cleaner, making it the most economical cleaner tested.
Bottom Line: Despite its inherent gentleness, the Iosso cleaned the weathered teak as well as those cleaners with more harsh formulas. It took a long time to do it, but required minimal scrubbing. Iosso gets the nod for Budget Buy.
CRC Industries, maker of MaryKate products, is a worldwide leader in specialty chemicals for the marine and other markets.
MaryKate’s Nu-Teak One-step Teak Cleaner, an alkaline cleaner, claims to remove dirt stains, oxidation, and weathering from teak and other unfinished wood. Nu-Teak was one of the more harsh-smelling products we tested. Company literature says that it contains no acids or harsh chemicals and that it will not raise wood grain.
Testers mixed equal parts Nu-Teak and water, the ratio offered for heavily soiled or weather-beaten wood. For lightly soiled wood, use more water—it can be diluted as much as 1:10 (Nu-Teak to water) and still clean effectively, according to the maker. The mixing is a mixed blessing—application is not as easy as a ready-to-use product, but it does allow you to vary the ratio, allowing you to reduce the strength of the mixture as needed while stretching the amount of cleaning solution each bottle can produce.
Bottom Line: Nu-Teak’s no dwell time is a plus, and testers liked being able to control the cleaner’s potency by diluting it.
MDR Amazon one-step
Marine Development & Research Corp. (MDR) offers more than 100 boating products. In 1995, MDR purchased Amazon, which constitutes the bulk of its teak-care line.
MDR Amazon’s One-Step Teak Cleaner is billed as an acid-free liquid that won’t harm fiberglass or damage the teak’s soft grain. With the active ingredient ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, it claims to remove rust stains, fish blood, and other grime. For really dirty teak, MDR recommends its two-part product.
To apply the one-step, wet the area with fresh or salt water, then scrub, rinse, and repeat if necessary. Amazon’s suggested followup is its Teak Prep and teak oil.
Bottom Line: Amazon’s One-step worked well and with minimal scrubbing. No dwell time means you can start (and finish) cleaning faster, and the option of using fresh or salt water is a plus.
Star Brite Gel
From its automotive-industry roots, the Alabama-based Star brite now makes numerous boat maintenance products. Its Star brite Gel Formula Teak Cleaner Restorer is touted as an environmentally safe, biodegradable cleaner with no acid or harsh chemicals, so it will not raise wood grain. The citrus-based cleaner has no noticeable chemical smell.
The only gel in our test group, its ability to cling to vertical surfaces is handy for cleaning trim or other non-horizontal surfaces. Its 5-minute dwell time was middle of the pack.
The gel formula is easier to control during application (no spatters or running) than liquids. There also were no warnings about damage to adjacent surfaces.
Bottom Line: Testers like the gel’s versatility and controllability, and its less-harsh nature. Out of a field of effective cleaners, the Star brite gets our Recommendation for ease of application.
Star Brite Teak Cleaner
We also tested Star brite’s liquid teak cleaner. This non-acidic liquid is advertised to remove stains without hard rubbing and without raising wood grain. It will not harm fiberglass or painted surfaces and has no dwell time. Active ingredients include sodium hydroxide (lye) and sodium hypochlorite (bleach).
Bottom Line: The no dwell time was a plus, however it was one of the more harsh-smelling cleaners and possible damage to fabric is a consideration.
West Marine One-Step
Boating supply giant West Marine advertises its One Step Teak Cleaner & Brightener for use on lightly soiled teak surfaces. According to West, the One-Step Cleaner restores teak to its natural color, but the phosphoric acid-based liquid may damage gelcoat, paint, and metal surfaces, a big drawback in our eyes. It has a minimal dwell time, two to three minutes.
Bottom Line: As with the Interlux product, the West Marine’s brightening capability saves a step. However, the harshness of the acid-based cleaner and the likelihood it will damage surfaces adjacent to the cleaning area hold the West Marine out of the winners’ circle.
As we noted in "How We Tested," all of the test products cleaned the teak quite well. So we had to look beyond performance to make our recommendations. One of the criteria we rated the products on was eco-friendliness, or its "green rating." The rationale being that any product gentle enough to be green will be less harsh on teak (and the user).
Of the products we tested, Captain John’s Boat Brite took the recommendation for being the most eco-friendly, thanks to its compliance with the EPA’s Clean Marina Program, a self-review and recognition program for marinas, boatyards, and boaters. Another EPA program supports green products by allowing them to carry the agency’s Design for the Environment (DfE) label. This mark allows consumers to quickly identify and choose products that can help protect the environment and are safer for families. None of the products we tested carried this logo.
The most economic product was the Iosso cleaner, the PS Budget Buy. For a one-step cleaner/brightener, we recommend the Interlux Premium Teak Restorer. And for its versatility and ease of application, we recommend the Star brite gel formula.