There are few trees or woods that have a history as storied as that of Tectona grandis – commonly known as teak wood. Teak has been harvested and used by humans for thousands of years, for products ranging from bowls to massive war ships. Let’s take a look at teak in great detail and see why this tree has had a major impact on industry and trade for centuries.
What is Teak Wood
Teak is a yellow-brown tropical deciduous hardwood that is native to countries in Southeast Asia, including India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar. During the spring and summer, the tree blossoms with small white flowers and grows large seed pods that drop off of the tree once autumn arrives. The word ‘teak’ itself stems from the Indian language Malayalam, and was originally pronounced tek-ka. Although teak has been referred to in written scripture as far back as 600 AD, it’s likely that the wood itself was used for many centuries prior to this.
Teak that is destined to be used as a raw material is generally known as ‘Plantation Teak’, as wild teak forests are rare in areas that are not protected by local governments. Teak is pollinated by bees, which are an absolute necessity for managing teak plantations and teak production. The tree itself is not too picky about its growing environment, and has been successfully planted in countries with annual rainfall ranging from 500mm to 5000mm.
Where does Teak Wood Come From?
Currently, the largest producer of teak in the world is Indonesia, with the majority of this teak cultivated on the island of Java. The teak crop is considered very important to the Indonesian government, who created a specific division known as Perum Perhutani to manage the teak crop. Perum Perhutani is recognized as a leader in sustainable forestry, and strives to ensure that teak is harvested at a rate that will support the industry long into the future. As there are many hundreds of thousands of hectares of teak grown in Indonesia, the country is also home to hundreds of companies dedicated to making furniture and other goods from raw teak.
Researchers are still unsure as to whether or not teak was imported in to Indonesia, or whether it was introduced by settlers. One theory promotes the idea that Teak may have been brought to Thailand, Myanmar and Indonesia by settlers from the Hindu region of India, where the tree was believed to grow in abundance prior to deforestation that followed India’s population growth. Over the past two centuries, India and other countries have planted teak as a forest crop, and the tree can be found growing over vast swaths of Southeast Asia.
While Indonesia is the largest cultivator of these trees, teak can still be found growing in dozens of different countries. The largest growers of teak are still found in its native Southeast Asia and include Indonesia, India, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In Africa, teak is grown in Nigeria, Tanzania, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast, with the majority of the crop destined for export to North America and Europe. Teak is still farmed in the Caribbean and Central America as well, but on plantations that are much smaller than those found in Asia and Africa.
The History of Teak Wood
In its native Southeast Asia, teak has been used for construction of homes and furniture since around 600 AD. The first known buildings constructed from teak are located in Thailand, where palaces and temples were constructed using large amounts of teak. In the centuries that followed, explorers found that teak’s excellent water resistance and buoyancy provided for a great shipbuilding material, and watercrafts ranging from small boats to massive ships were created using teak as the base material.
Since the early 1800s, teak wood has primarily come from plantations in Asia that farm the wood for profit. Many of these plantations make use of the ‘taungya’ method which pairs forest crops like teak with other agricultural crops that supply food and textile products to local populations. This method was established around 1850 in Myanmar, and had spread to Indonesia by the 1880s. During this time period, most of the teak that was grown and harvested in these areas ended up as building material for ships, since steel wasn’t yet in great supply and wood was relatively inexpensive.
Teak made the jump outside of its native Asia around the early 1900s, with plantations sprouting up in Africa and North America around this time period. The first teak plantation in America was started in Trinidad and Tobago around 1914, with cuttings and seeds brought in from Myanmar. As a prized wood and a crop that took well to the Central American growing environment, teak spread and soon plantations were launched in Panama, Costa Rica and other Central American countries.
As furniture and other goods made from teak have continued to enjoy high consumer praise and decent sales figures, teak is still cultivated as a forest crop in most of these countries.
What is Teak Wood Used For?
As mentioned previously, teak has been used over the past dozen centuries for everything ranging from constructing the palaces of rulers to making furniture such as chairs and tables. Shipbuilders from Holland took the popularity of teak for making ships to the next level, and constructed entire fleets from teak due to its excellent durability and resistance to water and other forms of decay. The Dutch also figured out that teak does not tend to rust or decay metal that it comes in contact with, as the wood is coated in its natural oil and doesn’t trap water which can lead to rusting.
It’s likely that the modern practice of making furniture from teak stemmed from exploring sailors stripping the wood from ships and using it to make furniture and other goods in their new homelands. Since teak resists decay and is a long-lasting wood, explorers and settlers were hesitant to just throw the wood away when stripping down their ships, so the wood was used to make outdoor furniture and products that needed a high degree of reliability.
In modern times, teak is still primarily used for construction, furniture and for shipbuilding. The highest grades of teak are reserved for expensive furniture and for decorative use in homes, temples and offices around the world. Regular grades of teak are made into indoor furniture such as chairs and tables, outdoor benches, bath & shower furniture, and many other products. Teak can be found on the decks of sail boats and cruise ships alike, as it is still a wood that is prized for its reliability in water settings.
Wherever you are traveling, it’s likely that you can find something made from teak within eyesight; the wood is truly one of the most popular in the world.
Why is Furniture Made from Teak Wood Highly Sought After?
Furniture made from the higher grades of teak commands very high prices compared to that made of lesser woods for a number of reasons. First, teak is one of the only woods that can be made into outdoor furniture without needing regular refinishing or coating with water-resistant lacquers. Thanks to its high density and oily finish, furniture made from teak frequently outlasts the individual that purchases it; teak is incredibly strong and splitting or cracking of furniture made from teak is very rare. Teak is also resistant to insects such as termites and fungi that can rot through lesser woods. While it’s possible to stain or paint teak, the oil secreted by the wood imparts protection from chemicals and acids that can cause corrosion.
For those who are using teak as a raw material, the wood has a number of important properties. Teak has both high elasticity – teak trees can actually bend very deeply without breaking, even in typhoon-force winds – and its solid fiber. This combination allows woodworkers to easily manipulate teak into a multitude of products without needing further treatment or curing of the wood.
Finally, teak holds a beauty that is unmatched by many other woods. Teak holds its own shine or gleam, thanks to its resinous oils. Even teak furniture that has been exposed to the elements for decades looks much like it was just made recently. Ask anyone that owns a teak patio set how they feel about the wood, and they will likely tell you that it’s one of the nicest they’ve ever seen.
This article just scratches the surface of teak’s history as a prized forest crop and a versatile wood that has seen uses ranging from foot stools to the decks of massive ships. It’s unlikely that the world will ever see a wood with the strength, fungal and insect resistance and ability to repel water that teak provides. The next time you sit down on a park bench or another piece of outdoor furniture, check and see if it’s made from teak – you might just be surprised at how much of the wood exists in your daily life.