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How to find paint for outdoor furniture that will last in harsh conditions

Here’s an outdoor bench that needs to be restored. It sits outdoors in harsh conditions in Tucson. (Courtesy of Tim Carter)

I’ve got several pieces of outdoor furniture that need to be sanded and repainted. I’m getting conflicting recommendations from a handyman I know, from each supposed expert I talk to at the local national chain hardware stores and the apron-wearing giant big box warehouse sales associates. The last time I painted the bench, following advice from a big box store, it lasted but two years. I live in the high desert of Arizona and realize that it’s a harsh environment, but shouldn’t I get more than two years out of a finish? — Shirley R., Tucson.

I hear you loud and clear about the free advice you get from all those experts at your local businesses. If you could read the email I receive, you’d quickly discover that many others all across the United States are very frustrated with the quality of the advice they receive from the sales associates.

Here’s the mistake most consumers make when they talk with a salesman at a local hardware store, paint store or giant big-box retailer. They forget that the power is always in the question. At some point in the conversation with the sales associate, you always must ask this very simple and valid question: “Before you came to work at this fine business, can you tell me what you did professionally to accumulate your knowledge about this product and how’s it’s used?”

It’s a valid question because you’re about to part with your hard-earned money and very valuable time. Why waste both hoping you get the best advice?

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If the sales associate says, “Oh, I retired from working my entire life as a paper salesman and thought it would be fun to work here,” then you know what to do. The same is true if the sales associate is a part-time college student or some other young person. How much life experience could that person possibly have with using products professionally?

Enough about all that. Let’s talk about paints and outdoor wood furniture. I’ve got some very good news for you. I just went online and searched for Tucson sign painters. You’ve got quite a few out there. If you want to know the best products for a situation, you go talk with the professionals whose livelihood depends on the products they have to use in their daily jobs.

How many sign painters do you think would still be in business if their painted signs peeled in less than two years? I’ll answer for you: not many.

First and foremost, wood is hygroscopic. This means the wood swells and shrinks in response to the moisture content in it. For you, this is not too big a deal, as you have a very arid climate. Your annual rainfall is nowhere near what I have here in New Hampshire.

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Now let’s discuss paint. Paint is just a film. The chemistry of paints is complex. One of my best friends in college got his PhD in chemistry and went on to be a chemist for the largest paint company. I’ll never forget the day he handed me two very similar chemical formulas. He asked me if I knew what they were. I said no. His response was: “This one is the formula for common yellow carpenter’s glue. This one is a very common wall paint many paint companies sell.”

Paint is just glue. It sticks to things. But some paints stick far better than others. Your local sign painters will attest to that. They’ll also tell you that wood is the hardest thing for paint to stick to because it wants to move. But it’s not an impossible job, as I’ll wager there are hundreds, if not thousands, of painted wood signs in Tucson that don’t peel like your wood bench has.

I’ve had remarkable success with modern house paints that are made with a urethane resin. The resin is the glue component in paint. If you have anything indoors that’s got a coat of urethane on it, you know how tenaciously urethane bonds to anything.

Based on the photos you sent, your prep work is not going to be that hard since most of the paint has peeled off. Any professional painter will tell you that the success of a new paint job is based on the preparation of the surface.

The first thing I’d do is scrape off all the old paint and get the bench to bare wood. I’d then clean off all the old sun-damaged gray wood lignin using a certified organic oxygen bleach. This is a powder you mix with water. You apply the solution and let it soak into the wood. Keep the wood wet with the solution for 15 minutes, lightly scrub with a stiff brush and rinse. The natural wood color will return and the bench will look marvelous.

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You’ll probably have to sand the wood to remove wood fuzz. Brush off all the dust and then apply any recommended primer that the finish coat paint manufacturer says to use on bare wood. Be sure to work in the shade. Before priming, fill all cracks with exterior spackling compound and caulk all cracks where water could enter the wood.

Pay close attention to the recoat time on the primer label. You want to apply the finish coats of paint as soon as possible after the primer allows. Doing this creates both a mechanical and chemical bond between the primer and finish coat of paint. If you prime the bench and then wait days or a week to finish painting it, you don’t get as good a bond between the coats of paint.

Paint all the surfaces of the bench, especially the underside and the bottom of the legs. You want to completely seal out all water. The end grain of the lumber is where water loves to get in, so those parts may require three or more coats of paint. Please let me know what brand of paint the local sign painters say to use. Be sure to talk to no fewer than three sign painters!

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