Well, I’ve finally decided to finish up this post on a chair I made last spring. I’ve been sitting in it every night for dinner for a few months now and I really like it. It’s light and strong and fairly comfortable. It’s rustic looking for sure, but it’s grown on me.
There is something about a rustic, no-nonsense chair that I really like. For this chair design I decided to go back to an idea I had last year. I became fascinated with Enzo Mari and his power-to-the-people idea of good design. I was really struck by how he wanted to make good design available to everybody. What a really great thought. Anyway, I really liked his chair design. In it’s simplest form it can be made with a hand saw, nails, and off the shelf lumber from the Depot. I wanted to make something with that ideal in mind.
I took Mari’s basic chair shape and modified it a bit. I wanted arms on my chair and I thought that maybe I could make the back legs angle to match the angle of the seat back. It’s a bit of design flourish but also functional, too. I mostly like stuff that gets its beauty from how well it functions. I’m a big proponent of the form follows function thing with design. I mostly don’t like pretty things. Or I don’t like things that are prettied up. If the beauty comes from good simple clean design then I like it.
So, the chair is designed with a modular system. It’s meant to be built with only 2 different widths of wood, both readily available at the hardware store. I used 2 inch and 8 inch wide boards. The idea is that you either rip all your wood to these widths and then just cut to length, or you simply buy wood already this size. In a post coming soon I’ll show how I used this system to build 2 benches for our kitchen table. It’s an easy system that makes super-strong furniture. This system makes it easy to replace any piece on the chair in a matter of minutes (no glue used) and it’s easy to keep spare parts around just in case.
Getting Down To It
I really wanted to build the whole thing from wood I already had. Some of it came from old projects and some came from dumpster diving and roadside finds. My first job was to sort through my scrap wood pile and get enough pieces to put together a chair. I had a few nice pieces I found on a recent dumpster diving expedition. I found enough and ripped it to 8 inch and 2 inch wide strips on my table saw.
- Saw- If you boards are already cut to width you can use a hand saw.
- Drill- It’s a good idea to pre drill all the holes. I also will counter sink the holes so the screw heads go flush.
- Screws- 1 1/2 inch screws work well.
- Screwdriver- Lectric ones are good as you have a lot of screws to put in.
- 3 of the 8 inch boards at 19″ for front, back, and seat back. (If you’re building yours the right way. Not like me.)
- 2 of the 2 inters at 24 2/4″for front legs
- 2 of the 2 inchers at 18 1/2″ for back legs
- 2 of the 8 inchers at 17 3/4″ for the sides
- 2 of the 2 inchers at 25″ for the backrest supports
- 2 of the 2 inters at 17 1/2″ for the armrest supports
- 2 of the 2 inchers at 17 1/2″ for the armrests
With my measurements in hand I proceeded to cut my pieces to length. About 15 minutes later I was sanding all the edges. It’s easier to sand the edges before everything goes together so I prefer to do that before assembly. Everything is screwed together using 1 1/4 inch screws. No glue at all. It really doesn’t need glue. Since I didn’t use glue and since I used standard widths, I can replace any piece on the chair in just minutes should I need to later. That’s one of the cool features of this modular system. Here’s a picture of the first bit of assembly. You are looking at one of the sides.
I figured out the angle for the leg by placing the top of the leg 2 inches (width of the leg) from the edge at the top and in line with the edge at the bottom. The image below will show how I lined up stuff to figure out the angle for the seat back support. No protractor needed! Or, you can just do it by eye and it’ll probably be just fine you know. I set the seat height at 18 inches. That means that the top of the horizontal side piece is 18 inches up the front leg.
Not too bad. I did this twice and I had both sides done.
Now, if I was good at measuring the next step would be super easy. The front, back, and back rest are all exactly the same size. In theory all I’d have to do is cut them to length and then screw them into place. That’s not exactly how it went though.
I much prefer to measure once and cut twice. That’s just the kind of guy I am. Never was that good at math and I don’t like dealing with numbers. You can probably see where I’m going. I cut the boards too short. So instead of attaching the boards to the front of the side support structure like they were supposed to be I ended up having to attach them inside.
This was fine in the front of the chair. In the back though it was a problem because now the legs were in the way. My solution was to notch out the legs so that the back would fit. It works. Not as awesome as it would have been if I’d measured right in the first place though.
Notice in the picture below how the back is placed slightly lower where it attaches to the side. This is to make the seat slope back just a bit. Not necessary but a nice touch.
Here’s an Enzo Mari chair with the front and back attached like mine was supposed to be.
It all worked out in the end. I think half the time I do projects I end up spending way too much time fixing stuff that I did wrong along the way. It’s part of the “fun.” The back rest went on with no problems. Thankfully I had cut that one the right size. The seat part was easy. Didn’t have to measure. I just put a piece in place and marked with a pencil the length I wanted. Then I cut 2 and attached with 2 screws on each side. Because I was using found wood the seat ended up being made of thin plywood. It was a happy accident because the thin plywood gives when you sit on it and makes the chair more comfortable.
For the arms there is no real need to measure. You can just hold up the 2 inch board in place and make marks with your pencil where you need to cut off. That’s what I did. Remember when I said I hate numbers and math? I attached the arm support first and then put the armrest right on top. You can see where I notched out the armrest to fit around the support.
That’s pretty much it. Really easy to build. Even with my mistakes it was a quick project. The chair is fairly lightweight and is very sturdy. There is no wobble or give to it at all. The way it’s built really reinforces the structure. As I said earlier the nice thing about this construction method is that I can replace any part on the chair in a matter of minutes. I have some 2 inch and some 8 inch wide stock left over. All I’d have to do is cut it to length and screw it in. Easy as that.
The only decorative thing I did on my chair was to put some finger holes in the seat back. This is partly a practical solution as well though because the holes give you a good grab handle to pull the chair out from under the table. A bit of orange paint in the holes makes them stand out a bit. I went the easy route and bought a can of clear poly for a top coat. Usually I’d brush on a coat of poly but this was way easier. I used the whole can which gave me about 3 good coats. I put some felt on the bottom of the feet so it’ll slide better on our cork floors.
Well, I hope that’s enough detail if someone wants to build their own. Maybe you can measure right in yours and not have to do all the leg notching that I had to do. It would certainly be easy enough to make variations on the design to make it easier to make. If you kept the back legs straight instead of at the angle it would make things considerably easier. You could also just buy the lumber already at size from the Depot. 1 x 2 inch lumber isn’t really 2 inches wide anymore. It’s a bit short of that. Same with 8 inch wide boards. It shouldn’t matter though as long as all your boards of the same type are the same width.
- Sand all the edges before you do any assembly.
- Pre drill all your holes for your screws. If you have a countersink bit it will make your screw heads sit below the surface.
- If you measure where you put your screws you can get them to look more uniform and line up.
- Give it another sanding after it’s all assembled.
- If you are using polyurethane give it a light sanding with 220 grit paper before your last coat. This will make the surface really smooth.
- If you are using a paddle bit to drill big holes drill from one side just until the tip of the bit punches through to the other side. Then drill the rest of the hole from the back side. This will keep the bit from causing tear outs in the wood.
- Have a bit of extra wood on hand just in case you measure wrong. It could happen.
- It’s supposed to look a bit rustic so if things are off a bit then just go with it.
- It will be stronger and lighter than you think! (That’s not a tip. Just bragging)