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Nesting Wooden Beach Chairs



(Sorry, I found myself becoming bit wordy when describing this project...)

There's something about a hard deadline that adds a bit of kick to a project.

My hard deadline was our upcoming vacation. Whether or not I finished this project, we were going to be leaving on time. Like a class deadline in college, this serves to focus your attention.

The project in question was a pair of compact wooden beach chairs.

I've been toying around with the idea of making wooden beach chairs for some time now. About three years ago I first bumped into a pair of fellow campers who had some similar chairs. I was intrigued at how these chairs would come apart and nest into themselves for transport. I tried them out and they were just fine for sitting at the beach.

But... the practical side of me kept whispering in my ear that we already had a perfectly sound pair of lawnchairs. You know the type - fabric, springs, and thin aluminum legs that fold up into a flat package. So I would keep convincing myself that while this project might be fun, it would not be that useful.

I finally made up my mind when the seam on one of our lawnchairs started to pop. Unfortunately, that gave me just over 3 weeks to design, build, and finish these chairs.

It wasn't completely a standing start, I have to admit. I had browsed for plans on the Internet a while back, and came across exactly one set of plans. However, I didn't entirely like their design. It was bigger than I wanted, among other minor things.

[As an aside, when you start searching the internet for plans for folding wooden chairs you come across the most interesting assortment of historical re-enactment web sites. You can't buy most of this stuff, and I'm not sure if they would if they could, so these people have all kinds of plans and photos of interesting old "camp" gear.]

So I had to design this myself.

As you can see from the picture above, these are small wooden chairs. There are two pieces, the back section and the seat section. They interlock together for use. When you are finished using the chair, you pull the seat section out of the back section, flip it around, and then slide the two pieces together. The result is an almost flat package for carrying. It is meant to be compact and portable.

You might have seen something similar to this in a pivoting design. (See example photo, found on the net) In the pivoting design, the seat section is attached to the back section, and the seat pivots upward. This, again, results in an almost flat package for storing or transport.

There is one main reason why I prefer the two-piece design over the pivoting design. That reason is back support. In a pivoting model, there is no lower back support. The reason for that is that there needs to be a gap in the back, in order to provide room for the seat to fold up. I've tried out one of these chairs, and I didn't find it at all comfortable.

I also think that the lack of a pivoting mechanism makes the two piece chair a simpler design.

* * * * *

I've built lots of projects just from a sketch or a drawing on graph paper. But this was one time when I was pretty sure that a rough prototype would be a better approach. There were too many variables in this plan: height of the back, length of the back uprights, length of the seat, length of the seat supports, width of the seat, curvature, and so on.

If a shelf is a little bit too wide, or too deep, your books won't complain. But if your chair doesn't fit right, your body will soon let you know.

So, I bashed together a quick prototype. And I do mean bashed. For seat and back slats I used any small scrap of plywood I could find. For the uprights I ripped some 2x4's in half. Have a look at the photo to see how ugly was the result.

The one big risk I took was omitting all curves in the prototype. For simplicity and speed, I made the seat and the back straight. I had envisioned just a gentle curve to my chair, and I "simulated" that by building up some of the seat slats at the top of the seat. The result was not exactly comfortable, but I thought it held sufficient promise to use as a guide to press ahead. In any case, it did help me with getting a better idea as to how large the seat needed to be, how narrow I could make the chair, and how long the uprights and seat support should be.

I fully expected to make a few tweaks in the finished product.

* * * * *

I considered building these chairs out of cedar or pine, using fence boards as source material. I thought this would be both lighter, and cheaper. But after some reflection, I decided that hardwood was a better choice for reasons of strength and longevity. I also decided to make use of some hardwood that I alread had, which is of course "cheaper" than buying more wood. This is known as fool-yourself-economics, when you don't count the cost of materials that you already happen to have.

Most of the chair parts are made of cherry. I had bought a bunch of cherry a few years ago for another project. For a variety of reasons I ended up with a number of boards that I viewed as unsuitable for fine work, since they contained was a LOT of sapwood. However, it seemed to me a good choice for beach chairs. If I was careful, I thought that I could keep most of the sapwood hidden, by orienting the seat slats sap-down and the the uprights sap-in.

I also made use of some maple in this project. I think that there is an interesting story in the maple as well. About four years ago, we had to have a ailing maple in our backyard taken down. The fellows who took it down for us asked if I wanted to keep any of the wood. At the time I said no, as we did not use our fireplace. I did think about lumber, but the tree was only about 14" in diameter and I didn't know where I might get the logs sawn. Later, I reconsidered, as I thought it would be nice to have something built out of a tree from our own yard. Unfortunately, by then the tree was down and cut into small chunks. Still, I grabbed one of the 14" long sections and set it aside.

I managed to quarter the chunk of the trunk with an axe and sawed it up in to one-inch planks on my bandsaw. I then painted the ends and stacked it up in an out-of-the-way corner of my shop. I looked at it every now and then, but up until now I had not come up with any project that I wanted to build that would make use of such short boards. And so, four years of air drying slipped by.

That all changed this this project. I now needed a bunch of 13" long by 3/8"thick seat slats for these chairs. I also happen to be a big fan of how cherry and maple look when combined together. I thought it would look nice to alternate cherry seat slats with maple.

Dressing the maple was surprisingly pleasant and easy. I edge-jointed with an old Stanley #7c jointer plane, which was nothing new. I do that all the time, as I still don't own a power jointer. However, I next flattened the face of each board, also with my #7c. This was a new experience for me. I've never done that before. I was surprised at how easy and quick this process was. I would estimate it took me about 5 minutes per board to true up the face. This lumber was a beautiful creamy white, and handlplaned extremely well. I wonder, is that a factor of 3-4 years of air drying, was it this particular tree, or does most maple handplane like that?

After that, it was over to the table saw to rip the stock to width, and then flip it and re-saw it down to 3/8" thick.

[As another aside, I wouldn't normally use the table saw for re-sawing lumber. In this instance, the boards were just 1-1/2" wide, which isn't that different from ripping some extra thick boards. I was careful to use feather boards and a splitter, to keep the boards tight to the fence.]

As mentioned, the seat slats were 3/8" thick by 1-1/2" wide by 13 inches long. As I was working through my lumber, making these slats, I ended up with some narrower slats. This is custom work after all, so I thought to myself that I should be able to work these into the design. Not all the slats have to be the same width, and I thought it might actually look more interesting if there was some variation. What I decided to do was to have one wider slat (2") at the top of the chair back, with a notch/cut-out for finger clearance when carrying the chair. Then an extra-skinny slat, to balance off the extra-wide one, and then the regular slats would fill in. I also made use of a skinny slat in the seat, getting the seat to the desired dimensions (11" deep). Have a closer look at the photo's if I'm losing you here.

I used pattern routing to create the uprights and the leg supports. The pattern was created first by laying out the upright from my "sketch" prototype. This gave me the overal length, and a very rough outline as to how I wanted the upright to curve. I smoothed this out by using a thin (eg: 1/8" thick) and flexible piece of wood: I put clamps at the endpoint of my desired curve, place the piece of wood against that, and flexing it inward to match the curve I wanted, then tracing the result.

While I was laying things out, I noticed that the desired seat supports were only three inches shorter than the back uprights. Since I wanted the two piece to nest together, they needed to have the same curve. Therefore, I decided to use the same pattern for both the uprights and the seat supports. Once the piece were cut out, I could cut the seat supports down a further three inches.

As a side effect, this allowed me to put off for a while deciding which lumber would be in the uprights, and which in the seat supports.

Later on in the process, I added a curve to the top ends of the back uprights, and the front ends of the seat supports. I also slightly rounded off the foot-ends of the seat supports. So by the end of the process, the uprights and the seat supports were much more different. If I were going into production, these two seats would still be reqarded as prototypes, and the changes I made as they were built would get incorporated back into the future patterns.

(Furthermore, after we used these chairs on vacation, we realized that the seating position needed to be adjusted. So the legs on the seat supprts were shortened by over 4 inches, and the legs on the back were also cut on an angle to better sit on the ground. Two different patterns would definitely be called for if I were to build this again.)

There was one other issue that I overlooked when deciding to use the same pattern for pattern-routing the uprights and the seat supports. The seat of these chairs needs to nest inside the back. Therefore, I think it would be wise to have the seat supports a smidgen narrower than the uprights. I achieved this by pencilling a line along the seat supports, using the pattern as a guide, approximately 1/16" in from the edge. I then used my #4c smooth plane to take off the wood. Despite being a curved surface, that actually worked reasonably well. In my shop, this was quicker than trying to set up the router table + flushcutting bit + pattern to nibble off a bit of wood.

* * * * *

Assembling the chairs is pretty straightforward, except for the first few slats. The first few slats require a lot of fiddling with clamps to hold the (curved) bits still, and a lot of checking and rechecking with a square to ensure that the two legs/upripts are parallel, in line with each other, and that the slats are perfectly perpendicular to the legs/uprights. Otherwise you'll end up with a parallelogram, rather than a rectangle.

I assembled the back first. Next I clamped the seat supports inside the back (using some of my old playing cards to give some clearance. (We want to make sure that there is some room for the two sections to slide together) Having the sections nested together was was a big help in aligning the seat slats. The slats on the back are mounted flush to the uprights. But because the seat nests into the back, the slats for the seat have to protrude out past the seat supports. By using the back for a pattern, I didn't have to measure or mark, or try to come up with some sort of a jig.

I used a few pieces of 1/2" baltic birch (on edge) as spacers to help position each slat. Again, using this, I don't need to measure or mark, just push each slat up against the spacer.

I used titebond II glue for water resistance and also #6 x 1" stainless steel screws. You'll need about 40 screws for each chair, if you build the same way I did. (If you go shopping for screws, make sure you ask about buying by the box. Buying a box of 50 screws was half the price of buying the screws loose, and stainless screws already cost a lot.)

Finish is Circa 1850 Tung 'n Teak oil, 3 coats wiped on.

There is one final little design feature that I would like to mention. Since I was making a pair of chairs, and since I was alternating cherry and maple slats, I decided to make the two chairs a mirror image of the other. So on the one chair, I start with a maple slat at the top, followed by cherry, then maple, and so on. On the other chair, it was the opposite. This ability to personalize what you build, with fun custom touches, is one of the very satisfying aspects of this hobby.


NOTE: All of these photo's were taken before I finetuned the length of the legs. The seating angle is now a bit more laid back. The photo at the top of this webpage (chairs on the beach) is of the current version of the chair.

First, here is one chair set up, with the other chair nested.

Next, see how the two chairs make a compact package when nested.

Here are all the four sections of the two chairs. In this photo you can plainly see how the seat slat patterns is different between the two chairs. (ie: on the left chair back the slats go maple/cherry/maple/cherry... On the right chair back the slats go cherry/maple...)


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