Wood or Poly Lumber? Part 1: Maintenance

Time ages all, but Mother Nature’s changing moods can excessively hasten the aging of outdoor furniture.
The shiny new Adirondacks beaming brightly on your computer monitor can never become a lasting reality in your backyard without a good bit of maintenance.

Water and Wood, Checking and Warping

Wooden furniture is inherently porous, meaning that when untreated, it will absorb water. This absorption causes wood to expand temporarily. You’ll notice it in the outward-facing doors of older homes after a heavy rain: The door becomes harder to open after absorbing rainwater, and the effect disappears once it’s had time to dry. As moisture leaves wood, it contracts towards its original shape. Sometimes, wood fails to return to its original shape permanently, creating the effect we call warping.
Wooden outdoor furniture is constantly exposed to periods of moisture and dryness. Most outdoor furniture is made of woods that naturally have some resistance to moisture, and will not warp excessively. However, the constant movement between an expanded and contracted shape can create cracks. This process is known as checking.

Wood Solutions: Sealant and Stain

The cracks checking leaves behind are larger avenues for water to infiltrate your furniture. Once checking occurs extensively, it becomes very difficult to protect a chair from warping or rotting. To prevent this from happening, we must seal wooden furniture against moisture. This is accomplished with synthetic chemical sealers available in most hardware stores. The entirety of the wood’s surface must be covered with these substances, and applied according to manufacturer’s instructions. Sometimes you’ll need to apply multiple coats of sealant in a specific period of time.
But no matter how faithfully you seal your wooden furniture, sooner or later it will end up looking something like the picture below. This effect is referred to as weathering, and it affect just about all wooden furniture — even the chemical treated stuff, sooner or later. This is a natural process, since we’re dealing with an organic material. The wood’s rich color fades with time and exposure to the elements. That’s where staining comes in.

via goldenteak.com

Wood stain should be applied only to wood that has already been sealed for best results. Staining wood provides another layer of moisture protection to wood, while also giving weathered surfaces a desirable face lift. Depending on the shade of stain you select, you can restore wood to its fresh off the shelf appearance, or give it an entirely different look. The only drawback is reapplication. Inevitably, the stain will weather away.
Any piece of furniture that gets heavy use will have to be stained fairly frequently in order to maintain that fresh appearance. Take a look at the middle section of this freshly cleaned wooden outdoor table. Staining can set any piece of wooden furniture apart, and make it look almost new.

via chicagotribune.com

The alternative is poly lumber. When it comes to maintenance, poly lumber beats wood, hands down. You gain immunity to moisture damage, and save money on yearly expenditures on sealant and stain.

Durawood Essential Adirondack Chair by Pawleys Island

But even poly lumber requires occasional maintenance. They’ll have to be hosed down occasionally if they’re in an area where dirt (or dirty people) are around often. A bit of bleach mixed with water generally does the trick.
Wood or Poly Lumber is a series of articles comparing outdoor furniture materials. I manufacture and sell both wooden and poly lumber products. I recognize the merits of both, and hope to provide an objective and honest view of the pros and cons of both types of outdoor furniture.

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