Monday, August 18, 2014

Patio furniture follow-up

It's now been about a year since we officially completed our patio project by furnishing our new outdoor space with this Askholmen dining set from IKEA. At the time, this 5-piece, $120 set, made of solid acacia wood, looked like an outstanding deal, considering that similar outdoor dining sets sold elsewhere were going for $650 or more. Sure, it was just a basic wooden picnic table and chairs, but it felt reasonably comfortable, it seemed fairly durable, and, when first put together, it looked quite nice on our new patio. In our excitement, we didn't pay too much attention to the description of our new patio set, which said it was finished with "acrylic glazing paint" rather than stain and that we could "easily protect [it] against wear and tear by reglazing it on a regular basis, for example once a year."

Turns out, we should have taken that as a warning. After a year of wear and tear, the warm brown finish on our chairs and table had not only faded to a greyish hue but was also flaking off in big, uneven patches. If the fading were the only problem, we might have just decided to stick with the "weathered" look, but the flaking was definitely unsightly. And re-glazing with another coat of the same stuff didn't seem like the greatest idea, since both our past experience and the description from IKEA suggested that we'd just end up having to do it again every year.

So we cruised the aisles at Lowe's looking for something more durable, and we came across a can labeled "Olympic Maximum Stain + Sealant in One." It said it was for "decks, fences & siding," so we figured it ought to be durable enough for our outdoor furniture. It promised to protect against "water damage and graying for a minimum of 4 years," and a quart can, which looked ample for our small refinishingproject, was only $15. The only catch was that it was an oil-based product. I normally have a strong preference for water-based finishes, which dry faster, clean up with plain soap and water, and don't produce fumes that can knock you out. However, for this particular job, the durability of an oil-based product seemed to outweigh these advantages. We'd be applying the stuff out in the open air anyway, so the fumes wouldn't be too bothersome, and applying "one thin coat" to finish everything would definitely be a lot less work than taking multiple passes to apply stain plus at least three coats of water-based sealant, sanding after each round. And it wouldn't matter that much if it took 24 hours to dry, since we wouldn't have to apply a second coat afterwards.

Actually, as it turned out, the fumes from this product weren't that bad at all. Not only did we not feel any lightheadedness or headache after working with it for a few hours, we couldn't even smell it unless we leaned right down next to the can. We speculated that the people who make these things must have come up with something less toxic to use than old-fashioned polyurethane; the label says it's mainly a "modified acrylic resin," with a few other unpronounceable chemicals thrown in. (Of course, the original finish on this stuff was acrylic too, which isn't too encouraging—but that 4-year guarantee offers some reassurance.)

Although the stain was easy enough to work with, the project was still a pretty big hassle. The problem is that, as you can see from the pictures, these pieces are made of lots of individual slats. Each of these slats has multiple exposed surfaces, and each one of these surfaces had to be gone over twice: first with sandpaper to remove the old, flaking stain, and then with the new stain. Brian did the larger, flattish surfaces with an orbital sander he'd picked up at a yard sale, while I used a square of sandpaper to work on the little fiddly bits in between slats and on the ends where the sander couldn't reach. The disk on the sander gave out, along with our supply of medium-grade sandpaper, by the time we'd finished the table, so we ended up having to make a Home Depot run to pick up more, and we then burned through about one sanding disk and one quarter-sheet of sandpaper on each of the four chairs. We also produced a huge quantity of sawdust, but fortunately Brian had had the foresight to put down a tarp under the patio set before we started, so he just carefully gathered it up and dumped the contents directly into the trash. We didn't risk putting them in the compost bin for fear that the residue of the original "acrylic glazing paint" wouldn't agree with our plants.

After that, we had to go over those same multiple surfaces with the stain. This was a bit trickier, because each piece had both a top and a bottom, so we had to do all the surfaces on the underside first, leaving just enough exposed wood to grab it by and flip it before we could do the top surfaces. We found the easiest way to work with the stain was to get a goodish amount on the brush, then apply the bulk of it to a single horizontal slat, and then use the little traces that remained on the brush to squeeze into the little fiddly areas between slats. Doing it the other way around mean that too much of the stain came off at once and pooled in the crevices, leading to drips. The whole process took us most of the afternoon, but eventually we had five nicely refinished pieces sitting out to dry in the fading sunlight, while we dumped our cheap foam brushes straight into the trash (rather than mess around with mineral spirits trying to clean them) and ourselves into the shower.

The final result is far from perfect. Although we went over every bit of the chairs with both sandpaper and stain, we couldn't manage to get all the old finish off in some of those little hard-to-reach spots, so the wood tone is a bit more uneven than it was before. There are also a few spots, particularly on the undersides, which didn't get sanded very thoroughly, so the surface is a bit rough. Still, it's unlikely anyone's ever going to bother looking at the undersides, and any flaws in the finish are only noticeable if you know where to look for them. The main thing is that the chairs look overwhelmingly better now than they did just a couple of days ago.

Overall, I'd still recommend that this IKEA patio set as a good deal. After all, $120 is a lot less than you'll pay anywhere else, and even if the finish didn't hold up that well, the wood itself is still in good shape (although we found that after a year of use, many of the hex nuts needed to be re-tightened). However, I'd now offer a caveat to anyone planning to buy the Askhomlen dining set: either keep it sheltered from the weather when you're not using it, or else go over all the pieces with a durable outdoor finish before you put it together. This whole project would have been a lot easier if we'd had a bunch of flat pieces to work with, instead of fully assembled chairs with lots of nooks and crannies.
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