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Outdoor Furniture Cleaning and Repair

Source: Martha Stewart Living, June 2002


Periodic, thorough cleansing and simple mending keep outdoor furniture in top shape for years. The techniques vary according to the type of material.


Manufacturers protect furniture with paint or clear finish to prevent corrosion that pits the surface. Prolong the coating's life by keeping it clean (never use alkaline products, such as ammonia, a component of window cleaners) and treating with car wax. Recoat scratches promptly with exterior metal paint. Furniture that has a "powder coat" (applied by spraying electrically charged dry paint onto grounded metal, and then baking) needs special touch-up paint, available from the manufacturer.


Cast Iron and Steel
Regular attention is required to prevent rust, which left unchecked will eat through the metal. Inspect frequently, especially at welded joints. If paint is peeling or reddish rust stains appear, sand problem area down to bare metal; prime, and then coat with a rust-resistant metal paint rated for exterior use. Follow up with car wax. If the design is ornate, use a spray wax.


Many cushions are covered in acrylic or polyester-coated vinyl fabric. Acrylics, such as Sunbrella, are coated with a moisture- and stain-resistant finish. Detergents remove this, so clean with gentle soap. If stained or mildewed or if water no longer beads on the surface, wash with 1/2 cup non-chlorine bleach in 5 gallons water, then reapply an outdoor-fabric finish. Polyester-vinyl fabrics, such as Textilene, do not need this coating. Brush away dust, then clean with soap. For stubborn mildew, use bleach solution. Store protected from rain. If cushions become wet, stand on end to speed drying.


Resin (Plastic)
Furniture plastic is porous, so stains sink in. To prevent this, apply car wax. If stained, try scrubbing with mild detergent or dishwashing soap. If that doesn't work, try a 10 percent solution of bleach or vinegar with water, or use a resin-furniture cleaner or a deck wash with phosphoric acid. Nonabrasive household cleaners may also help. Polish clean surfaces with car wax.


Do not oil outdoor teak; this encourages mildew growth. The rot-resistant wood needs only periodic cleaning if you accept its naturally weathered look -- gray with small surface checks. Retaining the original color takes so much work that it's probably not worth it. If you want to try, wash new teak with soap and water. When dry, apply teak sealer, which blocks some of the sun's ultraviolet rays. Then, whenever the wood looks parched, scrub with a teak cleaner, and rinse. Follow with a teak brightener (oxalic acid) to restore the wood's color. Finally, when dry, apply more sealer.


These are usually made from acrylic, polyester-vinyl fabric, or cotton canvas (clean as cushions, above, and rinse thoroughly). For easier access during cleaning, open the umbrella on a driveway or patio. Prevent mildew during storage by making sure umbrella is completely dry when taken down. Companies that specialize in cleaning awnings can often clean umbrellas.


For both traditional and "outdoor" wicker (woven from resin or coated paper), the chief challenge is dealing with the textured surface. To remove dust, vacuum or use a soft-bristled brush. When that isn't enough, scrub with soap and water. If traditional wicker cracks, the fibers are too dry. Apply boiled linseed oil, and wipe dry (the used rags are flammable; soak them in water and wrap tightly in plastic before disposing). To repair traditional wicker, apply a damp towel to any loose strands until they become flexible enough to reweave (about an hour). If necessary, tack with an exterior brad.


Wood (Painted or Stained)
Clean with soap and water. If repainting is necessary, roughen glossy paint with sandpaper or a trisodium-phosphate-type cleaner. Scrape off loose paint, and sand lightly to smooth edges of paint on remaining areas. Prime, let dry, and repaint. Stained wood is easier to care for because stains do not peel. For deep cleaning of clear-stained furniture, use a deck wash, and apply stain. To retain wood's natural look, choose a stain with "semitransparent" pigments in a tone that matches the wood. The stain will block ultraviolet rays, which break down wood fibers. To apply color to unfinished furniture, choose an opaque stain, which looks like flat paint.

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