Building outdoor furniture

Written by matt kailey
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Sitting pretty on your patio

Building outdoor furniture
Homemade patio furniture doesn't have to be "rustic." A little work can make a DIY project look like shop-bought carpentry. (Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images)

"I made a bench that I loved out of six boards. ... It was a big, sturdy, cool-looking bench I had on my front porch for years."

— John Smith, Dorset furniture maker and president of a leading non-profit furniture organisation

From neighbourhood barbecues to lounging in the sunshine with friends, summer provides the perfect opportunity to show off what you've been working on so hard: not your garden or your new deck, but your outdoor furniture. A trip to the local discount superstore will yield serviceable tables and chairs for outdoor fun, but there's nothing more rewarding than creating your own pieces. With the right tools and materials, you'll soon be sitting pretty, just like furniture maker John Smith, president of a non-profit furniture organisation, dedicated to promoting quality craftsmanship and preserving the state's rich woodworking history. It does take work, warns Smith, so don't plan to start on Saturday and finish in time for your Sunday backyard barbecue. The work, however, is worth the reward when you show off---and sit in---your very own creations.

Why build instead of buy?

It’s so much easier to make a run to a big-box shop than to hole up in your garage or workshop on the weekends leading up to summer. Why not just haul out the credit card and call it good?

“If you have a shop, it's definitely a lot less expensive (to build),” said Smith, “because you are basically just paying for the materials. In addition, you can alter the design to fit your tastes and needs.”

“How-to” freelance writer Miles Wilder, a former contractor, agrees. “You can add your own creativity to the product," he said, "and make it uniquely your own.”

You don’t have to settle for bog-standard models that you see in every back garden, either. Instead, create a style that complements your patio, deck or garden and reflects beauty and elegance or rugged individuality.

“We often see a lot of table-and-chair sets and benches,” said Smith. “The styles vary from contemporary, unique designs with metal and wood to some English garden styles, to large, live-edge plank tables and benches.”

The best thing about building your own is that it’s all up to you.

Materials matter

Teak, mahogany and cedar are among the best woods for outdoor furniture, says Smith, noting that those woods' natural resins are water-resistant. He warns, however, that some of these dense woods require stainless-steel fasteners because they contain properties that will eat away at standard screws and nails.

“Pine, on the other hand, is more porous, less dense, and is more susceptible to the elements,” says Smith. “Pine will work fine and is less expensive but will require a lot more maintenance in keeping up with the finish over time. In my experience, it just does not last as long.”

Wilder recommends ipe, also known as Brazilian walnut, a South American hardwood that is often used to make outdoor decks.

Ipe is commonly known as ironwood because it wears like iron, said Wilder. “They have had it on the boardwalk in Atlantic City (New Jersey, US) for well over 30 years, and it is still going strong,” he said.

If you have some spare ipe boards—or any sturdy boards—taking up space, you might consider using them in a furniture design, like Smith did to craft one of his favourite pieces.

“I made a bench that I loved out of six boards,” he said. “The boards had been laying around the shop for quite a while, and I was tired of constantly moving them around.

“I made a drawing incorporating these pieces and put it together using through-tenon joinery (a popular style of arts and crafts joinery). It was a big, sturdy, cool-looking bench I had on my front porch for years.”

With a little ingenuity and planning, you, too, can construct useful and enjoyable furniture.

Maintenance matters, too

Moisture is the enemy of wood, finishes, joinery and adhesives, warns Smith. He and Wilder recommend marine-grade varnish as a finish for any outdoor furniture.

Marine varnish, also known as spar varnish, is traditionally used in boat construction and repair. Its high concentration of ultraviolet inhibitors and the hard finish it provides protect wood against sun and moisture, which cause regular varnish to degrade outdoors, Wilder said.

Another option is an oil finish, such as teak oil, which requires more attention and maintenance.

“If (the piece) is finished in oil, it may require re-coating several times a year,” said Smith, “as opposed to a varnish or epoxy, which can go maybe two or three years with little attention.”

Timeless tradition

Smith directed his passion into a campaign to return woodworking instruction to schools in the local area after his woodworking shop burned down, destroying all his equipment and his beloved bench, which he had taken into the shop to restore.

“The first task is to draw attention to the world-class woodworkers,” he said. He is doing that through his nonprofit organisation. “As the nonprofit grows, we will set up scholarships and have woodworking programs available for schools to utilise that will not cost them anything and provide more students with more opportunities.”

Woodworking remains a good way to make a living, Smith says, because many people still want quality products built locally that will last for decades. But even hobbyists can learn the trade and benefit. He recommends the magazines “Fine Homebuilding” and “Fine Woodworking,” as well as the many woodworking videos available on the Internet.

The bottom line is that building—or even buying—quality, handcrafted furniture rather than replacing cheaply made furniture every year or two will save money in the long run while adding class and personality to your patio, deck or porch for years to come.

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