Outdoor Finishes | Real World Results

Video - April 23, 2021

It’s hard to find a topic in woodworking that’s more confusing and more full of opinions and hearsay than finishing. Double that for outdoor finishing since there’s the additional variables of climate and exposure. One person will swear by one product but another person will tell you to avoid it like the plague. I’m in the fortunate position that everything I do is documented in some fashion so I will often “take one for the team” by putting a piece of furniture out in the elements with a particular finish just to see what happens. I can then report those observations in the name of SCIENCE! These real world observations add to my bank of theoretical knowledge and allow me to supply and informed opinion whenever I’m asked the dreaded “What finish should I use?” question.

In this video we’ll discuss several pieces of furniture I’ve made throughout the years, how they were finished and how they held up. In some cases, a refinish was necessary and we’ll talk about that too.

Finishes Mentioned:

10 Helpful Outdoor Finishing Tips

  1. A finish failure does not always mean the finish doesn’t work. In many cases, there are other variables at play like wood species, application process, misuse, and exposure that lead to a finish failure.
  2. With enough exposure and neglect, ALL FINISHES WILL FAIL. The key to remember is that when the finish fails, a film finish will tend to fail more spectacularly as the finish peels and bubbles up and generally looks like crap. This is one reason why I’m gravitating to non-film finishes on my outdoor pieces.
  3. CPES/Epifanes failures were my fault. In the past I have called the CPES/Epifanes combination “bulletproof” and as you can see that’s not really the case. It’s a great finish and with maintenance, it can last a long time. Neglected and exposed to lots of UV, it’s an ugly mess. Not the product’s fault though. It’s my fault. And the pieces that have limited UV exposure have held up great.
  4. Know yourself and know the situation. Are you the type of person that can commit to a maintenance schedule? If not, throw on some sort of non-film finish and let it age over time. If you don’t plan to do any maintenance, don’t apply a film finish unless the piece will live in the shade.
  5. UV is far worse than moisture. This is not a fact so much as my observation that UV is the real enemy, even more so than moisture. No matter what finish I used, if direct extended UV exposure was involved the finish failed quickly.
  6. Pigments are your friend. This is why many decking products are called “stains” as they’re really just an oil with color added and that color helps block the UV rays from hitting the wood fibers. Clear finishes can have UV absorbing properties too but from my experience, nothing works better than something with actual pigments in it. This is also why one of the best finishes for outdoor pieces is……gasp…..paint!!!
  7. Make slatted table tops. I’ll never design something for the outdoors again that has a full solid top. Slats are the way to go as the water can run off and the boards can thoroughly dry. Part of the reason my big table failed multiple times was because the water and snow would collect on the top, increasing the exposure time unnecessarily.
  8. Wood species matters. Another reason the western red cedar table had such a hard time was the fact that the wood was super soft. Yes, it’s rot resistant, but every dent and scratch created a potential failure point for a film finish. And that’s exactly what happened on my table and benches. A denser wood won’t dent as easily and provides a better base for the finish so scratches and blunt impacts won’t stress the finish as much. The Sapele Adirondack chairs are a great example of how that kind of film finish can work on a harder species. From now on, if I work with Western Red Cedar I’ll be using non film-forming finishes.
  9. The epoxy foot pad technique works. Epoxy pads on the feet actually do work and are a nice insurance policy for anything with ground contact. Prevents splitting and cracking from excessive moisture wicking up into the end grain.
  10. There’s nothing wrong with letting the wood gray naturally. Some people prefer it and as you can see, it can be a lot of work maintaining outdoor wood projects. Not everyone wants to put in that kind of time. So if you don’t mind the weathered/gray look and feel, go au natural.