What to Know Before Buying a Patio Umbrella

Things to Look for While Shopping for Some Shade

white patio umbrellas
White patio umbrellas against blue sky. Jean-Marc PAYET/Getty Images

In areas of your yard where there aren't overhead outdoor roofs or awnings—which may be everywhere or an out-of-the-way spot—an umbrella offers the perfect solution. It will provide shade precisely where and when you want some while adding a touch of color and a certain flair to your landscape. Most outdoor umbrellas measure anywhere from 5 to 11 feet in diameter atop a pole that is placed into a hole in your outdoor dining table or is anchored by a weighted umbrella base.

Using a crank at the top of the pole, you can raise or lower the canopy of the umbrella. Sounds pretty simple.

Assess Your Landscape

Before you go shopping for an outdoor umbrella, assess the lay of the landscape, both hardscape and softscape (the garden, or stuff that grows in the ground and in containers). If the umbrella is to provide shade for a patio table, measure the table. Most outdoor tables come in standard sizes, but you want to make sure that the canopy will cover your table, especially if it is a larger table that seats eight or more. Likewise, you don't want to purchase an umbrella that will overpower your table if it is a smaller table that seats two or four.

Here's where assessing your landscape comes into play. Consider:

  • The location of your outdoor table in relation to your house's roof or overhang. Will a large patio umbrella—10 feet or more—touch the roof? Ideally, some space should exist between the roof or overhang and the umbrella.
  • Where will the umbrella be located in relation to your grill, outdoor kitchen, or indoor kitchen? Let's put it this way you don't want the umbrella near the open flames of a grill. It's just not safe. It would also interrupt the flow of traffic.

Sizes of Umbrellas

As mentioned, when it comes to umbrellas, table size matters.

  • Table size (diameter): 30 to 36 inches—Umbrella size (diameter): 6 to 8 feet
  • Table size: 38 to 48 inches—Umbrella size: 9 to 11 feet
  • Table size: 54 to 60 inches—Umbrella size: 11 feet or larger

Types of Outdoor Umbrellas

When you go shopping for an umbrella, don't get confused and buy a beach umbrella—it just won't do the job. The types of umbrella that you'll most likely find online or at stores include:

  • Sunshades: This style is kind of like a round disc on a pole, and is intended to shade one person. You may have seen a group of sunshades at a high-end hotel, poolside, near individual chaise lounges
  • Market: These have been popular for several years, and usually indicate that they are higher quality or larger residential umbrellas, like the kind you would see shading diners on the patio of a cafe. Market umbrellas are octagonal and have vented tops.
  • Pagoda: These are Asian-inspired parasol-style umbrellas that have more of an architectural, or Japanese pagoda-like shape. Pier 1 carries a few pagoda-style outdoor umbrellas.
  • Cantilever: This type does not get inserted into that hole in your patio table; rather, its base and pole are offset away from the area to be shaded. This works for many situations that need shade: tables without holes, small tables, lounge chairs near a pool, or a deep-seating set. A plus--it doesn't get in the way and can be adjusted as the sun moves.
  • Logo Umbrellas: You've seen them—they advertise your favorite sports team or brand of beer. This type of umbrella is often seen at cafes and pubs, but are a popular way to personalize your backyard and let everyone know who you're rootin' for, team- or brew-wise.
  • Commercial-Grade Umbrellas: These are the heavy-duty types you see at restaurants or other outdoor venues and are built to withstand the elements.
  • Umbrella frames are traditionally constructed from wood, aluminum or fiberglass. The most common material is aluminum, which is also the material you will see most often on umbrella poles. If made correctly with the right finish, it resists all kinds of weather conditions. Wood frames, especially an outdoor-tolerant wood like teak, ipe or eucalyptus, is also a popular material for umbrellas but is more costly. As an alternative to aluminum, fiberglass is lightweight, flexible, non-corrosive and holds up in various weather conditions.

    Mechanics

    Traditional models use a low-tech pulley to open and close the umbrella. Many owners of pulley styles end up leaving the umbrellas open during the season, because it takes some muscle to open it, and then a large, attached pin locks it in place. With a crank, you wind it open or closed, and it should lock in place when it's arrived at its ultimate-crank destination. The pulley system can be difficult to operate and a certain amount of strength is needed.

    More expensive or elaborate models have more options, usually via a crank. Other tilt possibilities include push-button and an automatic, or auto-tilt, in which you can turn the crank to tilt the umbrella in a few (or several) different positions.

    Materials

    Umbrella frames are traditionally constructed from wood, aluminum or fiberglass. The most common material is aluminum, which is also the material you will see most often on umbrella poles. If made correctly with the right finish, it resists all kinds of weather conditions. A wood frame, especially an outdoor-tolerant wood like teak, ipe or eucalyptus, is also a popular material for umbrellas, but is more costly. As an alternative to aluminum, fiberglass is lightweight, flexible, non-corrosive and holds up in various weather conditions.

    Sunbrella, probably the most well-known name in outdoor fabrics, began making awnings in the early 1960s. It took another 20 years before they became a big name in fabric for outdoor umbrellas, along with other upholstered furniture. Modern umbrellas use UV-resistant fabrics that are made of synthetic materials and are available in a variety of textures, finishes, prints, solids and colors.

    Shapes

    Most, but not all, umbrellas are round. Some are octagonal (known as market umbrellas); while newer models are rectangular, to shade longer, rectangular outdoor tables.