Why Burmese Teak is Superior to Plantation Teak
First, let’s ask What makes Burmese Teak so Special?
Let’s start with the simple stuff: it’s beautiful. Olive green at harvest, Burmese Teak turns a deep golden brown when exposed to the air, and it exhibits a natural medium luster. Plantation Teak runs lighter in color and lacks that characteristic luster, which is important when considering that teak does not accept stains well due to the high oil content. You can’t add that glow back in.
Moisture resistant, weather-resistant, decay and rot resistant, insect resistant. Naturally slip-resistant (non-skid is a pretty great thing to have around the pool). Straight-grained and clear: the absence of knots is noteworthy.
It’s easily workable in every regard. Very dense, very durable, very straight, very stable, very strong (we’ve run out of very’s). That’s why it’s been popular for hundreds of years and is still one of the most highly sought-after lumber species in the world.
The “why” of it is the key
Did we mention that Burmese Teak dulls cutting tools? (So, use sharp carbide). That’s because it contains silica, as high as 1-1/2%. It is that silica, and the natural oils found in Teak, that make Burmese Teak rot- and bug-resistant. It is that silica content that makes it naturally non-skid. Want to guess where that silica and natural oils come from? From the forest floor beneath the trees in Myanmar. It’s the soil, what winemakers call “terroir”.
Naturally-grown Teak trees form a high, dense forest canopy. New trees reach for the sky without growing low branches. No low branches = no knots in the trunk (bole) = clear grain. Which results in moisture running unimpeded the entire length of the tree, so there are no “moisture traps” that will weaken the lumber, which contributes to the impossibly high moisture-resistance of Burmese Teak: Voila! here’s your yacht!
Add to that that trees grown in the natural forest or jungle have to compete with the established trees. The weak are culled out, the strong survive, the best trees grow to maturity. The responsible forester selectively harvests the best trees before they begin their inevitable decline (yes, trees have a life cycle too) and the remaining trees continue to thrive. When well managed, a forest is healthy and can realistically live forever.
Isn’t that true of Plantation Teak as well?
Frankly: no. Sure, you can plant Teak in temperate regions of Costa Rica, Asia and other parts of Latin America. There are massive plantations of Tectona grandis standing in testament to that fact.
All in a row, with plenty of space around each tree to ensure that they grow nice and straight, they don’t get damaged and they don’t have to compete for sunlight. AND that they grow as fast as possible to improve the grower’s return-on-investment.
Which all seems great except:
- Trees that grow fast have wider growth rings resulting in less-tight grain
- Rapid growth also means less density. And greater checking, warping and bowing.
- Young trees in direct sun sprout lower branches. Which the growers prune off, but which leave pin knots. And every pin knot swirls the grain ever-so-slightly, and creates a tiny moisture trap. Which changes the passage of moisture and nutrients up and down the trunk. And results in “less”. Less robust. Less tight. Less straight. Less visually pleasing. Less durable.
But that’s not the most important thing
N, the most important thing is: SOIL CHEMISTRY. You can only grow Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee in the highlands of Jamaica, mon 😉. The grapes that produce Chateau Lafite can’t be grown in the Napa Valley.
That silica and those chemicals that produce the natural oils in Burmese Teak do not exist in Costa Rica, Africa, and Mexico. You can’t duplicate that chemistry. And therefore you can’t duplicate what makes Teak, well, TEAK: unmatched moisture- decay- and insect-resistance. Natural slip-resistance. Consistent color. Legendary durability.
Yes, it’s all Tectona grandis. No, it is not all Burmese Teak
Should we be glad those plantations exist?
Ah, the law of unintended consequences. Nobody planted Teak trees in Mexico as a way to save trees in Myanmar. They did it to make money. Which changed the market dynamics of the teak trade, which encouraged further exploitation of the teak forests in their natural range (lie about the source of the trees to avoid the restrictions, tariffs and boycotts).
Since the end of the British Raj in India in 1947 and the creation of the new nations of Burma (now Myanmar), West Pakistan (now Pakistan), and East Pakistan (Bangladesh), the entire Indian sub-continent has suffered more than its share of political and humanitarian strife.
Burma has seen continuous upheaval: military coups, corruption, and humanitarian crises. As the principal export of Burma, Teak has been at the heart of these conflicts:
At times wildly mis-managed and over-harvested for lengthy periods. The military junta shut down all legal production and export of Teak for years, while raking in massive kickbacks from the illegal Teak trade, which encouraged the most reckless methods. That prompted many countries to ban the import of Teak, particularly the major Scandinavian boat-building nations. For the past eight years or so, we’ve seen relative calm in the Burmese Teak trade.
During those trying times, though, the demand for Teak had not diminished. Where there is demand, there will be supply. So plantations sprouted up in Indonesia, Mexico, Costa Rica. If not producing Burmese Teak, exactly, they do produce Teak, and there is a ready worldwide market for it.
Market sustainability was the reason behind the growth of Plantation Teak, not environmental sustainability. So, although the plantation system has kept Teak off of the CITES list of endangered species, we believe that the best way to ensure the longevity of a species and the health of an ecosystem is by properly managing native forests and by policing the entire chain of custody. Burmese Teak should be expensive: it is limited and expensive to produce responsibly.
Shutting down the market for any product leads invariably to black-market practices and the exploitation of the most vulnerable populations. Take away the capability of people to make a living from well-managed forest products, and they’ll find another way to survive.
Look to the Amazon Basin for a present-day example of how not to protect tropical hardwoods. Prohibit the inhabitants from harvesting the tropical forests responsibly, and they’ll find another way to feed their families: clear-cut the jungle to provide for cattle grazing for meat to the fast-food industry. Or burn it down to plant soybeans for export to China, a market that is extremely fickle. That is not how you save a forest.
We think there’s a better way. Our customers can be assured that our Burmese Teak is not only of the highest quality, but also that our sources are as dedicated as we are to sustainable practices.