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. curlie

    Best lumber? Most cost effective? I built a pair of Adirondack chairs about three years ago and used 5/4 PT pine (radius edge decking) for the main frames and concave back supports. I then used clear red cedar 3/4″ thick for all the arms and slats (personal contact surfaces). The soft cedar finished well with primer and paint (lime green) and I like the hardly noticeable give that the cedar has. It’s reminds me of the difference in standing on a hard floor or standing on a raised wood floor. I only wish I had bought stainless screws instead of ceramic coated deck screws since I’m beginning to see small spots of rust on the fasteners after 3 yrs outdoors. Good luck with your build and make sure the contours are good for your height!

  2. lionhart36

    I use cypress and red cedar to make a whole series of outdoor furniture items. Swing seats ,settees, Adirondack rockers, breakfast sets, etc. I use an oil based weatherproofing preservative to prepare the furniture for a long life on the water in Florida. I have a large community of satisfied customers with furniture up to 8 years old. The summers down here are brutal and the sun tends to pull the color out of furniture treated with a tinted preservative but the rot resistance could not be better.

  3. mlise

    Redwood is great for permanent outdoor furniture. It’ll last hundreds of years in tough weather including eternal drippy fog. Spray it with oil occasionally (every decade or so) or let it turn silver with time.
    You can do your best to pick through the stuff at the big box stores or contact a small mill like http://www.sturgeonsmill.com/ They’re milling salvaged logs that have been abandoned for decades and pulling them out of the woods with draft horses. The prices are amazing for ancient growth redwood cut to order.

  4. moonchaser

    Out here in the wilds of Montana, cedar and redwood are fairly readily available. Hardwoods less so. What we get for pressure treated wood is not supposed to be used in contact with skin, also respirators should be worn while working it.

    If you like reclaimed wood, shipping pallets yield some good wood, fairly rot resistant. Not sure what kind of wood it is, I believe usually poplar.

  5. tomrdriller

    PS: Oh yeah……

    I applied some CA glue on the base of all the feet of my furniture so they wouldn’t wick moisture from my lake decking.
    Maybe the cypress didn’t need it because it grows in the waterlands anyway.
    I’ve always read this is a great way for patio furniture to survive “foot rot”!

  6. amoscalie

    I agree wholeheartedly with esincox, I wouldn’t risk the hazards of treated lumber. Red oak will wick water up into it like a straw and it will rot in no time.

  7. tomrdriller

    I made two sets of foldable chairs and matching foot rests from some Lee Valley plans about 4 years ago from cypress. They were finished with 3 coats of spar varnish. I liked the smell of the wood but not its ability to give me slivers everytime I roughly handled the edges until they were well planed and the edges rounded.

    The plan is made for smaller waisted people, so some of you may want to examine the plans and “plan accordingly”!

    The stainless steel hardware also available from Lee Valley allows me to put these summer cabin units away for storage very easily.

    And they’re holding up great. I would readily repeat this process for my next set!

  8. Tom Kurth

    More than one person has mentioned a concern for the weight of some species such as white oak. My Adirondacks made from lightweight redwood tend to go flying in our all too common Midwestern winds. A recently added deck rail has held them down some, but weight isn’t always a bad thing.

  9. esincox

    Dan,

    I don’t know, man… I think pressure-treated lumber should be the absolute last option on your list, if you keep it on there at all. I know in 2003 manufacturers had to change the kinds of chemicals they used to something that was “less toxic”, but who knows what the long-term effects of exposure to “amine copper quat” and “copper azole” are!

    Plus, if you’ve ever picked up or closely examined pressure-treated lumber, it’s always wet and much heavier than normal lumber. That’s because it’s soaked in chemicals. Mmmm… chemical liquid sprayback on the tablesaw sounds tasty, eh? I know you’re supposed to use specially coated screws with pressure treated lumber, so who knows what those chemicals might do to your tools if you don’t clean it all off properly. Plus, you’re going to either have to wait for it to dry or you’re going to have to account for some huge dimensional changes as it dries as a piece of furniture.

    Personally, I wouldn’t chance it — any of it… my health, my tools, my finished project — just to try and save a few bucks.

    Have you looked into white oak? While red oak is a TERRIBLE wood for outdoor projects, as Keith mentions, white oak is a GREAT wood to consider. It is very rot resistant and, as long as you don’t try to make an Arts and Crafts Adirondack chairs with quartersawn wood, it should be competitively priced.

    Personally, I love things with character and style. I’d rather save up a little longer and spend my money on something worthwhile, like reclaimed heart pine or cypress. But barring those, white oak or cedar should be considered over pressure treated lumber.

    Be safe,

    Ethan

      1. johnofgroton

        Dan,
        As I learned when building the outdoor Morris Chair out of Larch, the stainless nails, screws and hardware required for Larch can cost more than the wood. Cedar will also stain with normal fasteners.
        I would not use Larch again because of the checking and slaking but it has held up to the Upstate NY weather well and has not been finished. I will be building another one for my wife but will use pine and a lot of paint.
        Also, I have never sat in an Adirondack chair that was comfortable for too long and not hard to get out of. I would suggest you consider the Morris Chair, one of your most popular projects.

        Good luck,
        John

      2. esincox

        Yeah, there you go! Bring them donuts and coffee when you go, too. ;) Make friends with local sawyers! Always good advice!

        Any time I get this little nagging idea to skimp on some part of a project, be it a construction shortcut to avoid complicated joinery or less expensive hardware or wood, I stop and ask myself, “Do you REALLY want to spend 15-20 hours of your time making something and then put a crappy $2 hinge on it?” The answer is always a resounding, “NO!”

        And the nagging idea is never more than a fleeting moment of weakness I refuse to give in to.

        Any time I look back on a previous project I’m not happy with, 75% of the time I can point out the shortcut I took that is the reason for the disappointment.

        Cheers,

        Ethan

  10. tfsutton3

    I have made 6 Adirondack chairs 1 of pine my first, and it was cheaper with pine allowing for mistakes. I have made 2 out of pressure treated southern yellow pine. These won’t rot but are very heavy to move around. 2 I made from pressure treated and pine. the parts that were on the ground were pressure treated the upper char was pine. The last chair I made was a child’s chair for indoor use and made it out of some poplar I had around looks great and is holding up very well. MY chairs were painted different colors and as long as I keep them painted they will hold up very well. The weather in the northeast can be trying in the winter so I keep them covered and out of the weather. I have some Douglas fir that I’m making a garden bench with.The wood dealer said it should hold up very well too. Anyone use this before ?

  11. dieselmatt

    With regards to price of wood, remember to be mindful of the price of the hardware that goes “best” with the wood. I remember seeing a magazine article that compared pressure treated pine to cedar, and while the cedar was the more expensive wood, the hardware that could be used with the cedar made the price difference negligible.

    Matt

  12. caddis44

    I find that from a quality and price standpoint, KDAT pressure treated wood is by far the best. A premium grade 2x6x16′ board (clear, knot free) costs about $20 (YellerWood), which works out to about $1.25 /bf. This wood far outlasts any natural softwood, and although not at nice as IPE, has a very nice grain structure. Becase it is kiln dried after treatment, it can be immediately stained, unlike regular treated pine.

  13. dmpereira

    I’m currently building a bench for my neighbor to use with his backyard ice rink. I’m using 1 inch thick Cypress which works very well with hand and power tools. Can’t comment on longevity in MA winters yet but I’m expecting it to hold up well. Purchased 5/4 rough sawn from Downes and Reader hardwoods in Stoughton MA. They have quite a large selection of quality hardwoods for furniture projects. For finish, I may leave it unfinished or a couple of coats of General Finishes outdoor oil to keep the color. It should weather to a silver grey like teak with no finish.

  14. Bucknate

    I have a few out door projects in mind. in my neck of the woods cedar is the cheapest way to go for wood that is going to be out side. but what about using it for boat trim? I have found some oak at Homedepot that might work.

  15. tsstahl

    I have used a lot of Northern White Cedar. A fellow church parishioner deconstructed a 90 year old barn that was made from the stuff. He gave me several hundred board feet that I have used for a lot of projects.

    It is very splintery and pitchy. However, the grain patterns are bold and quite appealing to me. I would suggest thickening the dimensions on your plan to account for the much softer wood.

    Some of the wood I have came from the siding. Other than one side having several coats of paint (three in 90 years!!), the wood is in great shape.

    Oh, almost forgot, it sands way better than it planes when you are looking for that final finish; use a wide mouth to hog off the stuff. Or, use White Oak, my new favorite wood.

  16. mcsteff

    All of my Adirondack chairs were made of Sassafras, a wood noted for its longevity out of doors and ground contact. In fact only cedar lasts longer in ground contact than sassafras. it is a wonderful wood to work, strong, lightweight, machines well, takes fasteners and glue very well and smells like root beer when you work it. I also use it in most of my boats. What’s not to like. My vote for sassy!

    1. tsstahl

      I had a source for Sassafras that got tapped out. I love it, though only used it once.

      It was recommended to me as a boat wood. I have plans on building the Lobster bay skiff from Wooden Boat magazine. Hmm, I guess all the preceding is superfluous to the purpose of my response: Sassafras is Good Stuff.

  17. JohnEinNJ

    My favorite wood for outdoor projects is anything rot-resistant I can reclaim. I’ve built several chairs, tables, and a pergola from old swingsets (usually redwood or cedar). You have to be careful with milling because of screws, nails, nuts, and bolts, and you have to deal with the holes left behind, but it’s an economical source and the wear-and-tear can add character. Watch for people giving away swingsets or tearing down decks on Craigslist.

    For finishing, I’ve used Spar Varnish, which looks nice but only lasts a season or two before it has to be completely stripped down. Lately I’ve started experimenting with Heritage Natural Finishes, which are a mixture of beeswax and various oils.

    I do put most of the pieces in the garage for the winter.

  18. jasalomon

    Hi Dan, I’m in the Boston area too, and have been trying to find a good lumberyard and/or sawyer in the area. Do you have any specific recommendations?

        1. Blue Brummie

          +1 on Highland Hardwoods in Brentwood. I live on the Mass/NH border, and they are worth the 45 minute ride. Their selection and prices are excellent.

          I’ve used white oak for several sets of Adirondacks and have been quite happy with the long term results. White Oak definitely works for the New England area.

          In the spirit of openness and transparency, I am not directly, or indirectly affiliated with Highland Hardwoods. I’m just a very happy customer.

          Erick

  19. keithm

    Our city replaced all the rotted out oak (I’m guessing red oak, a terrible choice) on the municipal park benches with ipé . 10 years later, they look great, graying to a light silver color, no rot, no raised grain, no black streaks, no moss or algae. I thought about using it for Adirondack chairs, but fear they’d weigh a ton each.

    1. Steve_OH

      In addition to being much heavier, ipe is also much stiffer, so you can get away with thinner cross sections to avoid some of the weight penalty. The result might look a bit spindly, however.

      -Steve

      1. Blue Brummie

        I’ve worked with IPE as well, great material in terms of hardiness to the elements, but a real BI*CH to work with. Hard on the tools, and hard on the body. From day one, I’ve developed an allergy on face and any other exposed skin. I’ve still got a couple of projects left to do with the IPE, but I’m not looking forward to it.

        Erick

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