AFTER A FEW seasons on the porch or around the pool, outdoor furnishings may start to show their age. The tips below will keep your chairs, tables and cushions looking beautiful for years to come.

For any outdoor furniture

* Read the manufacturer's guidelines. Using unsuitable products may damage items and void the warranty.

* Sweep surfaces using a soft-bristle brush, and rinse with water.

* Wash with a gentle cleanser. Combine 1/4-cup mild dishwashing liquid and 1 gallon warm water. Use a sponge or a soft-bristle brush to scrub the furniture's surface. Rinse, and pat dry with a lint-free cloth.

* Avoid harsh treatments, such as power washing or cleaning with chlorine bleach, pine oil or abrasive cleansers, unless directed by the manufacturer. Test new solutions on a hidden area.

* Remove mold by scrubbing or sanding lightly, depending on the material. Wear gloves, and discard used supplies to avoid spreading spores.

* Cover furniture when it's not in use, or store it indoors. Remove the foot caps on chairs and tables, and keep pieces upright to let accumulated water drain.

Wicker furniture

Woven from rattan, split reed or coated paper, wicker is sometimes reinforced with metal. Coats of clear varnish, paint or a combination of the two protect the surface. It's best to keep wicker furniture in a covered area.

Deep cleaning: Vacuum with a dust-brush attachment or use a dry paintbrush. Clean with a mild soap solution (see "Wash with a gentle cleanser," above), scrub and rinse. Pat dry with a lint-free cloth.

Maintenance: To remove peeling paint, sand lightly with fine-grit sandpaper, and touch up as necessary.

Wood furniture

Most lumbers used for outdoor furniture withstand the elements naturally, so sealants aren't necessary. Left unfinished, the wood acquires a silver-gray patina that requires little maintenance.

Deep cleaning: To remove mildew, mix 1 gallon hot water with powdered oxygen bleach according to directions. Scrub the area with a soft-bristle brush, and rinse. To remove rust stains or bird droppings, or to restore original color, sand lightly along the grain using fine-grit sandpaper, and rinse. For larger areas, use oxalic acid crystals (also called wood bleach or wood brightener) according to directions.

Maintenance: To protect from the elements or preserve restored color, seal the wood. Clean surfaces, and sand off existing finish. Touch up with paint if needed. Apply a clear water-repellent preservative which contains a mildewcide. In general, you'll need to reapply every one year to three years.

Metal furniture

Furnishings made from metal are usually finished with layers of clear varnish, paint or a durable powder coating to protect them from rust.

Deep cleaning: See "Wash with a gentle cleanser," above. To remove rust or mold, sand the area lightly using fine-grit sandpaper. Wipe it clean, and apply touch-up paint as needed (available through the manufacturer), following maker's instructions. Humidity may affect the paint, so it's best to work on a dry day.

Maintenance: If recommended by the furniture's manufacturer, apply a coat of liquid or paste auto wax with a lint-free cloth after cleaning. Use a silicone spray to lubricate moving parts. Inspect for rust or chips regularly, especially in hidden areas.

Cushioned

furniture

Outdoor textiles are designed to resist the elements. Solution-dyed fabric, woven from pigment-infused fibers, can handle more aggressive cleansers than printed or piece-dyed cloth. If both sides of the fabric are identical, it's probably solution-dyed.

Deep cleaning: Removable covers sometimes can be machine-washed in cold water, using mild laundry soap, and air-dried. To hand wash, submerge the fabric in a solution of 1/4-cup gentle liquid soap and 1 gallon lukewarm water, swishing gently. Rinse, and air-dry. To clean mold from solution-dyed fabrics, mix 1 gallon warm water with 2 tablespoons oxygen bleach if the care guide lists it as an approved cleaning agent. Scrub the affected area with a soft-bristle brush. Rinse, and air-dry.

Maintenance: Regularly brush off dirt and debris, and rinse. Certain liquids, such as sunscreen, may cause discoloration, so wipe spills and stains immediately with a wet cloth and a mild soap solution. Some fabrics have a water-repellent finish that loses effectiveness over time. To restore repellency, clean and dry the material, and apply a fabric protector, such as 303 High Tech Fabric Guard (not suitable for vinyl or plastics). Repeat once a year or when water stops beading on the surface.

Plastic furniture

Resin or all-weather furniture is generally made from either polyvinyl chloride or polyethylene.

Deep cleaning: Use a mild soap solution (see "Wash with a gentle cleanser," above). For tough stains or mildew, try a solution of 10 parts water to 1 part chlorine bleach if the care guide recommends its use.

Maintenance: Sunscreen can discolor some plastics, so wipe furniture with a wet cloth and a mild soap solution soon after exposure. *

Questions should be addressed to Ask Martha, care of Letters Department, Martha Stewart Living, 11 W. 42nd St., New York, NY 10036. Questions also may be sent by e-mail to: mslletters@marthastewart.com. Please include your name, address and daytime telephone number.