Teak is a highly durable hardwood, and requires little care to protect it from the elements. Left untreated, teak wood will eventually weather to a grayish-silver color, considered very attractive by some. This process is purely cosmetic and does not compromise the strength or quality of the wood. Some will purchase teak with the intention of letting it weather; others prefer to maintain the rich golden color teak has when brand new.
Teak wood has a natural resistance to mold and rot; though not completely impervious, it is naturally highly resistant due to its high oil content. Despite this, unsightly mildew can form on the surface of the wood if not cared for properly, discoloring both treated finishes and naturally weathered wood.
If mildew is present, washing the teak with a mixture of mild soap, water, and a little bit of bleach or vinegar with a nylon scrub brush will usually take care of the problem. Many teak manufacturers strongly recommend against using any type of metal brush as they can scratch the wood. For harder to clean stains or residue, special teak cleaners can be purchased. Be sure to read the instructions included with the cleaner before application, and follow them exactly!
The frequency at which you clean your teak will depend on the environment the teak is exposed to. For example, teak used in marine applications will likely require a more frequent cleaning schedule than an outdoor patio set. Indoor pieces will require far less. Whatever your cleaning needs may be, the use of high-pressure hoses, wire brushes, or steel wool is not recommended: these will damage the wood.
Our deep cleaning kit is designed to clean without harming the wood or your hands - it even includes a bit of teak conditioning oil as a finishing step. To maintain the rich tones of the woods, it is recommended that you apply teak oil to heavily used items, or items exposed to water or steam every 6 months, so we offer two sizes of oil for just this purpose. Should you wish to add or replace the rubberized strips along the bottom of any product, a maintenance kit is also available. Please note, though the kits are specifically sized for our teak floor mats, the rubberized strips may be cut to fit other products as well.
Teak can be cleaned using either store-bought or homemade cleaners. Strong chemical cleaners can literally dissolve teak, so always start off mild. If you decide you need something a bit stronger to get the job done, make sure the chemicals are safe for use on teak. If the teak has been previously coated with a sealer or varnish, that must be removed with the use of a wood-stripper before cleaning.
Quick Tip: Perform a regular quick-clean using just water and a soft scrub brush – this will help stave off stains and discoloration.
Three common and easy to make homemade cleaning solutions are:
- 1 cup each of ammonia and laundry detergent (without bleach) in 1 gallon of warm water
- 1 cup each of chlorine bleach and laundry detergent in 1 gallon of warm water
- 1 cup of vinegar to one gallon of warm water
Whichever mixture you choose, don't combine them, and never, ever combine ammonia and chlorine, as the combination creates an extremely toxic gas.
Apply the mixture by gently scrubbing into the wood using a nylon scrub brush. Allow the cleaning mixture to soak on the teak for about 15 minutes, then rinse thoroughly. Some find it easiest to do everything outside, due to the involved and often-messy nature of cleaning teak - taking the items outdoors prevents any drips or spills from damaging the flooring in the home. If you clean indoors, be sure to protect yourself from potentially hazardous fumes by making sure the cleaning area is well ventilated: open doors, windows, and use a fan if available. And, as always when working with chemicals (even vinegar due to its acidity), wear rubber gloves and protective eyewear.
The above cleaning mixtures work well on most household teak items; particularly those that have been somewhat protected from the elements, and need only a mild cleaning. If your teak has been left to the elements for quite a while, or if you live in an area where the air is more corrosive (heavily polluted areas, coastal locations) then you may need a more aggressive cleaning system. Beware: most wood cleaners are highly caustic and should only be used when everything else has failed. Many of these cleaners can damage surrounding surfaces.
Quick Tip: When cleaning teak doors or other upright surfaces, start from the bottom and move upwards to keep drips from staining uncleaned sections.
Beyond cleaning, there are three different methods to treat your teak items: oil, sealant or varnish.
Once cleaned, the teak's surface oils are gone. Left untreated, the wood oxidizes, imparting a grayish/silver color to the surface. Organic oils have traditionally been used to replenish what's been removed by cleaning and the environment, and to keep the wood looking new.
Most teak oils consist of either Tung or Linseed oil with added resins to make them more durable. Many prefer Tung to Linseed because it tends to be more water-resistant, and won't darken the teak as much. Teak items left exposed to the sun, however, will darken after a few months whatever the oil - there are many specialized teak oils that address this issue using additives, pigments, UV blockers and mildew retardants.
Oil is best applied with a paintbrush, using long, even strokes; start at the bottom and work your way up. Immediately wipe away any drips or runs that may get on the surrounding material using a cloth dampened with mineral spirits. Continue applying until the oil begins to pool on the wood's surface - once the teak has soaked up as much oil as possible, you should have a matte finish without shiny spots. On a side note, make sure to wipe the top of the teak oil can before you put the lid back on otherwise you will have a heck of a time trying to open it the next time you need to oil.
Special Feature: Oiling doesn't create a seal or barrier on the teak's exterior: it's simply a way to enhance and maintain its look. This means that oil-treated teak is usually not slippery, making it safe for use in walkways, on steps, and in bathing or swimming areas.
Outdoor teak is usually not oiled. For one, it's high maintenance: exposure to the elements would demand reapplication every few months. And with every application, the teak needs to be cleaned beforehand, wearing away the wood's topmost layers. Worse yet, mildew can become a serious problem, feeding on the oils in the wood.
Unlike oil, a sealer does not infiltrate the wood, but forms a protective layer on its surface. If you're restoring teak from an exposed and weathered state, then some of the oils and resins have already been lost; in this case the teak should be cleaned and oiled two weeks prior to applying the sealer. This will restore the oils in the wood.
About two weeks after that initial cleaning and oiling, give the wood another gentle washing (no harsh chemicals, just mild soap and water) and let it dry completely. To be effective, wood sealers need to be applied to an oil-free surface, so once the wood has dried use a rag soaked with acetone to remove the surface oil. Acetone evaporates quickly, so sub-surface oil will be unaffected. Sealers are usually applied like oil, using a brush. Keep applying and wiping excess until the teak's surface has a uniform matte finish.
To maintain this finish, wash the teak and re-apply as needed. Frequency of application will depend on use, exposure and the general nature of the product. Indoor pieces may go 6-9 months before needing a new coat, while exposed teak on a boat may need to be resealed every 2-3 months.
Varnish is a long-lasting, highly durable finish primarily used in marine applications, where teak must endure extreme conditions, salt water, and constant exposure to the sun and other elements. Varnishing is an extensive and time-consuming task that can by no means be rushed if you want the finish to last.
In order to prepare the teak for varnishing, clean using your preferred method. If the teak is new, grab some fine grit sandpaper: you won't want to really sand the wood, but rather uniformly rough-up the surface just enough to give the varnish something to grip onto (this is called giving the wood some "tooth"). Use a clean rag to remove any wood dust, and wipe the unit over with a different rag using either acetone or denatured alcohol to remove any surface oils.
Tip: Some find it useful to sprinkle the floor with water or wet sawdust to control the dust from sanding.
Teak that has been left to weather can be re-varnished following the same steps as above, but with slightly more aggressive sanding (stop when you begin to see the golden-brown teak showing through). You can also use specialized teak cleaners that will essentially strip away the grayed surface layer, and usually include some form of wood brightener that will lighten the color.
If you're refinishing teak that's been previously varnished or sealed, then it will require a bit more sanding before you can apply new varnish. The age of the original varnish and the number of layers present will determine how aggressive the sanding needs to be.
Sandpaper is graded using a number system; the finer the paper, the higher the number. Once the old finish has been removed, you will start sanding with 80 to 150 grit sandpaper and work up to 220 or 320 grit.
When you're ready to begin varnishing, it is important to be aware of the temperature and humidity in the area where you'll be working. Wood expands when hot and contracts when cold; it can also expand if there's high humidity, since wood can absorb moisture. The wood and the varnish should be "room temperature", which is between 70-80 degrees. Hot, humid days and cold, foggy days are not good days for applying varnish.
The working area (garage, shop, etc) should be well ventilated - not only for your health and safety, but also because the varnish requires a good supply of oxygen. Varnish dries (cures) through the evaporation of volatile chemical ingredients, and by taking in oxygen from the air. If you're working outdoors, try to pick a day with the least amount of wind, with very moderate temperatures and humidity.
When applying varnish, the initial goal is to put on several build-up coats. This will give the final "finishing coats" a good grip on the wood. With these final layers, you'll also want to level out the surface.
A generic coating schedule looks something like:
- Coat #1: Thin the varnish about 50% with a thinner. This thinned coat will basically act as the primer coat. Allow to dry completely (24 hours) before applying the next coat.
- Coat #2: Thin the varnish about 20% with a thinner. Directly apply 2nd coat. Allow to dry completely (24 hours) before applying the next coat.
- Coat #3: Thin the varnish about 10% with a thinner. Directly apply 3rd coat. Allow to dry completely (24 hours) before applying the next coat.
- Coat #4: Check to make sure the 3rd coat is dry. Then sand with about a 220-grit sandpaper. Apply the 4th coat of varnish at full strength. Allow to dry for at least 2 days.
- Coats #5 and 6: Same as coat 4, but sand more heavily in between coats 5 and 6 to ensure a flat, smooth surface. Be sure to let the coats dry completely before continuing with application.
- Coats #7, 8, and 9: After applying each coat and allowing to dry completely, sand by hand with 320-grit paper in-between coats. Apply full strength with extra care to avoid runs, sags, and drips.
This coating schedule is a basic outline that should suit most applications. However, you may need to adjust the number of coats and how extensively you sand, etc. As always, read and follow the instructions of your varnish and thinner carefully.
Whether you prefer the warm, honey-brown charm of new teak, or that weathered “silver fox” look, regular cleaning will help your teak remain strong and beautiful for many years.