Yacht decks: Real teak vs. synthetic teak
Last updated: 03/08/2017
There’s good reason why teak is so popular in the superyacht industry, and in the marine world as a whole: not only is it visually pleasing and able to hold its aesthetic appeal in any interior or exterior space, but it’s also low-maintenance and extremely durable as well.
Of course, this makes it by far the most popular type of wood used when building a yacht’s exterior decks. Being able to withstand the constant splashes from the pool and Jacuzzi whilst shrugging off any kind of battering from the elements is a big plus — and maintaining a teak deck typically requires nothing but a bit of salt-water in most circumstances.
Teak however, is facing rising costs and increasing rarity. Demand is far surpassing supply, and this trend is only continuing with the aesthetic and functional benefits of teak decks remaining unbeaten by alternatives. Unsurprisingly, this has created a recent boom in the market of synthetic teak, which is generally regarded as actually quite good.
But will yacht owners — who, generally aren’t too strapped for cash — care about saving a few quid by avoiding the hassle of getting the real deal? Are there any other benefits to using synthetic teak, and are there applications where its use would be recommended, or perhaps even desired, over genuine teak by anyone with an eye for luxury?
With the help of some experts in the industry, we’ve put together this guide to help you understand the key differences between real teak and its synthetic cousin, with a particular focus on the world of luxury yachting.
Budget isn’t normally of much concern in the world of superyachts, but alongside other benefits, a cost saving can be the icing on the cake when making a decision.
Many different manufacturers make synthetic teak, so price varies depending on where you go. Generally however, it’s safe to call synthetic decking around 30-50% cheaper than the real deal. On a large deck, this can make a substantial difference and allow for the saved cash to be invested elsewhere on the yacht.
The price of genuine teak reflects its scarcity and desirability, which alone will make it worth the cost to many owners and builders. It could be argued that a genuine teak deck reflects a higher status than a synthetic one would; something important in any luxury industry.
Chase Millar of World Panel Products Inc said: "The younger crowd purchases teak; each piece shows originality, it smells amazing, looks classy, and enriches your boat."
Of course, both genuine teak and the synthetic kind are just as ‘functional’ as each other, in that both serve as perfectly stable surfaces on which to walk.
It’s all in the subtleties though; like its surface temperature during long periods of sun exposure, as Robert Eldridge of Palma-based Ocean Refit explained to us, “Synthetic decks don’t work well here in the Mediterranean as they get too hot in the sun. Some manufacturers have pale colours to help overcome this, but we’ve found they still get unacceptably hot.”
Image credit: Karinthia Quality Works S.L.U.
Matthias Reviriego, general manager at Karinthia feels similarly, commenting that genuine teak "maintains an acceptable temperature on the surface."
Genuine teak is also praised for its general non-slip quality even when wet, although synthetic PVC-based teak is often regarded as having even more grip and can provide a very solid footing, also when wet.
Synthetic teak decking can come very close in appearance and texture to the real thing; indiscernible to an untrained eye. Synthetic teak isn’t always going for the real look, though, and with anything manufactured comes a certain level of creative freedom.
Robert Eldridge of Ocean Refit Yacht Carpentry told us, “the ones [synthetic teaks] that comes in large sheet sizes rather than strips can be machined with any design you want, giving a lot of design freedom for yacht designers to create a modern look.”
Synthetic teak can travel seamlessly around any kind of layout, and the caulking can effectively be ‘drawn on’ exactly how you’d like it.
Synthetics however — whilst created and therefore not bound by whatever nature gives us — can have issues not found on its genuine brother. There have been reports of bubbling in synthetic teak decks as a result of adhesive gassing or trapped air bubbles. An experienced installer will be able to avoid this issue, but it remains an issue without any real-teak victims.
Teak, due to its unique and attractive properties, is in high demand and short supply.
On the issue of sustainability, Robert said, “There are many questions about the sustainability of teak production, as most of the teak used in yacht production is from natural forest growth principally from Burma. The problem is that the yachting community has a decade-old expectation of teak quality, and many superyacht owners in particular will only accept teak in long lengths with perfectly straight grain.
“Such timber can only be produced by felling very old, naturally grown rainforest trees, which are sometimes hundreds of years old, and are becoming more and more scarce as the last natural stands of forest are depleted."
Matthias also mentioned that, "It is not renewable in the short term, since each tree needs decades of growth."
Synthetic teak has its own environmental qualms with its use of PVC; a substance that by its very nature isn’t particularly sustainable as it uses oil and chlorine in its production, two substances not particularly known for their ‘green’ status. However, this is often put against the fact that a synthetic deck will normally last for decades before needing replacing.
One of the reasons teak got so popular in the first place is its resistance to the elements, and its natural oils that fight off algae and mould. It need only be cleaned with salt-water and rarely needs much further maintenance. Sunlight will cause teak to lighten to that ‘silvery grey’ that we all recognise. This is often the desired appearance of a teak deck and many will recognise a ‘fake’ deck from a mile away by its colour alone.
Despite the relative ease with which real teak can be properly maintained, that hasn’t stopped manufacturers of the synthetic varieties boasting of its almost complete lack of necessary maintenance.
Image credit: Karinthia Quality Works S.L.U
Matthias mentioned that synthetic teak has "very good resistance to heavy loads and blows."
The caulking of a teak deck will require separate attention; bad or ill-maintained caulking can cause a host of problems, though an experienced installer will be privy to this and know how to avoid the issues.
Whether you choose to fit a deck with real teak or synthetic teak, chances are you’re going to be happy with your decision. The two options offer numerous benefits with few in the way of downsides.
Chase summed it up nicely: "Real teak on a boat is a very beautiful thing. It has taken a long time for the wood to grow and be selected. When an experienced woodworker gets his hands on it, it becomes art. Old growth teak is used because of the natural oil content, a natural preservative helping repeal saltwater and natural elements like the sun. When Synthetic Decking came around there was a lot to be desired, over the years the consumer has voiced opinions causing the manufacturers to produce a more natural synthetic look. I personally love the look of a real teak deck, but would desire the maintenance of a synthetic."
Those more appreciative of naturally occurring materials will enjoy the natural qualities of teak, along with the sound knowledge that the real stuff is always going to be more impressive on a grand, luxury superyacht.
Synthetic teak offers benefits from a cost and maintenance point of view, and can be more easily sculpted to the ever-changing, dynamic world of yacht design. One word can summarise the synthetic stuff: easier.
For further reading, you may be interested in our guide of different types of flooring used on board superyachts.