Introduction: A Chair for the Great Outdoors

About: Emeritus Professor of Mathematics.

This is a project that will reward you with comfort! It will last outdoors for years and years with no upkeep, weathering gracefully as the years roll on. It has a natural rugged utilitarian style, and making one of these chairs is an easy weekend project.

The inspiration for this chair came from the bench that the Wisconsin naturalist Aldo Leopold designed and made back in the 1940's. The following are among many good sites depicting his benches:



organic gardening

Not needing to seat more than one naturalist at a time, I narrowed and modified the design into the chair described here. It has an ample seat, wider back rest, dimensional changes to the legs, and added arm rests. It turned out to be quite comfortable !

Step 1: Materials and Equipment

The chair is made entirely from U.S. standard construction lumber sizes: 2x4, 2x6, 2x8, and 2x12.

For one chair you will need the following:

2 X 6 - 10’ length for the Legs

2 X 8 - 2’ length for the Back

2 X 12 - 2’ length for the Seat

2 X 4 - 3’ length for the Arms

28 - 3” long Deck Screws to hold it all together

This is a minimal bill of materials with a little allowance for cutting to exact size and shape. It would be much more economical to purchase longer standard board lengths and make several of these chairs - which you will very much appreciate having around in various spots for relaxation and contemplation in the freshness and beauty of nature.

For a strong chair, the parts have to mate up solidly when drawn up by the screws. Therefore cuts have to be straight and square. If you are fortunate enough to have a sliding miter saw, the job will be a piece of cake. Otherwise, a handheld circular saw is necessary along with some sort of commercial or improvised guide. I had to resort to the latter as shown in photos in steps below. For the 90° cuts the guide took the form of a basic tee-square for; another guide was made 30° off the perpendicular for making the cuts for the legs.

You'll also want a drill and driver for putting in the deck screws.

Step 2: First Cut the Legs

The legs are cut from 2x6 lumber (the actual dimensions - 1.5" x 5.5" - are shown on the drawing for the benefit of builders not in the U.S.). I used standard construction grade lumber, but you may wish to consider the pressure treated variety.

The 60° angles should be cut as accurately as possible, but uniformity is the really important ingredient for a finished chair that won't look lopsided. So you will definitely need to use your miter saw or cutting guide. My homemade guide shown in the photo did the trick, but there are nice protractor style guides commercially available.

The 75° angle at the top of the long legs is not critical, but needs to be the same on both legs and in the same position so that the back of the chair will butt up nicely against both legs when screwed in place. A miter saw would make short work of this cut (with an assistant or inanimate prop to hold up the outboard end), but otherwise a guide can be improvised by simply clamping down a strip of 1/4" plywood at the appropriate location on the leg to guide the shoe of the circular saw. A nice touch if your carpentry skill allows it would be to cut a 3" notch to accept the back instead of just the straight 75° slice.

Step 3: Then Assemble the Leg Units

Each leg unit is put together with four 3" deck screws as shown in the Leg Assembly Detail drawing. The screw locations are indicated in the drawing in red. The side view of the screws is an "x-ray" kind of portrayal. The locations are not exactly critical. It is important to drill a clearance hole for the screw in the one part, so that when the screw is driven fully home, the two parts will be drawn tightly together. A 1/8" diameter drill bit was perfect for the standard 3" deck screws that I used. No hole was drilled into the part that takes the full length of the screw threads so that a good hold is realized. Before inserting the screws, they were dipped into a soap paste for lubrication.

The 3" length goes fully through both thicknesses and the point may even poke out some if the heads are sunk in a bit, which is recommended for a joint that will stay firm. You can easily take off any protruding points with a grindstone. I tried to put the screws in at a slight angle so this wasn't a problem - except for the few that accidentally went in perfectly straight!

Remember that the drawing shows only the right hand unit - make the other of the opposite hand !!

Step 4: Next Cut the Seat and Back

The seat edges need to be cut straight and square for the structural integrity of the chair, but the back is not critical that way. The photo shows the tee square type guide that I used clamped in place and ready to square off an edge of the seat board; the cut will coincide with the rightmost end of the head of the square.

You may wish to make the seat wider if you expect some wide company. I measured a number of chairs around the house before coming up with 20" which fits everyone who has visited here and sat down - and me too even in my winter attire. Don't forget to chamfer the exposed corners while you're in a cutting mood.

Step 5: Now Carefully Assemble Seat and Back to the Leg Units

This is a crucial step ! Accordingly, it is the most demanding. Upon its success depends the final appearance and sturdiness of the chair. If pains are not taken to hold the parts in alignment and close contact before driving in the screws, the result could be crooked and wobbly - but probably still useable !!

Therefore, the first task is to clamp the assembly together tightly. I used pipe clamps across the leg units pulling them against the seat board while tapping it down against the top of the short leg...and continually checking that the legs were standing perpendicular to the ground plane when viewed from the front. It is not too crucial that the four legs make perfectly equal contact with the floor, because, being an Outdoors Chair, it won't be setting on a rigid floor but rather on terra firma. Of course you'll want the leg bottoms to be reasonably coplanar in case you set the chair on a patio or porch, as we sometimes do here. An indispensable aid to the clamping up task is a spacer between the tops of the long legs. I put a 2x4 cut to the exact same 20" length as the seat between the leg tops and tightened another pipe clamp across. Set up like this, the chair will be a rigid assembly ready for driving in the screws.

The assembly drawing shows the approximate placement and number of screws used. I began with the screws through the top of the seat into the tops of the short legs. Drill the clearance holes (just through the seat), soap up the screw threads, and spin them in tight. Now the seat should be down tight on the short legs, and so next put in the screws from the outside of the legs into the seat edge.

Finally, screw the back in place, remembering to place it about 4-1/2" above the tops of the legs. Then the clamps can be removed to set free a nice sturdy and geometrically perfect specimen ! All that is left is to make and fit the arms, which are absolutely essential for maximal comfort.

Step 6: Now You Can Make the Arms

The arms are simple to cut out but take care that the angled end will butt up to the chair back. Cut the arm end to match the angle of the back of your chair. You want a good intimate fit to give added strength to the back and arm. Only the right hand arm is shown in the drawing. Chamfer or round off the front ends for a comfortable place to rest your arms. The angled cut to the rear end is optional.

Step 7: And Finally Attach the Arms to the Chair

You'll probably need an extra pair of hands for this final step, because it's not easy to find a way to clamp the arms in place while driving in the screws. You'll want to have the arms lined up nice and straight and, most importantly, snug up against the chair back for rigidity. I located the arms to overlap to the inside about a 1/4" as the assembly drawing indicates. The diagram shows the approximate placement of the three screws securing each arm.

Step 8: Add Finishing Touches

Check the arms, seat, and back for rough spots and sand them away - you don't want to pick up any splinters when trying to sit comfortably. I used regular lumber, so after going through the work of making half a dozen of these, it seemed prudent to put some finish on them that might extend their life - at least a little bit. I gave the chairs a good soaking coating of "Woodlife-Classic" Clear Wood Preservative. It is water based so cleanup is easy and when dry, does not leave a sticky or powdery surface - perfect for sitting on !

Since the bottom of the legs are in contact with the ground, they were coated with tree dressing tar thinned a bit with mineral spirits. That is the black band visible in the photos.

These measures probably helped because the chairs have held up far better than expected.

Step 9: Long Term Care of Your Outdoor Chair

I haven't done any additional care! Maybe I should have taken the time to slosh on another coat of Woodlife after three or four years, but I guess I used the time for sitting instead! The six chairs I made eight years ago have turned into a pleasant weathered gray, but are still very tight and sturdy. A few of these old guys are shown in the pictures in this step.

The chairs that are near the house or garden, we usually put in the garage or shed over the winter. But the ones farther out have stayed outside to use when hiking winter as well as summer! The chairs are usually left leaning against a nearby tree which helps to keep the seat clear.

We have found these chairs to be comfortable in the yard and along our hiking trails.

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