Saturday, May 1, 2010

Patio Furniture

Patio Furniture used to be staggeringly expensive.
While cheap today, it can still be costly, in terms of ownership.
Upholstered pieces like this, with painted aluminum frames, might not last very long.

When I was a kid, patio furniture was staggeringly expensive. Everything was back then, but most young people today don't realize it. For example, a Coleman steel-belted cooler was like $99 back in the 1960's. My Dad, who was pretty well off, could never afford one. Bear in mind that a car was only $2500 then, and you realize how staggeringly expensive $99 was. You could buy a TV for that much.

Fast forward 40 years and the Coleman steel-belted cooler is still $99. And similar items that were staggeringly expensive back then - Webber kettles and the like - are now the same price, but inflation has made them affordable for everyone. We truly are lucky today.

Heck, back then, you might own two of those flimsy aluminum folding outdoor chairs, the kind with the interwoven webbing - remember those? Or perhaps you had the matching loungers. And when the webbing went south, you re-webbed them with a kit from the store. Today, such chairs are still sold, but are disposed of within a season or two. Young people today give you a blank stare when you mention re-webbing kits.

Back in the 1960's, you bought real patio furniture at a patio furniture store. The local "lumber yard" did not carry it, and places like Lowes, Home Depot, and the like didn't exist. And when you went to those stores, the furniture was priced like home furniture - very, very dear.

Today, you can go to Lowes, Home Depot, Wal-Mart, and even Target, and see attractive patio furniture sets for only a few hundred dollars. Are these a good deal? Well, perhaps compared to the prices of the past. The problem is, many of these sets last only a season or two, so far from being a major investment purchase, they really are a disposable consumer item.

Many sets today are made of aluminum, heli-arc welded together and given a very attractive spray coating that mimics hammered metal, verdigris bronze, or whatever. They look great in the show room. Many have plastic webbing and "water resistant" cushions. Others have mesh fabrics stretched between frames.

The problem with these types of chairs is that after one or two seasons, they look poorly and often are ready for the trash. Unless kept under cover (porch or screened room) the sun fades the unique finish so that it no longer looks like hammered metal, but some weird white-powdered faded photo of metal. Cushions rot and mildew (so much for water resistance) and fabric and strap sag and break. The aluminum oxidizes and bubbles up the painted finish.

So yes, these types of patio sets are super-cheap, but they don't last more than a few years. So like cheap household furniture, you get what you pay for.

I have found that sturdier wrought-iron furniture, purchased used, can be a much better bargain. When I say "wrought iron" what I mean is welded steel. Actual forged steel is rarely used today. Cast metal pieces (often very uncomfortable) are more often made of aluminum and that is not what I am talking about.

A "wrought iron" patio furniture set like this
can last for decades with
little or no maintenance,
other than an occasional can of spray paint.

I saw a "for sale" ad once at the Safeway, advertising a set of "rod iron" furniture. While I laughed at this redneck gaffe, in retrospect, the advertiser was not far off the mark, as most of this furniture is made of metal wire stock welded together, using expanded metal for seat backs and bases.

Why do I think this type of furniture is a good deal? Well, for starters, it basically lasts forever. Unless you let it really, really rust, it will give decades of good service.

Second, it can be had for cheap, used. Like our Safeway example above, or on Craig's list, you can find this stuff anywhere. And it is all basically the same style, so it matches what you have. We recently bought two chairs and and end table for $25, in perfect condition. Last year, we bought a 48" round dining table and four chairs for $40, and turned around and sold the table for $40, keeping the chairs for free. Free is a price I really like!

Third, there are no cushions to deal with. These chairs are comfortable without cushions. If need be, you can find generic thin cushions (as opposed to those comfortable looking but actually uncomfortable thick cushions in the fancy aluminum-framed sets) to put on them. But the main thing is, most patio furniture, once the cushions are shot, is junk, as you can't buy replacement cushions for them (they make sure of that by changing sizes slightly). With wrought iron chairs, no cushions are needed, so there is no built-in obsolescence.

Fourth, there is little maintenance to these chairs. Hose them off occasionally, or just let the rain do its thing. They may require painting occasionally, but a simple spray can is all you need there.

Fifth, you can paint them in colors. We use a Rustoleum metallic blue on ours, making all the parts of the sets matching. They look unique, and everyone comments "where did you get these cool chairs?" Craigslist and a can of Rustoleum. It's our secret, OK?

Sixth, when you go to sell these chairs, you'll likely get back all your money. Unlike the aluminum chairs with cushions that all go to the curb eventually, these wrought iron chairs last forever, and when you move or no longer need them, chances are, you can sell them for what you paid for them back then.

The patio sets sold in the big-box stores look appealing, but they are very pricey, considering how long they last. Beautiful displays, with tents, patio furniture, even outdoor rugs, can tempt the consumer to whip out a credit card and buy, thinking that he is making a lifetime purchase. But within a few years, that type of furniture looks pretty ratty. The outdoor tent has blown over, or the fabric has faded and torn. The cushions have faded and mildewed and are torn. Straps are hanging down and stretched fabric has bowed. Repair is just not a cost-effective option, even if you could find the materials to repair such chairs.

But "rod iron" patio chairs, bought used for cheap, will last year and years - perhaps a lifetime. Occasional touch-up with a spray can is all that is needed to keep them in top shape. Cheaper to buy, cheaper to own, lasts longer, and holds its value. It really is a no-brainer, isn't it?

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