Today, we are going to make a surprisingly comfortable chair using only six small bolts, nuts and washers, six drywall screws, simple hand tools, a little ingenuity and a recycled 55-gallon plastic drum. Why? Well, that is a good question, partially because it is in our nature to make things, but mostly because I had a bunch of barrels that needed a purpose.
You see, I have a small business where we use a lot of all-natural vanilla extract, hundreds of gallons a month, so we buy it in large quantities. It comes to us shipped in food grade 55-gallon plastic drums, which we formerly shipped back to the manufacturer for reuse. Recent changes in food safety guidelines makes the reuse of the barrels impossible, so we now have several of these on hand. I refused to send them to the landfill and even if we wanted to, the flammable nature of vanilla extract would have classified these as "hazardous" waste. On the other hand, even though the barrels are made from recyclable plastic, our county recycling center could not process them, so it seemed to me that a better use would be to find a way to reuse them locally. I started out working on ways to reuse the barrels in our business and we have had great success with that, using them to store raw materials, in our pickling processes and even as a human powered mixer for dry materials, but still the barrel stack grew. So I expanded my views and began to use the barrels in different ways, first we made rain harvesters for ourselves and our staff and friends, then we made compost barrels for everyone, but still we had these blue barrels piling up. That is when we began working on more interesting projects and it was from one of those projects that the barrel chair was born.
We were working on a prototype for a human powered paddle wheel pontoon boat, using the barrels for the pontoons and the main paddle wheel assembly, when we decided we needed a low backed chair for the Captain to occupy as he barked orders to the people on the bicycles driving the paddle wheel, but that is another, needlessly complex and ultimately doomed, project and story. Anyway, we hit upon the idea of using half a barrel as the basis for the chair. A couple of hours later we had a surprisingly comfortable working prototype and a new focus for our endeavors . Within a week we had gone through several generations, making small design tweaks to the chair and the construction process, until we finally had a process and finished product we were happy with.
Thank you to everyone who voted for our project in the Epilog Challenge.
Step 1: First, We're Gonna Need Some Stuff...
Let's gather our tools and materials, we are going to need:
(1) 55 Gallon Polyethylene Barrel
(6) 1" Machine Screws with Nuts and Washers
(6) 1" Drywall Screws
Heat Gun or Blow Torch
Vacuum Cleaner ( to clean up plastic dust )
Plans for a Human-Powered Paddle Wheel 55 Gallon Drum Pontoon Boat (for inspiration)
Laser Engraver (Project suffered from lack of availability)
Step 2: The First Cuts Are the Deepest...
The entire success of this project hangs on getting your cuts right, so take your time and do the old "measure twice, cut once", thing.
We are going to start by cutting the barrel in half, this is simple enough to mark. Measure the barrel, divide by 2 then make a line all the way around at the height. Apply jigsaw liberally.
Now that you have "cleaved yon barrel in twain", it is time to work on the "top" of the barrel, this is the one with the drain holes and plugs in it. Those plugs are actually called "bungs" and the holes, well you get the picture, and you have learned something about the etymology of your bunghole. Next, we are going to cut a goodly sized chunk out of the side of the barrel making the front of the chair. Mark a centerline and then measure 14" each direction from it along the outside of the barrel and mark those lines and cut all the way down to the natural rim around the bottom of the barrel. This 28" section will be removed with the next cut.
This is probably the most important cut you will make. In order for this piece, which we will be using later, to maintain it's shape and rigidity, you will need to make an angle cut to keep a portion of the lower ring of the barrel with the slab. After removal set this piece to the side for use later.
Go back to the shell of the chair which now clearly has a front and a back. Mark the centerline of the back and then measure and mark 8" on either side of center, let's call this mark "A". Next measure 7" down from the base to "A", mark it and make that straight cut.
Spin the shell back around and make two marks 2" deep from the front edge, one just above the base ring and another 9" up from the base. Cut these lines and now you are ready for the fun part, grab your safety gear it is time to bring the fire...
Step 3: A Call to Arms
A careful study of Monty Python reveals that all "comfy" chairs have one thing in common, arms. So let's get to arming our supporters.
In the last step we made several cuts which will now allow us to mold visually appealing and functional arms for our chair. You will find that polyethylene is much like steak, in that it is easier to work with after the proper application of fire. OK, technically you can use a heat gun here, but using a torch seems more manly and raises the opportunities for catastrophic failure exponentially. The important thing here is to heat the plastic until it is malleable and to bend and then form it into arms. There is a certain amount of art to this as the temperature where the plastic becomes "shiny" and really easy to form is not too far removed from the temperature where it bursts into flames. Since the last thing we want to do is release harmful chemicals into the air by creating a mass of burning plastic, this is a time to take things nice and easy. It is also a good idea to use proper safety equipment (welding gloves, goggles, etc.) and to have a fire extinguisher close at hand.
The first bend we want to make is at the front of the chair. Remember those little 2" tabs we created at the end of the last step? Well, now we want to bend them along that two inch line. To do this we gently apply heat to both sides of the area until the plastic begins to "shine" at that point, take the heat away and hold a piece of flat steel behind the tab to make a sharp bend, hold the tab in place until it cools enough to keep it's new shape. Repeat on the other side.
Now we are going to form the top of the arm. This time we are applying heat over a much larger surface, so take your time. As soon as the "arm" begins to bend go ahead and force it into place, holding till it cools. It is not important that it be perfect at this point.
In the picture below, you will see a bolt that is holding the arm top to the arm front, it is time to install that bolt. Force the arm into place and drill a 9/64" hole through both pieces. Thread the bolt though and attach with washer and nuts.
Now that the front is attached, continue to heat the arm and form it until you are pleased with the shape. This is also an opportunity to put some nice touches, like the front corner fold in place.
Once you are happy with the general shape of your folds it is time to cut the arms into a pleasing shape. We chose to freehand a nice shape on one and then use the cutaway as a template to repeat the shape on the other arm. You should do that too, unless you are some kind of rebel.
Step 4: All Your Base Are Now Belong to Us
By now you have been working on the top half of the chair long enough to be good and bored so this is an excellent time to refocus your attention span by working on the base. The first step is to cut the bottom out of the barrel. Once again, this is one of those important angle cuts, and for the same reason. We want to keep a portion of the thicker barrel ring intact as we cut away the base, so make a 45 degree angle cut along the inner ring to create a beveled edge. Take the former barrel bottom and set it to the side, we will use it again later.
Turn the base ring up on it's side and make two marks about sixteen inches apart 10" down from what used to be the middle of the barrel and cut along these lines. Set the barrel up, ringside down.
We are now ready to fit the base to the top of the chair. Rather than employing an abacus and arcane mathematical knowledge, the easiest way to achieve this is by sitting the top of the chair on the base and fitting the top of the base into the ring on the underside of the chair top. Once you have a nice fit, drill a couple more 9/64" holes and secure the base's shape with nuts, washers and bolts.
At this point we broke out the torch again and applied heat to the new seam. First, the heat allows the seams to "relax" into a more natural shape, that is visually appealing and appears more "finished". Secondly, we like to play with fire and tools that roar.
Step 5: Don't Worry, We've Got Your Back
OK, so now we have a functional sitting appliance, it's not pretty but it will keep you off the floor with some measure of success. Let's add some amenities.
Remember the piece we set to the side, way back in step 2, the very first piece we cut away, well go find it, we are about to need it. We need to take this 28" piece and turn it into two pieces of material, one 16" wide and one 12" wide, if we had a laser cutter we would use it here, but since we do not we settled for using the jigsaw again.
We are now going to mount the 12" piece in the seat of our chair, this will give our seat extra support and some "spring". Find the thick edge, the part that used to be a portion of the barrel's ring and place it near the front of the seat with the arch going up. We are essentially spanning the distance between the bungholes with this piece. Once you have it placed, secure it with the 1" drywall screws.
Now that we have the "spring" support mounted, grab the bottom that we cut out of the barrel earlier and place it bottomside up in the bottom of the chair. This may need some trimming to get a nice, flush fit, but aren't you glad you made that beveled cut earlier? Once you get it fitted properly, congratulate yourself, you just made the seat.
This is it, what we have been waiting for, the big reveal, this is where the magic happens, at this point we actually make this chair usable by making it truly comfortable, we are about to add lumbar support.
Grab that 16" piece we just made and orient it so the thick part is sitting on the seat you just created, bowing out from the back of the chair. Now grab your c-clamps to hold it all in place and attach this piece to the back of the chair with two bolts, nuts and washers. Mount these a couple of inches down from your intended top of the back of the seat. See how the back now has this graceful curve? That curve is held in place by the thicker portion of the outer ring that you left on the bottom of this piece when you first removed it. That thicker piece creates dynamic tension, which we are harnessing here to provide lumbar support. Go ahead, have a seat try it out. Aren't you glad you took the time to make that cut well?
After basking in the glow of the years of support you just created for yourself and your friends for a moment, stand back up and let's put the finishing touch on the chair back.
Take your trusty pencil and draw a pleasing shape for the back of the chair. In this case we opted for smoothly rounded corners, but have fun with it. Once you have decided on the shape you want and marked it accordingly, grab your trusty jigsaw and make it so.
Step 6: Final Touches, Variations and Feats of Strength
You are essentially finished, but there are a couple of things you can do now that will really finish this thing up nicely. We made several cuts and those edges c an be surprisingly sharp, so we need to smooth them out. You can dig out the sandpaper for this, but we found that heating the edges with the torch softened them nicely and like with the base, the application of gentle heat after assembly allows the pieces to "relax" into a more natural shape. As always, be careful not to overheat things.
Now all you have to do is make sure all your connections are tight and that your top and bottom are lined up and fitted. If you like you can epoxy them together, but I prefer to leave them as separate pieces. This helps in two ways. One, the way they fit together allows for a certain amount of natural "swivel", which can be made even better with a little lubrication. Secondly, by being able to remove and use the top alone, you have also created a great little beach chair.
There you go, that is all it takes to make your own comfy chair from a recycled 55-gallon drum. As you can see from the picture below it is certainly sturdy enough for hard use. We have piled over 400 pounds in it with no sign of weakness. The other pictures show some of the variations we have created, higher arms, a faux wingback, the horribly misconceived "holy" base. They all have their own charms and pitfalls, but part of the fun is the customization. Speaking of that, they shine up nicely with a windex cleaning followed by some Armor All or you can use fusion paint to customize the color.
The thing that these pictures do not show is how truly comfortable these chairs are to sit in, even for extended periods of time. The spring loaded seat and lumbar support make these viable pieces of furniture, rather than simply a design exercise.
You might also want to take a moment to look around your work area and note, that with the exceptions of the pieces you trimmed off the arms and seat back, which should have been minimal, there are no pieces left over. Nothing to throw in the trash, yep we used every piece.
Step 7: Epilogue
We can now turn these out fairly quickly, with reasonably consistent results, the bending of the plastic using a torch is still something of an art, but I prefer the unique results to standardization anyway. The chairs are very durable and surprisingly comfortable, so we are using them everywhere, plus we have made several small tables from half barrels, so they are a useful set. I brought one of the first chairs to work and placed it in the break room, just to see if anyone would use it, and have since had to make more for the indoor break room, the outdoor picnic porch and I even have one in my office as a guest chair, with request for more piling up everyday.
So there you go, instead of an ever-growing pile of blue barrels we have cheap, useful chairs and small tables that our staff loves, we are harvesting our own rainwater runoff to irrigate on the property and we have a healthy composting program, all because we chose to find a way to reuse the waste of our industrial process. Although, the rain and compost projects are no doubt "greener" I am particularly fond of these chairs. Beyond the quirkiness of the design and the pride that goes into creating something new these chairs have opened the eyes of our staff and clients who visit our business and turned them on to the idea of reusing the things we already have and of looking at everything as a source material. It is a different way of seeing the world and this new world view has our people approaching problems in a new way, looking for innovative answers beyond what is offered off the shelf, plus we got these cool chairs in the bargain. What else could you ask for?
Second Prize in the
Participated in the
Earthjustice United States of Efficiency Contest