Monday, February 9, 2015

Adventures in chair-making using reclaimed lumber

I've been a full-time woodworker for almost 20 years, and I've been writing about it professionally for about 11 years.  I began by writing a couple of articles for Popular Woodworking magazine, and then I wrote my first book.  It was a huge milestone, and I set the pie-in-the-sky goal of writing a book per year for 10 years.  It was a goal that sounded ridiculously out of reach, but worth striving for nonetheless.  A few months ago, I submitted the manuscript for my 11th book.  It took 11 years.  The new goal is 20 books.

One of the reasons I like to write about woodworking is that books and magazines were the only resource I had when I was starting out.  The internet didn't exist as we know it today, and I didn't know a lot of people to talk to. So I read.  And now that I've learned a few things and enjoyed some measure of success, almost 20 years later, I love to feel like I am contributing to the body of literature that helped me get my start.  Does the world need it?  Not really.  But do I need to do it?  Yes, yes I do. 

And so, without further ado, here is the first in an occasional series of how-to articles geared toward a range of skill levels.  I'll be using a lot of reclaimed materials, and I'll present original projects with a variety of aesthetic sensibilities.  My goal is to show how I design and build the projects, and I don't necessarily expect that people will follow the steps exactly; I'm more interested in show-casing approaches and ideas that can be adapted and transferred to your own projects.

Step 1

I began by cutting out the front leg, which has a straight taper on its lower section and a curved cut-out above the seat.  Standard seat height for chairs is around 18", so you can use that as a rule of thumb when you lay out the leg.
Step 2

I used a bandsaw to cut out the leg profile, although a jigsaw with a sharp blade would be a good option too.

Step 3

Once the first leg was cut out and cleaned up with a sander (a belt sander works well to smooth out the straight sections) I used it as a pattern for the second leg.  If you're making multiple copies of the same chair, it doesn't hurt to make dedicated patterns, but in the case of a one-off, I don't worry about it.
Step 4

Here's a great shortcut for milling the flat section in the middle of the front leg: since the flat section is parallel to the front face of the leg, you can just use the tablesaw.

Step 5

I always think of chair-making as an art that begins by designing the sides first.  I liked the front leg, and I then clamped together some scraps to get a sense for how a side might look.  You can see that I used the second front leg as the rear leg- that wasn't necessary, and I just grabbed it because it was handy.  I also spent some time sketching at this point as well.
Step 6

The horizontal piece that connects the front and back legs is called the side stretcher; once I had decided on its dimensions and placement, I glued and screwed it to the front leg.  This isn't the most refined kind of joinery possible, but it is acceptable to me in this case.  I suggest pre-drilling the screw holes.

Step 7

I ended up making a back leg that was similar to the front but a bit chunkier; I used a clamp to hold it in place temporarily while I worked out an angle and position that I liked aesthetically.  When I was done, I screwed it down as I did at the front of the stretcher.

Step 8

I knew that the tops of the legs would need to be properly aligned (and flat) so that they could hold the chair's arms later on; I took a minute to use a straight edge to mark the spot where the arm would run.  I trimmed off the excess with a jigsaw.
Step 9

The second chair side is just a mirror-image of the first, with the stretchers on the inside of the legs.  This will keep the screws hidden.

Step 10

The reclaimed wood that I used for this project came from a range of sources- mostly it was just the odd board that I found laying around, with some pallet wood mixed in.  I wanted the overall look of the chair to be kind of rough, with a bit of variation in color and weathering.  I used the planer to "skip plane" some of the boards and expose some variations a few of the boards.
Step 11

The two sides were connected by a front stretcher.  This step is kind of exciting because it started to actually feel three-dimensional.
Step 12

I used a 3/8" drill bit to bore some holes about 1/2" in the legs where the stretcher would be attached.  I then used glue and 2 1/2" screws to make a very firm connection.  The holes are easy to plug with solid wood plugs.
Step 13

After installing a rear stretcher in the same way I installed the front one, I went across the seat with a series of pallet wood slats. I glued them down and secured them with brad nails.
Step 14

The back assembly is simple- there are two strips of wood that run upward at an angle, and a series of slats are glued and nailed (or screwed) to them at a right angle.  I built the assembly on my bench then brought it over to the chair base, using clamps to hold it in place.
Step 15

Using clamps allows you to adjust the angle until you feel that it is most comfortable.  This is, in my experience, a pretty subjective exercise- one person's favorite chair may be another's torture device, so you may want to experiment a bit.
Step 16

Once the back has been positioned, I secured it with long screws set into 3/8" diameter holes.
Step 17

I began with a rectangular blank for the arm, but I quickly decided it needed to be a bit more refined, so I used a straight edge to taper it from front to back.
Step 18

I fastened the arm to the top of the legs with recessed (plugged) screws.
Step 19

If the chair wobbles, or you'd like to shave a bit off of its height, you can use a strip of wood of the desired thickness and tracing it onto each leg. You can then trim off the waste with a jigsaw.


  1. A great example of intuitive design built right into the build process, Chris. Thanks for posting. Here's an article for your leisure reading, by Mr. Rybczynski, on the challenges of chair design. You have risen to the challenge, friend :).

  2. That was a great article- thanks for the link, and also for the kind words. Chairs have always been my favorite thing to build, and the occasional chair commission is always a highlight in my studio.