Installing Synthetic Teak Decks
Photography by Capt. Vincent Daniello
Install synthetic teak decks and skip the constant maintenance.
I love unoiled, natural “blond,” teak decks, but I don’t like keeping them that way. Today, there are synthetic teak alternatives available that look good and are nearly maintenance free. Depending on the complexity of the project and your tool skills, installing synthetic teak might be a good DIY project.
I settled on NuTeak (www.nuteak.com) PVC decking in part because of the support I received—support that extends to any do-it-yourselfer. Don Mazel, distributor of NuTeak in New England (www.nuteaknewengland.com), invited me to his workshop in New Hampshire to teach me how to work with the material. “Each panel is handcrafted, plank by plank, like a traditional teak deck,” Mazel says. First-time do-it-yourselfers should avoid panels longer than 20 linear feet or larger than 60 square feet, as well as long curved runs or many radiused corners. “Those curved cuts require a steady hand that requires time to develop,” he says.
The project breaks down into four main steps: making the template, rough-cutting and gluing the PVC teak strips together to form large panels, cutting to size and attaching borders around the edges of those panels, and then gluing them down on the boat. The job didn’t really call upon my woodworking skills. The chief requirements are dexterity with a utility knife and patience.
I quickly realized there is a reason for every tool and procedure Mazel uses, starting with Tyvek 10G template paper—similar to nearly indestructible Tyvek mailing envelopes. It won’t stretch or tear, yet it’s flexible, waterproof, and marks easily.
With template paper cut roughly to fit the deck, Mazel cuts half-moon openings in the template, folds them under, and uses the holes to tape the template down. Raised nonskid edges transfer to the template with a builder’s crayon. Where decks meet vertical surfaces, Mazel marks the template with a spiling-type device—a marker moving along at the center of a wheel (the inside of a hole-saw cutout with a 3-inch diameter approximately) rolling against the vertical surfaces.
Details like the distance the deck should overhang nonskid or corner radiuses that can’t be patterned are written on the template, along with its position and orientation on the boat. “While you’re building the deck, away from the boat, it’s critical to have a template with accurate, complete information,” Mazel warns. Take photos of tricky spots and indicate photo locations on the template for visual reference while in the workshop. When lifting the template, fold the half-moon flaps back into the tape you’ve used to secure the template. This way the template will hold its shape.
The finished job depends entirely on how accurately the template is transferred to the material and how precisely it’s cut and later glued. A strong, solid working surface about waist high, larger than the biggest panel to be made, and with good light, is imperative.
Rough cut the strips of planking (typically two-planks wide) longer than needed. To ensure all panel seams are perfectly straight, work against a straight piece of wood (Mazel calls it a “fence”) screwed to the bench, and screw the first plank down outside the area that will become the deck.
Use a piece of scrap tongue, a clean rag, and denatured alcohol to clean inside grooves, and use scrap groove to clean tongues. Run a line of glue down the top inside edge of the tongue, and then draw the groove of the next plank into the tongue—gluing only the top of each tongue. The glue sets instantly, so work six inches at a time. For better glue control, heat the tip of the glue bottle, flatten it with pliers, and poke a tiny new hole through with a sharp pick. Gluing only the top before panels are cut, and then the bottom afterward, ensures perfectly flat panels.
From the crayon and/or pencil line on the template, add whatever additional width the template calls for and mark the outside dimensions of the finished panel. Subtract from that the width of the border strip to determine where the main panel must be cut. The use of a measuring device that Mazel calls a “story pole,” marked with plank and seam locations, helps him determine whether he centers a seam in the panel, or centers a plank, in order to guarantee a wider plank along the border.
Mark the centerline of the template and also a corresponding line on the teak deck panel, cut small diamond-shaped windows in the template to align the two, and tape the template down with the same half-moon cuts used aboard the boat. Cut through the template and about two-thirds through the synthetic teak, and tape the template back together after each cut, again to maintain the integrity of the template.
Remove the template, finish the cut, and clean edges with a small block plane. Mazel’s overriding advice: “Move your body, not your hand. You’ll get more control and smoother cuts,” he says. Never use a straightedge for long cuts—the blade invariably wanders, unnoticed—and keep the knife blade exactly vertical so joints fit tightly.
Borders are one teak plank and one seam wide, glued around the perimeter of the deck and typically along both edges of hatches. The work seems simple, but cutting and fitting borders, particularly at corners, takes time and patience. So much so that the linear feet of border required accounts for 40 percent of Mazel’s total estimate for decks he fabricates. (Click here for tips for perfect miters or curved corners.)
Cut the finished-panel corners and trim the edges with a block plane and 40-grit sandpaper, and sand imperfections in seams—always with the grain. Flip the assembled panel over, label it for location and orientation on the boat, and glue all seams with the gap-filling silicone glue provided.
Mazel has seen many jobs go south when gluing panels to boat decks. Clean the deck and panel backs well with denatured alcohol. Dry-fit and precisely mark panel edges. Tape off small sections—two- or three-foot squares are ideal. Squeeze adhesive out of the tube and twist the tube end to seal it, then spread the glue with a V-notched trowel. Pull the tape, set the panel in place and check the marks, then carefully roll all air pockets out with a flooring roller, working from the center toward the edges. Glue the next section before the first section dries—glue remains workable for about 15 minutes.
The overriding concern is air pockets either where trapped air isn’t rolled out, glue isn’t spread evenly, or pressure from a knee or elbow squeezes glue thin in one spot. The result of any of the three is a raised bubble in the deck that will require time-consuming repairs. Knee pads and thick pieces of closed-cell foam spread the load while working and for 72 hours afterward until glue cures.
Mazel uses 5- by 12- by ½-inch thick steel bars to weight the corners and edges until glue sets. Gallon water jugs and plywood work, too. He cleans excess glue with denatured alcohol and a ready supply of two-inch-square rags, which he finds are the perfect size to clean a section and throw away.
All it takes to maintain that freshly sanded blond teak look is soap and water when washing the boat, and an occasional good scrubbing with Roll-Off.
This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.