Teak Buying Guide
The 3 types of teak every buyer should know about (and the one to avoid)
What diamonds are to precious jewels, and gold to precious metals… teak is to precious woods
Teak, the king of woods!
The reasons people love teak are many.
Some love that it’s an exotic and expensive wood—and that’s all they need to know.
Others prize teak because of its legendary hardness, strength, resistance to rot, and its ability to repel water, insects and microorganisms like mold and mildew…
When properly maintained, teak can be passed down from one generation to the next, and never be out of favor.
Others love the storied history behind teak—how and where it was first cultivated.
And how it’s been used during centuries past, and still is used today.
From boat decks…
To shower mats…
Artisans and crafters love teak for its warm colors. Ranging from honey gold to chocolate brown…
And the way its tight, dense grains run long and straight through the wood.
Few, though, know the true story of teak.
But today, so that you may know it…
And fully appreciate the teak you own, or are about to own, here is…
The True Story of Teak
Teak is a member of the tropical hardwood birches, included in the family Verbenaceae—indigenous to just four countries in the world:
Burma (now Myanmar), Laos, Thailand and India.
For centuries, the ancient kings of Burma and Thailand considered teak to be a Royal Tree, and was under strict royal protection.
The Vimanmek Palace in Thailand was built entirely of teak.
No nails were used in its construction, just teak timber expertly fitted and joined together.
However, because of reckless and excessive logging, natural teak forests have for the most part disappeared from all of these countries.
Fortunately, for those of us who love and prize teak…
Teak is now grown in plantations throughout South and Southeast Asia, Africa and even Latin America.
Indonesia stands at the forefront of sustainably-managed teak forestry.
In the 16th Century Buddhist monks brought teak saplings to Indonesia from Burma.
Others say it was Hindu monks from India in the 14th Century that introduced teak to Indonesia.
Either way, the Dutch in the mid-19th Century were the first to develop teak plantations in Indonesia.
Because teak is rot-resistant and water-repellant due to its high oil and silica content, the Dutch grew teak to build their ships that plied the Dutch East Indies spice routes.
Today, reputable manufacturers acquire their teak from state-owned Indonesian plantations run by the Perum Perhutani, a government agency.
Indonesian teak plantations are the largest in the world.
Because teak grows best in a sub-tropical climate, with an average annual temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit; and average rainfall of 80 inches per year…
The Indonesian island of Java is where the finest Indonesian teak is cultivated.
Teak is a flowering deciduous tree (loses its leaves in winter) and can grow to a height of 160 feet.
Photo by Sakeeb Sabakka
It takes 35—50 years for a teak tree to fully mature.
Only a mature teak tree contains the hard and dense wood with a high oil content that’s suitable for constructing quality teak furnishings.
Unfortunately, there are many manufacturers that procure unmanaged “wild” teak that may be only 10 years old or less.
These young trees have little to no oil content, and only marginal density.
We’ll go into this more deeply when we discuss the three primary grades of teak further below.
Why Teak is Unique
Because of its high oil and silica content…
Teak is among the hardest, strongest and most durable of all woods.
It’s highly resistant to rotting, warping, splitting, and will also repel wood-damaging insects and bacteria.
It’s virtually unaffected by the hot sun, heavy rain, biting frost and winter snow.
Astonishingly, teak requires little to no maintenance, which is why it’s the preferred wood for outdoor furniture.
Photo courtesy Meaningful Use Home Designs
Which also explains why it’s been used by boatbuilders for centuries.
Even today it’s found on elegant yachts, in legendary estates , ski lodges and upscale homes.
You can even find teak in the bed of a BMW pickup truck
Actor Robert DeNiro and Chef Nobu Matsuhisa chose teak to decorate their luxury hotels.
Photo courtesy of Barbara Kraft
Aside from its natural beauty, its honey gold color and tight grain lines, teak is one of the most valuable (read expensive) woods to buy.
This owes primarily to its limited and controlled supply within its higher grades. Similar to the way the De Beers Company controlled the worldwide supply of diamonds.
Teak’s Magical Oil
Generally speaking, the more oil in teak, the darker the wood—though not always.
Teak’s color and grain lines, ranging from straight to wavy, are all influenced by the age of the tree it’s cut from, and the amount of oil in the wood.
For example, when you purchase quality teak it should appear somewhat polished.
This is due to the abundance of oil in the wood that seeps out onto its surface.
This surface oil, however, will evaporate after a few days when left outdoors.
If kept indoors, it’ll obviously take a bit longer for the oil to dissipate.
Yet, below the surface, teak’s oil content remains undiminished whether you keep indoors or outdoors.
And that’s precisely what gives teak its unique and coveted properties.
Namely, its strength and durability—and its ability to repel water and wood-burrowing insects.
Not to mention its near-magical sheen and shine.
However, it’s important to note that teak will change color when left outdoors.
It’ll turn from a honey-gold or brown color to a handsome silver grey.
This happens to all grades of teak.
And it’s simply due to the effects of rain or snow and the sun’s UV-rays.
None of which, remarkably, harms the wood.
Yet another reason why teak is prized among all woods.
Many teak aficionados actually prefer the timeless look and appeal of well-weathered, well-aged teak.
Which is quite in vogue these days.
Photo courtesy of 6sqft.com
Unfortunately, many retailers are now selling “treated” teak, which only mimics the natural silver-gray patina.
This “rustic” look is achieved by using acid washes and other chemicals.
This damages the wood and can adversely affect the teak’s water-repellant properties.
If teak is allowed to grey naturally…
It takes between 9-12 months to complete.
On the other hand, if you prefer the look of fresh, newly milled teak…
It’s relatively easy to restore weathered teak back to its original honey-gold or brown color.
Read The Definitive Teak Care and Cleaning Guide, which will show you, step-by-step, how to do it quickly and cheaply.
It’ll also guide you on how to clean and maintain your teak so it’ll keep its beauty that’ll last you a lifetime.
It’s important to note, however, that even naturally-weathered teak still needs to be regularly cleaned and maintained.
Otherwise, the teak will eventually turn an unsightly black or develop a dark-grey and even greenish tint.
After teak is milled and even dried, it undergoes a “breathing” process.
In short, the teak expands and contracts.
If the wood is unfinished, this breathing process can cause the teak to feel slightly rough to the touch, especially after a rain when the wood begins to dry out.
This “roughness” will naturally smooth out over time, owing to teak’s naturally occurring oils, which permeate high quality teak from top to bottom.
But if you don’t want to wait for the teak to “heal” itself…
You can lightly sand the wood with 150 grit sandpaper.
And, no, sanding will not harm the wood.
For more about sanding teak, plus the pros and cons of “finished” teak, read The Definitive Teak Care and Cleaning Guide.
Also, when teak breathes and weathers, fine cracks (called “checking”) may appear where the wood was cut across the grain.
This, too, will smooth out and become less visible over time, and does not affect the strength of the wood.
The Three Grades of Teak
There are three grades of teak (A, B and C).
Grade A Teak
Grade A, the highest-grade, comes from the heartwood, the center of mature teak trees.
Grade A wood is very dense, and has the highest concentration of oil.
The color can vary from brown to honey-gold to wheat and amber.
Its grains are mostly straight and there are virtually no knots in the wood.
Because Grade A teak is sourced from the heartwood of old-growth trees…
And knots are the remnants of branches from younger trees…
Any knots that once existed were mostly consumed by the tree as it grew and matured.
Which explains why Grade A teak is by far the most prized grade of teak. Difficult to source, hence very expensive to acquire.
Young, immature teak trees possess little to no Grade A quality teak.
Grade B Teak
It can be difficult to distinguish Grade B teak from Grade A teak by color alone.
Because Grade B teak can also be brown, honey-gold, wheat or amber—and may even have a muted combination of colors—just like Grade A teak.
Color is also dependent to a certain extent on the geographic region where the tree is grown.
So, suffice it to say, Grade B teak is that area of the inner tree surrounding the heartwood.
Some refer to it as immature heartwood.
Accordingly, it does not have the same density or amount of oils as Grade A teak.
It may also contain a small number of vestigial knots—swirls, or marks. Though not the typical round, dark knots you may be familiar with.
And not all the grains will be tight, long and straight.
All in all, it’s not the absolute highest quality of teak.
But depending on the source, it may be close enough for your needs. And, of course, it’ll be less expensive.
Grade B-minus teak will have some Grade C teak mixed in—and that’s where you’ll need to be careful.
However, before we get to Grade C teak…
It’s important to understand how Grade A and B teak is dried before use.
Small factories, basically backyard operations, which predominate in many South East Asian countries, dry their teak outside in the sun, which is the worst way to dry teak.
In the tropics, the high humidity prevents teak that’s sun or air-dried to dry properly.
Wet teak, with only patches of drying here and there, will eventually warp, shrink and separate from its joints and supports.
Not a very pretty picture, and a waste of your money.
That’s why you always want your teak to be Kiln-dried
A teak kiln, however, is not the same kind of kiln used for pottery.
A teak kiln, depending on the size of the factory, can be as large as a warehouse, or something a lot smaller.
Either way, properly dried teak is kept in a kiln for about three weeks, or until its moisture content, from the inside out, drops to around 8%.
Only then is the teak ready to be made into whatever requires it to be teak-strong, sturdy and stable.
However, by the time it’s exported, it’s moisture content will naturally rise to approximately 12%.
Grade C Teak
Between the Grade B wood and the bark of the tree is Grade C teak, otherwise known as the sapwood.
The color of sapwood can vary from a light yellow to a reddish brown.
It’s the youngest part of the tree, and its sole function is to distribute ground water to all the tree’s branches.
Therefore, it’s not a dense wood, and because it’s water-based, it contains no oil.
Which, in turn, makes it a very soft wood.
Companies intent on cutting corners will use sapwood and claim it to be of excellent quality, or even stain it to make it appear like Grade A or B teak.
So be forewarned…
If you’re about to sit in a chair made of sapwood...just be prepared for a sudden and rude introduction to the floor.
However, because Grade C teak is pliable, and can contain dramatic color differences, it’s often used in decorative craft pieces.
Photo of “teak ball” courtesy of Designs by Luca
Of course, if there’s a small smattering of sapwood in otherwise high-quality teak furnishings or accessories…
And the price is right…
Well, you’re now in a position to make an informed decision.
If you have any questions…
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Thanks for reading,
Barry, Mendy, Kaiya & Griz