How to choose

Last reviewed: August 2009

Settle on style and material

Types covers the furniture we examined; in most cases, the material dictates the style, as the photos show. For example, teak is simple and substantial, with traditional styling drawn from English garden settings. By contrast, sleek contemporary styles are typically tubular aluminum with mesh seats made of vinyl-coated polyester fabric.

Consider maintenance

The furniture's material determines maintenance requirements. Routine washing with warm, soapy water works for most outdoor furniture. That's about all you need to do with aluminum pieces.

Hose down plastic outdoor wicker to remove airborne dust and dirt; that way, you can wash it with soap less often. However, it's a good idea to keep water away from genuine wicker.

Unfinished teak will weather to a silvery gray. If that's the look you're after, you need do nothing to achieve it. (Teak, a naturally oily wood, is used for ship decking and other marine applications; rain won't harm it.) But if you want to preserve teak's rich, golden-brown color, you'll have to sand the furniture and apply teak oil annually.

Steel and wrought iron need to be painted to prevent rust. You can cover the furniture to keep rain away; just uncover it when the skies clear so that condensation under the cover doesn't lead to rust.

Many furniture makers provide a small bottle of touch-up paint so that you can cover up chips in the finish. You may need to touch up painted aluminum, too, but only to preserve its appearance.

Some metal furniture is painted; some, generally higher-priced brands, is powder-coated. We've found that powder coating provides a thicker, more uniform coating than paint.

Check comfort

Sit in the chairs to get a feel for fit and comfort. Pull them to the table as you would for dining. Take note of the following:

  • Does the seat height seem right for the table height? A table that feels too high or too low won't be conducive to relaxed entertaining.
  • Is the table designed to give everyone's legs plenty of clearance, or do the legs seem to get in the way? Does the tabletop have an ample overhang to allow people to pull their chairs close?
  • Are armrests matched to the table height, or are they so high that you can't pull chairs close?
  • Are armrests designed for comfort? Wide, flat armrests are generally better, but that's often a function of style. Wicker, for example, usually has very wide armrests, while wrought iron may have very narrow ones. The crucial test is whether they feel comfortable to you.
  • Are chair seats roomy side to side and front to back? Are chair backs slanted at a comfortable angle? Obviously, you don't want to feel as if you have to squeeze in between the armrests. But you also don't want to feel dwarfed by the chairs, unable to slide all the way into the seat to reach the chair back.
  • How good are the cushions? Metal furniture usually comes with cushions; wood and resin typically don't. Be sure the cushions fit the seats well and have ample padding. Determining what most cushions are made of can be a challenge; see Replacement cushions.

Inspect in-store samples

Checking these details can tell you a lot about the overall quality of the furniture:

  • Does wood furniture have closely fitted joints? It's not a good sign if you see gaps where table legs join the table skirt, for example, or if stretchers connecting the front and rear chair legs don't fit into the legs tightly.
  • Are welded joints on metal furniture neatly done and unobtrusive? Better still are welds that have been ground smooth and coated to match the rest of the piece.
  • Is the finish evenly and carefully done? Wood should be sanded smooth all over, not just on tabletops and armrests. Painted surfaces should be uniform, with no drips, ripples, or missed spots. There should be no sharp, unfinished edges on metal furniture; check under the edge of the table, where knees may touch, and the underside of armrests.
  • Is the furniture designed so that nuts and bolts holding pieces together are hidden or capped? (The caps aren't just for looks; they help keep moisture away from screws and bolts.) If fasteners are exposed, are they made of stainless steel, which won't rust? If literature on the floor sample doesn't provide the information you need, ask a clerk or ask to see the assembly instructions.
  • Are individual pieces rigid? Wiggle table and chairs to see whether they move. Slight flexing is OK.

Shop around

Our researchers often found wide variations in prices for the same brand of furniture.