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How to maintain the metal parts of your home

Published: Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013 12:31 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013 2:52 p.m. CDT

By Bob Vila

house with metal gate and patio furniture
Stroll around a typical American backyard and, among the grass and trees and landscaping, you’re likely to find … metal. Patio furniture, barbecue grills, handrails, fences and gates — they are all made out of (or at least include some) iron, steel or other metals. As handsome as they may be, they are subject not only to the usual wear and tear but also to infiltration by metal’s worst enemy: rust. It takes a bit of work to keep those metal beauties in good shape, but it’s worth it.

The greatest potential for damage comes with exposing raw metal to the elements. The key is to avoid chipping whatever coating covers the metal (which is how the rust gets started), and to protect the metal as best as you can from exposure to water and harsh weather. While this sounds like a tall order, it’s not as difficult as it may sound. Follow these basic tips to keep your metal furniture in fine shape.

Buy right

The first step in making your metal last is to choose your pieces wisely. The highest quality metal furnishings have a baked-on enamel or powder-coated surface, which are your best bets for a long and rust-free life. Painted or varnished metal is less expensive, but it’s more vulnerable to peeling and flaking. The more expensive options may turn out to be more economical in the long run, as they will last for years.

Take care

A few simple routines will go a long way toward keeping your metal furnishings looking good year after year:

  1. Keep your metal pieces clean by wiping up spills, bird droppings or other messes as soon as they happen, and by washing them thoroughly once or twice a year. (If you live in a cold-weather area, it’s a good idea to wash them once in the middle of the season and again before storing them for the winter.) Use a liquid detergent and warm water to clean the surfaces with a sponge. Use a soft toothbrush to get into the detailed areas if you need to. Rinse off all traces of the detergent with clear water or a hose set on a gentle spray, then wipe it dry or leave it in the sun to air-dry. Check manufacturer’s instructions, but after cleaning, most pieces can be further protected with a coat of automobile wax.
  2. Be careful when moving or storing your metal pieces — clinking two metal surfaces together can chip one or both of them. Dragging a metal chair or table leg along a patio surface can also scrape the protective coating off the metal, leaving the leg vulnerable to rust — and the patio subject to unsightly rust stains. Pick the items up rather than dragging them, and separate stored pieces with old towels, so they don’t damage each other.
  3. If possible, keep your metal furnishings under wraps when not in use. Choose a breathable cover made for this purpose, so moisture doesn’t get trapped inside. If the metal does get wet, wipe it dry once the sun comes out again, so water doesn’t sit on it for long.
  4. If you live in an area with harsh winters, monsoon summers or other types of severe weather, try to bring your metal furnishings inside until the storms have passed. If you don’t have indoor storage available, keep the furnishings covered during the winter or other bad weather.

Fix it fast

In spite of your best efforts, at some point your metal gate, handrail or furniture may show signs of wear. Don’t wait for major damage to happen — the sooner you get to work, the less damage and the better your chances for bringing the piece back to (almost) original condition. For tiny spots of rust, give the pieces a thorough cleaning as described above, but add a little fine-grit sandpaper to the regimen to remove any rust or mold. Sand it lightly, then wipe off all grit before touching up the surface. Use metal primer first, allow it to dry and then touch it up with metal paint.

Bring it back to life

If the damage is extensive, or if you’re fixing up a salvaged piece, your job will be a little tougher, but it can be done. Preparation is key. Use a wire brush or a wire wheel attachment on your drill to get the surface down to bare metal. Get into all the crevices and scrolls, and be thorough. If your piece has a lot of rust, you may want to use what’s called a rust converter, a chemical that can be sprayed or painted on rusted surfaces to create a paintable surface.

Once you’re done scraping and sanding, wipe the entire piece down with a damp cloth, or hose it down to remove all particles and sand. Dry it completely! Use a good quality metal primer, then use either spray paint or a thick-napped roller to cover all the surfaces and crevices with new paint. Be sure the paint is designed for metal — you’ll get great results and many more years of good-looking metal furnishings.

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Bob Vila is the home improvement expert widely known as host of TV’s This Old House, Bob Vila’s Home Again, and Bob Vila. Today, Bob continues his mission to help people upgrade their homes and improve their lives with advice online at BobVila.com. His video-rich site offers a full range of fresh, authoritative content – practical tips, inspirational ideas, and more than 1,000 videos from Bob Vila television.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.

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