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Buying guide for best outdoor wood furniture protectors

With a wide range of styles available, outdoor wood furniture can beautifully complement your yard, patio, or garden. The problem is, rain can cause swelling and saturation of the wood, which makes it vulnerable to mold, mildew, and rot. What’s more, on bright and clear days, the sun’s harsh UV rays can degrade the structure of the wood, bleaching out the color.

To keep your outdoor wood furniture looking as good as the day you bought it, you need an outdoor wood furniture protector. There are plenty to choose from but selecting the right one can be a daunting task. Would a quick and convenient spray do the job? Is a durable brush-on coating a better option? Or should you opt for the warm luster of an oiled finish?

In this buying guide, we look at the products and their applications so you can decide. Our top picks highlight some of the best in each category.

Botanical descriptions of softwoods and hardwoods can sometimes be confusing. It’s more about the type of tree — evergreen or deciduous — than how hard the wood is. For instance, balsa is a hardwood, but it’s featherlight and extremely soft. Lignum vitae is a softwood that is so hard and dense, it sinks in water.

Key considerations

Product type

When choosing protection for your outdoor wood furniture, you’ll first need to select a product type. You can choose from paint, UV inhibitor spray, stain or varnish, and various protective oils.

Paint

Paint is often overlooked as a protector of outdoor furniture because the focus is normally on preserving the natural appeal of the wood. But what if you’ve got some plain old pine furniture? It’s not a particularly attractive color and has no distinctive grain, so why not paint it?

Your color choices are just about limitless, and many products are now water-based so they’re not as harmful. Outdoor paint can be very durable, and it’s not expensive. It does tend to crack and flake after a couple years outside, but with a quick rub down with a sander, you could simply repaint it.

UV inhibitor spray

Using a UV inhibitor spray is a bit like giving your outdoor furniture a quick coating with liquid plastic. As the name suggests, these sprays aim to prevent UV ray damage. It’s easy to handle and apply; just shake the can and spray. It’s suitable for all kinds of surfaces, and it dries fast. UV inhibitor spray may have a clear, matte, semi-gloss, or gloss finish, so it’s ideal if you want to retain the original color of the wood.

Overspray can be difficult to clean up, so you’d probably want to lay out tarps or old sheets first. Durability varies considerably, and the spray often needs to be reapplied at least once a year. Many people aren’t fond of the “plastic wrap” finish it creates.

Stains and varnishes

Waterproof stains and varnishes are similar in many ways. You’ll find them in solvent-based and water-based formulations. They’re available in clear finishes as well as a number of subtle wood shades. They are particularly good at water protection and invariably contain UV inhibitors. Most can be applied with a brush or are thin enough to spray. These are the most durable outdoor wood furniture protectors, lasting anywhere from three to six years between applications.

Stains are often thin — not much thicker than water. They absorb more fully into the wood than varnish, leaving it with a natural or “raw” finish. Varnishes come in gloss, semi-gloss, and matte finishes, but even the latter gives the appearance that a coating has been applied. Many people prefer that look, so it’s largely a matter of individual taste.

The primary drawbacks of stains and varnishes is that solvent-based products may contain unpleasant chemicals and are certainly less kind to the environment. Furthermore, cleaning up your brushes after application can be a pain.

Oils

Oils are popular because in addition to providing a protective shield, they nourish the wood in a way that gives the finish a warm, natural depth. This look can’t be achieved in any other way, so if you’ve got beautiful hardwood furniture you want to show off — oak, teak, maple, or similar — a wood finishing oil will give it an unrivaled richness.

Teak oil is the most common wood finishing oil. It doesn’t contain teak; the name is simply one that was adopted by manufacturers years ago. Teak oil is a blend of different oils (linseed and tung oil, for example) with varnishes for added protection. There’s no strict formula for teak oil; each manufacturer has their own.

Orange-based oil is also popular, and it smells great. Some traditionalists suggest pure tung oil (made from the crushed nut of the tung tree), but it is difficult to work with and dries very slowly.

A big advantage of oil is that it penetrates the wood, providing protection further into the structure. Unlike paint and varnish, it won’t crack or peel off. Application is easy; simply wipe the oil on with a cloth. (More than one coat may be required, so plan your day accordingly.) On the downside, wood furniture oil isn’t tremendously durable, so an annual top-up is a good idea.

Caution
Beware of mixing oil-based and water-based finishes. They may not be compatible. A typical result is a finish that looks milky rather than the intended color. Adherence and absorption can also suffer.
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Accessories

Outdoor furniture cleaner: Scotts Outdoor Cleaner Concentrate
Before you protect your outdoor furniture, you need to give it a good clean. Scotts Outdoor Cleaner Concentrate foams up fast to remove dirt, mildew, and mold, and it contains no bleach or phosphates, so it’s safe near your plants. This 1-gallon container makes 10 gallons. It can also be used to clean siding, paths, and patios.

Cleaning pads: Stainless Steel Marine Grade Scrubbers
You could use a nylon bristle brush, but these scrubbing pads help get the cleaner right into the grain and lift out more dirt with less effort. Because they’re made from one continuous ribbon of stainless steel, they don’t rust. These scrubbers have a comfortable handle, so you won’t scuff your hands, and they last for ages.

Expert Tip
Although many outdoor wood furniture protectors do an excellent job, it’s still a good idea to bring furniture inside for the season if you live in an area with harsh winters. If this is impossible, cover the furniture with a tarp and tie it down to secure it.
STAFF
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Outdoor wood furniture protector prices

Under $20: Solvent-based varnishes and stains tend to be least-expensive choices, starting at around $12 a quart. Be careful when choosing a lower-priced product, as some are better than others. If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Over $20: Oil tends to cost more than solvent-based varnish but is unlikely to top $25 a quart. You can usually save money if you buy wood furniture oil by the gallon. If you purchase a multi-pack of containers, you could pay in the $40 or $50 range, but this higher price may actually reflect a bulk savings.

For your safety
If you’re using an environmentally friendly water-based finish, don’t assume it’s nontoxic. Keep furniture protectors of all types away from kids and pets and never dump it down the drain.
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Tips

  • Work in the shade on a mild day. It’s more pleasant for you, and it helps prevent the product from drying too quickly.
  • Thoroughly clean your furniture before applying the protector. There’s no point doing a rush job to protect dirty furniture. If you trap mold, mildew, or dirt between the protective layer and the wood, it will continue to do harm. A proper cleaning provides a proper foundation.
  • Wait the correct amount of time after cleaning to apply the protector. Normally, the cleaning product will have you rinse the furniture with cold water. With most (though not all), you need to allow it to dry completely before applying the protector.
  • Use the appropriate application method for your product. For example, if you’re using an oil, use a clean rag and apply liberally, but not so much that it pools on the surface. Bare wood will probably require a second coat, but it’s important to let the first coat soak in and dry properly. Probably time for a favorite beverage.
  • Patience is key. If you’re using a spray or brush-on varnish, two light coats are much better than one thick one. It takes more time, but it’s worth it.
  • For safety’s sake, read instructions thoroughly. Some wood oils become flammable when dry. The rags or brushes you use to apply the oil could catch fire. They don’t even need to be near a flame; sunlight could be enough. Dispose of used materials as recommended.
It’s a good idea to perform a patch test before covering furniture in its entirety. Pick an area under a seat or bench that won’t be seen if it doesn’t turn out how you’d hoped.

FAQ

Q. Should I use a wood sealer before applying finish to my outdoor furniture?
A.
It depends on how you’re finishing it. If you’re applying a varnish or waterproofing product, it’s not really necessary. If you’re applying oil, it’s a good idea. Wood sealer is like a primer coat. It’s a low-cost step to take, and you’ll need to use less oil. Sealing the wood also improves stain resistance. Check carefully that your wood sealer is compatible with your oil. Buying both from the same manufacturer is usually a good idea.
 

Q. I read that teak furniture doesn’t need treatment, so what is teak oil for?
A.
Much teak furniture is sold unfinished because teak has natural oils that are excellent at protecting it from weather damage, particularly water damage. Left untreated, teak will last years, so strictly speaking, oiling teak isn’t necessary. However, UV rays still attack the wood, and over time, your teak furniture will turn from a golden brown to gray. Some people like this patina, but others think it looks washed out. An annual wipe with teak oil will dramatically slow down the process so your furniture retains its natural glow. It will also help it shrug off spills that could stain it. Of course, teak oil isn’t just for teak — you can use it to protect all kinds of wood.
 

Q. Is it possible to restore wood furniture if the finish is cracked or peeling?
A.
Often, it is. Hardwood furniture in particular can be restored because it tends to be more durable. There are lots of refinishing products and useful videos online to guide you through the process. Wood restoration can be quite time-consuming, and patience is required, but it can be very rewarding — and compared to new outdoor furniture, you’ll save yourself a bundle.

Before you begin restoration, check for decay. If the wood feels spongy and you can push your thumb in, it’s rotten. Small patches can be cut out and repaired with wood filler. If damage is extensive, however, the furniture has probably gone too far to be saved.

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