As fall approaches and the weather gets colder, we enter the season of bonfires and s’mores! Fall is the perfect time to enjoy the patio or outdoor spaces! But as winter approaches, many people wonder “What should I do with my outdoor furniture? Should I cover it? Store it in a garage or shed? Leave it out? Do I protect it somehow?”. In general, outdoor furniture is made with materials that will withstand wind, rain, sun, and snow. So, leaving it out all winter is perfectly fine. However, most would take the opportunity in the fall or springtime to add a little extra protection. In this article we’ll focus on the best finishes for outdoor wood furniture.
Choosing whether to refinish your outdoor furniture
Chances are that if you bought or made your own quality wood furniture, its materials will withstand any weather. Woods like teak and cedar do very well in all types of weather. The oils in these species of wood make them very resistant to damage from the elements and from insects. With proper care, your outdoor furniture could outlast you!
But what constitutes “proper care” when it comes to outdoor wood furniture? Well, it depends a lot on what you’ve started with. Meaning, what species of wood is it and what was previously used to finish it? Or is it au naturelle – no finish whatsoever? Did you know that in fact, you could choose to do absolutely nothing! Teak and cedar resist rot and decay. Therefore, you can leave your furniture outside year-round without a care in the world. However, if you choose this route, know that your cedar wood furniture, much like more and more strands of my hair, will start to turn a silvery grey. Some people like that weathered look. If you do too, great! You don’t have to do a thing to your furniture!
Why does cedar turn grey? Well, when the wood is exposed to sunlight, cedar and teak (to a lesser degree) will begin to lose its natural color within a few months. Ultraviolet (UV) sunlight is responsible for most of the visible damage to exposed wood. UV light changes or destroys the wood’s lignin. This is the “glue” that holds the cells in the wood together. You can prevent your cedar or teak furniture from turning gray by finishing it with a material that reflects ultraviolet (UV) sunlight. Just like our skin, your wood furniture would benefit from a little SPF if you want it to retain that warm wood tone.
So, you’re not a fan of the grey look. That’s okay! If you do want to keep your wood furniture looking warm and wood-toned, the good news is you have some options. However, it is recommended that if you decide to apply a finish to your outdoor cedar furniture that you do so before the furniture has weathered much. Even a few weeks of exposure will decrease cedar’s ability to hold a finish. So, the moral of the story is, do nothing… or do something quick!
Types of finishes for teak and cedar furniture
Oil finishes to revive and protect
This option may seem too foo-foo to those that are proponents of sealers or paint. However, oils do offer great protection from the elements. An oil finish saturates and penetrates the wood. The surface layer hardens when exposed to air and protects the wood. The most popular options include linseed oil, Tung oil, and teak oil. How often you’ll apply an oil finish will depend on how much exposure to sun and rain your furniture endures. My wood furniture that sits year-round outside on the patio gets an oil finish every spring. In most cases a yearly application is enough. If you decide to use an oil finish, look for a product that also contains an ultraviolet blocker.
Personally, I prefer using oils for ease. There are no special instructions. You just clean your furniture – scrub it a bit with soapy water and a rag, or perhaps a light (very light) pressure washing may be in order. Careful, though! Cedar is a very soft wood – it is easily gouged by a pressure washer. Anyway, make sure your furniture is clean and then let it completely dry out before finishing with oil. Then all you do is just pour the oil onto a sponge or rag and schmear it on, letting it soak in. And that’s it!
Sealers and wood preservatives
Another option is to apply a wood sealer. The purpose of these products is to reduce the absorption of water by the wood. It’s recommended that you should reapply the sealer/preservative once a year. Some of the more preferable ones are wood sealers that dry extremely fast, like in less than an hour with a 24-hour total cure time. That makes it very convenient. Some have a thick consistency making it easy to apply in one coat. Look for a product that is formulated with UV protection.
Water-repellent preservatives should be used only on newly manufactured bare cedar, on restored bare cedar, or on cedar previously treated with the same type of product. This product also may need to be reapplied annually. The more finish absorbed by the wood, the longer it will last. A water-repellent preservative can also be used as a pre-treatment before painting, if that’s your ultimate goal.
Stains to boost the color and give your wood furniture great protection
Oh man, there’s so much variety in stains… and so much conflicting opinions about what is the best for outdoor furniture: water based, oil based, semi-transparent, solid color. What to use?! Well, most would agree that for outdoor furniture, oil-based stains are best suited. They penetrate into the wood, nourishing it and protecting it. So, avoid water-based for your outdoor furniture.
Next up: semi-transparent versus solid color. Both come in a wide range of colors. However, some experts and organizations such as the Western Red Cedar Lumber do not advocate the use of solid color stains for outdoor furniture. They state it’s not best suited for smooth, sanded-wood applications. Solid color stains are intended for things like wood fences, not your patio chairs. Regarding semi-transparent stains, once again, you should purchase a product with ultraviolet (UV) inhibitors to keep the color consistent year after year. Little, or no, preparation is required to stain outdoor furniture. It does not require a primer before staining either. You just want to make sure the surface is clean before you stain. Generally, a semi-transparent stain (with UV inhibitors) will require two coats. And to give your outdoor furniture a refresh, every other year you could lightly sand, and reapply. If your furniture is in a porch, somewhat protected from rain and direct sunlight, this finish should last several years.
Now, some oil-based stains contain Linseed oil. There is a ton of information and lots of opinions on stains containing linseed oil. Some say it’s the best, others not so much. Since I’m a fan of oil finishes versus stains, I really don’t have first-hand experience with this. However, linseed oil and products containing linseed oil come with a warning tag… please keep reading if this is what you plan to use.
caution!! Read this if you're using a product with linseed oil
Linseed oil will combust! Yes, as in go boom. Well not really, but it will ignite. When working with Linseed oil using rags to stain, you must lay them out, drape them on a clothesline, or toss them in a bucket of water. If not, the rags will heat up and they will ignite within hours if not properly laid out. If you toss oil-soaked rags into an open bucket, the Linseed oil will heat up and smolder in just a few hours. This is a part of the curing process. Please take care when using this!
Paint for a colorful backyard oasis
When done properly paint can offer the most protection to your outdoor furniture. It’s not my favorite because it also conceals the natural beauty of wood. However, if you have a specific color scheme in mind, and only paint will do, then go for it! Paint can help you create a vibrant, colorful outdoor space. Or go white and have a minimalist vibe. If you have that favorite color of sky blue or a color combination that just screams YOU, then paint is the answer.
Similar with stains, you’ll want to paint your outdoor furniture before it’s allowed to weather. Otherwise, you’ll need to sand all surfaces down to bare wood before finishing. For the best results, a quality oil-based primer is needed before painting with a quality exterior latex paint. A high-quality primer and paint, properly applied, can last up to ten years. However, at some point, the furniture will need repainting – requiring you to scrape and sand in order to refinish. For this reason and others, paint is my least favorite method of finishing. However, if you’ve acquired wood patio furniture that is not made of a quality wood, such as cedar or teak, then paint is your best bet. If the wood species will not weather well, then totally incapsulating it in primer and paint will be your jam.
Not recommended - seriously, don't do it.
Lacquer, shellac, urethane, and varnish are not recommended for outdoor furniture. Ultraviolet radiation will penetrate the finish (even with UV inhibitors) and degrade the wood surface.
No matter how many coats you apply, the finish will eventually become brittle, then crack and blister – and will ultimately fail.
Choosing to finish, or refinish, your patio furniture or choosing not to is entirely up to you and somewhat depends on the type of wood your furniture is made of and how it’s currently finished. Either option (finish or no finish) is suitable as long as the wood species is one that can stand up to the elements. However, if you choose not to finish, then adding one later after the wood has weathered is not ideal. Choose what is best for you based on personal taste, preference, and level of ease.
I’d love to see your style! Are you a fan of oil, stain, or paint? Leave a comment and show me your outdoor oasis!