Outdoor Wood Furniture
With summer approaching, people are getting ready for more backyard activities. Whether that involves dinners on the back porch, a day in the garden, or an afternoon by the pool, the enjoyment possible from each of these activities is enhanced with good furniture.
As a woodworker, I’m inclined to select wood for my material of choice for outdoor furniture. But people are often concerned about the durability of wood in an outdoor setting. Will it rot? Does it need to be chemically treated? Is teak the only “good” wood for outdoors?
Below is a brief introduction to selecting and maintaining wood furniture to assure you will be able to enjoy your new piece for years to come.
The truth is, some species of wood are excellent for outdoor settings, while others are not. So it’s important to begin the process by selecting the right kind of wood. Most people are familiar with the rot-resistant properties of teak and mahogany – two wood species commonly used in shipbuilding. These are both very rot-resistant and are truly beautiful woods.
However many are beginning to steer away from them due to concerns about over-harvesting. In fact, this has caused prices for these species to go up and has led to some unethical marketing practices where lesser quality species are substituted and sold as their higher quality counterparts.
North American Species
But exotic woods are not the only rot-resistant species available. Several good sustainable North American species are commonly available throughout the U.S. and Canada. These include Western Red Cedar, Cypress, and White Oak.
Western Red Cedar
Western Red Cedar is commonly used for privacy fences. It is inexpensive, easy to work with, and handles the elements well. It can be left untreated, much like most wood fences. I made the above garden work table from Western Red Cedar. Over time, the wood will begin to fade to gray, much like the wood fence in the background. Or it can be refreshed with more oil to maintain the richer color seen here.
Cypress is more commonly found in the south and the southeastern U.SA., where it grows in swampy areas. It too is easy to work with, and due to an oily nature, it is very rot-resistant. Some believe the newer plantation grown cypress is not as durable as older growth wood, but overall it still makes a good choice.
One of my favorites is White Oak. The pores of White Oak are not porous, so does not absorb water. (Red Oak, on the other hand, is porous, and not water resistant).White Oak is not only used outdoors but is a common species for floors, cabinets, and furniture throughout the home. It is heavier than the others mentioned above and very durable.
Protect from the Sun
While rot-resistance is an important concern, equally challenging is the damage caused by the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. UV rays can fade, discolor and even damage wood because it changes or destroys the wood’s lignin, a component of wood that hardens and strengthens the cell walls.
By simply keeping furniture out of direct sunlight, the damage caused by UV rays can be greatly reduced. If possible, place furniture on a covered porch, under a shade tree, or in other areas not in direct sunlight.
If the wood must be left in direct sunlight, consider one of the many products on the market that have UV protection built into it. We prefer to use oil finishes with UV protection, rather than varnishes, which can begin to flake off over the years. Once they begin to flake off, film finishes must be stripped off to bare wood prior to refinishing. By contrast, an oil finish can simply be refreshed by lightly sanding the surface and then re-applying more oil. Not only is this a fairly simple process, it brings out more of the rich color the wood had when it was first finished.
Here along the Gulf Coast, winters are almost non-existent. But in more northern climates, special attention should be given to wood furniture during the winter. Ideally the furniture should be brought in from the elements. Otherwise, snow may cover it and cause the wood to remain wet for extended periods of time. Further, repeated thaws and freezes can cause damage to the wood. If it’s not possible to bring furniture in for the winter, try to at least place it on a well-draining surface so it doesn’t stay wet where it comes in contact with the ground.
Keep it Clean
Dirt can hold moisture, which in turn can retain a variety of molds that can damage your furniture. Clean your furniture by periodically power washing it. This will deep clean the wood without the need for harsh cleaners that can damage nearby plants. Most home centers rent power washers by the hour or buy one for your home so you can keep porches, sidewalks and other areas clean. An added benefit of power washing your furniture is that it will reverse the transition to gray, and bring out more of the original wood tone.
Relax and Enjoy
Wood furniture has a warmth and beauty not found in other options such as metal or plastic. It is a natural, sustainable product. With just a little care and maintenance, it will bring years of joy and comfort to your outdoor life.