I once had a teak bench in my garden. It was lovely, and over time it acquired the gray color it is known for after aging. I still treated it with a little oil, including teak oil, which actually does not come from the teak tree, but instead usually includes tung oil in the mixture, along with linseed oil, varnish, and mineral spirits.
However, it is not necessary to treat teak; an occasional wash with soapy water and a full rinse is sufficient, and grease can be removed with a commercial de-greaser I don’t have it anymore, as I gave it to one of my daughters.
I recall the bench being rather expensive, too, much more so than other hardwood benches. I was caught up in the “glamour” that outdoor teak furniture projects, and so spent the extra money. For outdoor furniture that will be exposed to the elements, and while you can find suitable alternatives that will perform just as well outdoors, you will not find a better wood choice.
Let’s find out why.
The tree, Tectona Grandis, is native to the tropical regions of southeast Asia, including Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, and most prominently, Indonesia It is such an important natural resource in Indonesia that the government established a corporation to oversee and manage it.
That company, PT Perhutani, is charged with the responsibility of maintaining all of the official teak plantations and farms on the island of Java. Java lies between Sumatra and Bali, and its largest city is Jakarta. It was formerly a Dutch colony, and the Dutch used teak to build ships and brought much teak back to Europe as a major import, where it was used to decorate and build homes for the wealthy.
The Indonesian government corporation that maintains the plantations sets a strict number of trees that can be felled at any time and requires that new trees be planted to replace those in the teak forests that are harvested. The trees that teak wood comes from can take upwards of 80 years to mature, and by strictly regulating the number of trees that can be harvested at any time, the availability of teak wood is both controlled and limited.
After all, with 80 years to mature, trees planted today will not mature until those who planted them have already died.
Tectonis Grandis can grow to a height of about 150 feet in the wild (tropical forests outside of teak plantations) over those 80 years to reach maturity. However, trees of about 80 years of age will be chosen for harvesting or about 1 foot per year.
The heartwood of the tree is more valuable than its sapwood. The heartwood contains more of the oils and rubber than the sapwood, and these are what make teak wood special.
All woods contain sap in some form. I had maple syrup on my pancakes this morning, a boiled-down form of the sap from the maple tree. The teak tree has an abundance of natural oils and rubber in its heartwood, and its wood retains them even after being harvested.
These oils and rubbers are what give the wood protection from weather, and offer a good degree of water resistance to the wood. When the harvested and milled woods are properly dried, down to about a 10% moisture content, these oils, and rubber rise to the task of weatherproofing the wood. This makes teak wood a good choice for outdoor furniture.
The oils also offer a high degree of protection from dry rot problems, something that will afflict other woods used for outdoor furniture. The oils and rubber will also offer protection against the growth of fungus and the invasion of parasites that would otherwise destroy the wood. In other wood species used to make outdoor furniture, we’d have to treat the wood regularly with waterproofing oils.
Not so with teak.
Why Is Teak Wood So Popular For Outdoor Furniture?
The cache of teak for outdoor furniture is rooted (no pun intended) in several factors:
- It is a beautiful wood that ages well
- It smells like leather
- It is very hard and quite durable, and furniture made with it will last a long time. In our research for this piece, we came upon a story of objects made of teak wood that dated back more than 2,000 years, still intact and in good shape. This is impressive for wood that was neither treated nor cared for during that time.
As noted above, its availability is strictly regulated by one of its major producers Indonesia; it takes a long time for the trees to grow, and as a result, there is something of a rarity, a status symbol of exclusivity, associated with products made from teak wood.
Teak is a high-quality wood that has appeal to the outdoor furniture market. Teak outdoor furniture will last a long time, making it a good investment that will not need to be replaced for many years.
Working With Teak
Despite its hardness, teak is relatively easy to work with using either power tools or hand tools. Woodworkers consider it easier to rip and cross-cut than oak, even. A carbide-tipped blade is recommended; teak is one of the hardest of tropical hardwoods and will dull the blade otherwise.
Teak is sometimes used for flooring, also. It is resistant to stains – a de-greaser will clean it up, as we noted earlier. It will not mildew, rot, buckle, or bend/warp and is resistant to dents and scratches. It can take normal wear from foot traffic well, too.
Teak’s Janka Rating
We’ve written about the Janka scale before, and if you follow us in these articles, you already know about it. Developed by Gabriel Janka, it measures the hardness of wood by the amount of pressure needed to embed a half-inch steel ball halfway into the wood being tested.
Teak’s Janka rating is 1,155. This ranks it a bit harder than English oak, which checks in at 1,120. Teak ranks as the 86th hardest wood, with such other, commonly known and used woods as white oak, ash, red oak, and sugar maple ranked harder.
Teak is also very stable dimensionally – it does not shrink. In fact, its shrinkage coefficient, the percentage of shrinkage after harvesting and milling, is a very low 5.3%. This makes it a suitable wood for flooring as well as for boat decks, as planks will not separate once installed.
The Price of Teak
All of this is to say that teak is an expensive wood. Limited availability, high demand, high transportation costs from southeast Asia to North America, and the market for it beyond just outdoor furniture keeps the price high.
Beyond outdoor teak furniture, it is also a popular wood in boat building. A teak deck is a thing of beauty in expensive, high-end yachts, even as it grays with age. It is a status symbol inside the cabins of boats, too, because of its natural beauty. It’s been used in shipbuilding since the 500s CE, around the time of the fall of Rome.
Those who can afford fancy yachts can afford to have a lot of teak features in their boats. Again, it is something of a status symbol, a fancy addition to a lovely boat that has spared no expense.
The answer to the question is yes; teak is expensive.
While it may make way for the next status symbol for wood use on boats, that will not change the fact of its limited availability, even if demand should drop a bit. It will still be a beautiful wood that also has all of the long-lived advantages of weather resistance and durability. The high cost of teak will likely remain.
Alternatives to Teak For Outdoor Furniture and Boat Decks
Teak’s reputation and appeal does not make it the only show in town, so to speak. There are other hardwoods that can serve the same purpose in the making of outdoor furniture and boat decks, and there is some appeal to using them.
- Shorea. One such alternative is Shorea. It, too, is native to tropical forests in southeast Asia, and it shares some of teak’s qualities. It is hard and dense and has a high oil content that offers resistance to rot and insect infestation. If varnished quickly after harvesting and milling, it will retain its golden hue, but if left untreated, it will age to a silver gray, not unlike that of teak. It is slightly more available than teak and comes at a lower price.
- Iroko. Also known as “African teak,” this wood comes from trees that can grow to about 150 feet and with a trunk diameter of 7 feet. It is hard, durable, and resistant to rot, just like teak wood. Because it is a mineral-rich wood, it can do some damage to cutting tools, but carbide tip blades can help with that. It has a different look than teak wood but still is a lovely wood. Even better, it is about 1/3 the cost of teak.
- Ipe. Sometimes sold as “ironwood,” ipe is also known as Brazilian walnut. It is three times harder than cedar, so dense and heavy it will sink in water. High, also, in natural oils, ipe is resistant to insect infestation, rot, and decay and can be used effectively in wet environments. Some of the boardwalk at Coney Island is made from ipe wood. As with iroko, ipe wood is about 1/3 the cost of teak.
Some of the other hardwoods that can serve as teak alternatives for outdoor furniture include mahogany, bubinga, and treated maple wood. Any of these woods, those mentioned above and these three, are very suitable alternatives to teak for the same purposes – outdoor teak furniture, boat decks, flooring, and other teak wood uses.
We found a video that includes some additional facts about teak, as well as its propagation outside of southeast Asia. In this video, you’ll see teak used as a topping on outdoor decks, and it’s very informative.
Yes, teak is expensive, and yes, there are less expensive alternatives. With propagation outside of southeast Asia and harvesting at between 20 and 60 years old, must earlier than the regulated harvesting in Indonesia, teak could become an easily sustainable wood. If so, we can expect to see lower prices in the future for those outdoor furniture and deck projects.