Monday, March 24, 2014

Building Outdoor Furniture

From neighborhood barbecues to lounging in the sunshine with friends, summer provides the perfect opportunity to show off what you’ve been working on so hard: not your garden or your new deck, but your outdoor furniture.

A trip to the local discount superstore will yield serviceable tables and chairs for outdoor fun, but there’s nothing more rewarding than creating your own pieces.
With the right tools and materials, you’ll soon be sitting pretty,  which is dedicated to promoting Maine’s quality craftsmanship and preserving the state's rich woodworking history.
It does take work, so don’t plan to start on Saturday and finish in time for your Sunday backyard barbecue.

Why Build Instead of Buy?

It’s so much easier to make a run to a big-box store than to hole up in your garage or workshop on the weekends leading up to summer. Why not just haul out the credit card and call it good?
“If you have a shop, it's definitely a lot less expensive (to build),” said McKelvey, “because you are basically just paying for the materials. In addition, you can alter the design to fit your tastes and needs.”
“How-to” freelance writer John Wilder, a former contractor, agrees. “You can add your own creativity to the product," he said, "and make it uniquely your own.”
You don’t have to settle for cookie-cutter models that you see in every backyard. Instead, create a style that complements your patio, deck or garden and reflects beauty and elegance or rugged individuality.
“At Maine Furniture, we see a lot of table-and-chair sets and benches,” said McKelvey. “The styles vary from contemporary, unique designs with metal and wood to some English garden styles, to large, live-edge plank tables and benches.”
The best thing about building your own is that it’s all up to you.

Materials Matter

Teak, mahogany and cedar are among the best woods for outdoor furniture, says McKelvey, noting that those woods' natural resins are water-resistant. He warns, however, that some of these dense woods require stainless-steel fasteners because they contain properties that will eat away at standard screws and nails.
“Pine, on the other hand, is more porous, less dense, and is more susceptible to the elements,” says McKelvey. “Pine will work fine and is less expensive but will require a lot more maintenance in keeping up with the finish over time. In my experience, it just does not last as long.”
Wilder recommends ipe, also known as Brazilian walnut, a South American hardwood that is often used to make outdoor decks.
Ipe is commonly known as ironwood because it wears like iron, said Wilder. “They have had it on the boardwalk in Atlantic City (New Jersey) for well over 30 years, and it is still going strong,” he said.
If you have some spare ipe boards—or any sturdy boards—taking up space, you might consider using them in a furniture design, like McKelvey did to craft one of his favorite pieces.
“I made a bench that I loved out of six boards,” he said. “The boards had been laying around the shop for quite a while, and I was tired of constantly moving them around.
“I made a drawing incorporating these pieces and put it together using through-tenon joinery (a popular style of arts and crafts joinery). It was a big, sturdy, cool-looking bench I had on my front porch for years.”
With a little ingenuity and planning, you, too, can construct useful and enjoyable furniture—and it might just last as long as Atlantic City’s boardwalk.

Maintenance Matters, Too

Moisture is the enemy of wood, finishes, joinery and adhesives, warns McKelvey. He and Wilder recommend marine-grade varnish as a finish for any outdoor furniture.
Marine varnish, also known as spar varnish, is traditionally used in boat construction and repair. Its high concentration of ultraviolet inhibitors and the hard finish it provides protect wood against sun and moisture, which cause regular varnish to degrade outdoors, Wilder said.
Another option is an oil finish, such as teak oil, which requires more attention and maintenance.
“If (the piece) is finished in oil, it may require re-coating several times a year,” said McKelvey, “as opposed to a varnish or epoxy, which can go maybe two or three years with little attention.”

Timeless Tradition

McKelvey directed his passion into a campaign to return woodworking instruction to Maine schools after his woodworking shop burned down, destroying all his equipment and his beloved bench, which he had taken into the shop to restore.
“The first task is to draw attention to the world-class woodworkers here in Maine,” he said. He is doing that through his nonprofit organization, Maine Furniture. “As the nonprofit grows, we will set up scholarships and have woodworking programs available for schools to utilize that will not cost them anything and provide more students with more opportunities.”
Woodworking remains a good way to make a living, McKelvey says, because many people still want quality products built locally that will last for decades. But even hobbyists can learn the trade and benefit. He recommends the magazines “Fine Homebuilding” and “Fine Woodworking,” as well as the many woodworking videos available on the Internet.
The bottom line is that building—or even buying—quality, handcrafted furniture rather than replacing cheaply made furniture every year or two will save money in the long run while adding class and personality to your patio, deck or porch for years to come.


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