Painting items in the garden: how to work with fresh colors

Thomas Bott

Wind and weather can wear down objects in the garden over time. Furniture, floors and walls no longer look as attractive. The UV radiation causes the material to fade. Moisture makes wood rotten and causes metal to rust. This damages the structure. Green rust can also lead to unsightly soiling. But with gentle cleaning and a fresh coat of paint, everything will soon look as good as new. You can find out how here.

A woman is painting an old wooden garden chair on her patio. She has chosen white paint. A small side table in the foreground has already been painted.
© Getty Images / Kathrin Ziegler

In this article

Painting items in the garden: use the right colors

There are many areas that might need a fresh coat of paint in and around the garden, such as a wooden shed, metal furniture or concrete borders. Of course the choice of color always depends on the surface underneath. For concrete facades, you will need facade paint, for example, while wood requires glaze and varnish. The same products can also be used for metal.

The paint should always be suitable for outdoor use. You will find products with the corresponding designation in specialist shops. The difference in relation to paint for indoor use is in the composition. Outdoor paint contains special agents to ensure that moisture beads off better and doesn’t damage the material. Exterior paint also offers more effective protection against fading from the sun.

Painting wood, metal and concrete: the necessary tools

Giving garden objects a fresh coat of paint is not very complicated. However, it requires good preparation to ensure that the color will last over time and no dirty spots will appear. Basically, all you need is some tools and material. The following list applies to the treatment of all surfaces:

  • Brush or sponge: use this to remove coarse dirt. Green rust, bird droppings, cobwebs etc. can cause problems during the subsequent stages.
  • Primer: the primer is like a protective layer that is applied under the paint. Check at the DIY store which primer is suitable for which material.
  • Brush and varnish/glaze: you should choose the appropriate brush for the area you will be working on. This is first and foremost a question of size. You will need exterior paint in the desired color. Alternatively, you can use a glaze for wood. This allows the structure of the material to shine through better.
  • Protective cover and painter’s tape: if you want to protect the floor, certain items or areas from the paint, you should buy a tarpaulin to cover them. You will also need masking tape.

Tools and material especially for wood:

  • Sanding paper and a sanding block: you can create a flat wooden surface using these tools. It will also roughen the surface a little so that the paint will hold well. The sandpaper should be neither too coarse nor too fine. Ask at the hardware store about the ideal grain size for your wood.
  • Tip: when tackling larger projects such as repainting a shed or summer house, you can also rent equipment such as a rotary sander and angle sander. These tools will speed things up a lot.

Tools and material especially for metal:

  • Soapy water: after rough cleaning with a sponge, you should clean the surface again more thoroughly.
  • Wire brush/power tool: the equivalent of sandpaper for wood. Metal has a much harder structure, which is why the equipment used to level and roughen the surface must be more robust.
  • Rust protection paint or bonding agent: two primers that are used for special metals.
  • Face mask/work gloves/goggles: sparks or metal shavings can sometimes fly off when working on metal – you will need to protect yourself.

Tools and material especially for concrete:

  • Turpentine/cat litter: these two agents can help to remove greasy stains such as oil before continuing with the painting.
  • High-pressure cleaner: since concrete surfaces in the garden are usually quite large – such as walls or floors – you will need a bigger tool to clean them.
A man is sanding down a wooden board in a garden using a special tool.

Sanding the surfaces to be painted is important because this is how you remove old paint residues and roughen the material ready for the fresh coat of paint.

A new look: instructions for painting

Once you have all the tools and material you need, it’s time to start painting. The instructions are quite simple. The steps are similar, whatever the surface.

Clean the surfaces

Surfaces in the garden can be heavily soiled. Dirt should be removed from the material before any further treatment – this will make subsequent sanding easier. Take a brush or sponge and remove coarse dirt from the surfaces. Clean metal and concrete surfaces with soapy water. You can also use turpentine or cat litter on more heavily soiled areas. Simply spread the litter generously on the stain, moisten and wait at least one hour. This gives the litter time to soften the stain and absorb the dirt.

Sand down the surfaces

Take the sandpaper for wood, or the wire brush for metal, and put on protective clothing. Now you need to remove the top layer of old paint. Any rusty spots on metal surfaces must also be thoroughly rectified. Remove the sanding residues. The high-pressure cleaner should be used on concrete surfaces in this step.

Cover areas to be protected

Before you start working with primer and paint, you should think about covering any areas that shouldn’t come into contact with these substances. More precisely, you need to protect the floor of the patio or doors and windows of the shed or summer house. Lay out tarpaulins over the whole area and apply masking tape where necessary.

Apply the primer

Wooden surfaces: take a brush and start applying the primer. To do this, dip the brush into the primer, wipe off any excess liquid and brush the surface thoroughly in the direction of the grain. Work wet on wet for this. This means repeatedly adding more paint to part of the area you have already treated before moving on. This ensures that you apply the primer evenly and over the entire surface. If the layer appears too thin, add a second coat. Don’t forget hidden spots and spaces.

Metal surfaces: different pretreatment is required depending on the type of metal. On surfaces made of sheet steel without galvanization, start by applying a commercial rust protection paint. The primer can be applied directly onto galvanized steel sheet. If you have surfaces made of non-magnetic metal such as aluminum, for example, a bonding agent is also required. This will allow the topcoat of paint to adhere better.

Concrete surfaces: before applying the primer, carry out an absorption property test. This involves spraying or pouring water onto the concrete surface and observing its absorption behavior. The more unevenly the damp areas dry off, the more important it is to apply the primer thoroughly. It is recommended to choose the thinnest mixing ratio available from the manufacturer.

Then just wait

In order to adhere and develop its protective effect, the primer needs time to dry. Depending on the material, this can take anything from twelve to 24 hours. On dry days, you can leave furniture outside, for example. In wet conditions, however, it is better to place items under cover while they dry. If this is not possible, it doesn’t matter too much. Just try not to carry out the work when rain has been forecast.

Paint the surfaces

Once the primer has dried, it is time for the next step: the actual painting. Take out your brush again (washed clean while you were waiting). Before you put any paint on it, you should shake the bucket or canister a little. This will make sure the pigments are well distributed and the paint will cover the brush more evenly. Dip the brush into the paint and wipe off any excess liquid. Now proceed in a similar way as for the primer.

Wooden surfaces: paint the varnish or glaze in the direction of the grain, wet on wet. Take care not to apply the coat too thickly, otherwise drops will form which will cause unattractive bumps later. Once the surface has been completely painted, let it dry a little. Then go over the wood again to make sure the color is even and covers the surface properly. In some cases, it may even be worth adding a third coat. This is especially true for surfaces that are heavily exposed to wind and weather. You will need to wait about twelve hours before using painted garden furniture or touching treated surfaces such as walls or fences.

Metal surfaces: apply a final coat of metal protection varnish, hammer finish or synthetic resin varnish. Depending on the opacity, several coats may be necessary here as well. Allow each coat to dry completely in between and sand down the surface again. On delicate metal furniture, simply use a brush. For larger surfaces, an electric sprayer is recommended. This will apply the paint more evenly.

Concrete surfaces: the rules for wood and metal also apply to concrete, i.e. “less is more”. This means that you should apply the paint thinly rather than thickly. It is better to achieve the desired opacity with several coats. If you want to preserve the naturally weathered look of concrete surfaces, use a glaze for the coating, just as you would do on wood. This will allow the structures to shimmer through.

Close up of a man wearing yellow gloves painting a metal fence.

Even a metal garden fence needs a fresh look every now and then.

Maintenance: preserve material for longer

To put off painting garden objects again for as long as possible, you should take good care of your furniture, floors and surfaces. This involves a bit of work, but is less costly than a new coat of paint.

Wooden surfaces: garden furniture in particular can be protected from rapid wear with a little care. This is especially important in winter. During the cold season, it’s better to place the furniture in a dry place inside. Paint can flake off quickly due to frost. If your garden furniture is unvarnished, you should paint it with some wood oil if possible. The required frequency varies. The general rule is that if the surface is rough and looks in need of maintenance, it’s worth treating it with oil. Of course, a wooden shed is difficult to dismantle and bring into the house. This means that varnish or glaze will be exposed to the weather all year round. As a result, you may have to add a coat of paint or glaze at the end of the winter. Simply check the shed thoroughly for damage to the paint and decide if a fresh coat is necessary.

Metal surfaces: in general, furniture or sculptures made of metal are very weatherproof and can be left outside even in frosty weather without any problems. You should examine their condition in the spring before the garden season starts again. Objects made of aluminum can be sprayed with a garden hose and cleaned with a mild soap solution. You should avoid the use of sponges and scouring agents so that you don’t damage the surface. Steel and iron surfaces should also be cleaned with a damp cloth before being treated with a little car wax.

Concrete surfaces: no matter what falls, flows or drips onto a concrete surface, you should always remove it immediately, as some substances can otherwise react with the concrete. It’s best to use an absorbent material: kitchen or toilet paper will soak up liquid, sand or cat litter are good for greasy substances, a vacuum cleaner is best for granular masses. You should then treat the stain with warm water. You can also keep concrete surfaces in good condition with stone cleaner from specialist stores, but make sure that the product doesn’t contain any acids.

Buying paint: varnish, glaze and oil cost money

Paint for garden furniture, sheds and other areas is not very expensive. An overview of the costs is shown in the following table. Please note, however, that these are only rough estimates. Depending on the paint, quality and manufacturer, prices can vary greatly. The same applies to the surface area per liter.

  • Product
  • Cost per liter
  • Surface area per liter
  • Primer
  • 20 francs
  • 5 square meters
  • Glaze
  • 20 francs
  • 15 square meters
  • Varnish
  • 25 francs
  • 12 square meters
  • Oil
  • 30 francs
  • 22 square meters

Conclusion: maintenance, glazing and varnishing are not difficult

As you can see, it doesn’t take much effort to give items a new look. Objects and surfaces in the garden require slightly different treatment when being painted, depending on the material – but many steps are also very similar. You should also pay attention to proper maintenance so that you will be able to enjoy your furniture and floors for longer in the future.

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