A Guide to Teak Furniture
If the mention of teak furniture inspires visions of exotic places and rich outdoor decor, you've got the right idea. Teak is a premier tropical wood used in everything from cooking utensils to flooring. It has some special properties worth paying a little (or a lot) more for, too. Let's take a look at the virtues of teak and discover just what makes it so special -- and pricy.
Teak in Nature
The teak tree (Tectona grandisis) is native to Southeast Asia, and found in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Burma. It is also cultivated in some tropical areas of the U.S. It's one of Indonesia's main exports, and the timber industry there is carefully fostered and maintained. That makes teak furniture a somewhat green option.
The best teak comes from mature trees, and teak takes a while to mature properly -- about 80 years. That's one reason teak wood is so expensive. Another is that some teak exports are strictly controlled. In fact, one spinoff industry in the U.S. is the reclamation of teak from old structures. This "reclaimed" wood is often reused to make furnishings. It's a testament to the durability of teak wood that it can withstand generations of use and remain viable.
The Advantages of Teak
Yellowish brown in color, teak is naturally resistant to mold, mildew, moisture, warping and insect predation. It's also very dense, strong and durable. Because of its pest and water repellent properties, teak has been used in shipbuilding for centuries. It is also used extensively in furniture and accessory manufacturing. Teak looks beautiful once it's stained and finished. It has silky, luxurious highlights that can look almost luminous in the right light.
Where popular woods like oak and pine are common in furniture construction, they lack the durability of teak, which contains rubber and a high oil content that provides added natural protection. Although oak, for instance, contains natural oils, it tends to dissipate relatively rapidly after the tree is felled and processed. Teak wood retains much of its natural, oily protection for years -- even decades.
Teak is also a hard wood, and its natural density protects it from the dents, dings and gouges that would ruin a relatively soft wood like pine. That means teak is uniquely suited for indoor-outdoor furniture, flooring and any application near water or where humid conditions exist. In fact, archaeologists have found examples of teak objects that have survived, untreated, for over 2,000 years. For wood, that's a remarkable feat.
Heartwood Vs. Sapwood Teak Furniture
Although teak has a wonderful reputation as a durable furniture option, all teak wood isn't created equal:
- The best teak is taken from the center of the tree. This is called the "heart wood." The outer layers are less robust because they are less dense and contain less oil. They are usually identified as "sapwood." Although teak sapwood furniture and building materials may be a bargain, they don't have the beneficial characteristics of heart wood. A good rule of thumb is that inexpensive teak is sapwood (low quality).
- For the highest quality and strongest teak, prefer kiln dried wood. Kiln drying removes additional moisture, making the wood denser and stronger. For furniture in particular, kiln drying is preferable. This applies to most woods and certainly to teak. High quality teak products will usually contain only 8 - 12 percent moisture.
- You pay more for quality teak furnishings. How much more will vary based on the availability of teak wood during any given season. The difference could be 30 percent or even more for large pieces.
Teak Indoor and Outdoor Furnishings
Teak furnishings and flooring (decking) really shine in indoor-outdoor applications. This is because the density and oil content of teak produces outdoor furnishings that require very little or no maintenance. Where many outdoor furniture manufacturers recommend annual protective treatments for their wood products, natural teak products may only require occasional cleaning over the course of a number of years. This is especially true if the wood has a cosmetic finish that can weather naturally to silver-gray.