Tuesday, July 26, 2016

How I made my own Adirondack chairs, in 113 easy steps

Step 1.  Take apart an old fence with your son.  Save the boards.  

If you have the choice between stabbing yourself with a rusty nail while you disassemble your fence, or not stabbing yourself with a rusty nail, I can say I've experimented with this choice, and I'd favor "not".  But y'know, if you do go with the self-stabbing, then steps 2--6 involve washing the wound, bandaging the wound, checking medical records to see when your last TDAP vaccination happened, reading medical websites obsessively, and possibly getting a tetanus booster.

Step 7. Go over the boards again and double-check that all the nails are truly out.

Step 8.  Inspect the boards for nails again, one more time, because hey, it's faster than repeating steps 2--6.

Step 9.  Locate an Adirondack chair that you like.

Steps 10-12.  Steal it.  Or at least, borrow it.  I loaded a chair from our college green onto our garden cart (step 10), bungee corded it onto the cart (11), and wheeled it home (12).

Step 13.  Confess.  Right after I got this chair home, I got a call from our campus public safety office.  Guilt!!!!  I confessed to taking the chair and promised I'd bring it back in two days.  It turns out, they were just calling me because I'm the advisor to our campus Inter-varsity Christian Fellowship, and they knew somebody who wanted to get involved.  But the officer who I confessed to offered to write me a ticket and/or lock me up, if that made me feel better.  I just promised I'd bring the chair back in two or three days, and the officer agreed that sounded more practical.  I love my campus public safety officers!

Step 14-16.  Make a template for the leg braces using newspaper.  This is pretty easy if you (14) spray the leg with water so the newspaper sticks, (15) smooth the newspaper out along the leg, and (16) use scissors to cut the newspaper to size.

Step 17.  Lay the newspaper template down on a former fence board and trace the outline with a pencil.  My dad says a pencil always lasts him about 5 minutes in the workshop before he loses it; if he has 30 minutes to work on a project, he'll bring 6 pencils along with him.   Me, I seem to be much more fortunate in hanging on to my good old #2's.

Steps 18-21.  Begin cutting out the leg brace with your jigsaw (18), and then (19) bike on over to the hardware store to buy new jigsaw blades because the only one you have is so #@$ dull it's driving you crazy and then (20) put in the new blades which are better and then (21) finish cutting out that first leg.

Doing this project, which requires a lot of jigsaw work because of all the curves, really made me appreciate my circular saw, which just tears through stuff quickly and noisily (even through extension cords, although I'm getting a bit ahead of myself).  Jigsaws, in contrast, are painfully slow and require a bunch of arm muscle.  All this cutting and lifting and pushing was fabulous work to do in a heat wave (and I mean that; I really love getting a good honest sweat going.   I know most people hate/fear this heat wave we've been having, but I've been reveling in it.)

Step 22.  Check that the leg brace we just cut out really matches the original.  phew! It did!

Steps 23-27.  Use this leg as a template for other leg braces (a wood template is sturdier than newspaper), and then cut out five more legs.  Did I mention that I wanted to make three different chairs?  So six leg braces total.

Steps 28-34 involve making  newspaper templates, tracing the onto pieces of wood, and jigsaw cutting of the six remaining curved pieces, two for each chair.   The other curved pieces of an Adirondack chair are the back support braces behind the seat, the ones that hold the back slats in place.

The rest of the pieces are basically straight (so yay! I can cut them with the circular saw).  Steps 35-38 involve measuring the front legs, the chair slats, the back slats, and the armrests.  Steps 39-42 involve measuring them all again, just to be sure, because measure twice, cut once, and all that.  Plus, my measuring assistant really liked playing with the retractible measuring tape -- and who doesn't?  Measuring tapes are fascinating!

Steps 43-60something (what the heck, I'll say step "67"; I'm losing count here) are to zoom through these pieces with a circular saw.  The arms require a bit of tapering of corners, but the circular saw still works for that job.  At this point, I started to really just "flow" with the work.  No agonizing or decisions required, just pick up the next piece of wood and buzz it to the right length.  This was where the true fun began.
When I was done cutting everything up, I just had a bunch of piles of wood, not very impressive.  It certainly didn't look like enough for a chair, much less three chairs.  But just wait!  It's going to work, you'll see!

If using a circular saw is fun compared to using a jigsaw, using the drill is the bomb.  Wow.  There is just something really, really satisfying about seeing all these pieces come together.  In my head, I was grokking to Bloom's Taxonomy of Knowledge, thinking "I've just done analysis (separating things into their components), and now I'm doing synthesis."   I love Bloom's taxonomy.  

Steps 68-71:  Assemble the seats.  Lay the seat boards down on the leg braces (68), add spacers so everything is even (69), drill holes (70), screw everything together (71).   Steps 72-75 are to do the same thing for the seat backs.

On the first chair I made, I added the front legs before connecting the seat and the back, but on subsequent chairs, I decided this was the wrong order.  So I'd suggest this instead (which worked well on the second and third chairs):  Steps 76-78:  attach the back to the leg braces (position the seat, drill holes, screw things together.

Then attach the armrests to the back, which is like 6 additional steps because getting the screws in deep enough requires making insets with several different drill bits and also a search for a long screwdriver plus taking a bit of a break for cold water because at this point with things going so well, you don't really want to let exhaustion and tiredness cause you to make a stupid or hasty mistake.  

Step 85: Breathe a little.  All is good.

Step 86:  Lay the chair on its side.  Step 87: prop up the legs under the chair so they fit right up against the armrest.  Steps 88-89: drill holes and insert screws into leg braces.   Steps 90-92: Stand the chair up, and drill holes, and insert screws to attach armrests to the legs.  Steps 93-99: repeat on the other side.  Done!

100. Oops.  Except on chair #1 (which is actually a love seat; is that cool or what!?!) I realized I'd cut the upper back brace at the wrong angle.  You know that something is going to go wrong on a multi-step project like this, and it turned out that this one little angle-thingie was the part destined to get me scratching my head.  So I did a bit of futzing and realized that my jigsaw actually allows me to set angles (cool!  How did I not know this before?) and redid the back braces on the next two chairs before I attached them.  More laborious jigsaw work (huff, puff, steps 101-107, maybe).  And then (step 108) a quick trim with the circular saw -- a little too quick because I also trimmed the electrical extension cord.
Whoops!  Need to angle the cut on that back brace,
so it matches up with the arm rests better.
Note the wheel on the front leg -- fab!

As long as we were out getting a new electrical cord (step 109), I decided to also get wheels for the front legs.  Because Adironack Chairs on wheels are just way too cool for words.  yes?  yes?  Step 110, 111, and 112:  trim the legs to the right new length (circular saw back in action), mark the holes and drill them, and then screw the wheels to the legs. 

But after all this fun, voila!  An Adirondack Love seat!  And a pair of Adirondack Chairs!

An Adirondack love seat.

An Adirondack Chair
(with the other chair and love seat in the background,
beyond the mulch pile).
My uncle saw pictures of the love seat and wrote, "Congrats on building the Adirondack chairs. They're interesting, and have just a hint of medieval torture in their looks." I think he means that in a good way.

Finally, step 113:  Return the stolen borrowed chair to campus, or rather, have my sons do it.

The cost of these chairs?  $24 for the wheels, $20 for a set of three new-to-us extension cords (snagged off of Craigslist), $8 for a set of jigsaw blades, and $1 for borrowed chair transportation.  The screws,  I had leftover from a previous project, so essentially $0.  That's $53 for a set of chairs that are, if I say so myself, full of character, plus a weekend of incredible woodworking fun.


  1. Pretty awesome! Nice work. Any plans to paint or stain for protection against the elements? Our local waste management sells leftover paint and stain to help keep it out of the landfill -- always a good place to head if color doesn't matter.

    1. Good question! Since these were all fence boards, having spent about 15 or so years out in the elements already, I figure that turning them into chairs isn't going to make them any more vulnerable. I think some of the boards might have been pressure treated even. So far, no plans to paint them or stain them. Instead, I'm turning my eye to making a new solar oven to go with my solar dehydrator; also some more raised garden beds. it's good to have a new set of projects on my to-do list.

  2. Pretty neat. I was wondering about the boards being treated as well, but like you say, they have been outside for a while so they probably leached everything out already.

  3. Very impressive repurposing! I am beyond impressed. =)

    1. aw, shucks! Coming from someone who built her own cabinet shelves, that means a lot to me!