Before we bought our house 30 years ago, a friend was also interested in it. She got an architect to check it over and he said all the windows needed replacing. Fortunately for us, she backed out of the sale. We have replaced just one window and the others are still doing a sterling job. The quality of timber used today seems to be vastly inferior to the slower grown, better cured timber of the past so if I have any problems with doors and windows I tend to repair rather than replace. The same goes for garden furniture. You can often find some amazing bargains on eBay, Preloved or at an auction. These might well need a bit of a touch-up, but you can end up with an unusual, personalised piece that you are unlikely to see elsewhere.
Our old green oak garden table is 3m x 1m. We made it from chunky planks pre-cut by a saw mill for £200. It featured in a DIY book I wrote 17 years ago, Garden Workshop. Now the top is a bit eroded in places and the husband (who is more Rothschild than Steptoe) started making noises. I (being more Steptoe than Rothschild) decided to give it a lift. Having admired a zinc-topped dining table, I decided a new top might work. Philip, from Manor Welding, who makes all things metal for me, from arbours to urns, agreed to sort it out. He suggested using galvanised iron sheet (1.5mm thick) and then applying an acid etched finish. I have used this finish a fair bit, it makes galvanised iron look similar to lead and reflects light beautifully, adding subtle high points to the winter garden. We decided to fold the sheet around the sides of the table top and fix it with rivets to add to “the look”.
Zinc (more expensive) is also frequently used to cover tables. It is sold in sheets of many thicknesses, from 0.8mm to 1.5mm. As zinc is very soft you usually put it on plywood backing, although apparently birch ply is now considered superior for outdoor use. You can cut up to 1.2mm thick with tin snips, so if you are clever with a mallet, blocks and YouTube you might be able to do a DIY job with this – but it will probably look more rustic than professional.
Phil Brugnoli is a manager at Metal Sheets Ltd who do a lot of table (indoor and outdoor) renovation this way. Phil says that zinc does expand so they usually use the thicker 1.2mm to 1.5mm sheet for external use and they don’t fix it to the top or it will buckle in the heat. Galvanised iron (which I used) does not expand so much so it is safe to fix. If you want a top they can make a custom size to fit your table.
Examples of prices: a 2m x 90cm top, with the two long sides folded over, would cost £65 for galvanised steel, £125 for zinc and, if you wanted to push the boat out, £170 for copper.
Our table has wooden benches, which we could also cover, but because we have long cushions I don’t mind if the surface is a little rough. If I wanted to give the cushions a facelift there are fabric spray paints for external use so I could create broad stripes or repaint in a brighter shade to cover their faded, jaded look.
I prefer the look of benches as opposed to seats. You can accommodate more people when necessary and they look less cluttered than chairs. It also makes for a more convivial atmosphere. But the downside is that people with dicky hips and creaking knees find the various manoeuvres needed to sit down virtually impossible, especially after a few drinks. To get over this I bring out some old indoor chairs and slip printed covers over them to add an unusual twist. A good range is available from unrendezvousfrancais.com, from €44.10 (£37) each. They will also print them with a bespoke design.
If you don’t have any outdoor furniture, at this time of year there are great bargains around, new and second hand. My daughter bought a set of hardwood table and chairs from Second to None for £75. We also have a great local auction house in Stamford – batemans.com – which often has rich pickings. Being on the doorstep means collection from local auction houses is simple. I never manage to make the auction, but leave a maximum bid beforehand. There are invariably old chairs available.
Whether timber, metal or plastic, all can be given a new lease of life with a lick of paint or stain. Maybe paint each chair in a different colour or just pick out the frame – it immediately adds personality. Metal and plastic chairs can be painted using Jotun’s Demidekk (thepaintshed.com).
Plastic seats will need a primer, Zinsser 123 (brewers.co.uk), followed by two coats of Demidekk. This long lasting paint can be made up in any colour. I use it for everything external.
There are also great ideas to be found on re-foundobjects.com. A pair of cast iron table legs (395 x 73 x 1500mm) are available for £395. These would form a terrific table with an old door on top, or a large stone slab (see Indi Stone below). Keep an eye on the website for other examples as they come in.
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At Indi Stone (indistone.com), Mal, who runs it, is always coming up with new ideas. He has some armchairs, in two sizes, carved out of Indian stone, which look pretty cool. They are an amazing £450. He will get a slab of stone, pretty much any size or shape you need for table tops, but bespoke orders often take three months to arrive. He has many carved bottle balustrades in stock, these are useful for making benches or low tables with a stone slab top.
For those with less spare cash, old cable reels can look pretty good for tables. Add an umbrella in the hole and paint it with a bit of flair and it could even form a good centrepiece. Pallets are ubiquitous, if you need inspiration go to palletfurniture.co.uk, they will make items bespoke for you.
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