When the weather turns nice and you want to get out on that back deck or porch you may give a quick look at your wood furniture and realize it needs a little care. That means it time to learn how to refinish outdoor furniture so you get a full season of enjoyment out of it.
Wood outdoor furniture is by far the most desirable, that is if you can manage the maintenance it needs. We all know plastic patio furniture is pretty low maintenance, but it is weak compared to solid wood and gets more and more brittle every year until it eventually dies a crumbly death.
Quality made outdoor wood furniture can last decades if it is maintained just a little each year and protected from the elements. In this post, I’ll show you how to refinish outdoor wood furniture if it has gotten into disrepair and how to maintain it from year to year so you can enjoy it for years with the least work.
What Damages Outdoor Wood Furniture
We all know Mother Nature is torture on wood outdoors and she doesn’t care if it’s furniture or a fallen tree. She is constantly trying to turn outdoor back into mulch for the next generation of plants.
In every climate, but especially southern areas, UV rays relentlessly break down the lignin in the wood which is what bonds the wood fibers together and strengthens it. This process is call photo-oxidation and without any protection on your outdoor wood furniture it is happening every time the sun is up.
The breakdown of lignin results in the surface of the wood turning a grey/silver color as well as the development of checks as the wood slowly dries out.
This silvery appearance may not be a problem if you have hardwood furniture like Teak or Ipe since the density of hardwood keeps the insides healthy with natural oils and the grey skin gives a weathered, matured finish.
For softwoods the graying is a problem because they are more susceptible to checking, cupping, and warping which allows water to get into the wood and damage it.
Wood rot is essentially wood cancer and if you don’t pay special attention it can destroy your outdoor wood furniture. Most people are surprised to learn that wood rot is fairly easy to prevent.
Rot is caused by the growth of fungus in the wood and that fungus needs four conditions. If you remove one of those conditions then you have stopped the rot.
- Food Source (Wood)
- Temperature (40° – 90°F)
- Moisture Content (> 25-30%)
Since we can’t do anything about numbers 1 and 2 unless your outdoor furniture is on the moon we are stuck with numbers 3 and 4 to manipulate.
If you live in the north that means that for the seasons when the temps are consistently below 40°F you won’t have any rot issues. For the rest of the year and the rest of the country the only hope we have is keeping the wood dry.
Wood getting wet isn’t the problem, it’s wood that stays wet which allows the rot to grow and we’ll look at how to prevent this in the maintenance section below.
How To Refinish Outdoor Furniture
Now that you know what has been causing the damage to your outdoor furniture it’s time to get into the refinishing process to reverse Mother Nature’s ill effects.
There are so many types and brands of wood finishes on the market it may seem daunting, but it essentially comes down to maintenance. Oil finishes and exterior stains require a cleaning and refreshing of the finish nearly every year.
The process is simple since there is no finish to sand off. It only requires a good cleaning and reapplication of the stain or oil.
Protective finishes like spar urethane and varnishes last longer (two to three years) but to redo the finish you’ll be sanding most of the old finish off and reapplying multiple coats again.
Pick the finish that seems right for your project and region and stick with it. Changing finishes from year to year can cause problems with compatibility.
Pick a shady working area like the garage or workshop to do your refinishing and lay down a drop cloth or some plastic. For the best results you want to refinish outdoor furniture in a place protected from rain, excessive dust or leaves and away from direct sunlight which can affect the drying of the finish.
Step 1 Sand The Grey Away
If your outdoor furniture has great weathered wood you need to sand that surface layer of UV damaged wood off and get to the healthy wood just beneath the surface.
Finish will not adhere well to grey wood whether you are using a stain, a paint, or a varnish. Using a random orbit sander and some hand sanding hit every area with 80-grit sandpaper and then go over it once again with 120-grit to get a perfectly smooth and scratch free surface.
Sanding any finer than 120-grit may prevent some finishes from penetrating as deeply as they should, so avoid excessive sanding for outdoor wood where a strong finish is more important.
Step 2 Clean & Tack
Clean all the sanding dust away by blowing the furniture off. This includes cleaning the drop cloth so it is free of dust that might get into your finish later.
Grab a tack cloth and dip it into mineral spirits and wipe the surface down to make sure there is no dust or debris on the surface and let the wood dry until the normal color returns.
Step 3 Apply Stain
If you plan to add an exterior wood stain to your project you wanna do that before applying a surface finish. Unlike interior wood stains exterior wood stains are designed in many cases to be applied alone without a clear finish so keep that in mind.
Shake your can of stain up thoroughly so that all the pigments are mixed well. Using a cotton rag or chip brush wipe the stain on heavily allowing it penetrate about 10-15 minutes before wiping off any excess.
You want to avoid any pooling, but stain is best applied heavy and wiped off with a clean rag to ensure an even finish. Let the stain dry according to the manufacturer’s recommendations which can be anywhere from a couple hours to 24 hrs.
If you are using an oil-based stain make sure you have adequate ventilation to avoid a build up of fumes caused by the higher VOC content of oil-based products.
Step 4 Apply Finish
Once your stain is dry it’s time to apply your finish if you have selected to go that route. For outdoor furniture many people elect to simply use an outdoor stain and leave it at that, but if you want to go with a clear finish over top of your stain you have that option.
I prefer thinning my finishes down about 30% with mineral spirits to create a wiping finish that is easier to apply to the intricate designs and gets better penetration into the wood.
Using a cotton rag wipe the finish on much the same way you do with the stain being extra careful to avoid drips and runs. Check carefully around joints which are prone to holding a little finish and then letting it run out causing drips in your finish.
Using a wiping finish means you’ll likely need at least three coats to adequately protect your outdoor furniture. Let each coat dry until it is dry to the touch and you can scuff the surface with a fine sanding sponge in preparation for the next coat of finish.
After scuffing wipe the surface down again with a clean tack cloth to remove any sanding dust and apply another coat of finish. Let everything dry at least 24 hrs before putting your furniture back into service and be gentle with it for at least three days while the finish fully cures.
Maintaining Outdoor Furniture
Once you’ve got you’ve refinished your outdoor furniture it’s all about maintenance. Simple annual maintenance will keep it protected and keep you from having to do a full refinishing every year.
Keeping the sun and rot away are the keys to maintenance and there are simple ways to do that. Let’s start with rot since that is the most pervasive and dangerous in my opinion.
LIke we discussed earlier, rot will only happen in the warm months and when the moisture content of the wood stays above around 25% for long periods of time. To prevent this there are a few simple things you can do.
- Cover furniture or bring it inside when not in use for long periods of time
- Keep furniture off the dirt or grass long term because the wood will constantly pull moisture from the ground
- Avoid storing outdoor furniture in shady areas where it can’t dry out
- Keep sprinklers pointed away from any outdoor furniture
Your outdoor wood furniture can certainly get wet without problems, but it can’t stay wet if you want to avoid rot.
Preventing UV Damage
Being outside in the sun is the best part about having outdoor furniture, so I’m not going to tell you stay out of the sun, because that takes all the fun out of it.
But just like with rot there are some simple things you can do to minimize the damage and I’ve listed those below.
- Cover furniture or bring it inside when not in use for long periods of time to keep
- Clean and renew the wood finish regularly
UV protection is fairly simple. Keeping the furniture covered when you don’t need it keeps the sun’s damaging rays away from it. Then, depending on your climate, the stain or finish you use to refinish outdoor furniture will not live forever.
In southern climates that may mean renewing every year to prevent the graying of the wood as the finish wears out. In more northern climates you might get as much as three years between refreshing coats.
The important thing is that renewing the finish is much easier than a full refinishing because you avoid all the laborious sanding.
Annual maintenenace should always start with a good cleaning with a soft bristled brush and soapy water to remove any built up dirt. For tough stains and mildew or algae add one part household bleach to two parts water to help with the cleaning.
Once it’s dry it just a matter of wiping on a fresh coat of stain. For sealers or varnishes you’ll need to clean everything and then give it a light scuff like you did between coats earlier before applying one more fresh coat of finish. Much easier than a full refinishing, right?
For hardwood furniture the process is even simpler. If you like to
Now that you’re a pro who knows how to refinish outdoor furniture and maintain it, it’s time to get to work so you can go enjoy the beautiful weather before it’s gone! But before you do that you may also want to read my post on How To: Restore a Wood Deck so you can have the perfect outdoor experience this summer.
Founder & Senior Editor
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.