Budget Alternatives to Teak

A search for "poor man's Teak" evolves into a discussion of customers, their tastes and motivations. December 30, 2005

I have a customer who wants a mantle and cabinets of teak, but doesn't want to pay for teak. What is a good substitute wood that can be finished to look like teak?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
Don't think it's a poor man's wood, but mahogany comes to mind right off the bat.

The color of teak isn't hard to match - the grain would be. How close do they want it? Alder comes to mind. How about teak veneer or teak plywood?

From the original questioner:
You're right, mahogany is pretty expensive, but I imagine a lot less than teak. The bigger problem is getting moldings for teak, and we don't want to have custom moldings cut, just want to stick with a standard. I think we'll have to look at mahogany or alder for this reason.

I worked a bunch of Iroko wood earlier this year and although there are differing shades of boards in a unit, there were a lot of light colored boards that I thought resembled teak wood.

A word to the wise: if this customer is worried about the cost of the wood, I'd hate to see his face when he sees my labor bill for a custom designed mantle. If he gets too cheap and slippery, dump that chump.

Whenever I get this song and dance from a customer - they want a Mercedes but want to pay for a Chevy - I remind them that the most expensive part of the job, by far, is the labor. They are wisest to use whatever wood they really like, because it will probably take me longer to make a different wood look like their preferred type, than to simply use the correct wood. Do they really want to pay all that money for my labor time so the project will turn out close to what they truly wanted?

I have said those exact words many times to clients, as far as my labor being the bigger cost, so get the material you want! I tell them the difference in cost between most common eastern hardwoods isn't worth worrying about when you look at the big picture of the cost.

I've been doing a lot of work on kitchens and my mind jumped to an image of a kitchen done in teak. Wow - would that ever be a lot of work machining 5 piece doors and cabs out of teak and finishing them! If price is such a concern and looking close to teak is okay, spend half a day building these from MDF and send them out to be faux finished. You can have a teak mantle with jade dolphins and mother-of-pearl butterfly inlays, if you want.

Labor is the biggest cost, but my labor goes up as the materials go up. I would never build a teak mantel for the same labor as an MDF mantel, but would gladly build an MDF mantel, for the same labor as I might get for teak. The only thing I ever say about material prices is that they go up every week. I don't want them even thinking in terms of material cost and labor cost. I'm selling a total project. Tell him that if you were into counterfeiting, it would be $20.00 bills, not wood species.

From professor Gene Wengert:
Just a note about alder. Alder is very soft and would be a poor substitute for teak for this reason - it easily dents. Hardness for teak is 1000 pounds and for alder is 590 pounds. There are also large strength differences, nail holding differences, screw holding, etc.

There are at least four types of wood with the common name of mahogany - Honduras mahogany is the most common, but tropical deforestation is often a concern. Another old time mahogany was African - excellent wood. Then there is Philippine, which is often quite soft and has color variations. Finally, a newer one is Brazilian mahogany. None of the four are related to each other. One might argue that only the first one is true mahogany. My point is that we need to be careful when we use just the word "mahogany," as it is not clearly defined.

I would wager quite a bit that if you set down four samples of wood, unfinished or finished, and asked him which one is teak, he'd have a hard time. I bet he wants the cachet that teak conveys far more than the wood for its properties and application.

I once completed an expensive Honduras mahogany library for a customer (as well as a lot of other work in the house) and took him up on his invite to an open house when they had moved in. As the evening went on, and the liquor flowed, I noticed the owner in a circle of friends rock back on his heels with a contented look, and confide - closely, with head down a bit - that he paid x dollars for the room. The price was twice what he actually paid. At that moment, I caught his eye, and he realized I heard him. In one of those split second flashes, it was communicated that this is what he wanted - to be able to impress his friends, and know that I wouldn't blow it for him.

I was paid in full, and in no mood to spoil the moment, so I let it go. He has been a loyal customer, and we don't discuss that moment. I have, however, been waiting for his buddies to call wanting one of those nice mahogany libraries - close to that inflated price. The point is that we are all so close to the work that we often (here it comes...) are unable to see the forest for the trees. What motivates a buyer may be far from what we think is motivating them.

In my opinion, Afrormosia makes an excellent teak substitute.

From the original questioner:
In this particular case, the buyer doesn't have much of an eye for style or color. She wouldn't care or know if the wood were teak or Philippine mahogany; and not knowing the difference, I doubt she would pay for the exotic wood. But the designer involved said get something like teak, so I was searching for a handy substitute.

When people say they want cherry, but have a limited budget, I automatically think alder. But the request for teak comes in so rarely I don't really have an idea of what would be a good replacement wood. The homeowner lives at the beach, and I think is influenced by the older yachts that have teak everywhere. Sapele is now being used on the boats as a teak substitute... but the cost gets driven up by the need to custom make moldings. So it looks like mahogany may be the first choice.

Take a look at a stack of Iroko. It costs less than (non-Philippine) mahogany, and I have seen a bunch of the blonder shaded boards do a good imitation of teak.

Are we talking $15bd/ft from Burma? That's nature's expensive variety. There is also $8bd/ft plantation grown teak. Same brand, not as flashy. Its grain is usually a little straighter, but the color is identical to the twisty Burmese.

You could use beech and just stain it dark.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
I once had a customer who hired me to build a teak buffet to match her 25 year old teak dining set. I built the teak buffet and when I delivered it she said that the color of the new piece was too dark. Alas, I didn't know before then that teak starts out dark and then over time gradually lightens to a light honey color.

After this rejection I should have walked away but decided to remake the piece in another wood and stain it to match the 25 year old teak. I ended up using pecan/hickory and used some various colorants including orange shellac to match the teak color. I was quite surprised at how well the pecan/hickory grain matched the teak. The proof was that my very picky customer liked my replacement piece more than the real teak piece.