Well, that was in the days before our extensive search for a new cruising boat. When viewing boat after boat in the 10 to 25-year-old bracket, Sue and I soon began looking at aging teak decks from a very different perspective.
In most cases, teak decks are laid on top of an otherwise perfectly watertight fiberglass surface. Hundreds of screws penetrate the fiberglass deck, reaching into the core to secure the deck, and these are sealed with some type of bedding material. The screw heads are covered with teak bungs, and the seams between the strips of teak are filled with a special rubbery black caulking. Unless correctly maintained over the years, teak decks start to leak. If not addressed early, these leaks can be the cause of major problems. For this reason, most people consider teak decks on older boats a detriment, not an asset.
Restoring older teak decks to their former glory and water-tight integrity is not always possible. Repeated sanding or overuse of chemicals can lessen the thickness of the teak. Bungs that previously covered the screw heads start to pop out and no longer provide a watertight seal. The black caulking eventually breaks away from the sides of the planks allowing water to invade. And often, the remaining wood is insufficiently thick to properly seal them again. In these cases, it’s time for the teak decks to be removed.
During our recent refit of our 1978 Formosa Peterson 46 sailboat Serengeti, we removed the teak decks. What may seem to most a huge task that only a professional boatyard could undertake, can actually be broken down into a series of steps that anyone with determination and time can accomplish.
Here are the steps:
Removing Deck Hardware Before you can remove your teak deck, you’re going to have to remove all the deck hardware that is installed on top of the teak planks. This is a slow and tedious process that really requires two people, one above decks and the other below holding the nut so the fastener can be released. Toss a coin to see who has to go below. Depending on the type of headliner you have, accessibility to these nuts differs greatly. Plan to remove any headliner immediately below deck hardware, and prepare yourself for crawling into tiny spaces to hold the nut while the fastener is turned from above. A long bodied socket set, a series of wrenches, and a pair of vise-grip pliers will make this job easier.
It’s very likely you’ll have to remove the deck hardware for your roller-furler, any staysail deck hardware, and even your windlass to be able to get to all of the decking. If you’re lucky, your stanchion bases, stern rail, and bow pulpit are not installed on top of teak. If they are, as ours were, you're in for an even bigger job. But look at the bright side. Stanchion bases are often a main culprit of deck leaks due to the movement of the stanchions each time someone grabs a lifeline. Your stanchions, when reinstalled, will be watertight for many years to come.
Make sure you have plenty of clear, plastic zip-lock bags and a permanent marker handy to package and label all hardware and fasteners. Be very specific so that you know exactly where they should be reinstalled. Although you may want to replace old fasteners with new when you reinstall the hardware, keep the old fasteners so that you know exactly what type, size, and how many you'll need. You may also need to shorten the fastener length if you're not putting new teak decks back on.
Removing all the deck hardware turned out to be a three-day process for us. Keep a large tarp at hand to cover the deck if rain threatens. Silicone caulking can be used to seal off temporarily hardware holes that will be reused later.
Begin by finding an edge to your teak deck that allows you to work your chisel or crowbar between the wood and the fiberglass deck. You may need to pound the back of it with a hammer to help it work itself under the wood. If you can’t find an outside edge, you might try working your chisel into one of the caulked joints. As a last resort, cut across the decking with a circular saw with the blade height carefully adjusted to cut just the wood and not the fiberglass deck.
Once you’ve found your edge and pounded in a chisel to lift the wood, insert your crowbar under the material and pry the strip away from the deck. The general idea behind this procedure is to use the leverage of the crowbar under the wood to cause the teak planking to release from the deck, while pulling on the screw and simultaneously stripping it out of the fiberglass. You may need to work your chisel, or two crowbars in tandem, along and under each strip to help it release from the deck. Apply just enough force and keep working your way down the plank without breaking it. Keeping the plank intact will speed the process up, and means you won’t have to continually reintroduce your tool between the planking and fiberglass deck. Sue and I had a contest to see who could remove the longest unbroken strip of teak. I don’t remember who won, so it must have been her.
In some instances, the screw head may pull out of the teak before the threads rip out of the fiberglass deck. If this happens, remove the screw with your crowbar or a carpenter’s hammer, just as you would remove a nail from a board. If the head breaks off the screw, try gripping it with vise-grip pliers and turning counter-clockwise. Occasionally the screw body may break at deck level. If this happens, use a nail punch to set the screw as far below the top fiberglass layer as you can.
The type bedding material used under your teak deck will dictate how easy the boards pry up. If you find that a particularly tenacious compound was used for bedding, it may be necessary to crosscut the deck occasionally with your circular saw to accelerate its removal. Again, carefully adjust the depth of the blade on your saw to ensure that you’re not cutting into the fiberglass deck below. Fortunately, our boards pulled up pretty easily during the removal stage, and we never had to employ this technique.
Cleaning the Deck A thorough and proper cleaning of the deck surface is crucial to ensure a good bond between the deck and the epoxy that will fill the holes. Since teak planks are bedded differently depending on the manufacturer of your boat, your method of cleaning the deck surface may be different from ours. Our decks were bedded 21 years earlier with a soft and sticky white substance that never hardened. This compound made removal of the teak from the deck quite easy; but cleanup very difficult and time-consuming. We scraped off as much as we could with flat putty knives. Then, after much experimentation, discovered that turpentine was the only solvent that dissolved this particular material. Two days later, we finally had clean, white decks—albeit with hundreds of small holes.
If you find that the bedding underneath the teak has hardened, you may be able to sand it off with a power sander. We recommend using 60 to 80-grit paper and sanding down just into the gelcoat. Try to keep the surface as level as possible while sanding, and don’t sand through the gelcoat and into the fiberglass. You’ll want to wear good dust masks and eye protection for this task, and have a shop-vac handy to suck up all the sanding residue.
Each hole should be sanded, reamed out, and throughly cleaned in preparation for filling.Checking for Rot or Softness If your teak decks have been leaking, you may find some damage to the core of the underlying surface. Soft spots are an obvious indication that the core beneath the fiberglass surface has rotted or that there's been some delamination. Sometime this can be detected by just stepping on the deck and jumping about. A more scientific test is to use a phenolic (resin) hammer, and tap the entire deck surface listening for changes in sound. A firm deck will resonate sharply, whereas a soft deck will produce a muted sound. If you hear that, you'll know this area requires further investigation and possible repair before proceeding.
Filling the Screw Holes In this next step, you need to prepare each hole properly to receive the epoxy filler that will once again make your decks watertight. Begin by lightly sanding a two-inch area around each hole with 80-grit paper. Next, bevel the top of each hole using either a countersink bit in a drill or a dremel tool with a cone-shaped burr bit. This technique increases the contact area of your epoxy, ensures a good bond, and lessens any chances of the epoxy filler cracking and popping out of the hole. Vacuum the hole and thoroughly wipe the area with a clean rag soaked in acetone.
Fill each hole with a catalyzed epoxy resin mixture that has been thickened to a ketchup consistency with a high-density filler material like West System 404 or Cabosil. Use a plastic spreader to apply and force the material completely into the hole leaving the epoxy level with the deck surface. Keep in mind that the mixture will likely shrink some when hardened. Next, wipe the area with acetone, sand lightly, and then apply a second coat of epoxy resin thickened this time with an easy to sand filler like micro-balloons or West System 407. You may leave your epoxy mixture slightly higher than the deck this time, as the mixture will sand down very easily. Preparing and filling all the holes aboard Serengeti took about three days.
After the holes are filled, the hardest part of the program can begin—making the decks level and fair. The duct-taped fingers say it all.Fair and Seal Deck It’s at this point that you need to analyze your own deck composition. Many boats, including ours, have the teak decks applied on top of a totally finished, gel-coated fiberglass surface complete with nonskid. Our decks are a sandwich comprised of a half-inch plywood core between layers of quarter-inch fiberglass on the top and bottom. Because of its stout construction, we thought it would be overkill to add more fiberglass to the deck.
Some decks though may require additional strengthening after the teak is removed. If this is the case, you need to apply additional layers of fiberglass to the deck to achieve the desired rigidity. If you’re unsure about your deck strength and rigidity, you may want to seek the advice of a professional—either a boat builder or a marine surveyor.
Whether you're adding fiberglass or not, the next step is to achieve a completely level and smooth surface. This process took us longer than all the other steps combined. We knew this was the stage that would make or break how good the project looked when finished. With a large carpenters square, we studied the surface of the deck to see which areas were low and which were high. Using the easy-to-sand epoxy, thickened to a mayonnaise consistency this time, we used plastic spreaders to fill any low spots and tried to equalize any high spots. Virtually every screw hole that’s already been filled needs to be sanded and filled, and then sanded and filled again to achieve a really fair and smooth surface. Depending upon how particular you are, this will take many passes of spreading and sanding, then spreading and sanding again. A fairing board is the best tool to use here to ensure consistent, level sanding results. We recommend using 80 to 120-grit paper at this stage.
When we removed our teak decks, we immediately filled all of our screw holes the next day. Our fairing process, however, was stretched out over many months and interspersed with some other jobs involved in our refit. The fairing and sanding process is very long and exacting if you want first-class results. We spent over three weeks in actual time smoothing our deck area. After our fairing was complete, we applied two layers of catalyzed, un-thickened epoxy resin with a foam roller to additionally seal the entire deck.
If you are planning to put new teak decks back on the boat, much of the above fairing can be avoided. Teak decks offer very good traction underfoot and they eliminate glare from the sun as well as looking great. On the down side, they are extremely hot on bare feet in warm climes, require maintenance to keep them in good shape to prevent leaks, and are by far the most expensive option.
Our total time invested in removing the teak decks and getting to the stage where we were ready to paint and put down new nonskid was about about a month. As I mentioned earlier, over half of this time was spent in the fairing stage. Because all of the labor was provided by Sue and myself, and we already owned a lot of the tools, the only expense involved the epoxy resin, fillers, mixing pots, and spreaders along with lots and lots of sandpaper. We did also pay dearly in the loss of skin off the tips of our fingers from so much sanding. But with new, watertight decks that won't need further maintenance, we were happy to pay that price.
In our next article, we'll cover the complete procedure for installing Treadmaster synthetic nonskid, along with the attendant costs.
The Right Tools for the Job
Here's a list of the tools and materials you'll need for the job of removing teak decking. It's certainly a big job, no matter the size of the boat, but if you want to keep your deck from leaking on an older boat, there's really no way around it.
Deep socket set
Wrenches (open and closed)
Plastic bags and a permanent marker
2 Crowbars – one long, one short
Solvent (determined by the type of bedding material)
Paper towels or rags
Sandpaper - 60, 80 and 120 grit
Random orbital sander
Epoxy resin and hardener
High-density filler (like Cabosil or West System 404)
Easy-to-sand filler (like Microballoons or West System 407)
Plastic mixing cups and wooden stirrers