Outdoor Wood Furniture Finishes: A Guide to Types and Uses

Outdoor Wood Furniture Finishes: A Guide to Types and Uses

September 12, 2022

When choosing any type of wood furniture, it is critical to think about not just the way it looks or the color of the finish but also the work that needs to go into maintaining it. A wide range of wood furniture finishes are available, each a bit more unique than the next. It’s often possible to find something very specific and special. While there are a lot of finishes that work to protect wood furniture well, there are no outdoor wood solutions that don’t require at least some attention and care. With a bit of maintenance, though, these pieces can last for years to come and look fantastic. 

What is the most durable outdoor wood finish then? Take into consideration a few key things before you decide. 

Signature Benches at CityWalk Birmingham by Barge Design

How Do You Protect Wood from Outdoor Elements?

Wood is a natural product, which means the elements work to break it down. Sun, rain, humidity, seasonal abandonment, and more all impact the quality of the wood and the way it looks. No wood, not even teak or imported tropical woods, can withstand ongoing abuse from the elements. Those elements include the wild pool parties that often splash chlorine on the surface. 

When buying outdoor wood furniture, then, it is critical to start with a durable wood species that can provide the very best foundation of protection. Look for wood species that are good at managing most elements. 

Then, you need to work to add an exterior grade finish that can handle the conditions. There are options for wood furniture finish, and many of them can be a beautiful way to protect surfaces. We'll get into more of this in a moment. 

Even with the right wood and the best finish for it, though, you still have to maintain the furniture. At least one time a year, you'll need to determine what type of maintenance the furniture needs and apply protection to it.

Simple to Super Durable

Choosing the best finish for wood takes careful consideration of the amount of durability needed. Most often, as outdoor furniture, you’ll need to have a high level of protection in place. The two biggest factors you need to work against are moisture and UV light. Here are some factors to keep in mi

Exterior Oil and Penetrating Oil

Exterior oil is the simplest and the fastest way to treat most types of outdoor furniture. It applies in moments and typically does a good overall job. However, it only lasts about a year. These oils do not provide a top layer of protection like other products, which means that the oil seeps into the wood fibers and dries. 

Penetrating oil like this works well to create a bit of protection, such as for something that sits on your deck covered. However, for those pieces that will be under constant exposure to the elements, it may not be the best choice. 

Ipe Doors with Oil Finish at Citywalk Birmingham Designed by David Baker Architects

Exterior Varnish or Urethane

Another option that provides a higher quality of protection is exterior varnish or urethane. This helps to create a protective layer that covers the wood itself. This adds far more durability because it works to protect the wood itself. These finishes are typically designed to protect against both the problem factors of moisture and UV rays. They are not any more difficult to apply, though they will still need to be reapplied every 1 to 3 years. 

What Finishes We Use at Alabama Sawyer

We are passionate about our wood products. That is why we use the very best finishes to create the beautiful look you want but also the long-lasting beauty you need. 

Most often, we use exterior wood oil finishes when they are requested. However, our default solution is to use exterior urethane. If you are unsure what type of finishes you could expect on any product, be sure to ask our team for more information.

Consider for a moment that the best and more durable finishes are boat finishes. Keep in mind we do not use boat finishes on our wooden furniture. However, these products are enduring the most extreme environments possible. Even these products have to be refreshed and maintained regularly. Why do we mention this? In short, wood requires attention. It is not a surface that can be tossed out onto the deck and is expected to not need any attention to last for years to come. Protecting your exterior wood finishes on a regular basis makes the most out of every investment you make.

Wood Finishes for Boats Like Epifanes

Boat finishes are highly durable. As you can imagine, the water, UV rays, humidity, and even the salt in the water, depending on where it is, all play a role in damaging wood furniture. These products are highly durable because they provide a protective layer over the top of the furniture, which helps to provide the highest level of protection. These are higher costing products but can still be an excellent option for boat surfaces, though not so much for outdoor furniture. 

Pros and Cons

When it comes to choosing the right product for your needs, consider a simple pros and cons. 


When it comes to durability, exterior varnish and urethane are going to be the best choice. These will typically last several years longer than what you could expect from traditional oil products. More so, they work better at protecting the wood from difficult conditions such as moisture and UV light.


When it comes to maintenance, both products are easy to put on, with urethane requiring a bit more attention. However, you will notice that these products require reapplication more often, and some do not provide a full year of protection for you.

How to Protect Your Outdoor Furniture

How do you protect your outdoor furniture, then? Here are our recommendations for the best overall results. 

Sealing Outdoor Wood Furniture

First and foremost, ensure the wood is sealed. No matter which product you decide to use, look for those that can seal out water exposure. This is important in any climate where there's humidity but also significant rain or snow.

Changing Location of The Furniture

If you keep your furniture in the same position on a constant basis, the UV light will damage it in an uneven pattern. There really is no way to overcome that without significant updates to the varnish. For that reason, be sure to place your furniture in different positions and be sure to rotate this often.


When not in use, cover your wood furniture. If you know the weather is going to be bad for a few days with high humidity or perhaps a lot of rain, cover the furniture with some type of moisture-resistant covering (look for furniture covers specially designed for this).

Keep the Furniture Clean

Furniture like this is made to be used, and we encourage you to do so. However, take the steps necessary to keep it clean. Wipe it down with dish soap and a towel to remove surface damage. Avoid the use of chemicals, though. Be sure to keep any type of chlorine or pool chemicals out of the way as well.

Regular Maintenance 

Pay attention to your pieces. If your beam bench has damage to it, that may mean you need to reseal it. If you notice that your wooden table has a chalky feel to it, that often means it needs to be updated with new sealing.

Shou Sugi Ban Custom Bench under Cover

Scuff Sand and Re-Oil 

If you are planning to use an exterior wood oil finish, you will need to scuff down the surface (follow the manufacturer’s instructions here) and then work to reapply the oil to it. Again, follow the oil manufacturer’s directions for use pretty closely to get the results you want and need.

Scuff Sand + Painting Another Coat of Urethane

For those who are using urethane for their finish, you will also need to scuff sand the wood just enough to remove the remaining material from the surface. Then, reapply the urethane to it. Purchase a higher quality product and be sure to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for use.

Only purchase oils and varnishes that are made for the type of wood you have. When you buy products from us, be sure to talk to us about the proper maintenance for the piece. We believe that wood deserves that extra bit of attention, and providing that can give your wood the best chance at looking its best for years to come.

Whether you follow the Shou Sugi Ban method of protecting wood, which is an ancient Japanese architectural method to preserve wood through charring, or you use one of these products, we highly encourage you to pay close attention to the wood you bring into your home. These are valuable pieces that can be cared for well enough that you can pass them on for generations and love the way they look throughout that time. Every time you take the time to protect your outdoor wood furniture, you are helping that wood to go further, and that's great for the environment, too.