Restoring Outdoor Projects

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This article is from Issue 52 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Add years to the life of your lawn and patio furniture.

By Marlen Kemmet

Year after year outdoor furniture pieces take a brutal beating from Mother Nature in the form of intense sunlight, temperature extremes, moisture, windblown dirt and pollen, and insects. To wage the good fight and extend the life of these cherished pieces, follow along as I take you step by step through the rehab of an Adirondack chair, solving common problems that afflict most outdoor projects, and extending its useful life.

Can this project be saved? 

In spite of your love affair with a favorite garden bench that you built years ago, you may find it’s time to part company with it and start anew. Over time, all wood projects reach the point of no return. But, in the case of this Adirondack chair, it was worth the time and effort for me to restore this weathered old friend. How can you tell if an outdoor project has passed its prime? Conduct a quick and simple evaluation.

For starters, check for severe wood rot, warping, or large checks or cracks in individual parts. Looks can be deceiving. At first blush, the Adirondack chair looked destined for the landfill. But underneath the grit, lichen, and grime was a perfectly functional piece in need of a little TLC. Although the wood appeared badly weathered, a little sanding and scraping on the bottom side of a seat slat revealed sound lumber.

Next, check the joints for further rot, looseness, and hardware issues that undermine the project’s structural integrity. Are replacement parts or new hardware in order? With seating of any kind, these are critical for safety. Is the finish flaking or otherwise compromised? Luckily, all the problems with our example proved fixable.

If what you are facing is a lost cause, you may find it cheaper and far more time-saving to simply build a sturdier replacement.

Common fixes for failing furniture

After assessing your furniture piece and deciding that it’s worth saving, develop an action plan. Use these strategies to remedy a variety of problems.

Clean the piece

Problem

Lichen, mold, weathering, and encrusted dirt have attacked the project, detracting from its appearance and leading to decay.

Solution

Depending upon the severity of the degradation you have two choices. For projects like the chair, I recommend pressure-washing the entire piece at a low setting using a wide-nozzle tip on the wand, as shown in Photo A. Rinse the entire piece first. Then, power-wash it with a commercial solution to clean and brighten the wood. Or, save a few bucks by mixing your own solution. I used one quart of household bleach, one-third cup of powdered laundry soap, and three quarts of water. A raincoat, safety glasses, and gloves come in handy for protection against splatter.

If you don’t have access to a power washer, spray the piece down with a garden hose and scrub the grime off, as shown in Photo B. Avoid a wire brush as the hard stiff bristles may cause deep scratches in the wood, which will have to be sanded.

For badly damaged pieces, a power-washer and a cleaning solution provide the first step.
A stiff-bristled brush and lots of elbow grease clean entrenched grime at little cost.

When power-washing outdoor furniture, start with the lowest setting, hold the nozzle end of the wand about 18" away to start, and move closer if necessary. Too high of a pressure setting or a tip held too close can damage the wood, much like sandblasting. Power-washer spray tips come in different spray patterns, with the range spanning from 0° to 40°. The wider the angle, the more surface area covered, but with less impact.

Measure and record important spacing dimensions for ease in reassembling the chair later.

Disassemble for a complete restoration

Problem

Grit and grime have infiltrated joints and other hard-to-get-at nooks and crannies. In some cases, a part or two may need to be replaced. Disassembly may be your best course of action, but getting all of the parts back in their proper location may be an issue.

Solution

Many outdoor projects, such as the Adirondack chair, are simply screwed together, making disassembly easy.  But this could result in a jumble of similar pieces. To reattach the parts later without puzzling over where they go and for proper screw-hole alignments, grab a camera and take numerous reference photos before you take the project apart. Label the parts, and transfer the labels onto printed copies of the photos. Also, keep a tape measure handy to record key part locations on the photos, as shown in Photo C. Re-mark any sanded parts.

Print a digital image of the furniture piece, and label important measurements for later reassembly. You can also use pieces of blue painter’s tape affixed to chair parts for quick reference later.

Rely on a palm sander to smoothly sand curved edges, such as this leg part.

Level rough wood surfaces

Problem

Raised grain surfaces that are rough and full of ridges due, in part, to the different wear rates of earlywood and latewood softwoods.

Solution

After the furniture piece has thoroughly dried (I left the chair in direct sunlight for two days), it’s time to smooth rough surfaces. Since the chair disassembled easily, sanding the individual parts proved much easier than trying to sand the assembled chair. It also allowed me to sand mating areas and edges. To minimize sanding time, you can use a variety of portable sanders to tackle different tasks. For larger flat surfaces, use an orbital sander to cover a lot of ground fast. For curved edges, a palm sander is my tool of choice, as shown in Photo D. For tight areas on an assembled project, hand-sanding may be your only choice.

Use a moisture meter for an accurate reading of an outdoor project’s dampness level before attempting to sand or apply finish. Woods, such as cedar and redwood, should be 12% (or less) moisture content.

A putty knife helps you push and smooth the filler into minor splits and checks. Sand the area smooth.

Fill cracks and gaps

Problem

Moisture in the wood of an outdoor piece causes the fibers to swell and then contract as they dry out, resulting in cracks and checks along the grain and at the ends of parts.

Solution

The best way to avoid cracking and checking is to seal the wood project properly during construction to keep moisture out, and then reseal it regularly. When cracks occur on weathered pieces, fill them as shown in Photo E, and then sand the pieces smooth once the filler dries. For minute cracks filler will do, but for damaged areas requiring repair or buildup, use a two-part epoxy-based putty. Note, the closer you can shape the putty to the original surface, the less sanding you’ll have to do after the putty hardens.

For optimal results, choose putty that dries hard with minimal shrinkage, such as a two-part epoxy-based putty developed for exterior use.

Outdoor Screws

Considering the number of screws needed for an outdoor furniture piece, it doesn’t make sense to skimp on quality.Stainless steel is by far your best choice, though more costly.

For many exterior applications, the maintenance-free service life of stainless steel screws makes it relatively easy to justify their higher cost compared to plated products. While brass screws look good, they break more easily than other screws. For ACQ (alkaline copper quaternary) pressure-treated lumber, stainless steel or multi-coated screws are a good choice. The treated wood can accelerate corrosion of galvanized fasteners.

1. Stainless Steel Screw (bugle head, square drive)
2. Solid Brass Wood Screw (Phillips flathead)
3. Triple-Coated Deck Screw (two layers of coating over a galvanized undercoating, star drive)
4. DECKMATE (polymer-plated, flathead, star drive)
5. Kreg Protec-Kote Deck Screws (flat-bottom head, self-tapping, square drive)

Replace suspect hardware

Problem

Rusty or broken screws, as well as stripped screw holes, cause joints to fail; hinges can wear out requiring full hardware replacement.

Solution

Extract broken or rusty screws using a screw extractor, as shown in Photo F. When replacing old hardware, don’t skimp on the quality of screws, hinges, and other metal fasteners.

To eliminate exposed screw heads that are both unsightly and serve to collect water, counterbore the holes and plug the screws, as shown in Photo G.

To remove a broken screw, use a screw extractor to minimize damage to the surrounding wood.
A flush-trim saw works best for trimming plugs even with the surrounding surface.

If replacing old screws and stripped holes, go up a gauge when returning to the holes. Go with a #10 gauge instead of #8 for a tighter fit. 

Replace damaged or rotted parts

Problem

While salvaging your outdoor project, you encountered parts that proved beyond repair.

Don’t let a few badly damaged pieces prevent you from salvaging the project.

Solution

For the chair, the horizontal armrests took the brunt of weathering. I could have spent a fair amount of effort and materials filling and sanding the badly damaged pieces, but it proved more economical to simply create new armrests.

To make identical part replacements, I removed the old armrests and used one (they’re mirror images of each other) as a template to trace its shape onto 1⁄2" plywood. I bandsawed the plywood to shape and sanded the edges smooth to create a routing template. I then traced the armrest’s outline onto two 3⁄4"-thick pieces of cedar, as shown in Photo H, and bandsawed the armrest blanks to shape. I adhered the template to a rough-cut armrest with double-faced tape. Using a flush-trim pattern cutting bit at my table-mounted router and guiding off the template, I cleaned up the edges, as shown in Photo I.

Mark the blank slightly larger by holding the pencil upright when running it along the original part.
Rout the replacement part to final shape with a pattern cutting bit and plywood template.

To mark a blank slightly larger than the needed finished shape of the replacement piece, hold the pencil perfectly upright, riding the shank of the pencil against the original furniture piece, as shown in Photo I. This will mark the blank 1⁄8" larger than the original and provide just enough extra edge stock to be routed when using the template to rout the armrest to final shape.

To protect feet bottoms from future rot, soak them in a container of preservative prior to finishing.

Seal and finish for long life

Problem

Unsealed wood absorbs moisture, resulting in a whole host of deterioration issues, from rapid graying due to intense sunlight, to moisture penetration and accelerated rot and decay.

Milk paint (here, acrylic latex) is self-sealing and does not require a primer. If your project allows it, painting individual parts yields the best results.

Solution

Now that you’ve replaced parts, filled cracks, and sanded the project smooth, finish the project to protect it from the elements and to keep it looking good. Soak the ends of parts that are in direct ground contact with a preservative such as penetrating oil finish, as shown in Photo J.

Now, check out the finish selections in the box below and finish your piece. I applied two coats of General Finishes Sage Green Milk Paint, as shown in Photo K.

With a disassembled outdoor project, seal and finish the parts before reassembling them, as shown in Photo K. If the parts of a project are glued together and cannot be removed, do the needed prep work and apply the finish to the assembled piece.

Outdoor Finishes

Even the best outdoor finish will need to be refreshed every few years. The best finishes are those that protect against the effects of the sun’s rays and moisture. Typically, they will have UV inhibitors and water repellants. Exterior finishes either penetrate the wood or form a film on the surface. Penetrating finishes tend to give a more natural look to wood than film-forming finishes, and they are usually easier to reapply as they don’t need to be stripped first if they were used as the original finish. Film-forming finishes such as paint last the longest, but can be the most time-consuming to repair if the original coat is cracked and flaking. In such cases, removing the finish to expose bare wood is required before refinishing. Shown below are five types of exterior finishes, with the longevity of the finish increasing from left to right.

Outdoor Glues

For high-stress areas in an outdoor project, such as a seat/leg chair joint that is destined to receive a lot of weight and stress, add extra holding power in the form of an exterior-grade glue. One such glue is Titebond III Ultimate Wood Glue, a water- resistant polyvinyl acetate (PVA) product that cleans up easily with water. A second glue is polyurethane-based Gorilla Glue, a product that chemically reacts with moisture in the objects being glued or air to create a rigid, lasting bond. When applied, the glue expands, providing an exceptionally strong bond. It can be messy and sticky to work with. For mating dissimilar materials or for small projects, two-part slow-set epoxies work great, but ounce for ounce are more expensive than the other exterior glues. For more on woodworking glues, see page 39. 

About Our Author

A founding member of the San Diego Woodworking Association, Marlen Kemmet’s career in woodworking and woodworking publications stems back to the early 1980s.  He likes building furniture and home accents in the Greene and Greene style for his home in rural Dallas County, Iowa.

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