Outdoor finishes have one thing in common; they all require maintenance. Of course, paint is unequaled at protecting the wood from its two biggest enemies: moisture and ultraviolet (UV) light. Moisture causes the wood to rot, and sunlight bleaches out its natural color. Still, who wants to cover up beautiful wood with paint? If you want the wood to show through on your outdoor projects, you need a clear finish.
There are three basic clear finishes for outdoor furniture: exterior oil, exterior varnish, and an epoxy sealer with an exterior varnish topcoat. Application ease and service life are the two major differences between these finishes.
Of the three clear exterior finishes, exterior oil is by far the simplest finish to apply. Just flow it on, let it soak in and wipe off the excess. Unfortunately, oil offers the least amount of protection and it must be reapplied every year. Exterior varnish, on the other hand, is more difficult to apply: up to eight coats have to be carefully brushed on. While exterior varnish offers excellent protection from moisture and UV light, it has to be recoated every few years to maintain that protection. An epoxy sealer with an exterior varnish topcoat is the most durable outdoor finish and can last for many, many years. However, the initial application does take longer then exterior varnish.
Exterior Varnish or Urethane
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