3 Steps to Deciding on Your Best Wood for Outdoor Furniture

Lumber, like politics, is probably local in most cases. The best wood for outdoor furniture, or any woodworking project for that matter, depends on your situation and circumstances. We all go about sourcing lumber our own way, but I thought it would be helpful to tell you more about my research here in northern New England. I am, as you know, planning to build a couple Adirondack chairs to put outside this spring.

Factors in deciding on the best wood for outdoor furniture

Rot resistance is a key factor in finding the best wood for outdoor furniture.1. How bad is the weather going to be? Wood is an amazing material. We sailed the high seas for many years with nothing but wood between the ocean water and us. There are a number of wood types that will likely work well for your outdoor furniture project, but it is important to think a little in advance about the weather conditions you’ll be facing. This will also influence the finishing process you use. Bob Flexner, our finishing expert, points out that it’s not only rain and water that causes damage, but also UV rays from the sun. (Bob also makes a point about rot in the image at left.)

2. What is your woodworking style and tool kit? Assuming you can afford it, teak is of course a fantastic option for outdoor projects. But can you work teak in your shop? Similarly, white oak is quite rot-resistant but some find it difficult to work with hand tools. The goal here is to generate a list of 3-5 species (before checking availability and prices) that might be options for you and allow you to complete the project efficiently.

3. What’s your budget? Don’t forget to calculate delivery or shipping costs. This is where some of the local options may really move to the forefront. It’s fun to get familiar with the types of trees that grow right in your neck of the woods. Have a conversation with your local sawyers. Sawmills, being old-school, often can’t be found through Google search, so be sure to check the phonebook and your state’s forest management website for listings.

The best wood for my Adirondack chairs

Here’s how the process played out for me. The weather here is reliably horrendous, so I would love to go with teak or cypress, but I can’t afford those options. I also had my doubts about their workability for my shop. I looked into pine and pressure-treated pine. Reclaimed longleaf pine (from a local vendor) was interesting and workable, but way too expensive for me. Pressure-treated pine remained an option, and I also started looking at cedar. I had somehow discounted cedar as dry, splintery and uninteresting. It may be all of that, but I spoke with a nearby sawyer who is starting to sell me on it. You can find northern white cedar in this area fairly cheap, and it is quite rot-resistant – some say even more resistant than red cedar.

What do you use for outdoor furniture where you are? Tell us a little about the finishing process you use, too.

Dan Farnbach

p.s. – A goal is a series of steps, and that’s how I’m pursuing my outdoor furniture project idea. Read more about all of our editors’ 2014 woodworking goals by clicking here!

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Dan Farnbach

About Dan Farnbach

Dan apprenticed and worked in two professional shops during the years after college. But sweeping shop floors only goes so far toward learning woodworking. These days Dan is online editor for Popular Woodworking, and is learning new skills every day. He divides his time between Boston and Maine.

35 thoughts on “3 Steps to Deciding on Your Best Wood for Outdoor Furniture

  1. sawkillnortheast

    It’s true that reclaimed wood like antique Pine are almost always more expense, but not always, or not far higher in cost, or not worth the value. But reclaimed for exterior – woods like Redwood, Cypress, White Oak and especially Tropical hardwoods like salvaged Ipe – are often 50-100% higher. And for exterior many patina to the grey tones if left completely unguarded to elements. But some pieces get partial coverage or seasonal use and a number of reclaimed woods may meet the budget – including Pine, Doug Fir and even Spruce. At Sawkill Lumber in Northern CT we also sometimes have overstock or shorts that are sold at a discount and work fine for smaller furniture projects. If someone is willing to do the extra work of culling through the wood and is not too far away, the rewards are generally repaid for decades. http://www.sawkil.com

  2. keithm

    Where are you looking for cypress? I can get it delivered to my door for $2.50 bf for 4/4 up to $3.95 bf for 6/4. That’s in line with most hardwoods that I use. I’ll split an order with you if you want it delivered to Cincinnati.

  3. GAAnderson

    I tend to stay away from pressure treated material for all outdoor projects…including decks and fences. Cedar is an excellent choice for your project Dan.

    My go-to materials are Fir, Cedar (western red), and Redwood. My personal raised beds have Doug Fir frames inset with reclaimed Cedar fence boards. My planter boxes tend to be reclaimed (Craig’s List…sometimes free) Cedar fence boards. Landscape items such as arbors are all clear heart Redwood. Fence posts are set in sand, gravel, and native backfill to ensure good drainage and reduce rot.

    I apply no finish to the wood. I prefer to let them age naturally and most of those for whom I build pieces approve of this approach.

    One client was taking down their 30 year old cedar fence and offered all the fence boards I wanted. They were a full 1 inch thick and only rotted where they were attached to the 2×4 cross members. They were aged beautifully…lots of “green” character. I planed one to see how the “inside” material looked…it was as solid as the day it was milled. Score! The client asked if I could make a picture frame from this material for a special painting in their house. I was able to do that and keep the “green” patina that she loved so much.

    For something completely different, I’ve been toying with the idea of building an outdoor project using Trex. Still waiting though for the “right” project to come along. A set of chairs might just be that project.

    Happy woodworking….

    1. Professor Jim

      One of my first projects after beginning my retirement hobby was an Adirondack loveseat. I chose cypress and found it to be a bit “splintery” to work with but it went together fine. Then I made the fatal mistake, at least in retrospect, I finished it with a oil based cedar stain; thinking it would look nicer and perhaps add to weather resistance…..Wrong!! I agree with Mr. Anderson, don’t finish these projects, let them age with nature. The love seat “uglyed” out first and then weathered out after 6 years. I will be replacing it this spring but rest assured, I won’t use a finish on the wood; whatever I choose.

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