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Ask Sail: Restoring Teak

I’ve just purchased an older boat that has a lot of unfinished teak trim both inside and outside. The teak is very grey and even black in a few places and I’d like to brighten it up. What’s the best way to clean it?
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Jake Wise Virginia Beach, Virginia

Q: I’ve just purchased an older boat that has a lot of unfinished teak trim both inside and outside. The teak is very grey and even black in a few places and I’d like to brighten it up. What’s the best way to clean it? Also, what’s the best way to keep it clean and nice looking if I decide to leave it unfinished?

Don Casey 

A:To return grey or black wood to the color of fresh teak, you have to wash and bleach it. For interior teak, a cup of laundry detergent and a cup of chlorine bleach mixed into a gallon of water may be sufficient to clean away grime and mildew. For exterior teak you need the stronger bleaching action of oxalic acid. Scrubbing the treated wood with a Scotchbrite pad will help the cleaning process.

If the exterior teak has been long neglected, you might need the additional power of a two-part teak cleaner. Here the active ingredient is hydrochloric acid, which eats away the top surface of the wood, so use a two-part cleaner only as a last resort. However you bleach your exterior wood, the surface will still be rough afterwards. Before applying any protective coating, you should sand the wood smooth with 100-grit paper.

To keep unfinished teak in the cabin looking nice, you’ll need to keep it clean and “feed” it by periodically wiping on a thin coat of teak oil or some other furniture oil. Varnishing your interior wood will minimize care. A varnish coating will keep the wood bright and make keeping it clean in a snap.

Exterior teak can also be protected with oil, but unless you keep your boat somewhere with little sun and minimal pollution, you’ll have to scrub the wood and reapply the oil every few weeks to maintain its appearance. A hard coating is almost always a better choice. This can be a sealer, a clear varnish, or a varnish-like product with pigment. Talk to fellow boatowners in your area to figure out what treatment works best.

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