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Teak: the ironwood of China.

It has become "the wood of ships." Known as ironwood in China because teak grows harder with age, it is often used in building Chinese junks. In his book, "Encyclopedia of Wood," historian John Makepeace cited Admiralty of London pilot books as still warning those involved in international shipping to "avoid collision with Chinese junks because the |ironwood' or teak is capable of overcoming steel in conflict."

The Chinese found that by burying teak in the damp ground for several years, they could increase teak's strength and resistancy to almost all marine and land parasites as well as to weather conditions. This treatment was used on wood intended for hard-duty uses such as boats and marine building.

The inherent oiliness of the wood acts as a natural protectant. While other woods rot from the water, teak has always been a natural for shipbuilding. Other marine uses include decking, deck houses, handrails, bulwarks, hulls, hatches, planking, oars and masts.

Teak is also very popular today for outdoor furniture. Untreated, it will weather to a silver gray. When treated with tung oil or any common furniture oil, the wood takes on a beautiful red gold or tawny yellow color with dark brown streaks.

Protected species

Peter Schlobach is president and owner of Crown Hardwood Veneer Corp. of West Grove, Pa. Crown is the sister company to Schlobach Gebr. of Hamburg, Germany, which is run by his brother Christian Schlobach. The family has been in the business of selling exotic veneers from around the world for some 150 years.

Schlobach said his company imports 2,000 tons of teak a year through Schlobach Gebr. Most of his supplies are from Burma since shipments from Thailand and India are very hard to get, Schlobach said.

"The best teak on the market today comes from Burma," said Schlobach. But, he added, supplies have been strictly regulated for the past 25 years. "You can't buy it freely. It is coordinated through a state agency and, in some ways, that has probably protected the supply. Sales are by auction or allotments and they (government agencies) control who can buy and limit the amounts. Prepayments are standard." Areas around where teak grows are "rebel infested," he said, adding to the intrigue of doing business.

A peek at teak

Schlobach said teak is synonymous with Danish, Scandinavian or modern furniture. But, he added, he believes its furniture use is down over the past two years, due in part to the popularity of the light and "white" woods like oak and ash. "We have seen a reduction in popularity for all the so-called darker woods including teak and mahogany. It is not as fashionable for furniture."

According to Larry Frye, executive director of the Fine Hardwoods/American Walnut Assn., "Some of the Europeans who used teak for contemporary furniture have substituted white oak and more recently red oak for teak." But, he added, the unique properties that make it so special for marine uses and outdoor use cannot be easily substituted.

"The silicone content, the oiliness of the wood, is not found in any other wood. What has affected the use of teak is the red tape and government regulations, making it hard, or in some cases impossible, to export logs. There is no shortage of teak -- it is not an endangered species. Rather, teak is one of those woods that is under strict government control, which can add to the price and make availability hard," Frye added.

Teak continues to be strong choice for ship and boat building, both for its decorative value and also for its durability. Exterior joinery, exterior structural work and high quality garden furniture are also good uses for teak. Teak is fire and acid resistant so it is used for chemical vats and fume ducts. Teak is also used for flooring, paneling, cabinetwork, turnery and novelty items.

Teak also has a rich and varied history of use for art and architectural pieces. According to Makepeace, teak was found in the ruins of an ancient city in Vijayanapur, Southern India. A temple was built on teak planks only 1 1/2 inches thick, but when examined in 1881, the planks were found to be in excellent condition despite 500 years of exposure to the elements. Other evidence of teak's amazing durability is found in cave temples in Salsette, India, where the 2,000-year-old teak remains in mint condition.

Transporting the wood

Despite the high-tech world in which we live, teak is still transported by elephants from the remote areas where it is logged to collection sites and to rivers where teak is floated to mills. Schlobach has seen the elephants in action and reports they are majestic and agile. "You would think these big animals would be clumsy, but they are so incredibly agile. They are much better at transporting teak than any Caterpillar. In the remote mountainous areas where teak grows, with the lack of roads, elephants are critical for transport," he added. Elephant "training schools" still exist to teach the animals the art of teak transport.

Teak is heavier than water, so it is cut and seasoned before transporting on rivers or it would sink. In some areas, trees are girdled and left standing for three years before being felled. Burma, which accounts for up to 70 percent of the teak production, only will sell logs debarked.

Teak will vary slightly in appearance according to the country of origin. Burma teak characteristically has a yellow-brown sapwood with a dark golden-brown heartwood. All teak darkens after exposure to the air. The grain can be straight, wavy or fiddleback. It has a coarse texture and is naturally oily. The wood dust can be an irritant to woodworkers, causing dermatitis or lung irritation.

It has medium bending strength, low stiffness and shock resistance, high crushing strength and moderate steam bending rating. It works well with machine and hand tools but tools must be kept sharp and blunting of cutting edges can be severe. Carbide cutting surfaces are recommended and the wood glues moderately well. Machine boring is recommended for nailing. Teak is an excellent wood to finish.

Teak grows naturally and also on plantations. it has been transplanted to East and West Africa and the Caribbean. However, the true or genuine teak is Tectona grandis. Cape teak, Johore teak, Philippines teak, Rhodesian teak and others are look alikes but not the real teak. African-grown iroko (Chlorophora excelsa) has become known in some markets as "native" teak. While it has some similar properties to the real thing, it is not a true teak or any relation to Tectona grandis.
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Kaiser, Jo-Ann
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Feb 1, 1992
Words:1102
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