I have a lovely wooden bench on the porch that I got for free last spring, and it soon became my favorite coffee-sipping seat. It’s sturdy and comfy, and right beside the bird feeders – even the cat loves it. However, after weathering this summer’s rainstorms, the finish started to peel and the wood started to warp, and it soon became evident that my bench wasn’t built for the outdoors.
It’s tempting to pick up old chairs and tables at yard sales for use in the garden, but we’ve all seen what happens to them after a few seasons if they aren’t properly treated to withstand the elements. Based on how quickly my bench was deteriorating, it soon became evident that unless I wanted a pile of rotten splinters on my porch, I needed to seal and refinish the bench and fast!
Furniture intended for the indoors is never going to have as long an outdoor life as its pressure-treated or rot resistant wood counterparts, but a little protection from the elements goes a long way. Whether you’re turning a ladder-back chair into a flower planter or want to put your favorite wooden rocker on the porch, here are some tips on how to get the most life out of wood furniture in the garden.
Outdoor Wood Furniture Challenges
Wooden furniture has to overcome some pretty big obstacles to survive outdoors, including:
Materials: Most wood is by nature biodegradable, so anything not built of treated lumber (or rot resistant species such as teak, redwood, or cedar) will rot and break down with surprising speed. Even treated or rot resistant wood won’t last forever.
Glue and Finish: Most standard furniture is made with interior glues and finishes that are meant for climate-controlled buildings. When placed outdoors and exposed to fluctuating temperatures and moisture levels, the glue in joints can come loose and the finish degrade. To stand up to the elements outdoors, furniture needs to be made using waterproof glue and exterior finishes.
Construction: Outdoor furniture is usually built using sturdy construction, with thick pieces and joints that decrease the amount of wood that’s exposed to the elements. Indoor furniture is often delicate, with fine joints and thin pieces, along with veneers. This is an open invitation for moisture, warping, and disintegration when left outdoors.
How to Treat and Seal Outdoor Wood Furniture
So, can you use interior wood furniture outside? Well, technically you can, but don’t expect it to last a lifetime! Follow these tips to help your piece survive longer in the great outdoors:
Choose the Right Finish: Just as a long-sleeved shirt provides protection from sunburn, multiple coats of an exterior finish help protect furniture from UV rays as well as moisture. Since paint blocks UV rays better than a clear finish, your best bet is to apply a quality exterior primer, topped by a exterior latex or oil-based paint. For a natural-wood look, apply multiple coats of exterior spar varnish that contains added UV blockers. Spar varnish produces a built-up finish that provides more protection than oil. Avoid deck stains or penetrating finishes that don’t offer enough protection for untreated wood outdoors.
Sand First: Before painting, sand the surface down to bare wood (or use a chemical wood stripper), so your primer will adhere well to the wood.
Seal Completely: Don’t leave any of the wood unfinished – seal every nook and cranny and fill all cracks. That goes for the joints, underneath, even the bottoms of the legs. Don’t think cover, think encapsulate.
Recoat Regularly: Even the best finishes wear and break down over time when exposed to the elements, so plan on recoating your furniture every year or two.
Protect from the Elements: If possible, protect your furniture from sun and rain. It’ll last much longer on your porch than out in the yard. Use furniture glides to raise the piece slightly off the ground so it doesn’t sit in puddles of rainwater.