10 Tips to Select Outdoor Furniture

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There's something really nice about the idea of turning part of your landscape into an alfresco family room during two or three seasons of the year. It's certainly a less expensive option than adding another room to your home. Who needs walls, anyway? Open air living has "green" appeal. It gets you back into nature -- and nature you can control with a flick of the garden hose or a spritz from a can of bug spray.

Making the transition to outdoor living requires a judicious reallocation of resources, though. If you're outfitting an outdoor living area this season, finding comfy, long-lasting furniture may mean the difference between hanging out on the patio for a while to enjoy the fresh air and heading indoors after a few cramped, uncomfortable minutes parked on a cheap patio chair.

Patio décor has to be more than merely attractive to withstand the elements and provide good value for your outdoor decorating dollar. Let's explore 10 things you should keep in mind when shopping for outdoor furnishings.

Insist on Good Quality

From sloppy welds to cracked casters to amateurish paint finishes, a close inspection will expose that great outdoor furniture bargain for what it really is -- a bad buy that probably won't last until next season. There are a couple of important lessons here: It's easy to think of outdoor furnishings as somewhat less important than the stuff you buy for indoor use. In fact, the reverse is often true. What you buy to use outside has to stand up to sun exposure, wind, rain and probably some roughhousing, too. Inspect every piece you're considering for flaws, especially if the deal sounds too good to be true. This is one area where a higher price is often a good indicator of better quality.

Form Follows Function

Your best bet when deciding on the right materials for your outdoor furnishings is to evaluate how you plan on using your furniture and how much time you want to spend maintaining it.

Here are a couple of examples: A lightweight aluminum or plastic chair will be rust-resistant and easy to move around if you plan on dragging it into the front yard for the annual neighborhood block party or stowing it in the shed come October. It won't have the heft and stability of an iron or stainless steel piece, but it might be stackable (or collapsible) so you can hang it on a wall in an out of the way spot when you aren't using it.

On the other hand, a cedar loveseat will be very sturdy and feel more like the kind of furniture you're used to indoors. It will require added maintenance though, like a coat of sealer every couple of years, and moving it from place to place to catch some shade (or sun) could be a problem, too.

  • Aluminum, plastic and PVC -- These construction materials are rustproof, lightweight, relatively inexpensive and require very little weather treating. You can also wash them easily with a little soap and water.
  • Steel and wrought iron -- Both are heavy duty and sturdy but will rust if not weatherproofed or painted periodically.
  • Rattan, wicker and natural grasses -- It's pretty amazing how well natural materials like wicker look and last outdoors, especially when they are treated with a resin finish. They may require additional weatherproofing every couple of years, though.
  • Wood -- Natural wood looks very attractive in outdoor furnishings. It makes sturdy furniture that can be as comfortable as anything you use indoors. It does require regular treatment with a preservative and may also require UV protection. Choose weather-resistant woods like teak, redwood, cypress and cedar.
Don't Undersize Your Choices
This patio has a lot more space for a lot more furniture.
This patio has a lot more space for a lot more furniture.

You've probably seen those wire chair contraptions that look like slingshots. They function as chairs, but that doesn't mean you'd willingly spend time in one if you had any other choice. One problem is size. Some patio chairs are just too narrow and skimpy. Others are built so low to the ground that getting out of them can be downright embarrassing -- especially for older folks. Sizing for loveseats and couches can be tricky, too. Some are pretty deep from front to back, which can make them uncomfortable to sit in for any length of time. When shopping for outdoor furniture, sit down and relax -- literally. Test the pieces you have in mind. Think comfort and buy accordingly.

Don't Forget the Shade
If you don't have natural shade, create your own.
If you don't have natural shade, create your own.

During the hottest part of the day, sitting outside can get pretty unpleasant if your furniture isn't situated in the shade. What's the next best thing to a big old shade tree? Some sort of shade cover. Whether you're using a crank-deployed umbrella, a motorized awning or are blessed with a permanent wood or fiberglass roof over your patio or deck, make arrangements for some naturally refreshing and sheltering shade.

Make it Flexible

You know that great footstool in the family room that everyone wants to use? It's a comfortable item that's also flexible and convenient. You want that kind of flexibility in your outdoor furnishings, too. Here are some flexible patio pieces you might consider adding to your wish list:

  • standalone umbrellas you can move from place to place
  • dividers or screens that can block the view from the street or nearby homes (some even come equipped with planters in the base for stability and a little seasonal color)
  • wheeled carts that can transport food and other necessary items in and out of the house
  • drop-leaf, collapsible or accordion tables that can be extended when you have guests
Follow the Sales
Take the time to find the bargain.
Take the time to find the bargain.

Everybody loves a bargain, and seasonal items like outdoor furnishings can vary in price by as much as 40 percent depending on when and where you buy. Avoid buying in spring unless you can score deep promotional discounts. By far the best time to buy is between July 5 (right after the holiday) and the end of the summer selling season in late August (in most parts of the country).

Even if you buy in August and store your purchases in the garage or basement until next spring, you'll end up way ahead. Large chain stores that have seasonal departments that need to clear out and restock regularly are your best bets for unadvertised bargains. If you see something you like, ask the department manager for an extra discount. You might be surprised at what he's willing to offer. It never hurts to ask.

Integrate Your Furniture

It's nice to think of your outdoor room as an oasis of calm in a hectic world, but it isn't on a desert island somewhere, it's situated on your property -- and sometimes in plain view of the neighbors and people driving or walking by. You may think that bright orange lounger with the yellow smiley faces looks adorable, just make sure it doesn't clash with the rest of your home's exterior. Sure, outdoor furnishings should be fun and carefree, but if you just spent a fortune trying to improve your home's curb appeal, don't spoil the effect with a silly, seasonal accent piece.

Lush and Plush
That's furniture you can sink into.
That's furniture you can sink into.

Comfort is important -- very important. You may want steel or wood construction in your patio furniture for stability and longevity, but don't forget that without some homey comforts like soft, plush cushions, your outdoor furniture will go largely unused. Avoid pancake cushions. You know, those thin, puny little cushions that aren't plush or even very pliable. Opt for chubby cushions that feel light when you pick them up. Look for cushions with polyester filler, too. The more lightweight and springy the filler is, the more quickly it will dry out after exposure to moisture. That means it will resist mold and mildew and stay comfortable and sweet smelling longer.

Check the Details

A patio set can look attractive but have glaring flaws that can lead to problems after a few months:

  • On large furniture pieces, choose cushions with springs. They'll hold their shape longer.
  • When inspecting metal furniture, bring a magnet. Aluminum is not magnetic, but steel often is. Although it doesn't work with all types of steel, you can sometimes distinguish aluminum from steel construction (or fittings) by just testing them with a magnet. Remember, steel will rust while aluminum and stainless steel won't.
  • Look for aluminum loungers made with long, unsegmented framing pieces. They cost a little more, but they'll last longer.
  • Check chairs to make sure the legs are solid and sturdy. Sit in the chair to see if it shifts or flexes as it takes your weight. Award extra points to chairs that include cross bracing pieces.
  • Opt for furniture assembled using stainless steel screws.
  • Run your hands along wood pieces to make sure they're sanded smooth.
  • Check to make sure chair and table legs have rubber or plastic feet that won't scratch your deck or patio.
Pay Attention to the Textiles

You can't grab a pillow from your family room and expect it to adapt to life outside on the patio. Most textiles designed for indoor/outdoor use are made from all-weather materials that repel water or encourage moisture to evaporate quickly by remaining porous.

Fabrics designed for use outdoors are usually fade resistant and UV protected, too. They'll look good and feel soft and comfortable for at least a couple of seasons. When you're evaluating fabrics for outdoor furniture, check cushion seams for heavy duty thread and consistent, even stiches. Choose cushions with vents that encourage air flow and quick drying.

Invest in furniture with cushions that can be unzipped and taken apart for periodic airing, repair or replacement. It's also a good idea to buy outdoor furniture outfitted with cushions you can turn and flip. This will help them retain their shape, dry more quickly and fade evenly. Acrylics, polyester, treated canvas and cotton duck are all comfortable, durable fabrics used in the construction of outdoor furnishings. Look for them in upholstered items, cushions, pillows, curtains, blinds and umbrellas.


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