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Homemade Teak Decks

Ken Newell and his partner Steve Gallo conducted a remarkable restoration of their 50-foot cutter Zatara. One of the most impressive aspects of their work was the laying of a new teak deck. Here's the first installment of the story in Newell's own words.

The 50-foot cutter Zatara sits at the dock, awaiting her new decking.

The Zatara refit project began two years ago when my partner Steve Gallo and myself, decided that we wanted something to do with our spare time and money. What we didn't realize was the level to which the refit project would absorb every weekend and every non-critical dollar we had and cause our significant others to chastise us for our obsessive behavior. Nonetheless, the goal of our refit project was the transformation of a good weekend sailing vessel into a world-class, blue-water cruising yacht equipped with everything necessary to safely and comfortably circumnavigate the globe…well, maybe just down to Mexico and possibly Costa Rica.

Zatara is a custom-built 1979, 50-foot cutter with nice deck lines and a great interior that offers the basic amenities for long-distance cruising. Because she was designed and built during the ‘70s, she lacks many of the modern conveniences of electronics and rugged sail-handling hardware. Nonetheless, she had all the right stuff to justify a refit: 300-gallon fuel capacity, 500-gallon freshwater tanks, and a solid three-quarter-inch-thick, hand-laid, full-keel glass hull unlike those of the mass produced type being plopped in the water these days.

The first portion of the project involved the removal of the engine from the depths of the galley, piece-by-piece, and the rebuilding, replacement and re-fabrication of nearly every component of the 80 hp. Ford Lehman Diesel. The engine project required nine months of dirty, hard labor and approximately $4,000.00 of that spare money we had. At the end of the engine project we were simply happy to have the chance to work outside in the sun.

It took several months for the author and his partner to strip away all the deck hardware and prep the fiberglass decks of a new veneer of teak.
Once on the outside, deciding where to start was a major chore. Sometime during her life, the previous owner decided that the original teak deck was too much trouble to maintain and thus he pulled it up and paid for a professional fiberglass deck to be laid. It was probably a great idea at the time, however, years of sailing ultimately introduced stress cracks in the fiberglass resulting a less-than-watertight deck.

We found old pictures of Zatara from the early ‘80s on the wall at Doug's Harbor Reef at the Isthmus of Catalina Island showing the boat when she still had her teak decks. Those pictures quickly convinced us that the one thing that would return the boat to her original glory was the installation of new teak decking. So Steve and I spent several months stripping away the original hardware, the cockpit trim, mast, stanchions, doghouse windows and deck non-skid in preparation for laying new teak. During this time we researched every boat building book, website, and old salt shipwright we could to learn how to lay a teak deck. After all the research was done and our mass survey of teak deck owners completed, we determined that the best method for laying teak planking on an existing fiberglass deck was the one offered by the folks at West System for the installation of teak veneers. We planned to start with the doghouse first for practice using quarter-inch teak veneers laid straight. We then hoped to utilize the wisdom of any mistakes we’d make on the doghouse to steam-lay the deck with sprung three-eighths-inch strips, a three-eighth-inch thick king plank and half-inch margin boards cut to fit. (As any boat owner knows, having a firm grasp of the terminology is critical prior to doing the job as nobody in the marina will believe you know what you're doing otherwise.)

We also decided that we would install a single dark tint acrylic window in the doghouse to replace three smaller framed glass windows. The teak frames around the old windows always leaked and were a nightmare to maintain. At this point we also began stripping the old non-skid off the glass deck. The installation of the new windows required two months; about one month longer than anticipated.

The teak atop Zatara's doghouse was laid in a quarter-inch veneer, and the partners used it as an experiment to refine their technique.

According to the folks at West System, installing a teak veneer deck is a practical and beautiful option for finishing a deck repair. Teak veneers can also be applied to decks, seats, cabin tops or hatches to improve the looks and value of any boat. Of course we decided that we would test every aspect of this statement.

Thin strips of teak, bonded with a combination of epoxy, 404 filler, and graphite, can give you an authentic teak deck that is both durable and low in maintenance. Bonding the teak to the deck not only seals the deck with an epoxy moisture barrier, but it eliminates the many fasteners that penetrate conventional teak decks and are often a source of leaks.

Although strips of up to a quarter inch thick may be used, the effects of dimensional change can be limited by using thinner, eighth-inch strips. A deck that is an eighth inch thick will provide you with years of service in high-traffic areas, and it will keep the additional weight of a new teak deck to a minimum. We learned that the decking strips should be an inch-and-a-half to two inches wide, with the edges planed smooth and straight. You don’t have to worry about the top and bottom surfaces, you can leave them rough-sawn. The rough texture left by the saw improves the mechanical bonding characteristics of the strip, and the remaining marks on the exposed surface will be sanded smooth after the new deck has been laid.

"You don't have to get either the up or the down side of the teak smooth because the down side will bond better with the epoxy if it's rough, and the up side will be sanded smooth later on."
If you plan to mill your own stock, select a plank width that makes the most efficient use of the raw stock you have. Teak is generally available in two-inch-thick, rough-sawn planks; you should get close to an inch-and-three-quarter finished dimension from these planks. We recommend that you saw the stock so that the strips will be edge-grained. This will minimize expansion and contraction of the wood and make a more attractive, even-wearing surface than will slab-grained strips.

Here are the steps we recommend for installing the deck:
1. First plan the location and pattern for the layout of the teak strips. Cut the strips to fit and mark them for reference as necessary. Mask off the application area and cover the surrounding area with plastic for protection against spills.

2. Prepare the bonding surfaces. Wipe the bonding surfaces of the boat with a wax and silicone remover or solvent and a dry with a paper towel. Grind non-skid areas flat and abrade smooth surfaces with 50-grit sandpaper. Remove all the sanding dust.

If any of the bonding surfaces of the teak are smooth, sand them with 50-grit sandpaper. Wipe the bonding surfaces of the teak strips, using paper towels with acetone or lacquer thinner 30 minutes before bonding. This will help to improve epoxy penetration by removing some of the natural oil from the surface of the teak.

Scott gets the teak strips into position for an initial fit before the epoxy is put down.
View of the doghouse surface following removal of non-skid surface. All the holes from winches and traveler have been filled with short fiberglass and epoxy mix then ground smooth. The layout for the teak has been measured and permanently marked.

3. Place the first set of teak strips in the desired location and mark the bonding area and reference location points on the strips and deck. Also, make sure you clearly mark the locations of each screw and washer on the planks of teak as these will be your only means of locating your screw holes when fastening the planks down into the epoxy bed. It is also helpful to number each plank in order to reference the location relative to neighboring planks. Remember, you can't have too much information on the planks of teak when working feverishly to lay the planks in the epoxy before it begins to set-off. Place only the number of strips that can be applied during the open time of a batch of epoxy. If temperatures on the deck exceed 70 degrees F, we would recommend the "very-slow" epoxy/hardener blend. Begin with a small area or number of strips. We suggest limiting the number of planks per batch of epoxy to six lengths eight feet long.

Then wet out the bonding surface of the first set of teak strips and the corresponding bonding area of the deck. Remember to wipe the bonding surfaces of the teak with solvent 30 minutes before the wet-out. After that you’re ready to begin laying the decking. We’ll continue with our instructions and the story of the Zatara project progressed in the next installment.

Suggested Reading:

Techniques for Removing Teak Decks by Sue & Larry

Replacing Teak Decks by Dan Dickison

Briston Teak by Tom Wood

SailNet Store Section: Teak Tables


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