Exterior finishes; which one should you choose? Buying GuidesBuying Guides section icon

Garden furnitureWhen the weather’s good, you want to make the most of your garden. So it’s time to dust off the bbq, clean the patio and get all of your exterior furnishings, summer ready. The first two of those should be easy, the third one, less so.
You can either replace existing furnishings, or spend some time rejuvenating them.
Decided to rejuvenate and not replace? Now’s the time to pick the finish you would like. With so many exterior finishes on the market it can be hard to pick the right one. Here we have a look at the different types of finishes, their pros and cons, so you can make the best choice for you, first time.

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Why do I need to finish?

The sun’s UV rays, coupled with the high rainfall here in the UK leads to weathering. Only in very few cases will wood be able to develop a ‘nice’ weathered look over time. More likely, it will weather in a bad way, going grey, cracking and collecting dirt. Decay will also happen, which will cause the wood to go green with mildew and develop rot. Therefore the majority of people will have to protect their wood with a good exterior finish.

Weathered furniture

Key factors

To get the right finish for you, it’s best to try and match the product with the project. Here are some of the factors you need to think about when buying….


All exterior finishes have one thing in common… they don’t last forever. Some do last longer than others though. So the first consideration is how often do you want to clean, sand or refinish your furnishings? This can be every three months, or every three years!

Applying finish


Are you wanting a quick and easy to apply finish? Or are you happy to spend some more time and possibly learn some new skills in the process?


Do you want to bring out the natural beauty of the wood, leave a glossy finish, lightly colour it or completely paint over it with a new colour?
Before and after


By refinishing instead of replacing you’ve already saved yourself a fair amount of money, but how much are you willing to pay to get the finish you want?

Sadly, no finish will score highly in all categories, so you need to find the product for you.
Exterior Finishes

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What exterior finishes are there?

Exterior Oils

Oils soak into the wood and dry within the fibres. This offers a good amount of moisture protection whilst maintaining a natural, no film look.

  • Quick and easy to apply
  • Enhances the natural character of the wood
  • Some oils have built in UV protection
  • Won’t blister or peel
  • Will need to be reapplied more often than other products
  • Offers the least amount of protection against wear and dirt

Exterior oils are probably the most commonly available product for use outdoors. This is due to them being the easiest to apply and generally the cheapest. Oils such as Danish Oil and Tung Oil can be used for both interior and exterior wooden projects. On their own, they don’t offer very much protection outside and will have to be replaced very often (3-6 months). However as a base, mixed with varnishes they can be very durable.

Your best bet with oils is to choose a specially made exterior oil, formulated to protect against both the sun and fungal attack. These are also very easy to apply (with a natural bristle brush) and will last up to 12 months before having to be reapplied. Another good thing with these oils is that they can come in clear if you want to enhance the natural beauty of the wood or lightly coloured to match the wood you are using. Some oils, such as Osmo will be better suited to vertical surfaces, although we have found that it works just as well on horizontal ones.

Film Forming Finishes (Varnishes and Paints)

Unlike oil finishes, varnishes provide a protective film over the wood. This allows them to offer a very high level of protection and durability.

  • Offers very high protection against sun, rain and dirt
  • Lasts longer than any other exterior finish (up to 3x longer)
  • Very good at bringing out the depth and beauty of the wood (clear varnishes only)
  • Application is harder and often many coats are required to get the perfect finish
  • If moisture gets behind the finish it can blister and peel
  • If blistering occurs, you will have to completely strip and refinish the wood again

Varnishes have long been used in interior projects but people are now looking to get the varnish effect outside. In fact shipbuilders swear by varnishes and nothing else, although these are very high quality, highly priced varnishes. Exterior varnishes are specially formulated with UV protection, giving them high resistance to UV and weathering. This means they can last for 2 – 3 years if preparation is done correctly.

Wood Varnish
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If you want to completely change the look of the wood you are finishing, painting is another option. Paints can last for even longer than varnishes as they completely block the sun’s UV rays. Of course when painting you won’t get any of the natural look of the wood on your project, so bear this in mind. Although paints are not something we sell, we have a fantastic way of applying them, which is very quick and easy.

Fuji PaintWiz

Exterior finishes are a minefield that much is true. But we hope that this guide has gone some way to helping you get through it. No exterior finishes are perfect, so it’s about matching your needs to the products available and seeing which one suits you best. If you have any experiences with some of these products, please feel free to comment below and we can add to this guide as we go.

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Mark SmaleTony JoverMark Smale Recent comment authors
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Tony Jover
Tony Jover

No mention here of Le Tonkenois. I guess because Axminster don’t sell it? I’ve used it for external wooden projects for boats and it offers the ease of application of an oil finish (it is oil based after all) with the gloss and hardness of varnish. Unlike varnish it doesn’t crack and peel, simply requiring a gentle rub down and a few new coats every year or so.

Mark Smale
Mark Smale

Hi Tony,

Yes you are correct, I didn’t add Le Tonk as this piece was generally focused on the products we sell. That being said, most of the points covered in this will lend themselves to the many different brands available on the market. As you have said, Le Tonk is definitely more focused towards the boating community, with it being highly regarded here in the UK and across Europe for internal and external finishing.
Thanks for your comment, this was the sort of information I was hoping for to build the thread.

Tony Jover
Tony Jover

Cheers Mark. I guess it’s worth noting for folk who don’t know the product that Le Tonk won’t give you a glass-like finish such as you can get with carefully applied varnish, but you still get a good depth of shine and highlighted grain. Like this:comment image

Mark Smale
Mark Smale

Hi Tony,

Thanks for the picture! You can’t help but like the finish on there, the grain looks beautiful. Really appreciate images coming through like this as it will help other people choose a product that is right for them.

Thanks again, and happy boating!


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