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Getting the Best Results when Woodworking with Teak

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Cutting Teak on a Miter Saw

Cutting Teak on a Miter Saw

(c) 2012 Chris Baylor licensed to About.com, Inc.
Teak is a tropical hardwood that is commonly used for woodworking projects that will be used outdoors such as decks or patio furniture, because of its considerable weather-resistance. In many cases, teak projects are set outside unprotected, which allows the wood to cure to a gray color that some people find appealing.

A variety of wood species are actually sold as teak, but real teak, also known as tectona wood, is a tree native to Southeast Asia. Many suppliers sell wood called teak from Brazil, which is a different (but similar) species known as cumaru. The cumaru woods are plantation-grown, and are often used for flooring. Conversely, tectona is typically harvested from native forests, as the tree can grow as tall as 120-feet and live to 100 years.

Because the tectona variety is harvested using clear-cutting methods in Southeast Asia (primarily in Myanmar and Indonesia), a lot of environmentally-conscious consumers have issues with the use of teak for woodworking projects. This is quite different from the cumaru varieties that are essentially farmed in central and South America, much like pine plantations are planted, harvested and re-planted in the United States and Canada.

Because of the differences in varieties of hardwoods sold as "teak," there are considerable variations in color of the raw wood. Some teak may be a rich chestnut color, whereas other boards may appear to be almost yellow in color. As such, when building a project, try to buy all of the wood you'll need from the same lot at the same supplier all at once so that you have a consistency of color across the project.

Working with Teak:

Teak is notoriously rough on blades and bits. As such, focus on using sharp carbide cutting blades and bits. Additionally, keeping your blades and bits free of pitch will help them to cut cleanly as long as possible. Additionally, a higher TPI (or Teeth Per Inch) will yield a cleaner cut and less waste, certainly a consideration when one takes into account the high cost of the hardwood to begin with.

Joining Teak:

While teak projects can be joined using mechanical fasteners such as nails, screws and brads, you can also use more traditional woodworking joints (such as dovetails and mortise and tenon joints) that will only enhance the beauty of the teak (as well as show off your skills as a woodworker).

That being said, gluing up teak boards isn't as simple as other hardwoods or softwoods. The heartwood of teak trees (of both the tectona and cumaru varieties) include a resin that is extremely water resistant. As such, the benefits that teak provide for outdoor woodworking projects can actually make it more difficult to glue the boards together.

The way to handle this is to wipe down all surfaces of the joint with acetone or denatured alcohol (much like working with ipe) using a clean rag. Allow the acetone or alcohol to dry completely before applying glue to the joint and clamping the joint together.

Safety Considerations:

Woodworking with teak (either variety) requires taking safety precautions that typically wouldn't be necessary with most other common woods used in woodworking. In addition to wearing common safety equipment (safety glasses, hearing protection and appropriate clothing for woodworking), working with teak requires that you wear a NIOSH-approved dust mask as well. The reason is that teak sawdust can actually be toxic when inhaled. As such, a quality dust mask combined with dust collection and proper ventilation will help to protect you from inhalation issues caused by the airborne sawdust from cutting and sanding teak.

Finishing Teak:

Because of the aforementioned oils and resins contained in the pores of teak, you will not want to finish teak in the same way that you would other woods. First of all, applying a typical wood stain and protective finish to teak would actually have trouble adhering to the wood, making it far less likely to be as protected from the weather as you would expect for an outside project.

A more traditional (and dare I say, appropriate) approach to finishing teak is to clean the wood and then apply a liberal coat of teak oil to all exposed surfaces. Allow the teak oil to soak into the wood as much as you can before wiping off the excess and allowing it to dry for a couple of days before exposing it to the elements.

Refinishing oiled teak involves a three-step process: clean the surface using a spray cleaner with a non-abrasive pad, then clean off any additional residue and resins with acetone or denatured alcohol, and finally an additional finish coat of teak oil. Depending on your environment, you may have to clean and refinish your project as much as every couple of years to keep it in pristine condition.
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