American Vernacular: The Adirondack Chair Project Part II

I concluded the first part of this post having decided to build Adirondack chairs that were in the style of the Bunnell patent from 1938 with a contoured seat and curved back and that my material of choice was western red cedar.  If the plan had been to paint the chairs (which Adirondack chairs commonly are) I would have chosen a less expensive wood. In this case I wanted a natural finish so that the wood could darken with age and exposure to the elements.  I also chose red cedar for its natural rot resistance.  Storage space is at a premium here and so the chairs will spend their entire lives outdoors rather than being stashed away in the winter months.  I needed a material that would stand up to the New England weather.  So off I went to Gilbert & Cole  to select my lumber.  I will tell you this was not cheap wood.  The 5/4” x 6” stock that I used for the legs and supports is $5 and change per linear foot.  I am certain I could have found a cheaper source like Home Depot but 1) I prefer to support local businesses, 2) the folks at my local lumber yard are knowledgeable and helpful, and 3) I hate going to big home stores like Home Depot or Lowes and the lumber they sell is typically shit.  When I go to Gilbert & Cole I know that when I grab a board off the top of the stack it will be straight and flat and so that’s where I went and returned home with the 4/4 and 5/4 lumber I needed.


I also needed plans for the chair, and I found those (for free!) from Popular Mechanics.


Shop and Tools

                Our house is small, just 1,380 square feet; the average American home is now 2,687 square feet (median is about 2,400) by contrast.  My wood shop is in the basement which does not cover the entire footprint of the house and I must share the space with the washer and dryer, furnace, and boxes of god knows what.  So, my shop is small–one of the reasons I do a lot of work with hand tools is that they don’t take up as much room!  I also enjoy that they give me a connection to the past. While we would all like to have a shop like Norm Abram it is just not a reality for most of us.  That’s O.K. though.  I have completed many rewarding projects in my little corner of the basement.


The plans are called “easy Adirondack chairs,” but easy is a relative term depending on the tools and materials available to you.  Based on the plans I am guessing that these could be built with little more than a drill, jig saw, router, and circular saw.  However, I will tell you that a table saw was indispensable for ripping down the seat slats with the proper angles and also cutting the long tapers on the back slats.  That’s not to say it couldn’t be done with a circular saw and jig saw—just easier and more expedient with the table saw.  Though space is at a premium for me, I am willing to sacrifice some square footage of floor space to have this piece of equipment.  The mobile base allows me to push it out of the way when not in use.


Before final dimensioning of lumber with the table saw I do most of my material prep (flattening and joining) with hand planes.


In this case it was not necessary as the lumber I bought was already square and flat. I will cover the joys of using hand tools in a later post!

Cutting and Assembly

            I started this project by creating a set of templates out of ¼ inch Luan.  I did this because 1) if I was happy with the end product I figured I’d wind up making more, and 2) if I’m going to make a mistake on the angles and contours I’d rather have it be on cheap Luan than expensive cedar.  I marked the templates with the proper angle settings for the miter saw.


With the template made, I ripped and crosscut the boards for the legs and supports to their final dimensions and used the templates to lay out the shape.  The angle cuts were done with a miter saw and the curves were cut with a jig saw.  The instructions from Popular Mechanics encourage the use of a router table to round over exposed edges.  I didn’t feel like setting up the router table so I used a small Porter Cable router (that’s a ‘routah” for those of you in New England) freehand.  I also used a small radius plane on some of the more delicate corners on the seat slats knowing that the red cedar is susceptible to splitting and tear out (more on that later). I also use the radius plane for the simple reason that I love the feel of working wood with a hand plane.


Once I had the arms, legs, supports, and seat slats cut I turned my attention to the back slats.  I did not make templates for the back slats since I knew I would be cutting them on the table saw rather than attempting to cut them with a circular or jig saw.  This process was made pretty easy by using a tapering jig I got from Rockler.


With all the pieces cut I was ready for sanding and final assembly.


I used 1 5/8” and 2”coated outdoor screws for assembly.  The instruction would have you use only screws.  I was concerned that this was inadequate for attaching the front legs so I also used ¼-20 x 2 ½” stainless steel carriage bolts.  Assembly is pretty straight forward and I more or less followed the advice from Popular Mechanics.  I pre-drilled all of the holes with a tapered bit and countersink.  If you use cedar be sure to pre-drill for the screws as the wood is especially susceptible to splitting! Putting the rear slats on and getting the spacing consistent took a little time.  As the saying goes, you can never have too many clamps.


With all the pieces assembled I needed to shape the arch on the back.  I scribed a line, cut it with a jig saw then rounded the edges.



After some final sanding I applied a penetrating oil made for waterproofing decks and wood siding.  I did not have quite enough wood to finish the table that goes with the chairs, but will pick that up on my next trip to the lumber yard. I really like the design from Popular Mechanics–they are very comfortable.





Hilary has already asked me to make another one–two chairs but three of us in the family.  That should be a much easier task as I have a set of templates to guide me safely tucked away in a corner in the shop.


I am by no means a master craftsman, but I found this project pretty accessible and I am happy with the results. Now if you will excuse me I am going to go have a seat…


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