Pull up a chair—or a sofa or bench. These tips turn your patio or a garden into a destination that lasts all summer.

By Alexandra Churchill
June 23, 2020
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Raymond Hom

Built for looks and longevity, the best outdoor furniture can garner designers' praise and withstand weather's abuse. Still, after a few seasons on the porch or around the pool, your furnishings may start to show their age with rust marks, mildew, or stains—not exactly a desired patina. Whether your items are made of wicker, wood, metal, fabric, or plastic, the general care tips below, as well as the proper cleaning and maintenance instructions for each material, will ensure that your chairs, tables, and cushions look beautiful for years to come.

When it comes to decorating your backyard space, a few fresh details can mean the difference between a garden-variety area and a fully realized outdoor room. A lush alfresco setting is rooted in ample seating, hardy fabrics, and a healthy dose of fun. "Garden furniture has really made strides," says Rebecca Robertson, founder of RR Interiors. "It's not just folding chairs and wicker anymore." No matter what kind of space you have, these chairs, rugs, and swings will help you thrive and flourish in your zone.

Wicker

This pliable weave used to make furniture is traditionally constructed from rattan, split reed, or coated paper and is sometimes reinforced with metal. Coats of clear varnish, paint, or a combination of the two are often applied to protect the surface—try Minwax Helmsman Spar Urethane ($13.27, walmart.com).

Wood

Most lumbers used for outdoor furniture naturally resist decay and withstand the elements. Although sealants help preserve color and protect against wear and tear, they aren't necessary. Left unfinished, the wood acquires a silvery-gray patina and requires little maintenance.

To protect from ultraviolet rays, dirt, and moisture, or to preserve restored color, seal the wood. First, clean surfaces, and sand off any existing finishes. Touch up with paint if needed. Apply a clear water-repellent preservative like Thompson's WaterSeal Multi-Surface Waterproofer ($11.46, walmart.com), which contains a mildewcide, or a penetrating semitransparent stain. (The pigment in the stain helps minimize sun damage.) Consult the manufacturer's instructions to learn how often to reapply; in general, you'll need to do so every one to three years.

Metal

Aluminum, iron, steel, and other metals can be wrought (heated and hammered into shape), cast from molds (often in solid pieces), or formed into hollow tubing. Because most of these, except aluminum, are subject to rust, metal furniture is usually finished with layers of clear varnish, paint, or a durable powder coating.

To protect it, apply a coat of quality liquid or paste auto wax with a lint-free cloth if recommended by the furniture's manufacturer. Use a silicone spray to lubricate swivels and glides on chairs, as well as ribs and poles on umbrellas. We like Rust-Oleum's Rusty Metal Spray Primer ($4.27, homedepot.com). Inspect for rust or chips regularly, especially in hidden areas where the surface may be unfinished (even stainless steel can corrode in salty environments).

Fabric

Material for outdoor use—often called performance fabric—is designed to resist sun damage, stains, moisture, and mildew. Solution-dyed fabric woven with pigment-infused fibers is less prone to fading and can handle more-aggressive cleansers than printed or piece-dyed cloth. To determine which you have, check both sides of the fabric. If they are identical, it's probably solution dyed. Otherwise, it's printed or piece-dyed.

Protecting Against Mildew

Do your best to keep the furniture dry: Never close it when it is still damp; instead, leave it open to dry completely in the sunlight and wind. Bring it inside, into the garage, for example, on damp nights or during rainstorms. You can try spraying the canvas with a water-repellent product made for fabric. Scotchguard ($6, target.com) is one brand. Once mildew becomes a problem on a canvas sling chair, for instance, it may keep coming back. Your best solution may be to replace the traditional canvas cover with modern, mildew-resistant synthetic fabric. Check in garden-furniture departments for items made in these fabrics; they are designed to be durable and water-resistant, and to withstand mildew and fading.

If, despite your best efforts, mildew forms, you should clean the furniture as soon as possible. First, remove any upholstery from its frame. Then brush away as much mildew as possible from the fabric. If the canvas is color-safe, place it in a washing machine filled with cold water and a cup of chlorine bleach. If fabrics are not color-safe, white vinegar is an effective alternative. Agitate to mix, then let it soak overnight. In the morning, drain the water and spin, then launder with cold water and your regular detergent. Return to frame to dry completely, in open position, in sunlight.

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