We love the look of an immaculate teak deck, but teak has a lot of drawbacks. It doesn't last forever, requires regular maintenance, is expensive to replace, and absorbs heat from the sun.
Teak doesn’t look good from a sustainability perspective either. A key problem is illegal logging of rainforest in Myanmar, one of the only four countries in which the species grows. Unfortunately, a ban on importing this illegal timber into the EU hasn’t stopped the trade, as evidenced by court cases in countries including Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Holland following the discovery of illegally imported teak.
As a result, the only way to be absolutely certain a source of teak is sustainable is to use salvaged material (or to ensure that the teak can be GPS-traced back to stump).
Teak alternatives have been available for many years and are gaining wide acceptance. In many cases they also offer multiple advantages over real teak, including better longevity. Many can be factory-made to match a template or CAD file, which significantly reduces labor and installation costs, while customization can extend to logos and boat names. Many of these don’t absorb liquids and are therefore easy to keep clean as any dirt stays on the surface. Manufacturers also offer a range of colors which closely resemble freshly-scrubbed teak, or silvered, weathered teak.
Available products can be split into four broad categories:
- Expanded foam
- Modified softwoods
1. PVC decks
This option has historically offered some of the most convincing alternative teak products, with the grain, texture, impact resistance and non-slip properties of the real thing. As a result many of the new yachts seen at boat shows actually have simulated teak decks made of PVC.
Despite their slightly textured surface, which replicates the grain of real wood, dirt and stains stay on the surface of PVC decking, so it can be cleaned relatively easily with a wet cloth and maybe soapy water. Unlike real teak, which has a mix of hard and very soft fibers, PVC decks can also be pressure-washed. Another bonus is that damaged areas can be sanded back to reveal fresh material that looks new.
One of the best-known brand names, Flexiteek, is celebrating its 20th anniversary and is expanding rapidly, with demand consistently growing at 20% annually. The 2G version, launched six years ago, is fully recyclable, while microballoons are used in place of chalk filler, which reduces heat absorption. Flexiteek is available in a standard 5mm thickness and 11 colors, with plank widths from 45mm-200mm to replicate everything from planking to covering boards and cappings. Flexiteek says PVC experts suggest the surface may start to crack after 25-30 years, but no problems have been observed on 20-year-old decks so far and the life span may be considerably longer. High traffic areas can become glossy, but these can be gently coarse sanded back by hand to the original matte finish.
Esthec is a part of composite floor specialist Bolidt, which makes flooring in any shape for industrial applications through to decking for ships. Dutch yard Saffier has been fitting Esthec to its range of daysailers since 2008. Saffier has since built nearly 500 yachts with Esthec decks, “all without any problems”. Managing director Dennis Hennevanger says it is not necessarily a cheaper option to teak, but thinks it should last forever.
PlasDeck is less well known but has been established for 15 years, offering a range of PVC products in 28 shades that look and feel like wood. The company holds patents for non-migratory plasticisers that are bound to the molecular structure. The product is therefore very UV resistant and remains elastic as the oils don’t evaporate over time. Fungus inhibitors throughout the material hold back the formation of the green mold that can all too easily grows on real teak decks, especially during persistently damp winters.
Permateek is another popular brand name and has recently introduced new shades that better mimic the grain of real teak. From a sustainability perspective, a big drawback with PVCs is they are plastics and will therefore remain in the environment forever. To offset this Flexiteek plants one tree for every 10m2 of product sold. Esthec, meanwhile is formed from natural components, without the harmful ingredients commonly found in PVCs.
Prices for PVC products tend to range from $200 to $1200 per square meter, varying according to the design and size of each panel.
Gisatex offers a more economic PVC product, at $80 per square meter, but in a thinner textured, non-slip material that makes no attempt to match the grain of teak.
There’s an increasing trend towards cork decking, especially among younger boat owners. It’s a natural product harvested from FSC certified forests, largely in Portugal.
Common advice is to look for a product with large cork grains as these cope better with impact. In any case the material is inherently resilient and is significantly better than teak at resisting wear and abrasion.
Cork is also is a good insulator, so decks remain comfortable to walk on even in strong sun. Over a three to five year period it will slowly take a light grey hue, but this can be sanded back to reveal the original color.
Marinedeck 2000 consists of cork granules with a synthetic polyurethane binder. It’s produced under high pressure, which gives the feel of high-density material, but is still flexible and absorbs shock well. It’s supplied as individual planks, or as preformed finished pieces with a standard thickness of 9mm. The company has been in operation since 1986 and says there are still decks in good condition from its early days. As a result, the company quotes a 40-year expected lifespan.
Prices for Marinedeck 2000 start at $400/m2 (ex VAT) including adhesives, while custom panels cost $650/m2 (ex. VAT).
Another supplier, Ocean Cork, produces 8mm planks as standard, but 4mm is available if weight is critical. Given it’s one of the lightest decking materials available, at only 2.4kg/m2, for cruisers the thinner option appears to offer little benefit. Prices start at $425 (inc. VAT) for 1m2 DIY kit (including glue and caulking) and approx $490/m2 (inc. VAT) for larger custom made panels.
3. Expanded foam
This is a material with a soft cushioned feel, excellent grip underfoot and good shock-absorbing properties. SeaDek, which is made from a closed-cell PE/EVA foam is popular throughout the racing world, from sportsboats to the America’s Cup and the Ocean Race. It can be made in custom panels and in different thicknesses and is manufactured with an effective acrylic-based pressure sensitive adhesive for quick peel-and-stick application. Prices range from $140 to $185/m2.
Cer-Deck, sold by Italian company Ceredi, also has a soft, slightly cushioned feel, very high resistance to degradation in sunlight and is color stable. It is 6-8mm thick and is available with a strong 3M self-adhesive backing to minimize labor costs when fitting. Custom panels cost around $300/m2 (ex. VAT).
Life expectancy for expanded foam materials is around five to seven years for harsh use, and longer for less-heavily used boats. On the downside these materials are susceptible to damage from impact or pets’ claws.
4. Modified softwood
Lignia is the latest product to be launched on the market, based on pine grown in FSC certified forests. After harvesting, the timber is impregnated with resin, before being dried in a curing process to ensure the resin is locked in at a molecular level. This gives Lignia performance and durability that can surpass tropical hardwoods.
It has a similar appearance to teak and can be worked in the same way, but has an expected lifespan of 50 years. The impregnation of resin means end of life disposal is not as easy as for untreated timber – the recommended option is to use it as fuel in biomass generating plants. It also has the benefit in being faster to dry than teak, which is handy in areas used for seating. Material costs are a little less than for teak, with typical savings around 5-20%. However, Lignia decks are just as labor intensive to lay as real teak.