Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Teak furniture: A potted history

Did you know that teak has been used worldwide since its use in shipbuilding in the Middle Ages? As popular as ever today, we take a closer look at teak furniture and teak throughout the ages.

Teak grows in most areas between the Tropic of Cancer and the tropic of Capricorn. There are three species:

  • Tectona grandis (Common Teak) is by far the most important, with a wide distribution in India and Indo-China
  • Tectona hamiltoniana (Dahat Teak) is a local endemic species confined to Myanmar
  • Tectona philippinensis (Philippine Teak) is endemic to the Philippines

It is believed that teak was introduced to Java from India between 400 and 600 years ago, but it can be dated back to as early as 7th Century Siam (now Thailand), where it was used to construct and decorate royal residences, religious buildings, and trade ships. Other cultures began using teak wood for shipbuilding in the Middle Ages, and its buoyancy, water resistance, durability and anti-fungal properties make it an ideal material for marine construction to this day. Teak maintains its durability and malleability for so long, in fact, that often teak flooring from old ships was recycled into park benches. There are some teak benches in English towns that are over 100 years old.

In the late 1800s, teak began to be used seriously for outdoor furniture. Heavily admired in its native India, teak soon travelled to Victorian England, where teak benches and chairs became the perfect compliment to an English garden.  Popular in the 1950s and 1960s in a style often known as Danish modern, teak furniture had a second boom in popularity and now teak is one of the most sought-after types of vintage furniture. Today teak is used primarily for the decks, trim and detail work in yachts and cruise ships, carving, cabinetry, panelling, residential and commercial flooring, the construction of homes and in the creation of beautiful, durable furniture.

Teak is a deciduous tree and contrary to popular belief it grows in the dry, hilly forests of South East Asia. It grows quickly initially, but will take about 50 years to reach full maturity. It can grow up to 150 ft tall with a trunk diameter of 5 ft. This steady growth has clearly made it difficult for countries to keep up with demand. The possibility of increasing this rotation time to 30 or 40 years has been discussed by many countries, but experimentation with a 25 year rotation has resulted in poor quality wood.

The world's first teak plantation was raised at Nilambur during the 1840s, paving the way to ensure a steady supply of teak timber in the face of dwindling resources in the natural forests. Since then, teak plantations have spread steadily not only in its native range, but also in other tropical regions across the world. These plantations are government-regulated to ensure that the correct number and size of trees are being felled, and to ensure the proper re-planting of trees to maintain the productivity of forests for future generations.
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  1. I wish teak wood grew out here in the US. Then I could get more outdoor furniture to go with my teak benches!

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