Best finish for outdoors cedar picnic table? - Woodworking Talk - Woodworkers Forum
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post #1 of 14 Old 05-12-2019, 03:54 PM Thread Starter
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Best finish for outdoors cedar picnic table?

I've spent the last two hours researching this online and on this forum and I'm more confused and undecided than when I started. Help!

2 years ago I built a really nice picnic table out of cedar. We keep it outdoors year round in upstate NY. It's completely exposed to the elements, sun, snow, rain, everything. To date we haven't kept it covered in the winter, or any other time, but I'm open to it.

I used a stain and spar varnish combo the first year, on the advice of my local hardware store. It looked amazing. After a winter it was peeling and flaking and terrible so I sanded the whole thing down and started over. Then I applied just a stain, again on the advice of the local hardware store. It looked decent. After a year it's now flaking and almost as bad as the previous year. It's time to start over again.

I'm looking for whatever the best finish might be to preserve the table long term. I understand now I'll have to do some maintenance, restaining, every year or two or three. I prefer something that doesn't flake when it starts to fail, if at all possible - I'd love to not have to sand down the whole thing and start all over again every year. I'd prefer stain over paint; it is a nice cedar table after all.

With that in mind...

What do you suggest?

I know this has been answered before, but it's been answered in conflicting and sometimes confusing ways, so I'm hoping by engaging directly I can come away with a specific recommendation I can feel good about.

Thanks!
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post #2 of 14 Old 05-12-2019, 05:00 PM
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A spar varnish is what you need however like anything else there are good ones and terrible ones. Using one that is pigmented would have to be one of the terrible ones. Staining and finishing should be done in two separated steps.

Go ahead and strip and sand the table and stain it with an exterior stain and allow the stain to completely dry. Then finish it with a marine grade spar varnish. The first coat would do better if it were thinned a little. It allows the varnish to penetrate the wood better and make a better bond. Apply enough finish to make a film 3 mils thick (about the thickness of a lawn and leaf trashbag) The best spar varnish is Epifanes. It's available at places that sell boat supplies. It's formulated to use as a deck of a boat. If it is too expensive Cabot makes a marine grade varnish that is pretty descent.

The thing to do with any finish is keep an eye on it. When the finish starts looking dry and looses it sheen if you put a fresh coat of finish on it will extend the life of the finish. When a finish dries out it allows water to pass right through the finish and if it get through to the wood the wood will expand and contract causing the finish to lift off.
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post #3 of 14 Old 05-12-2019, 05:45 PM Thread Starter
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Thanks for the answer. Is there a particular stain you'd recommend? (And while I'm at it, any particular varnish from Epifanes?)

Last edited by TimmyGee; 05-12-2019 at 05:50 PM.
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post #4 of 14 Old 05-12-2019, 06:54 PM
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what brand of "spar/stain combo" varnish did you use
and how many coats ???
what part of the world do you live in ?

.

.

-- Failure is proof that you at least tried ~ now, go do it again, and again, until you get it right --

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post #5 of 14 Old 05-12-2019, 07:45 PM
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You could use Behr semi-transparent stain or Cabot exterior stain as long as you wipe off the excess and allow to dry. Epifanes also makes stains. A stain that contains oils as a finish such as Ready Seal or Thompson Waterseal doesn't ever dry so wouldn't be a good candidate to use under a varnish. Epifane's clear varnish is a marine grade spar varnish. https://www.jamestowndistributors.co...duct.do?pid=92
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post #6 of 14 Old 05-12-2019, 09:58 PM
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Even Epifanes is going to peel after a year if you leave it exposed to the sun’s UV rays.

If you go through all the work to sand and varnish, make a cover for the table to keep the sun off of it when it’s not in use.

There’s a material called Sunbrella that is perfect for making a cover. It sews pretty easily. Be sure to use the UV thread.
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post #7 of 14 Old 05-13-2019, 03:18 PM Thread Starter
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I'll try a cover this year. I don't feel up to sewing, but I'll research other possibilites.

To the earlier question - I used a Minwax spar urethane varnish. Don't recall the stain. I followed the instructions on both, don't recall the exact number of layers. And I live in upstate NY.

Anyone think it's better to skip the varnish altogether, and just go with a stain? I've read that with certain stains, they don't peel and require sanding. That you can just clean and reapply a new coat each year. Anyone have thoughts on that...?
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post #8 of 14 Old 05-13-2019, 04:11 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by TimmyGee View Post
I'll try a cover this year. I don't feel up to sewing, but I'll research other possibilites.

To the earlier question - I used a Minwax spar urethane varnish. Don't recall the stain. I followed the instructions on both, don't recall the exact number of layers. And I live in upstate NY.

Anyone think it's better to skip the varnish altogether, and just go with a stain? I've read that with certain stains, they don't peel and require sanding. That you can just clean and reapply a new coat each year. Anyone have thoughts on that...?
You could use a deck finish. You would just have to keep people off of it for a week or so until it soaked in. It could stain clothing if not completely dry. It's not maintenance free either. You would have to oil the table about every month for several months until it seem to not need it anymore and then semi-annually. While oiling isn't much work if it's not taken care of the wood can start cracking and would then require a great deal more maintenance.

The Minwax spar urethane is similar to the Epifanes but is one of the worst spar varnishes on the market. Still depending on how much sun you got you might get three years out of it.

Personally I like a film finish on an outdoor table. It's a lot easier to clean. An oil finish is prone to stain and more difficult to clean bird droppings off.
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post #9 of 14 Old 05-13-2019, 04:21 PM Thread Starter
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Ok, so I'm hearing for the stain: Behr semi-transparent stain or Cabot exterior stain.

For the varnish, Epifanes Gloss clear.

And cover it.

Sound right?

Thanks for all your help.

Last edited by TimmyGee; 05-13-2019 at 04:23 PM.
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post #10 of 14 Old 05-13-2019, 05:25 PM
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Yes

Anything you can do to keep the sun off the table will extend the life of it.

Another note, when you finish the table finish the underside of the top too. You could use a cheaper varnish there but it would help the wood not expand and contract as much if the underside of the top was sealed.
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post #11 of 14 Old 05-13-2019, 07:56 PM
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in 1967 I built a round low table from redwood 2x6 top with 2x4 battens and legs.

it had no finish of any kind. it sat on an open porch for 15 years in PA, then next to a swimming pool in MD until 2003.

my mother sold the house, but gave the table to my cousin.



here's the porch and its weather, table is off camera to the left.....
a quality redwood is quite weather resistant.

Best finish for outdoors cedar picnic table?-mimg0001.jpg
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post #12 of 14 Old 05-14-2019, 07:47 AM
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I find the term "Spar Varnish" incredibly misleading, especially Min-Wax. Min-wax is probably the lowest grade of any kind of exterior finish I have ever seen.
It is pure crap and has cost many people many hours of hard labor in prepping a surface only to have their Spar Varnish finish fail.

Epifanes is a very high quality "marine" varnish and if properly applied, it should last around 2 years, even on Gulf Of Mexico, including south Texas to south Florida. After 2 years, it should only require a light sanding and 2 coats on top of that.
The two things about a quality finish is firstly price. A good varnish brush - $20+, The proper thinner - $20, the Epifanes itself, I think around $45/qt.

I used to be a protective coatings inspector for 25 years, mostly steel structures, but the same basic facts apply: 90% of all coating failures are due to poor surface preparation. The other 10% is a combination of different factors including not following the manufacturers instructions. The manufacturer wants you to succeed. He knows what he is doing. He knows a lot more than your woodworking buddy across the street. There are no short cuts to a quality finish.

If you dont want to invest the time or money in a quality clear coating such as Epifanes, the best alternative is paint. And, there is nothing wrong with painting if that is what you want.

Tony B



Retired woodworker, amongst other things, Sold full time cruising boat and now full time cruising in RV. Currently in Denison, Tx
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post #13 of 14 Old 05-14-2019, 05:21 PM
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I sat for several years on technical committees of the Window and Door Manufacturers Association. Anyone who had been in the industry any length of time agreed that there was no sense having a performance standard for exterior stain or varnish durability on wood. These invariably disappoint people. The paint chemists insisted that only paint was reliable. The accelerated aging tests all use UV light, either a xenon arc or South Florida sun, and high humidity which are merciless on any organic coating. The inorganic pigments in paint don't care about UV, and they shield the organic resin.

The practical tip is to remember that paint is preventative maintenance. If you wait until "it looks like it needs it", you've waited too long.
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post #14 of 14 Old 06-19-2019, 02:39 PM
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