Outdoor Benches: Choosing the Right Wood

Save time and money on maintenance by choosing the best wood for your location

An empty wooden bench sitting alongside a pathway
Wooden benches help create a welcoming space where people want to linger.

As a renewable natural resource found in plentiful amounts across the globe, wood is a suitable material for a wide variety of building applications. While cheap and quick to build with, many types of wood have great durability and resilience, leaving it simultaneously as desired as it is effective. Further, as a biodegradable and recyclable resource that stores carbon, wood has an extremely small environmental footprint when compared to other typical building materials.

However, not all woods are created equal. Softwoods, such as cedar or pine, have a grain structure that tends to absorb water, and have less natural resistance to rot and decay, thus requiring regular (typically yearly) treatment. Hardwoods, on the other hand, have an increased level of durability and resistance to weather and other elements.

When it comes to building wooden benches and other site furniture, the ideal piece is not only durable, but inviting to people using your space. While all wood will require some degree of maintenance, choosing certain species during construction can drastically reduce the amount of time and effort needed to preserve its aesthetic value and structural integrity.

Considerations

Decaying City of London benches
Choosing a less durable species of wood for your bench can lead to faster decay unless the bench is properly maintained.

When selecting which wood to use for your seating, there are a few important factors to consider:

  • Resistance to rot and insects
    • As susceptibility to rot varies between species of trees, any wood chosen for outdoor use should have a high degree of resistance and avoid water absorbency. Additionally, though wood is never impervious to insects, some species are highly unattractive to bugs and are unlikely to be eaten. Selecting a wood with a lesser resilience to decay will require more upkeep and maintenance work, along with finding a quicker need for repairs or even replacement of the wood used.
  • Climate resistance
    • As your local climate may change depending on your location, your selected wood should relate to the climate of your area. For example, if your bench is to be placed in a wet area where it is likely to come into contact with lots of rain or snow, water and moisture resistance are an extremely important factor that will affect your choice.
  • Aesthetics
    • Although a less important factor for the longevity of your bench, wood is extremely diverse as a building material, with a variety of colors, textures, and finishes available that can drastically modify the appearance of the bench.

Selecting a Wood

With the above in mind, certain woods are better fit use in outdoor furniture due to innate properties, such as density and hardness, that vary between different species. For building wooden benches, some of our favorite types of wood include:

Ipe

A wood renowned for its incredible, long-lasting performance, Ipe (pronounced “e-pay”) is a natural hardwood found in Central and South America. Ipe is not only very durable with excellent resilience against rot and insects, but scratch, slip, and fire-resistant properties make the wood a number one contender despite it being difficult to work. With a medium-dark brown appearance with subtle color and tone variation, Ipe is a beautiful bench wood in any setting.

Studio shots of a Reliance Foundry Ipe bench.
Ipe is quickly becoming a popular wood for construction due to it’s beautiful appearance and durable properties.

Teak

A native wood to Southern Asia, Teak is often considered the gold standard for durability. This golden-medium brown wood has incredible resilience against decay and rot, and is very resistant against termites due to naturally occurring oils. Despite its durability, Teak is considered quite easy to work with, and as such is a popular choice for the construction of outdoor benches around the world.

A teak bench covered in snow
Teak is popular for its resistance to inclement weather, including snow.

Cumaru

Much like Ipe, wood from the Cumaru tree possesses an innate resistance to rot and insects, and is difficult to work with on account of its dense, interlocked grain pattern. The only visual difference comes in its color, which ranges from a golden tan to a reddish brown.

The popularity of Cumaru wood is accentuated by its price point, which can be over 40% cheaper than that of similar-grade Ipe.

A cumaru plank sits atop two sawhorses
Cumaru wood is often compared to Ipe for its innate properties.

Tigerwood

Known by its popular name Tigerwood, the wood that comes from the Goncalo Alves tree in South America is named for its reddish-brown color, covered in dark brown streaks and spots that give it an almost tiger-coat like appearance. Although dense, Tigerwood is generally not difficult to work, and with strong resistance to moisture and rotting from weather it has become a favorite of many woodworkers. Further, the wood does not splinter, making it an ideal choice for site furniture such as benches, decks, or even railings.

A close-up photo of the pattern found in Tigerwood’s grain.
Dark brown spots and streaks give Tigerwood its namesake fur coat-like appearance.

Garapa

One of the few durable commercial hardwoods available in a light color (ranging from soft yellow to a warm gold), Garapa’s natural resistance to rot, decay, and insect permeation is very similar to that of Tigerwood. The wood is easy to work, with natural moisture levels low enough to allow easy application of glues and finishes on the product. A relatively low price point sets Garapa apart as a popular choice for decking and furniture.

White Oak

A great option for wet climates, this domestic hardwood with roots in the Eastern United States is extremely durable and easy to work. Responding well to finishes and protective treatments, well-treated White Oak not only looks beautiful, but possesses a great resistance to rot and decay – especially in comparison to its Red counterpart.

As there is no shortage of availability for its lumber, White Oak is an economical yet powerful wood for a wide assortment of indoor and outdoor fixtures from cabinetry to seating.

A close-up shot of White Oak tree bark
The rough and scaly bark of the White Oak tree is sometimes used in medicine as an antiseptic and hemostatic.

Balau

A Malaysian hardwood species from the Shorea genus named after John Shore (governor-general of the British East India Company from 1793 to 1798), the heartwood of this timber possesses a durability often compared to that of Teak. With exposure, the yellow wood darkens to an impressive deep brown color, accentuated by stripes from its interlocked grain.

Despite being a high-density wood, Balau is relatively easy to work and requires low maintenance, becoming popular for use in both construction and heavy-duty furniture. However, resin pockets may form in the wood, which can accumulate on cutting equipment. Additionally, installed nails should have holes pre-drilled, otherwise there is a high risk of the wood splitting on impact.

Worked balau wood panels
Balau’s workability allows for the implementation of intricate designs and patterns.

Camphor

Popular for its aroma and related extract often found in medicated chest rubs, the hardwood from Southeast Asia’s Camphor tree naturally repels insects, growing its notoriety in the construction of furniture such as chests and benches due to its suitability for outdoor use. With a medium texture, Camphor has a natural luster that shines through its golden-brown color.

The R-5506 Marietta Bench
The R-5506 Marietta Bench combines beautiful camphor slats with a powder-coated steel frame for a beautiful, long-lasting appearance.

Wood Alternatives

Wood-plastic composites, or WPCs, are materials composed of a combination of wood fiber/wood flour and thermoplastics such as polypropylene or polyvinyl chloride. Patented in 1960 by Covema (an Italian company specializing in design of plastic processing machinery), WPCs are still a relatively new building material, but have become widespread in North America for deck floors, fencing, furniture, and even prefabricated houses.

Stained composite lumber decking
Composite lumber is a popular alternative to wood, and can be indistinguishable from the real thing.

Alternatively, lumber can be made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE), creating a strong and durable non-wood building material. Both WPCs and HDPE lumber are created using recycled materials, making them an environmentally-friendly choice. And unlike real wood, WPCs and HDPE are completely resistant to corrosion and highly resistant to insects and decay, lasting long and requiring little to no maintenance over time.

Pre-Fabricated Benches

For those who don’t wish to build their own from scratch, a variety of pre-fabricated wooden benches are available for purchase online. For one example, our R-5501 Cincinatti Bench combines Mahogany-stained balau wood slats with a powder-coated steel frame to offer an elegant yet comfortable seating option for both indoor and outdoor locations.

An R-5501 Cincinnati Bench sitting beside greenery
Pre-fabricated benches are an easy way to add an aesthetic boost to your site while providing seating for your guests.

Alternatively, the R-5506 Marietta Bench’s oil-brushed camphor wood slats and powder-coated steel frame brings a versatile appeal to any setting, featuring curved ergonomic armrests to offer both comfort and sophisticated accents, and is available with or without a backrest.

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