Outdoor Shades: Shade Materials and Their Special Features

shifting shade of a white patio umbrella

Many outdoor shades use flexible materials

like fabrics and netting to create the shade. These shade materials are perfect for windscreens, shade tarps, sun screens, patio covers, playground shading, shade sails and more. Flexible, lightweight materials are especially great for portable shade because their light weight and ability to be folded makes them easy to move around. They will cut the heat and glare, screen out dust and debris, and can slash your air conditioning bills when set up near a building.

The materials used for fabric shades can be used on temporary structures, such as umbrellas, as well as on permanent structures such as shade sails and patio covers. For example, an aluminum patio cover may have an open or "lattice" roof, allowing for sunshine in the colder months. Outdoor shade fabrics can be placed over these types of structures — permanently or temporarily — to block glare and heat in the hotter months. A well-chosen fabric and structure combination can strike a balance between the winter sun you need and the summer shade you need.

The flexibility of semi-rigid shade materials often comes from the ways rigid materials are put together — bamboo blinds, for example. These may roll up or fold up; some may even fold sideways as vertical blinds. They may fill in the webs of an umbrella or the supports of a permanent structure. Outdoor blinds made of materials like bamboo, wood, or other natural element are known in Japan as sudare or misu. The bamboo or wood is held together by yarn, string, or another decorative material.

Rigid shade materials are the workhorses of outdoor shades. Most of these woods, metals and resins can hold up to outdoor extremes throughout the year, sometimes as long as a century or more. Many of these materials can be used for the support structure as well as the shade material. You can find companies that specialize in outdoor shade structures using each of these materials. Consider finished look, price, maintenance and durability when deciding on materials for your outdoor shade.

Fabric

Woven fabrics encompass an enormous range of qualities, from the most beautiful, durable and expensive outdoor decorator fabrics to to most basic cottons. Less expensive options may include cotton or nylon, with cotton, such as canvas or duck, being among the most natural and least durable of available shade fabrics. More expensive options would include polyethylene or fiberglass.

There is also a wide variety of solution-dyed acrylic or polyester fabrics available in handsome, decorator fabrics in a myriad of colors and designs. These can beautifully complement the decor of your home while providing you with beneficial outdoor shade. These woven fabrics usually have a tight weave (though there are open weaves also available), can block up to 99% of the sun's rays, are water resistant and are usually coated to resist mildew and rot. They may also be treated for UV resistance, meaning they will resist fading. They are typically guaranteed to maintain their color and strength for about five years.

The more tightly woven a fabric, the less it is able to allow for air flow. This means cooling breezes cannot blow through it and it can end up trapping heat into an area. If you want to use the tightly-woven fabrics for their beauty and high UV protection but need help dealing with the heat, consider leaving open spaces between spans of this kind of fabric to allow air flow. Consider combining these fabrics with outdoor fans and other outdoor cooling methods. Combining other cooling methods with outdoor shades can keep you comfortable and protected in the most punishing environments.

Shade netting, mesh, or "shade cloth" may be woven or knitted. Mesh fabrics block much of the sun's rays (percent depends on color and density), yet allow cool breezes to pass through. Even the densest shade netting does not trap heat like a tightly woven fabric or solid roof. That's because shade netting has an open knit or weave, allowing hot, rising air to pass through it.

Because of its open structure, these shade materials are not waterproof. Those holes that let the heat escape also let the rain in. If you need waterproof shade fabrics or 100% UV protection, consider some of the options in woven fabrics. Even though mesh fabrics are not waterproof, there are water repellant options that won't soak up any rain or humidity in the air.

These fabrics are made to last for years while offering an affordable and attractive shade alternative to woven cotton, nylon or acrylic fabrics which can block 100% of the sun and much of the breeze.

Knitted mesh fabric (or "netting") for outdoor shades has strong, durable lock stitching that resists tearing, fraying, stretching, and sagging. Knitted shade fabric has a very high tensile strength, so you can stretch it very tight without affecting its appearance. Knitted mesh fabric does not ravel when cut or torn, like less expensive woven netting, yet it is easily cut with scissors or a utility knife.

Knitted shade cloth is available in ultraviolet protection factors (UVF) that range from about 30% to well above 90%. The higher the ultraviolet protection factor, the denser the knit and the smaller the holes (90% has 1.5mm holes), yet even the denser knitted fabrics allow for comfortable air flow. The more tightly knitted mesh that has a UVF of over 90% still allows air to circulate and keeps the area within its shade much cooler.

This fabric is typically color fast and won't rot, mildew, or mold, stands up to the heat and will not shrink. Lock stitched shade cloth can be attached to support structures with screws because its lock stitch construction prevents tearing or fraying when the material is cut. The fabric is often manufactured from a synthetic fiber that can maintain flexibility and strength even when exposed to the sun for long periods of time. These shade materials typically come with a warranty of up to 10 years that protects against fading and manufacturer's defects.

Woven shade mesh (or "netting"), sometimes called woven "shade cloth", is used where longevity, appearance, UV protection and sag resistance are not as highly valued. This is great for short-term use or for agricultural applications, and is less expensive than knitted fabrics. Unlike knitted shade cloth, woven shade cloth tends to tear and fray and is generally less durable. But its lower cost can offset those points, especially when these fabrics offer the same comfortable air flow and some woven shade mesh can offer the same degrees of sun and UV protection as the knitted kind.

Attaching Shade Fabrics to Structures

Special fasteners are available for attaching outdoor shade fabrics to shade supports. Large areas of these shade materials can act just like the sails on a sailboat and blow around or blow away. These specialized fasteners help stabilize the fabric against strong breezes without damaging the fabric. They are also less likely to cause any damage to the shade material or the support.

Plastic locking clips, galvanized barbed wood fasteners and steel "D"-ring fasteners are specifically designed to spread any tension on the fabric over a larger surface area than ordinary fasteners. Turnbuckles can attach permanently to the fabric and the support and the tension can be easily increased or decreased at any time. Other fasteners that may be useful are stainless steel snap-hooks, and pad-eyes.

These fasteners are less important with small outdoor shades that may collect less wind than the larger outdoor shades. But do keep them in mind for large projects.


Radiant Barriers

Radiant Barriers /Heat Reflecting Shade Materials block the effects of the sun's (radiant) heat by reflecting it rather than absorbing it. Traditional outdoor shade materials absorb radiant heat. Though they do it in different ways, both types of materials keep the heat of the sun and some of it's harmful UV radiation from passing through the material.

Radiant barriers are made from materials that are excellent at reflecting heat and poor at absorbing it. These heat reflecting materials usually consist of a thin sheet or coating of a highly reflective mirror-like material, usually aluminum, applied to one or both sides of another base material or "substrate". The reflective side of the shade material must face an open air space to properly reflect the heat away from the area being shaded. These barriers can be further combined with traditional outdoor shade materials that excel at absorbing any heat that manages to pass through. The resulting material provides both kinds of protection from the heat. Radiant barriers are available in flexible foils, rigid sheets, woven fabrics and mesh materials . . . even paints.

Radiant barriers are most often used for interior applications, especially wall and attic insulation. But these materials have some drawbacks when it comes to outdoor use. Aluminum is the most commonly used metal in these materials, largely because it is lightweight and inexpensive. But prolonged exposure to harsh outdoor elements can easily corrode the metal and diminish the reflective quality that makes it such a good heat barrier. It may be darkened by moisture. It can break down when it comes into contact with salts or acids, so any minerals from the soil or nearby building materials can damage it.

Radiant barriers also act as a vapor barrier, preventing the passage of moisture, unless they are perforated, such as netting / mesh materials. On top of that, dust and scratches can seriously impair the performance of a radiant barrier by dulling the reflective surface. Instead of the radiant heat being reflected, it would be absorbed, and as we said before, these materials do not absorb heat well. As of this writing (2009), most are just not manufactured to withstand long exposure to the outdoor environment.

However, with a little creativity these drawbacks can be overcome. Using these materials in protected areas -- away from moisture, dust and debris vastly increases their usefulness. They can also be very useful for temporary outdoor shades.

Of the few materials that address all of these issues, many end up being expensive. Some are strictly decorative and some are manufactured to reflect light, not necessarily heat. When ordering these materials find out all you can about using them outdoors. Ask the manufacturer if they are rated for outdoor use, what the materials' weaknesses are, if the materials offer any protection against ultraviolet radiation and to what degree, and if the materials carry any kind of warranty for outdoor use.

Wood

wood is a versatile and beautiful outdoor shade material

Wood is invaluable shade material for permanent outdoor shades. It's used not only for overhead structures such as patio covers, gazebos and pergolas, but makes beautiful fences, screens, and shutters. Wood can be formed and carved and finished in such a variety of ways that thousands of people make careers out of working with it! Yet it's easy enough to work with that many people design and make their own outdoor shade structures from wood.

It's available in a range of prices from inexpensive pine you can pick up at the local hardware store to expensive and durable cedar, mahogany, and teak -- each well-suited to outdoor shades. There are many ways to finish wooden outdoor shades — paint, stain, oil. They can also be left unfinished — especially the naturally durable woods of cedar, mahogany and teak.

Pine and Fir are readily available and among the least expensive wood species available. They are easy to work with, but not especially durable. Chemical and pressure treatments can increase the wood's resistance to insects and the harshness of the outdoors. Unfinished pine and fir are less durable than finished. Unfinished pressure-treated wood may not yield a very attractive look, but that may be just fine for certain uses. The cost of paint or stain and it's maintenance will add to the cost of your outdoor shade, but is usually still less than the cost of some other woods.

Cedar, Teak, and Mahogany are especially sought after outdoor shade materials. They are natural alternatives to chemically and / or pressure treated woods. They are highly resistant to moisture -- mahogany and teak have been used in shipbuilding and cedar is commonly used for saunas and hot tub areas. All are dimensionally stable -- they will not warp or crack like pine and some other outdoor building materials can. They are beautiful and are a beautiful way to integrate the natural surrounding with built outdoor shades.

Cedar's cellular structure creates interior air spaces that keep it cooler and give it more insulation than most woods and much more than brick or concrete. This natural insulation helps keep it cooler the the touch, meaning its shaded areas can be cooler, too. This structure also makes it lightweight and easy to work with, but more prone to wear and tear marks. Both White Cedar and Western Red Cedar are especially suited for outdoor use with Western Red Cedar being the more durable of the two. Cedar is less likely than teak to mold or mildew and will not attract insects such as moths or termites.

Teak is a very dense wood that maintains clean edges. This makes it highly useful for detail work, such as the exacting pieces of an outdoor umbrella, or ornate carvings of a vertical screen. Because it is a naturally oily wood, finishes such as paints and stains don't adhere well to teak. But its natural finish, even with no maintenance, fades from the rich golden brown of a new finish to a silvery gray that many people find equally beautiful. A once- or twice- yearly application of oil or light sanding can help maintain a new look for decades.

Mahogany is a strong, dense wood with a straight grain and a fine even texture that yield a beautiful finished piece. Its warm reddish color tends to become darker as it ages. It absorbs stains and preservatives extremely well, which allows for a beautiful finish with no oily residue. In fact it should be stained regularly since mahogany has low natural resistance to parasites or fungus. It is becoming increasingly rare, but is still available, thanks to the sustained use practices of commercial plantations. Best used where its beauty can be seen and appreciated -- vertical shutters and screens, or support posts and accent areas of large outdoor shades.

The costs of these solid woods can be reduced by using as veneers over plywood. These are layered with your wood of choice on the outside, and less expensive woods on the inside. Plywood resists shrinking, swelling, warping and splitting. It can be curved to form arches or curved walls. It is available in large sheets -- 8' x 4' is the most commonly sold. This makes it a natural shade material for solid roofs, such as patio covers, pavilions or canopies.

Plywood for outdoor shades is designed to resist rot and is glued together with water-resistant WBP glue (phenol formaldehyde). It is graded according to amount of surface defects -- use the higher "A", "B", or "C" grades for outdoor use. Types of plywood include high-strength (also called aircraft plywood) which is made from mahogany and / or birch, and used adhesives with increased resistance to heat and humidity, fire retardant plywood, moisture resistant plywood, marine grade, pressure treated, hardwood and softwood. Plywood can be very basic or extremely beautiful, depending on the wood used for the visible layer.

Synthetic Shade Materials

Vinyl / PVC are easy to work with and easy to maintain. They usually come with a smooth, slightly reflective surface. But it's increasingly easy to find with the same colors and textures as wood. It is stain, scratch, mold and rot resistant, is termite resistant, and can be cleaned with soap and water. Vinyl will not splinter - it is smooth to the touch even in the different textures available. It is flexible, so can be bent to make beautiful archways. Though it may fade over time, many manufacturers offer warrantees of up to 20 years.

Some manufacturers combine PVC with wood to take advantage of the strengths of both materials. This type of material keeps the ease of maintenance of PVC, but uses the fading quality of wood to create a more naturally faded look. The look of faded 100% PVC may not be attractive, especially in the darker color ranges, but adding wood to the PVC can yield a faded look that many people prefer.

modern metal and resin shade canopy

Polycarbonate / Resin sheets represent some of the latest technology in outdoor shade materials. They are highly impact resistant, light weight and fire resistant. They are visually stunning because they are nearly as clear as glass. They are better insulators than glass and are easy to clean. There are a number of variations on this product. Many can be curved to form beautiful arches. They can be made with a UV barrier that not only protects the sheet from yellowing, but also provides protection from 99.9% of UV rays.

They can incorporate reflective particles in the sheet to give it a metallic or pearlescent appearance that reflects away heat (a good use of radiant barriers discussed above). Some are transparent from one side but not from the other, allowing visibility and privacy at the same time. Besides all of this, they can be less expensive than glass or even aluminum!

Metals

Aluminum is one of the most versatile metals for shade material. It is durable and easy to maintain. It's impervious to pests. It does not rust. Instead it oxidizes. This means it develops a protective coating of aluminum oxide as it is exposed to the air. But it's not indestructible. Prolonged exposure to harsh outdoor elements can corrode it, making it look dark and pitted. There are a few ways to prevent this, though.

Simply covering it with a paint especially for aluminum helps protect it. Baked enamel paint finishing is a huge step up from paint the typical consumer can apply -- this special paint is actually baked onto the metal, making it extremely durable. Powder coating is a specialized finishing method that suspends pigments in a protective resin coating. This is extremely durable -- much more durable than ordinary paint. Anodizing aluminum enhances it's natural corrosion resistance by giving it an even thicker coating of aluminum oxide. Like powder coating, anodizing is usually done by the manufacturer. The great thing about anodized aluminum is that the coating won't peel off.

Usually all you have to do to care for your aluminum shade is to wash it with mild soap and water or a cleaning product specifically for aluminum. Occasionally apply a coat of auto wax, silicone spray or mineral oil.

Aluminum can stand up to the harshest outdoor elements much more than most outdoor shade materials. While fabric shades hold up well in mild weather, they can deteriorate faster when used in high winds and snow and heavy rains. Even wood needs special care under such demanding circumstances. But aluminum shade materials allow you to have the benefits of shade with more durability and ease of care than fabric or wood. Aluminum outdoor shades can be left up indefinitely in circumstances where woven materials would have to be taken down. An exception would be tubular aluminum which can collect water in it's hollow tubes. In freezing weather the water can expand when it freezes and crack the tubes of aluminum.

Aluminum is available as structural material and as shade material. Structural aluminum is available as wrought aluminum, which looks like wrought iron but is lighter weight and doesn't rust. It is also available in tubular form. These are very light weight hollow tubes which are invaluable for temporary / portable outdoor shades. Cast aluminum is used for temporary / portable outdoor shades, too, but can also be made much stronger and heavier for permanent outdoor shades.

Aluminum sheets are typically used for outdoor shade material. But narrow slats or "louvers", similar to shutters allow for shade material that can be retracted or tilted to the angle of the sun -- like wooden shutters but much more durable. Modern technology has completely transformed the corrugated sheets of the 1960's, though. They are now available with a wide range of special shapes, finishes and colors. These sheets may be solid, providing total weather protection. Or they may be perforated, allowing for air flow. These can provide stunningly beautiful and very contemporary outdoor shades.

For a more traditional look, consider the trend in embossed aluminum. The aluminum is given a texture, usually to make it look like wood, and given a baked enamel finish. This is made into posts and sheets similar to lumber. This "aluminum lumber" is then handled much like wood to create traditional outdoor shade structures -- patio covers, gazebos, pavilions, etc. Outdoor shades made with this kind of material have the same durability and weather resistance as aluminum, but mimic the look of wood, making it ideal for home use.

metals are among the most durable outdoor shade materials

Steel is a remarkably strong and durable shade material. But it rusts (corrodes), which weakens it. Steel is treated to resist corrosion in one of two ways, which gives us two forms of steel: galvanized steel or stainless steel. Since most corrosion is caused by moisture, this corrosion resistance is especially important in outdoor cooling uses.

Steel that has been galvanized has zinc permanently bonded ("alloyed") to its surface The zinc make the steel highly resistant to corrosion from salt water and makes it especially useful in coastal areas near salt water and near swimming pools. Galvanized steel can be painted.

Stainless steel is steel that has been bonded (alloyed) with chromium. Generally, the more chromium, the more resistant stainless steel is to corrosion. Unlike untreated steel or galvanized steel, stainless steel's resistance to corrosion is dependent upon its exposure to oxygen. In fact, exposure to oxygen can actually help reverse some corrosion. This is one reason stainless steel performs so well outdoors.

Stainless steel usually has a highly reflective appearance, looking as if it has been polished. This surface can be stained by chemical residues or hard water (so much for the term "stainless"!) but applying textures to the stainless steel can make these stains less noticeable.

Concrete, Brick, and Stone

Concrete, brick and stone are often overlooked for outdoor shade material. Maybe it's because we think of shades as being overhead and it's hard to think about these heavy materials being suspended over our heads. Yet we drive under bridges and parking strucures and walk into multi-story buildings without much thought.

These materials are great insulators. A wall made of any of these materials may get blistering hot on one side and still be cool on the other side. This is one reason they have been used as building materials for many years in hot climates. Needless to say they provide 100% UV protection.

stone walls offer outdoor shade

Brick and Stone
The problem with using stone and brick overhead is not so much the stone and brick but the material used to hold them together. Brick and stone, while less successful as overhead shades, are invaluable for their use in vertical shades — walls and fences.


concrete makes durable outdoor shades

Concrete deals beautifully with the problem of overhead safety. Concrete uses a system of internal supports for wide spans. Together with its ability to be molded, concrete can provide maintenance-free shade that surpasses the durability of most other shade materials.

Outdoor Shade Materials: Special Features

Following are some important features to consider when selecting materials for your outdoor shades.

Protection From Ultraviolet Radiation

The sun's energy comes to us mostly in 3 forms: visible light rays, infrared rays (also known as heat), and ultraviolet rays. All of these rays carry energy, or "radiation". Ultraviolet rays (also known as UV radiation or UVR) carry more energy than the others. Enough in fact, to cause damage to living cells.

At noon on a clear summer day, a person with unprotected fair skin can receive enough UVR to cause sunburn in 10 - 15 minutes! Since UV rays are a major cause of skin damage which can progress into cancer, it is important that we protect ourselves from them.

A positive step towards protecting yourself and others from ultraviolet radiation is to reduce the amount of time spent in the sun by providing outdoor shade.

The shade materials you choose can provide a physical barrier to the UV rays and will largely determine how much UV protection your shade structure provides. It is important to know the level of protection of the shade materials you choose.

Look for the UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) ratings and percentages on shade materials if you need sun protection from your outdoor shades. The higher the UPF rating, the greater the protection from sunburns and other skin damage.

The Ultraviolet Protection Factor is an internationally recognized scale that rates the Ultraviolet Radiation protection provided by different materials. This protection level might be expressed in percentages: A shade material may be said to absorb 90% of UV radiation, meaning it will let through 10%. Or it might be expressed as a UVF (ultraviolet factor) rating: a shade material that absorbs 90% of UV radiation and lets through 10% of that UV radiation has a UVF of 10. It also has a descriptive rating of "Moderate". The higher the UPF rating the greater the protection against UVR.

Ultraviolet rays are more closely linked to the sun's light rays than to its heat rays. The higher the UV factor, the less light passes through. For example, black fabric with a 95% UV factor allows 5% of the light to pass through; the very same fabric in white might have a 45% UV factor allowing 55% of the light to pass through.

The minimum shade advised for protecting children
shields at least 93% of UV radiation, or a UPF of 15 or more.


These Things Can Affect the UV Protection of Shade Materials:

Density: Closely woven or knitted fabrics transmit less UVR than loosely woven or knitted fabrics. Solid woods, metals and plastics that don't allow any light to pass through will transmit virtually no UVR.

Color: Darker colored materials tend to transmit less UVR than lighter colored ones of the same type.

Stretch: Any fabric's UVF decreases the more that fabric is stretched. This is especially important to consider in shade sails and shade netting.

Consistency: Consistency in the production of the material is important. UVF protection of inconsistent materials could vary by as much as 30 to 40% at different places in the same piece of material. This can be seen especially in natural materials and lower-grade manufactured materials.


UV Resistance

means a material will resist sun damage, or fading. Fabrics are often treated with a special UV coating to keep their colors vibrant. Be aware though that UV resistant shade materials are still subject to other kinds of damage. Cotton fabric is still subject to rotting, raw nylon will still tend to get brittle, and woven fabrics can still tear.

UV resistance is not the same as UV protection.
UV resistance protects the fabric. UV protection protects YOU.

Fire Resistance

Fire resistance is critical in hot, dry climates, but good to have in all situations. Shade materials cover a lot of space and can sometimes be blown around or blown down. They might be used near a candle or flit across a barbeque. Keep in mind that fire resistant is not the same as fire proof. Fire resistance can be an important precaution and may even be required in some situations (check with your local authorities if you have any doubts or questions about this).

Waterproof vs. Water Resistant

In general when we refer to outdoor shade materials, waterproof means water will not pass through or around the fibers to the other side of the material. Whether it rains or snows, these materials will keep you dry. This includes solid wood, plastic or metal structures -- usually permanently set up. It also includes many "marine grade" fabrics.

Water resistant means the fibers themselves will not absorb water, though water may actually pass through the material. This means when it rains you will get wet, but when it's hot these materials will allow hot air to rise through them and breezes to blow through them. This is a good feature to look for in the flexible fabrics of umbrellas, canopies, tents, sails and curtains.

Interested in learning even more?

  • Learn how to do a shade audit, a great way to figure out where to put your shade structures.



  • Visit our page on outdoor shade structures.
  • Learn about misting systems you can add to your outdoor shades.
  • Learn about the shifting sun

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