Furniture made primarily for outdoor use comes in an astounding diversity of styles and materials. Steel and aluminum---both cast and extruded, various plastics, wicker (and weather-resistant imitation wicker), different kinds of stone, cast stone, cement, and a number of woods are used to make tables, chairs, and benches for relaxing and enjoying the great outdoors. Styles range from rustic to rococo, classic---Adirondack chairs, for example---to modern. Most folks already have a pretty good sense of what they like, but there are many other practical considerations that can help make this season's purchase one you'll be happy with for many years to come.
Cost Versus Value: How Long Do You Want It to Last?
A very basic question, but one that many homeowners fail to ask, is how permanent an investment is this furniture. Is it just extra seating for a graduation party or a similar one-time event? Maybe it makes more sense to rent or to buy inexpensive chairs that, though not as durable as they could be, will do the job satisfactorily and at a great price. Most of the time---as a general rule---you're better off springing for quality, but if all you're after is a temporary solution, it makes no sense paying extra for something you neither need nor want.
What's Its Real Function?
Do you want a little bistro set at which to enjoy coffee and the paper? Or are you looking for a full-size outdoor dining table for gatherings of extended family? Are you looking for a short bench---seating for two---beneath a romantic, rose-covered arbor, or is it a large, family-size boot bench for the mudroom you've got in mind? Does the bench need to be very comfortable (are you going to be sitting in it for long periods of time), or is it more decorative, primarily a landscape feature at which you might pause to rest occasionally.
It really helps to be clear about what you want, to have more than just a generic sense of function. Picture in your mind's eye how you'll be using the furniture you're considering purchasing, then let that mental vignette help determine not just the size of the table or bench, but also the material, its placement, any accessories you might need (an umbrella stand or planter boxes, for example), even the plantings. After all, what you're creating is not merely a dining area or a seating solution---it's a spatial experience. So, enjoy; it's kind of like playing architect.
How Tough Does It Need To Be?
Degree of exposure is another consideration when you're buying outdoor furniture. A bench for a veranda or screened-in porch will obviously take far less abuse than one located at the edge of a bluff overlooking the ocean or even just sitting out in the open in the middle of the backyard. And whether you plan on bringing the piece in for the winter or leaving it out in the elements should also factor into your choice of materials and construction. So long as you know where a piece of furniture is going to live---year-round---it's a relatively straightforward matter to identify materials that will meet the demands of that situation.
When selecting furniture for outdoor use, be sure to pay attention to the materials from which it was made. High-quality recycled plastic, PVC, cast aluminum and fiberglass are great choices. Prefer the look of wood? Teak, cedar, eucalyptus and cypress are durable, long-lasting, and require little maintenance. Steel or wrought iron furniture can be very durable, but need to be cleaned and painted occasionally to avoid rusting. Painted wood furniture will also need to be repainted if left in the elements.
No matter how tough your outdoor furniture is, using furniture covers during the off-seasons will cut down on maintenance and cleaning and to increase its life span.
What About the Off-Season?
If you're in the market for a granite-slab bench for pond-side contemplation, chances are you'll place it carefully once and leave it in that same spot ever after. A lot of outdoor furniture, however, migrates indoors each year once the autumn leaves have fallen and the first frosts are settling in. For this reason, whether a piece can be stored easily may also be a consideration. Does the furniture you're considering buying fold or stack, so it won't take up a huge amount of storage space? Or better yet, can it be used somewhere indoors over the winter, perhaps in a sunroom, den, or finished basement? Again, your choice of material, construction, and even style will dictate a piece's suitability for indoor use.
Maintenance is Minimal
For the most part, you don't need to worry about maintenance when choosing between various kinds of outdoor furniture. Why? Because a little warm, soapy water a couple of times a season will generally keep all non-wood furniture looking good, year after year. For really tough stains, a scrubby pad (such as the ScotchBrite sponge pads made for washing dishes) may be necessary, but not often.
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