Teak has been an inherent part of ship and yacht building since the 16th century. For early shipbuilders, the attraction was its strength, durability, and when building warships, its resistance to cannonballs.
As yacht building developed, its virtues became even more apparent: it is one of the strongest and most durable of woods, and has a straight grain with few knots. Left in the raw with no varnish or paint, teak still shines. Maintained to a high degree, teak decks are kind to feet, grippy when wet, and have warmth and sympathy.
In many parts of a yacht, teak has been replaced by mahogany and Iroko (also known as ‘African Teak’, although each wood has nothing in common) but it remains the material of choice for decking. However, supplies are becoming increasingly difficult to source and in some places, harvesting is causing environmental damage.
Teak trees take a long time to grow to maturity and some types are on the list of threatened species. Many trees are harvested when they are between 40 and 60 years old to get a return on the investment, and this means that the wood is soft and not available in the long lengths that are best for deck planking.
Much of the modern supply of teak comes from specially planted forests, which may be acceptable environmentally, but the quality of the wood is not up to the standards of the long-growing natural trees.
So many yacht builders find themselves with a dilemma. They want to move towards environmentally friendly materials but they also want to offer their clients the highest possible standards of material and workmanship. Finding suitable wood for deck planking is becoming difficult and expensive.
There have been alternatives, mainly in the form of sheets of simulated wood finishes, but they lack the lustre and depth of teak, and while virtually every other aspect of yacht construction has changed to accommodate advanced materials, such as composite hulls and carbon fibre masts, there has not, until now, perhaps, been a suitable substitute for teak decks.
However, manufacturers are rising to the challenge. One solution is to find an alternative wood whose characteristics mimic those of teak in terms of colour, texture and durability. Another is to use new materials based on composites and plastics that can replicate the teak.
Treadmaster, a deck covering company based in the UK, has developed Atlanteak, a flexible film or sheet material that has a teak-like finish.
One form of Atlanteak is made from thermoplastic sheeting that has a teak planking finish and another is based on the same cork and rubber composition used for the Treadmaster non-slip deck finish.
Both can be purchased in sheets or produced to templates supplied by the customer, and come complete with simulated caulking seams.
Bolidt, in The Netherlands, has a long experience of producing deck coverings for commercial shipping and for cruise liners. However, the company realised that a different approach was necessary if it was to convince the superyacht industry that a suitable substitute could be found for teak.
After much research, the company came up with Esthec, a composite material with a specialised surface finish. Bolidt claims that Esthec can match teak in texture and feel, as well as appearance, with the added advantages that it is not limited by the shape of the grain and is not restrained by colour.
Where the traditional seams in the planking were once filled with pitch to make them watertight, they are now cut by a router and then filled. This means that the seams can be cut into any shape, so highly curved planking is a possibility. The planking and seams can be tinted in various colours, including ‘natural teak’, and offer a wide range of design possibilities.
Marcel van der Spek, co-founder of Esthec, reports that superyacht designers such as Andrew Winch, German Frers, Vripack, Guido de Groot Design, Espen Oeino, and Ashish Gupta are already using the material in their designs and he expects others to follow.
Another alternative to teak comes from Norway and offers a more conventional solution. Kebony is wood that has been treated to increase its hardness and durability.
The company was established in 1997 and the treatment was initially focused transforming cheaper soft woods, such as pine, into building materials that could have the lifespan but take less maintenance than more expensive woods.
During the ‘kebonisation’ process, timber planks are treated with chemicals for up to two days. They are then transferred to chambers and heated. The heating locks the chemicals into the cell structure of the planking and removes any excess liquid.
Maple that has been harvested from sustainable sources is being touted as an alternative to teak. The chemicals used in the treatment are extracted from waste products from food extraction processes and so are environmentally sound.
The treated maple has a finer grain than teak and so the surface texture is smoother but it still retains grip. It is considerably harder, so it will be more durable and the fine grain means less spilled liquids are absorbed.
The characteristics of Kebony might exceed those of teak but with yacht decks, appearance is everything. The Kebony-treated maple has a close resemblance to teak but lacks the soft, honey colour of newly sanded teak. However, as it weathers it becomes more like teak and the company claims it is indistinguishable from the real thing.
Certainly, samples seen on small tenders were a very close match and when varnished they look stunning. One advantage of Kebony is that it is available in thicknesses up to 5mm so it can also be used for rail and bulwark cappings and other trims where solid wood is required.
A place for new woods
The question is whether these new materials will find a place in the superyacht sector. Enquiries among superyacht builders and designers produced no comments, potentially because no designer or yard wants to be seen by owners to be offering anything but ‘the best’. Bolidt says several of the major builders have taken samples of Esthec for evaluation.
Kebony is being considered by several production motorboat builders, such as Windy, but it has yet to make a major impact on the superyacht market. But Jan Terje Nielsen, marketing director of Kebony, is excited by the potential of the new material.
‘Since we introduced Kebony as a teak alternative we have had an enthusiastic response from the market, but we expect it will take some time for the applications of the material to grow,’ he says.
So the jury is out on these teak-replacement materials but with the clock ticking on the future availability and the ethical use of teak, both Esthec and Kebony look set to find a place in the superyacht sector.