How to clean outdoor furniture

You’ve tucked geraniums and pansies into the flowerpots, checked the barbecue to make sure it’s ready to use and clipped a few new recipes to try out as the outdoor dining season begins. But there’s one more task before you’re ready for guests: Your outdoor furniture needs a little TLC after a winter out in the elements.

Whether the furniture is wood, plastic or metal, the first steps are always the same. Brush or vacuum off loose debris, wash down surfaces with soapy water and rinse thoroughly. Use a hose equipped with a nozzle, not a power washer. Sure, using high-pressure water might save you a few minutes of scrubbing time, but there’s too much risk of damage. “If for any reason you have one little nick or chip, it could just start the chipping process even further,” says Mary Lawrence, the office manager at Offenbacher’s (301-794-8794; www.offenbachers.com), a Lanham-based company that sells patio furniture at eight locations in the Washington-Baltimore area.

Patio furniture.

Patio furniture.

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Rick Ray, manager of Spring Valley Patio, an outdoor furniture store in the District (202-966-9088; www.springvalley
patio.com
), also warns against power washing, even on the sturdiest of outdoor furniture. “It can cut the life of teak by 70 to 80 percent,” he says. Even a single power-washing can start the damage. “Teak is very dense. When you power-wash, it opens up seams in the wood, and then they open up and form cracks. That’s a big thing people don’t know.”

What else is there to learn?

Basic cleaning

For a cleaning solution that will work on any material, mix a quarter-cup of clear dishwashing liquid meant for hand washing, such as Dawn, in a gallon of water. In general, warm water dislodges grime better than cold water. But don’t get it too hot when you’re cleaning outdoor furniture, especially slings and cushions. Many manufacturers of outdoor fabrics warn against using anything hotter than 100 degrees.

Why use clear dishwashing liquid, rather than a creamy type or a different kind of detergent? Creamy formulas contain ingredients you don’t need. And laundry and dishwasher detergent are more caustic than formulas made for skin contact.

Plastic

If the standard cleaning with dishwashing soap and water still leaves pieces looking grubby, put on rubber gloves and clean again with a quarter-cup of dishwasher detergent in a gallon of water, or with up to 2 tablespoons of oxygen bleach (such as OxiClean Versatile Stain Remover) per gallon of water. Dishwasher detergent and oxygen bleach contain sodium percarbonate, which reacts in water to form hydrogen peroxide (a bleach that eventually decomposes to water and oxygen) and sodium carbonate, a cleaning agent also known as soda ash. To lighten any mildew stains that remain even after you have rinsed off this second cleaning solution, use 1 cup bleach per 1 gallon water. Rinse and let dry. If the furniture then looks good, polish with paste wax, like you’d use on a car. The slick surface helps repel dirt and makes the pieces easier to clean.

What if your plastic furniture looks faded or stained even after cleaning? Though you might be tempted to toss it out and start over, you can probably salvage it with paint. Scuff up the surface first with fine sandpaper or steel wool. Wipe off the debris, then spray on a finish such as Krylon Fusion for Plastic. Or use a mini roller and brush to apply a “sticks to anything” primer such as Zinsser’s Bull’s Eye 1-2-3. When dry, top with standard water-based paint. It’s a great way to use up leftovers.

Wood

If furniture is really grubby, use a scrub brush or scrub pad during the basic cleaning. If furniture is made of cedar or other soft wood, scrub only in the direction of the wood grain. Teak is hard enough that the scrub pattern doesn’t really matter, Ray says.

If basic cleaning isn’t enough, on soft wood such as cedar you can go with a second cleaning using dishwasher detergent or oxygen bleach, as with plastic furniture. Once the wood dries, if the surface is very rough, sand down the ridges with medium-grit sandpaper or a sanding sponge, going in the direction of the wood grain.

You can let wood weather naturally or add color by applying an oil, wood stain or even paint. “I recommend not putting teak oil on teak,” Ray says. “If any moisture is in the wood, it can trap that moisture and create mildew spots.” He noted that the whole idea of oiling teak began because the wood is used on boats exposed to salt spray, which leaches out the natural oil. With patio furniture, there’s no need.

If you have cedar furniture or pieces made from another soft wood, a stain that blocks ultraviolet rays from the sun can be helpful, because UV rays break down wood fibers. Paint blocks UV, too, but it has the downside of being likely to peel on horizontal surfaces (think seats and tabletops) if the furniture is frequently left out in the rain. In that case, a stain is better because it won’t peel.

Wicker

Traditional wicker furniture is made from plant materials, often topped by paint. But today a lot of wicker-type furniture is made from synthetics, usually vinyl. For the basic cleaning, use only a sponge or a rag on traditional wicker that’s painted, so you don’t chip the paint. You can scrub more on unpainted or synthetic wicker.

If you spot loose strands, tuck them back in. Natural wicker becomes more pliable when damp, so it’s the perfect time to make these simple repairs. If bigger areas are coming loose, you might need a pro to do the repair. Ray recommends Criterion Lawn Furniture Repair (304-788-3190; criterionrepair.com), a company in West Virginia that picks up and delivers in the Washington area.

You can repaint natural wicker to refresh its look or change its color. Use standard exterior paint, either a spray or brush-on. If you just want to touch up the existing paint, you can probably order matching paint through the store where you bought the furniture, especially if you purchased from a store that specializes in patio furniture and features U.S. brands. “If it came off a box container from China, you’re going to go to hardware store for the best match they can make,” Ray says.

Metal

Most metal outdoor furniture is painted to prevent rust, though stainless steel and aluminum are sometimes left bare. During the basic cleaning, keep a sharp eye out for rust, especially at joints. Rust can occur even on stainless steel, and it’s definitely an issue with any kind of painted metal furniture other than aluminum, which can corrode but doesn’t rust.

If you spot rust, rub down to bare metal using with steel wool or sandpaper. “The more on top of it you are, the less of a problem it’s going to be,” Ray says. As with wicker, find matching touch-up paint where you bought the furniture. Or try www.orbittx.com, which stocks 225 colors of touch-up paint in pens, half-ounce bottles and spray cans. On unpainted stainless steel, of course, you won’t need touch-up paint. But do note the fine brush marks in the original finish, and work off any rust by scrubbing in the same direction.

If you want to change the color of metal furniture, you can repaint it yourself or get even better results by turning over the task to a company equipped to do powder coating, a process in which paint particles are applied dry, using an electrical charge, and are then baked to create a finish that flows into all the tiny nooks and crannies before hardening into an extremely durable finish. If you repaint on your own, dull the existing finish with steel wool unless you suspect the paint is so old that it might contain lead. In that case, use an etching product sold at paint stores instead. You don’t need primer on the existing paint, but do spot-prime any bare metal with an alkyd (oil-based) primer. For the new finish, consider using an alkyd paint. Water-based finishes work, but the finish won’t be as hard. If you opt for refinishing by a pro, figure on spending about $100 a chair to have the existing finish removed and a new one applied via powder coating. Two area companies are Dominion Powder Coating in Manassas (703-530-8581; www.dominionpowdercoating.com) and Figure Finishing in Manassas Park (866-500-8484; www.figurefinishing.com).

Outdoor fabrics

Outdoor cushions, slings, seat covers and umbrella covers could be cotton canvas or other thick, natural material but are more likely a synthetic such as acrylic (Sunbrella being a well-known brand), vinyl or polyester. If the manufacturer’s care tag is still attached, follow the instructions. If you don’t know what kind of materials you’re dealing with, a basic cleaning with soapy, lukewarm water is always safe. If fabric is removable, you can use a washing machine set to a gentle cycle, but never use a dryer. Reinstall slings and covers while the fabric is damp so it stretches to fit.

If mildew stains remain, check the care label to see whether you can use chlorine bleach, or test in an inconspicuous place whether 1 tablespoon of bleach mixed into 1 cup of water removes the stain without wrecking the color or texture of the fabric. If all’s well, make a bigger batch with 1 cup bleach per 1 gallon water.

Some outdoor fabrics are treated with a water repellent that cleaning removes. The manufacturer of Sunbrella fabrics recommends retreating with 303 High Tech Fabric Guard. It works on most fabrics but not vinyl or synthetic suede.

Outdoor cushions should have filling that resists mildew, but it’s still a good idea to get them dry as quickly as possible. If the covers have zippers, Lawrence recommends opening the zipper and then placing the cushion zipper side down, to allow the water to drain easily. If there is no zipper, just place the cushion with one end down.

Keep it looking good

Once you’re done, keep your outdoor furniture in good shape by spreading a towel before you apply suntan lotions or oils. When you go indoors for the day, cover the cushions or bring them inside with you. But don’t wrap cushions in plastic; that invites mildew.

Have a problem in your home? Send questions to localliving@washpost.com. Put “How To” in the subject line, tell us where you live and try to include a photo.

The Checklist:Read Jeanne Huber’s roundup of home-improvement tasks you should tackle in May, such as cleaning gutters, at washingtonpost.com/home.

 
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