Giving Lawn Furniture an Outside Chance of Survival
By Lee Fleming
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 24, 2004; Page H01
Porches, patios and gardens are almost as livable as a house's interior in this part of the country, where eight months of warm weather offer plenty of time to meditate or celebrate in that much appreciated extra "room."
But even outdoor rooms must be furnished, and happily there is an ever-wider choice of styles on the market, from French formal and Victorian floral to Adirondack rustic and minimalist chic. Thanks to innovative materials and finishes, many of these designs can stand up to the elements as well as traditional hard-wearing woods and wicker.
Even low-maintenance garden furnishings, however, need to be cared for, says Phil Mitchell, owner of Park Place, a 20-year-old outdoor furnishing store in Georgetown, who offers advice about preserving the items in our green rooms.
Whether as bench, picnic table or Adirondack chair, wood is the traditional choice for outdoor furniture. Weather-resistant redwood is a perennial favorite. To maintain its finish in peak condition, sand it once a year, then apply one to two coats of a good outdoor varnish. An oil-based redwood stain will give a flat (matte) finish; like the varnish, it should be applied every year. You can also opt to let your redwood weather naturally; over time it will bleach to the color of driftwood.
Cedar, beech and oak are also popular. Left unsealed, cedar fades quickly. To keep the wood looking new, seal it at the start of each season. You can also stain cedar, then seal it, to bring out more color.
To keep beech and oak from darkening, cracking, peeling and splintering, sand and varnish exposed wood once a year, using a spar varnish, teak oil or paint.
With its weather-repelling high oil content, teak is the most durable -- and among the most expensive -- of outdoor woods. It is the only wood furniture that Park Place sells.
"Our experience with other woods has not been good," says Mitchell. Teak in its natural state is durable -- 40-plus years -- and requires minimal maintenance, which is why it is the wood of choice for many commercial environments and parks.
Left unsealed, teak weathers to a silvery gray, but to keep the surface smooth and prevent the patina from wearing away, the wood should be sealed using a breathable, water-based sealant. Alternatively, you can apply teak oil once or twice a year for a brown tone, but some manufacturers advise against it, claiming it promotes mildew.
Do not apply polyurethane to teak and other oily woods. The same internal oil that helps the wood repel moisture will keep the sealant from bonding. Mitchell also advises against staining oily woods, as they won't absorb the stain properly. The result will be an uneven look and dark areas.
On the other hand, says Mitchell, woods such as mahogany have excellent adhesion qualities and can be weather-proofed by spraying them with Interlux two-part epoxy, a finish commonly used to paint and seal boat hulls. It's the only system he recommends if you want painted mahogany to survive weather exposure and UV light.
To clean any kind of wood use a soft scrub brush and mild dish detergent: Rinse thoroughly, then scrub and rinse again. Once or twice a year -- at the beginning and end of the summer -- should do the trick.
Outdoor wicker furniture nowadays comes in two types -- natural (organic) and synthetic. Organic wicker is usually made from rattan, a tropical climbing palm that can be split into thin strips and woven into elaborate designs. The synthetic variety uses either vinyl or resin strips, woven around a welded aluminum frame. "We've found both synthetics to be durable and able to have total exposure," Mitchell says.
Most outdoor organic wicker furniture is painted at the factory in a multiple dipping process that gets into all nooks and crevices to seal the surface. Additionally, a two-part premium finish, almost like antiquing, can give pieces a weathered look.
To repaint natural wicker, use a product formulated for outdoor wood and wicker, be as thorough as you can, and give the piece several coats, even on the undersides. Spray paint makes the job much easier.
Finish choices are fewer when it comes to synthetics: They're usually white, green or natural. Some more exotic treatments are available, such as embossed vinyl that mimics mahogany. Resin wicker comes in two types: one like rattan, the other like a flat reed often called sea grass because of the color.
With either synthetic or organic wicker, gentle rinsing, scrubbing and re-rinsing takes care of most dirt buildup. Do not try to paint vinyl or resin; color will not bond and cracking and peeling will result.
Bamboo, another popular natural material, is fine on a covered porch or deck but tends to split and separate if left out to weather.
All ferrous metal -- wrought iron and steel -- will rust, says Mitchell. No matter how good a manufacturer is at applying the finish, once it's nicked, it is compromised. That goes for everything, including powder coating.
Many furniture makers sell touch-up kits to fix chips and dings. Another option is paint formulated especially for metal, such as Rustoleum. "If you decide to change the color, " says Mitchell, "make sure you follow the instructions. Usually to make paint bond to paint, you've got to rough up the surface with sandpaper. Forget this, and your paint is going to come right off."
Cleaning is easy: Either wipe off with a rag or hose the piece down.
Aluminum and steel outdoor furniture are even more maintenance-free; they never rust and need only occasional washing.
Plastic furniture is typically less expensive and low-maintenance, but tends to fade and discolor with time and exposure. Most plastic chairs and tables can be hosed down with dishwashing liquid or other mild detergent and water, and wiped dry with paper towels. Read the labels of cleaning products to be sure that they are safe for plastic. Never use any abrasive cleaners or scouring powders.
A breakthrough paint called Fusion from Krylon claims success in bonding with plastic. It is available in more than 30 colors, including sun-dried tomato, almond and blue hyacinth. The product is sprayed on, and according to the Web site, www.krylon.com, requires no sanding or priming.
Cushions and Umbrellas
Taking a cue from the marine industry, outdoor furniture cushions are now made from acrylics and fillers that can be left outside without worry.
Drying takes time, however, so Mitchell recommends bringing them inside at night and before it rains. A good tip: "If your cushion gets wet, put it on its end, unzip it and let it stand on end so it drains faster."
Years ago, outdoor umbrellas and cushions covered in chintz and stuffed with cotton batting were repositories of mildew. Getting rid of the sickly smell required vigorous washing and a thorough drying in the sun. Even then, every damp day seemed to bring out the mildew again. Today's synthetics reduce that problem. "The good news," Mitchell says, "is that hundreds of cushions and umbrellas later, mildew is not something I hear about every day."
Mold is inevitable at some point: "It will grow on anything," says Mitchell. Most outdoor furniture stores carry commercial cleaners for $20 or less to eliminate most mold from pillows and umbrellas.
As for umbrellas, says Mitchell, "When you're out there, have it up. When you're not out there, put it down."
It's a good idea to bring outdoor furniture inside for the winter. Some manufacturers and stores sell covers, to protect against harsh weather. To reduce condensation -- and the rust and mildew that follows -- Mitchell recommends fabric covers that breathe, rather than plastic. "You don't want a closed environment."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company