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Material or treatment advice for outdoor furniture??4/5/21
I have recently been commissioned to build a hundred plus units of children's picnic tables and sandboxes. I am not a professional woodworker, but an advanced DIY'r in an MBA program, with a background in manufacturing management.
I am partnered with an experienced contractor, who is a capable builder, but not specifically a woodworker. I was hoping to get some advice on here to aid me in making some informed decisions.
I built the prototype out of cedar for the customer, as they are a higher-end retailer, but they want to keep the costs down for seasonal goods. The mill where I purchased my lumber also said that cedar was less readily available (at least right now) and they recommended pine, which they had heaps of, it was more affordable and more regular in shape.
I do not have a lot of experience building for outdoor use, aside from fixing up my old deck. My understanding (and pardon my naivety) is that the most common woods for this type of application was cedar or pressure treated wood (Lowe's calls it pressure treated wood, and does not indicate what type of wood it actually is, during my cursory research)
The pine they had at the mill did not appear to be treated at all, and in a best case scenario I would prefer not to use pressure treated as it seems to be expensive and often unavailable in Ontario these days, and furthermore, less attractive for kids to be playing with.
So all that being said, can I use pine to build these tables and then seal/stain/paint them to protect against the elements, or must the wood be pressure treated? If this is an option, what seal/stain/paint would you all recommend?
Other than cedar, is there any wood you would recommend that is robust enough for the outdoors, but affordable enough to be practical?
This is my first post on woodweb, and I was warned that you guys can be tough, so I'm wearing my thickest skin in preparation for your answers ;)
I would avoid using pressure treated material for any furniture or playground equipment. The chemicals used to resist rot and insects are also toxic to humans and animals. Pressure treated wood can also be kind of splintery, which is also good reason to not use it for kid's furniture.
Cedar or redwood would be your best choices if the budget allows for it. Pine is ok, but won't last as long in an outdoor environment. If you're going to put a finish on it, I'd use an exterior deck stain instead of paint.
Redwood and cedar are expensive indeed. Also, redwood has been on a protected species list for many years and likely would be difficult to locate in the quantities you describe without special license.
For kids tables and sand boxes that will last a lifetime I would look into the composite products similar to “Trex”. It machines similar to wood, looks like wood, does not splinter, holds screws well and will last into the next century. All of your big box lumber yards will have it in stock. It is also sized like wood....1x4, 1x6, etc...
I’m not sure about the cost.
I never realized pressure treated wood could be so hazardous chemically. It is literally all around us. Decks, bridges, picnic tables, sand boxes and more. Pressure treat wood is always southern yellow pine.
Without an experienced woodworker, preferably a chairmaker, or furnituremaker at the least, your project is doomed.
DIY, MBA, experienced contractor all add up to something less than zero.
As a professional woodworker with over 50 years experience, I would like to take a job that normally requires an MBA. I mean, how hard can it be? What I do a on a daily basis is simple and easy. So easy, anyone could do it. No training or knowledge required.
Why is it that people from all walks of life think they can be a professional woodworker based upon their desire alone?
With building 100 units of children's furniture - who will carry the liability? Have you investigated what that liability coverage will be? If not, double the price for each item.
Species? You are just starting to get into that one, and already you are being steered away from wood (note the person doing so is not a woodworker). Joinery? How big a screw can your drill drive? Mortise, tenon, aren't they all things of the distant past? Design? Can the pieces be repaired easily? Can they be easily procured from sustainable forest products? How about finish? Toxicity? Renewability?
A tough crowd? Or realistic and a little insulted?
We have been building custom furniture for forty years. We never take on any work involving children's furniture. No cribs, no toys, no sand boxes and no picnic tables. There is a huge liability risk. I would never use pine outdoors. Cheap for a reason. We build custom patio furniture using teak and mahogany. Good luck.
Modern redwood is crap. If it has sapwood on it, it won't last 3 years. They still sell it on the reputation of old growth redwood, it's like 2 different woods. Cedar can be horrible for splinters. Nothing you want for children's furniture. Speaking of children's furniture, you will need a ton of liability insurance. I mean a multi-million dollar policy. Just ask IKEA what it cost them for kids chest of drawers tipping over. Same goes for your picnic table if the kid falls over backwards if the table tips a little. Why is it up to you to fit their price point? Let them spec the material or you will be liable for rot, splinters, peeling finish, etc....
Anything for a child I walk away from. Bunk beds/cribs...just not worth it. Plus they are basically all throw away pieces. Same goes for anything outdoor. Pine will rot in a few years. I made some outdoor chairs for myself with my son- his school project- but it was white oak, mortise and tenon, epoxy. I actually grooved the tenons/mortise slightly to create little ridges to hopefully lock the joint. Seems like it worked. No finish will last outdoors for very long unless its maintained regularly. Your job sounds like a headache and I wouldnt waste time on it.
Not to beat a dead horse but really?
If you don't have liability insurance you better look into it before you sign or receive payment for a production run. Your designing and fabricating ie your shouldering all burden (strict liability) - your screwed. My insurance is my second biggest fixed cost behind rent and I can't go anywhere near children's furniture; but I have done many other life safety issues that are issued certs for - always with architects stamps behind them. But kid stuff in the public sector, wow, wow! Even a tight, one year limited warrantee won't protect you in this realm.
A big second thought is are you protected under any corporate umbrella or sole prop?
But to get to your question: White oak on the wood; maybe osage orange (bodark), mesquite, teak, but nothing soft, it might last a year. You might find some imported rubber wood, but I have never worked with it? My designers degree & 30yrs of makers two cents worth.
Wow. I never knew there were so many guys scared of making furniture. The bulk of my 38 year career has been custom residential furniture. Millions of dollars worth.
Tables, chairs, beds, dressers, desks, armoires, TV & stereo cabinets. Hundreds of bunk beds, an entire product line of childrens furniture. Picnic tables, benches, barstools. A bunch of weird, one off pieces that interior designers dreamed up.
I build stuff to the best of my ability, being careful to engineer pieces so they don't fall apart. No one has ever tried to sue me. I do have liability insurance, but I've never needed it. If clients are adamant about a design I'm not comfortable with, I turn it down.
I'm not scared to try new things just because someone else got sued. I just make sure quality is built into my pieces. Then I cash the checks...
We have made 40 million dollars worth of residential furniture. We have never been sued either and I want to keep it that way. We just stay away from baby furniture. We do plenty of beds, dressers and night stands just no play furniture or cribs. We will leave that market to you.
Based on your lack of experience you need to carefully evaluate the risk vs benefit ratio in this proposed undertaking. It's hard to make money on furniture in general.
You want to build outdoor furniture. Expensive materials: rot resistant wood, epoxy, and only stainless fasteners.
Most people lose money on the first big project that they take on. Those people generally have reasonable experience building those things. Breaking even is considered a success.
I would be concerned about the quantity. You could lose badly upfront misestimating(no experience) the true cost of each unit. There is also the backend cost of warranty work. If you make a minor math error or they prove to be defective you could lose bigtime x 100.
Sandboxes are generally made out of plastic. Permanent ground contact would be treated. Even cedar would be sketchy.
I would look into red meranti for the picnic tables. It's a fantastic material to work. Beautiful. It's easily available in the North East. They use it primarily for decks. They have all of the typical sizes. 1x4-10, 2x4-6, 4x4.
I still have a red meranti furniture grade picnic table I built 20 years ago. It's sat fully exposed on our lawn, completely neglected. I sealed the end grain feet with epoxy. That's it. Rain, snow, sun. Weathers beautifully.
The liability the other guys have mentioned is real. You occasionally read about some crib or playground hurting some kid. You should speak with your Insurance broker about coverage.
If I were you I would sub it out. You are a business guy. Stick to being a middle man. It's hard to loose your shirt.