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How to Treat Window Boxes

By Laura Reynolds ; Updated September 21, 2017
Painted window boxes dress up old city windows.
colorful building with hanging plants image by thomas owen from Fotolia.com

Window boxes add warmth to exteriors, whether on a country cottage or urban window. If you use a natural wood rather than a plastic box, take time, after arranging adequate support and drainage, to treat the surface properly. Cedar and redwood are the most weather-resistant woods. Non-arsenic treated exterior lumber will make a resistant box, but will be very heavy. Pine and exterior plywood are also common materials for flower boxes. All woods will last better when treated properly.

All Woods

Wood's surface must be sealed to make it water-resistant.
wood image by Alison Bowden from Fotolia.com

Sand all surfaces before beginning assembly, particularly edges and surfaces that will butt up against other surfaces. Smooth out the drainage holes with a rolled piece of sandpaper or rasp.

Apply an exterior grade wood sealant to all surfaces including the insides of the drainage holes. Exterior sealants can serve as a finish on woods like cedar and redwood, but ask for a paintable sealant if you plan to paint your box.

Allow the sealant to dry completely—up to two days or according to directions on the container—before assembling the box and finishing.

Stain Finishes

Oil and alkyd-based stains penetrate wood better than water-based preparations.
window box image by Samuel Birkan from Fotolia.com

Wipe the box with a tack cloth or light sandpaper to smooth grain which may have risen during sealing.

Brush exterior-grade transparent or semi-transparent oil or alkyd stain on cedars and redwood; use oil or latex stains on softer woods. Brush on two thin coats rather than one thick one. Allow each coat to dry thoroughly.

Allow the stain to dry completely before adding a liner and plants.

Paint Finishes

Profuse foliage holds moisture against wood window boxes.
blue clock and flowers in window boxes image by green308 from Fotolia.com

Coat the box with enough primer to cover the grain of the wood. Use oil or alkyd primer for redwood, cedar and preserved wood. Use oil or latex for sapwoods like pine.

Smooth the primer with fine sandpaper after it dries thoroughly.

Apply one or two layers of oil base or latex exterior paint to finish the window box.


Things You Will Need

  • Drop cloth
  • Lightweight sandpaper
  • Rasp
  • Tack cloth or lint-free cloth
  • Mineral spirits or paint remover
  • Exterior wood sealant
  • Brushes
  • Oil, alkyd or latex stain
  • Primer and topcoat paint
  • Containers for coatings, water and brush cleaners


  • Sealant is a necessity for outdoor wood; it contains a wax with oil to fill wood pores and a solvent like mineral spirits or turpentine to help it penetrate.
  • Work when the temperature is above 50 degrees. The heat of the sun can separate layers of finish, so apply finishes in the shade. Avoid applying finishes in early morning, evening or other times when humidity is high.
  • Ask for preserved wood that has been pressure-treated with water-soluble salts. This wood can be sealed and left to weather naturally, or primed and painted with oil-based paint. A coat of oil or alkyd paint on an unfinished box's interior will help water resistance.


  • Resolve yourself to re-treating or re-painting outdoor wood every four to five years, more frequently if it sits in direct sunlight all day.
  • Varnish and acrylic top finishes break down quickly under sunlight, giving water a route in. In the shade, a marine or spar varnish will give a glossy finish that may last for several years but will eventually have to be removed and replaced.

About the Author


An avid perennial gardener and old house owner, Laura Reynolds has had careers in teaching and juvenile justice. A retired municipal judgem Reynolds holds a degree in communications from Northern Illinois University. Her six children and stepchildren served as subjects of editorials during her tenure as a local newspaper editor.