Home Improvement Expert Danny Lipford

How to Finish Wood Furniture for Use Outdoors

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Bench on porch

My porch bench needed help to survive the elements

I have a lovely wooden bench on the porch that I got for free last spring, and it soon became my favorite coffee-sipping seat. It’s sturdy and comfy, and right beside the bird feeders – even the cat loves it. However, after weathering this summer’s rainstorms, the finish started to peel and the wood started to warp, and it soon became evident that my bench wasn’t built for the outdoors.

Weathered bench

Bench deteriorating fast outdoors

It’s tempting to pick up old chairs and tables at yard sales for use in the garden, but we’ve all seen what happens to them after a few seasons if they aren’t properly treated to withstand the elements. Based on how quickly my bench was deteriorating, it soon became evident that unless I wanted a pile of rotten splinters on my porch, I needed to seal and refinish the bench and fast!

Furniture intended for the indoors is never going to have as long an outdoor life as its pressure-treated or rot resistant wood counterparts, but a little protection from the elements goes a long way. Whether you’re turning a ladder-back chair into a flower planter or want to put your favorite wooden rocker on the porch, here are some tips on how to get the most life out of wood furniture in the garden.

Bench being painted

Outdoor furniture needs an exterior, built-up finish to seal out the elements

Outdoor Wood Furniture Challenges

Wooden furniture has to overcome some pretty big obstacles to survive outdoors, including:

  • Materials: Most wood is by nature biodegradable, so anything not built of treated lumber (or rot resistant species such as teak, redwood, or cedar) will rot and break down with surprising speed. Even treated or rot resistant wood won’t last forever.
  • Glue and Finish: Most standard furniture is made with interior glues and finishes that are meant for climate-controlled buildings. When placed outdoors and exposed to fluctuating temperatures and moisture levels, the glue in joints can come loose and the finish degrade. To stand up to the elements outdoors, furniture needs to be made using waterproof glue and exterior finishes.
  • Construction: Outdoor furniture is usually built using sturdy construction, with thick pieces and joints that decrease the amount of wood that’s exposed to the elements. Indoor furniture is often delicate, with fine joints and thin pieces, along with veneers. This is an open invitation for moisture, warping, and disintegration when left outdoors.
Refinished red painted bench on porch

I chose paint for my bench, since it provides the most protection

How to Treat and Seal Outdoor Wood Furniture

So, can you use interior wood furniture outside? Well, technically you can, but don’t expect it to last a lifetime! Follow these tips to help your piece survive longer in the great outdoors:

    Painting the bottom of bench

    Leave nothing unfinished!

  • Choose the Right Finish: Just as a long-sleeved shirt provides protection from sunburn, multiple coats of an exterior finish help protect furniture from UV rays as well as moisture. Since paint blocks UV rays better than a clear finish, your best bet is to apply a quality exterior primer, topped by a exterior latex or oil-based paint. For a natural-wood look, apply multiple coats of exterior spar varnish that contains added UV blockers. Spar varnish produces a built-up finish that provides more protection than oil. Avoid deck stains or penetrating finishes that don’t offer enough protection for untreated wood outdoors.
  • Sand First: Before painting, sand the surface down to bare wood (or use a chemical wood stripper), so your primer will adhere well to the wood.
  • Red painted bench

    Refinish regularly

  • Seal Completely: Don’t leave any of the wood unfinished – seal every nook and cranny and fill all cracks. That goes for the joints, underneath, even the bottoms of the legs. Don’t think cover, think encapsulate.
  • Recoat Regularly: Even the best finishes wear and break down over time when exposed to the elements, so plan on recoating your furniture every year or two.
  • Protect from the Elements: If possible, protect your furniture from sun and rain. It’ll last much longer on your porch than out in the yard. Use furniture glides to raise the piece slightly off the ground so it doesn’t sit in puddles of rainwater.

Further Information



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13 Comments on “How to Finish Wood Furniture for Use Outdoors”

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  1. H. Patrick Wilson Says:
    August 9th, 2012 at 10:10 pm

    Is there a product for finishing wood tables that is strong enough to withstand the hot, salty, ocean air while still approved for food consumption? I can’t seem to find a single product for this use; but I can’t believe that one doesn’t exist. Please help!

  2. Billy Jackson Says:
    November 15th, 2012 at 11:59 am

    Thank you! This is helpful and has helped educate my decision

  3. Leta Rocha Says:
    March 29th, 2013 at 6:21 am

    In the first picture, that outdoor furniture and patio decor bring indoor elegance to outdoor display.

  4. Borden Green Says:
    June 5th, 2013 at 8:57 pm

    Your article is helpful. My husband and I found a beautiful 60 inch round, primitive wooden pedestal table that we want to use outside in a sunny spot. There appears to be no stain, but just a clear finish of some type.

  5. Peggy Witthaus Says:
    July 8th, 2013 at 8:54 am

    I have a veneered cherry table – are there additional steps or specific products for use in this situation?

  6. Borden Green Says:
    July 9th, 2013 at 3:01 pm

    Well, I am almost through refinishing the 60 inch round wooden table that I referred to in a previous comment. I have gotten quite a bit of experience with this project applying sealer and varnish. I stripped the table to the bare wood, then sealed it with Restor-it Clear Penetrating Epoxy Sealer. After waiting 24 hours for the sealer to cure, I applied the first coat of Epifanes High Gloss Marine Varnish. As the sealer finishes its curing process, it is supposed to pull the varnish into the wood with it. I chose the varnish because it has good UV protection. I applied 6 coats of this varnish to the top and 5 coats to the base. I roughed-up the varnish a little bit between coats with Scotch Brite abrasive pads. I applied 3 coats underneath the table top and underneath the legs on the base. I did not rough-up the varnish between coats underneath the table. I then sanded the top and base with 000 steel wool. I did this because the high gloss varnish developed tiny bubbles as it cured — very frustrating. After wiping the dust off, I wiped the surfaces with Turpenoid and followed with a tack cloth. I then switched to Epifanes Wood Matte Varnish. After the first coat of this varnish, I decided the base looked good enough to call it finished. I then sanded the top with a block sander using very fine sandpaper (finishing with 400 grit) and cleaned the dust as described before. I applied one more coat of the Epifanes Wood Matt Varnish. I am hoping this finish lasts a good while in our Texas weather. The table will not be under a protective covering.

  7. Official Comment:

    Ben Erickson Says:
    July 9th, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    Hi Borden,
    Thanks for the feedback! Let us know how the table holds up.

  8. Borden Green Says:
    July 9th, 2013 at 5:16 pm

    I will. There are claims that this finish will last up to 5 years without re varnishing. I will keep tabs.

  9. El Gibbens Says:
    October 30th, 2013 at 9:52 am

    We just moved to a newly built home with a large covered porch. I have a 7 ft. wood (real wood) buffet table, that will not fit anywhere inside the house. My husband wants to put it on the patio up all the way up against the house for outdoor parties. My question is to seal with UV protectant varnish, do I have to strip it down first, or just paint the varnish over the existing finish? (not a color-painted piece)

  10. Sandy Says:
    December 25th, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    What should I use as a sealant on an unfinished fir adirondack chair?

  11. Leslie W Says:
    January 27th, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    To Borden or others.

    I was thinkin gof using Epifanes High Gloss Marine finish to seal my repurposed exterior dining table. The table is built from center cut redwood of my old deck. The wood was planed down to remove 40 years of stains and paints.

    You noted that the last coat you used a Matte finish. Did this take the gloss away. Because I’m reclaiming lumber I want to reclaimed look and not the epoxy high gloss look.

    I just want to seal the table good so that it will last a long time and I’m not sure what product to use to not get a glossy finish so your Matte finish on the last coat is intriuguing.

  12. Borden Green Says:
    January 27th, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    The matte finish removes the high shine. However, by using the high gloss for the under coats, you achieve better UV protection.

  13. John Etheridge Says:
    April 14th, 2014 at 12:38 pm

    I am building a memory bench it will to place it in the yard. The wood is pine. The problem is what to do about the legs. Will pine legs hold up to insects and rot?
    thank you.
    john

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