Outdoor Furniture – A Guide to Wood, Wicker, and Other Materials

Today’s home design favors the outdoors–decks, patios, pool bars, balconies, terraces. Nothing beats sitting back under the stars at the end of a long day. Particularly in the tropics, people are practically moving their homes outdoors to better enjoy the open air.

Of course, you can’t just whip out your old living room furniture and put it on your patio. Indoor materials will not last a week of constant sun exposure, moisture, and temperature changes. That’s why outdoor furniture tends to cost more–they are designed to hold up against the elements. And since furniture is also decorative, manufacturers have found ways to make them durable and stylish at the same time. Here are some of your options.

METAL:

Metal is the obvious choice if you’re after durability and function. Most metal furniture comes with rust-resistant coating to make it suitable for outdoors. With the right weather protection, metal furniture can be left out all summer or winter and still look good as new. The only downside is its weight. A wrought iron chair can weigh five times as much as PVC or wicker. This is why it’s best for deck and concrete patios, as it tends to sink on soft surfaces like grass, dirt, and turf.

The most common outdoor metals are aluminum, steel, and wrought iron. Aluminum is lightweight and makes for excellent folding chairs for your poolside, but if you live in a windy area, you might want to invest in something heavier.

If you want something with more class, go for wrought iron. Wrought iron is made from iron or steel bars about half an inch thick, and worked into intricate designs. It has a classic, elegant look perfect for large lawns, gardens, and balconies. It is also very sturdy, so you can leave it out all year.

WOOD:

Most woods can’t handle outdoor exposure, but those that can are remarkably sturdy. One example is teak, a hardwood native to South and Southeast Asia. Teak has natural protective oils that make it water-resistant, and doesn’t need oil or varnish to maintain its durability. It’s also one of the most expensive; a single bench can set you back $800, and a set can cost as much as $3,500. Vintage teak furniture, made from the now-endangered old-growth teak, is one of the most valuable.

Cedar is another popular outdoor wood. It is naturally scented and has an attractive color and grain. It’s not as strong as teak, but if properly treated, cedar furniture can withstand rain, sun, and snow. Cedar absorbs and releases moisture slowly, which reduces the cracking and splintering that can occur in extreme temperatures.

WICKER:

If you’re after comfort and relaxation, then wicker may be your best bet. Wicker is made from hard woven fibers, which may be plant-based or synthetic. The main advantage of wicker is its natural “give”–it yields to the shape of your body for extra comfort. The open weave also makes it cool and breathable. Antique wicker is highly valued by collectors and makes great patio furniture.

Plastic fibers are normally used for outdoor furniture, as plant fibers are organic and will easily rot. Natural fibers can be made into loom wicker, which has a tighter weave and more resilient finish. However, wicker is generally weak and cannot be left outdoors for very long. Be sure to move them indoors when it rains, or at least to a shaded spot on very hot days. If you live in a humid area with heavy rainfall, choose vinyl wicker–a synthetic variety made from plastic strands.

One problem with wicker is that dust and particles can get in between the weaves. A little grain shouldn’t be a problem, but it can build up and damage your furniture. Dust it off once in a while with a feather duster and remove stains with a soft cloth and mild detergent. To keep out dust, try placing cushions or draping sheets over them.

PLASTIC:

Plastic furniture is great if you’re on a tight budget or just want to use them occasionally. Plastic is lightweight and water-resistant, so it makes sense for poolside sets. If you like to host large backyard parties, try a set of stackable or collapsible plastic chairs. You can fold them up and put them away at the end of the day, or leave them out if the weather is good. Don’t expect them to last more than five years, though. Some of the tougher pieces can, but plastic is naturally flimsy and just not designed for heavy use.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) a type of hard plastic used in everything from credit cards to water pipes. It makes sense–if you want waterproof furniture, use the same thing used in your plumbing. As outdoor furniture, PVC works well because it’s extremely durable, lightweight, and inexpensive. Not surprisingly, it’s the best material for poolside and wet weather conditions.

One good thing about plastic furniture is the range of styles, designs, and colors to choose from. It’s extremely flexible, mixes well with dyes, and is light enough to work into large pieces. Extruded plastic–soft resin shaped into a tube–can be worked into just about any shape. Plastic also holds color well. Paint will peel off wood and metal, but plastic has the color blended in. “Colorfast”plastic will keep the color from fading or running when washed.

Quality always comes first when it comes to outdoor furniture, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up style. Even the most expensive wood bench is useless if it doesn’t suit your tastes, or if you’re not comfortable in it. There is a lot to choose from, so take advantage of your options. If you know what to look for, you’re sure to find something that not only looks great, but will stay with you for years.

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