From Pallet To Patio Chair – Upcycling, the Comfortable Way
Photos by Rob Brown; Illustration by Len Churchill
There are many different types of chair designs out there, but I wanted to keep this on the simple side of things. A comfortable, simple chair for the patio and backyard campfire was all I was after. I already had a pallet, so I knew how much useable wood I had. I could have cheated a bit and used another few pieces from my woodpile, but that would have taken away some of the fun. You may have to either alter this design to work with the amount of wood you have, grab a second pallet, or use a few pieces from your woodpile. You can view a video of how I designed this chair on our website, in the “Videos” section. When choosing a pallet, look for clear wood that doesn’t have many rocks, metal or other debris embedded in the wood. Pallets are typically fairly dry, but if it feels heavier than anticipated you’ve either got some prized, dense exotics, or you have some really wet wood, in which case you should let it dry a while before building much with it. Time for a model
|INFO:||DIFFICULTY – 2/5|
LENGTH/TIME – 2/5
COST – 1/5
A chair is the one piece of furniture that comes into close contact with the body during use. For this reason, it has to be sized and shaped so it’s not only functional, but comfortable. I made a model from 3/4" particle board so I could fine-tune most of the details. The model wasn’t overly strong, but if I was careful I could sit in it and check it for fit. I’m 5' 8" tall, and about 155 lbs., and I find my finished chair very comfortable. If you’re much smaller, or larger, you might want to consider adjusting the overall proportions to suit.
Make a Model – Brown worked out details like proportion and comfort with this model. Unless you want to change the overall design quite a bit, or hone in on the perfect dimension, there’s likely no need for you to make a model.
Dismantle the pallet
Since I needed every piece of wood from my pallet to build this chair, I had to be careful while taking it apart, as I didn’t want to ruin any pieces. Turns out pallets are a lot stronger than they look, but I eventually won the battle. I started by removing some of the nails and prying a few of the boards off, but ended up using a jigsaw to free up the last few boards. I knew the quantity and length of pieces I needed, so I was sure not to cut the pieces shorter than necessary. With all the nails removed it was time to start putting this free lumber to use.
Take it Apart – Before proceeding with the build Brown took apart the pallet he had chosen. With a hammer, a couple of pry bars and a jigsaw he was able to remove all the parts relatively easily.
Dress the parts
A number of the joints in this chair needed to be strong enough to support the weight of a person, so creating strong glue joints was crucial. Rough lumber can be glued, but the joints will be on the weak side. To ensure the joints would hold, I lightly flattened and dressed all the boards. All the boards finished at 3/4" in thickness. Also, because this chair will see sun and rain, a waterproof glue is essential. Most of the boards are over 3" wide, but a few of them were either cracked or had some large knots near their edge, so some of the boards were ripped down slightly. One of the nice things about building this chair is that exact widths and lengths aren’t crucial – use the material you have as best as you can. My legs and armrests were all 2-3/4" wide, but if you can get parts wider than that I would recommend doing so.
Long, strong parts first Most of the parts in this chair around about 20" long, but the legs are about 25" long and the arm rests are 23" long, so I made sure to obtain those parts from the material first. The legs would also bear the brunt of the weight, so they needed to be free of large knots, and have fairly straight grain. At this stage I labelled all the parts to avoid confusion.
Joint #1 – To make the first joint glue and screw the front leg (at left) to the seat stretcher. Clamps and cauls will help keep each joint tight while the glue dries.
My main approach was to just glue and screw most of the joints in this chair, using either 1-1/4" or 2" long exterior screws. If the joint needed to be extra-strong I used clamps and cauls to keep these lap joints together until the glue dried. For a few joints – like fastening the seat slats to the seat stretchers – I just clamped the joints until the glue dried. In all the areas where the joints were visible I plugged the holes afterwards to keep a sleeker look. And before assembling each part I heavily eased all the sharp edges and corners.
Cut the four legs to final size, and at the correct angles. The back legs are set at 10° of perpendicular to the ground, while the front legs are 5° off perpendicular. Trim the front end of the two seat stretchers at 90°, but leave these two parts long for now. Mark a line 17" up from the bottom of each front leg, and glue and screw the seat stretchers to the front leg at a 90 degree angle, so the upper edge of the seat stretchers are even with the 17" mark.
Mark a point on the underside of the seat stretcher 14-1/2" from the intersection of the underside of the seat stretcher and the back edge of the front leg. Attach the rear leg so its front edge is at this point. I aligned the bottom of the front and back legs with the edge of my router table while doing this, in order to keep the parts oriented properly. There’s also nothing wrong with using a compass to double-check angles. Be sure to attach the seat stretcher to the inner faces of the legs.
If the tops of your legs are in perfect alignment, you’re a much better woodworker than I am. I placed the assemblies, one by one, on my cross-cut sled, aligned and secured them to the sled, then trimmed the tops of the legs slightly so they were coplaner. This allows the arm rests to mate with the legs properly.
Joint #2 – With the bottom ends of the front and rear legs aligned with the edge of his router table, Brown positions the rear leg and joins the seat stretcher to it.
Nice and Straight – With the leg/seat stretcher sub-assembly together, Brown uses a cross-cut sled on his table saw to ensure the upper ends of the legs are in the exact same plane. This ensures the armrests will mate with the legs properly.
Assemble the seat back uprights
Cut a 10 degree angle on the lower ends of the two seat back uprights. Cut the seat back uprights to finished length, then mark and cut a 4" radius to the upper back of the seat back upright. With the arc sanded smooth, glue, screw and clamp the uprights to the rear legs. You can now use a flush-cut saw to trim the rear end of the seat stretchers flush with the rear edge of the back leg. The more even this is, the better, as the rear apron will eventually be attached over this area.
Gentle Curve – Brown temporarily screwed the seat back upright to the rear leg then drew a 4" radius arc on its top. The arc was then smoothed before being reattached with glue, screws, cauls and clamps.
Trim it Flush – Use a flush-cut saw to trim the rear end of the seat stretcher flush with the back edge of the rear leg. The rear apron will be attached over this joint, so try to make it as flush as possible.
Notch and attach armrests
Cut a 6" radius in the front end of the armrests, then cut and smooth those two edges. Cut the back of the armrest square to bring the part to final length. Place the armrests on top of the legs, beside the seat back uprights, and mark the angle and location of a notch that will allow the inside edge of the armrest to sit flush with the inside face of the seat back upright. Use a handsaw to remove the notch. Drill some countersunk holes, then glue and screw the armrests in place. When dealing with end grain, like when attaching the armrests to the tops of the legs, I applied a size coat of glue to the end grain, allowed it to dry for a few minutes, then applied another regular coat of glue to the surface. The first coat soaks into the end grain and stops the second coat from doing the same.
Mark the Notch – Brown positioned the armrest in place on top of the legs and marked the angle and location of the notch on the armrest. The inner edge of the armrest should finish flush with the inner face of the rear leg.
Bring the two assemblies together
I used two right-angle plywood brackets to help me hold the two sub-assemblies upright during assembly. With the two chair halves positioned, I glued and screwed the front and back aprons in place. At this point the chair is still a bit weak, but the seat and back slats will help greatly.
Once I determined the widths of the seat slats, I ripped them to width. A 1/4" gap is between each slat in the seat and back. Start with the rear seat slat, gluing and clamping it in place. I didn’t use screws, as only downward pressure would be exerted on these slats, and any holes or plugs would be quite visible, yet hard to get at. Moving forward, add the second and third slats. The fourth and fifth slats will need notches to allow the slats to fit around the front legs. The fifth slat should also have its front edge eased heavily, to reduce the pressure on the backs of your legs while sitting in the chair.
Add Seat Slats – After ripping the seat slats so they have a 1/4" gap between them, sit flush against the rear leg and have a slight overhang at the front of the chair, Brown glues and clamps the rear three slats in place. The front two slats need to be notched to fit around the front legs.
I painted the middle back slat, which made the operation a bit more confusing. Either way, place the middle slat on top of the armrests temporarily, then notch the lower slat to end up with a 1/4" gap, then glue and clamp the lower back slat in place. If you’re skipping the painted treatment, glue and clamp the middle and upper back slats in place now.
If you want to try your hand at a painted feature slat, position the middle slat in place temporarily and glue and clamp the upper slat in place. When dry, remove the middle back slat, lay out the area to be painted, mask the wood on either side of the area to be painted and prime it with an exterior, sap-blocking primer. I used an aerosol can of BIN primer from Zinsser.
Once the primer was dry I sprayed on two coats of white paint, allowed it to dry, applied one strip of tape down the center of the painted area and sprayed a coat of red paint on. I used Rustoleum’s Painter’s Touch 2X Satin Blossom White and Satin Poppy Red, both in aerosol cans. When dry, glue and clamp the slat in place.
Next, Back Slats – With the middle back slat temporarily in place, Brown marks and cuts the notch in the lower back slat so it’s located 1/4" away from the middle slat.
Mask Then Prime – Once the area to be painted was laid out, Brown masked it off and sprayed on an exterior primer, then let it dry thoroughly.
National Colours – After the white, then red areas have been sprayed, remove the tape to reveal a detail that many Canadians will recognize. If you’re feeling artistic you can try your hand at adding a red maple on the white band.
While the paint on your middle back slat is drying, cut and attach two angled brackets to the front face of the rear apron and the inner face of the rear legs. Plug the visible holes. These brackets will keep the chair from racking while in use. They may be overkill, though I’d rather not find out down the road that I really shouldn’t have skipped this step.A finish?
Other than the painted slat, the chair I made didn’t get any finish at all. A film finish will help protect the wood, and keep it looking new, though it needs to be taken care of or it peels and looks very worn. A simple oil finish of some sort could have also been used to maintain a newer look, if that’s what I was after. Both of these finishes would also provide protection against rot. I opted to skip the finish, as I wanted the silvery look that wood left outdoors naturally turns. My reasoning? It would look nice with the painted slat, and would require no maintenance. I also had my patio to enjoy, as winter was closer than I wanted to admit.
Extra Strength – Though they might not be required, two angled brackets running between the rear legs and apron ensure the chair doesn’t rack while in use.
ROB BROWNrbrown@canadianwoodworking.comBrown now has his eyes peeled for another nice-looking pallet, as his wife and kids rarely let him use this chair. Truth be told, he knew he should have built two chairs all along.