Dock Chair | Popular Woodworking Magazine
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Lightweight, foldable and portable, this chair is so simple that you want a couple – or more.
I haven’t always liked the Adirondack chair and never understood its popularity. I find it uncomfortable because the human frame doesn’t fold at right angles and also, because it doesn’t fold or stack, it’s an awkward object to move and difficult to store.
When my daughter Rebecca showed me a wooden folding chair she had found in the attic of an old house in Nova Scotia, I was immediately struck by the ingenuity of the design, which combines comfort and practicality. Anyone familiar with Mies Van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair will feel the echoes of that famous and widely imitated design.
What I like to call my “dockside chair” requires no special hardware and can be made from virtually any wood, or combination of woods, in just a few hours. Anyone who is reasonably skilled can do a couple of them in a weekend.
I made the first version using native pine and red oak slats fixed with bronze screws. I painted it signal yellow because the Nova Scotia mists are famous and I didn’t want to be hit by some wandering ship.
You will see from the drawing below that one frame fits into the other with a distance of 1⁄8“. This way one frame can slide into the other for storage or movement, as demonstrated below by our colorful boat builder Kevin Wambach.
I changed the original curves to make it lighter and more elegant and this version is shown in the drawing. I used Port Orford cedar for my newest version, so the chair needs no finishing and can be left out with the weather – rain or shine – and will just turn a nice shade of gray. I didn’t bother making cushions for this chair, but it wouldn’t have been a problem to do so. I would use canvas – natural or synthetic – for the cover and fill it with kapok. It would then double as a life raft if you fell off the dock.
Making the Dock Chair
Almost all you need for this project is a bandsaw (or jigsaw), a low angle block plane, a drill, and a shaving machine. For materials you won’t do better than spruce for the frame because it combines lightness and flexible strength. Spruce doesn’t hold up well, so the wood must be sealed with several coats of marine varnish or, for a low-maintenance finish, varnish. You could also make the chair in teak or mahogany. Both would be fine, but would be much more expensive and less portable due to the additional weight.
The slats are screwed to the frame with stainless steel or bronze screws. Leave the heads exposed or plug the holes with wooden plugs.
I drew the shapes of the crossed legs on a square grid. Each of the squares is 2 “. Rather than redrawing, I recommend using a copier to enlarge the design, or you can download a PDF of this design at the bottom of this article. You will need to glue several pieces of paper together to get the full-size image, and you may find some small discontinuities: flat spots and sharp changes in curvature. Instead of inserting them into the chair, take a flexible splint, insert it into the right shape and redraw the curves with a marker. This is often done by boat builders to generate correct curves.
Use these full-size templates to mark frames on your stock, nesting them if possible and taking advantage of any natural curvature or “sweep” in the grain. If the broth isn’t wide enough, glue two or more pieces together until you have the necessary width.
One of the clever features of this design is that the grain lines are nearly straight at the point where the frames cross and the maximum bending stress occurs.
I don’t have bandsaws in my workshop in Nova Scotia, so I cut out each frame with a jigsaw, then dressed the inner and outer curves with a scraper. This is a good time to do all the sanding and finishing operations, making sure to remove the sharp edge from any corner with a sanding block. Give the frames a coat of primer (or paint if using a clear finish), set them aside, and cut out the seat and back slats.
If you are using hardwood such as oak or ash, you can safely plan the planks up to 3⁄8“. With soft wood – pine or spruce – they should be at least 1⁄2“Often or even 5⁄8“. The designs and the cutlist have them in 5⁄8“.
Now use the template again to mark the exact location of each slat on both frames. Be precise in positioning the locking plates, marked A, B. is C. in the drawing on the left. These establish the angle of one frame relative to the other and thus the comfort (or discomfort) of the completed chair.
It is worth planing a small plate on the convex side of the frame where a batten falls. You can also plane a very slight turn inside each plank before attaching it to the concave side of the frames. Otherwise it is likely that you will see unsightly gaps when looking at the chair from the side. Finish the slats and seal them with paint or varnish as before.
The opening photo shows a hand grip so that the frame can be easily transported. Include this feature if you like – you can also add one instead.
Assembly and fixing of the slats
If you plan to leave the chair out of time, leave at least one 1⁄4”Space between the slats so that the water can drain. Otherwise, 1⁄8“that’s enough. Make up some 1⁄4” or 1⁄8”Spacers to position the slats so that the spaces are consistent for both the seat and the backrest, from top to bottom.
Start with 3 ″ wide material for the slats. Depending on the gap between the slats and the amount of material removed when shaping the frames, it may be necessary to slightly reduce the individual slats. The top slat on the back is flush with the end of the frame.
Plan a bevel on the edge to meet the curved end of the frame at an attractive angle. Judge this eye angle based on the drawing and photos. Some of the other slats can benefit from an angled edge to keep a constant space between them.
Start at the top and measure and mark each slat before attaching one of them. The last slat above the seat will be approx 1⁄2”Tighter than the others. Start assembling the seat slats with the locking slats C. in the drawing and work towards the end. The last stick may protrude from the edge 1⁄4” for 1⁄2“, And the chair will be more comfortable if the edge is planed to a radius.
Fixing of the slats
Screwing is more durable than nailing, especially when using softwood frames, and is better able to withstand the weight of a heavy person. Be sure to countersink the screw heads (I use bronze oval head screws when I can get them) so that they are a fraction below the surface, or countersink and plug the holes.
Always set the wood plugs with paint or varnish, not glue, so they can be removed to reattach the chair if needed. If you’re going to use a clear finish, be sure to put a drop of sealant (or marine litter compound) into the pilot hole before inserting the screw. Otherwise an unsightly ring is likely to form around the fastener if the chair is left out of time.
You don’t need a sailmaker for this job, but a local awning and awning manufacturer will be able to handle lightweight canvases. I would have simply made two rectangular pillows, each 16 ″ x 24 ″ and no more than 2 ″ thick. They should have ties to secure them to the chair, or be connected with fabric hinges, so they don’t pop off.
Instead of the regular sailcloth, I prefer a new product called Oceanus which looks and handles like canvas and is available in solid colors. It does not get moldy and resists degradation due to sunlight.
I like this chair so much that I decided to make another aluminum version with teak slats. The holes drilled in the frames lighten the weight and give the frame the feel of an airplane beam – in fact, I call it a “flying deck chair”.
Simon Watts is a carpenter, boat builder and author who spends his summers on Middle Island, Nova Scotia. When it gets cold, he heads to San Francisco.
Dock chair cutting list
Item Size Comments (inches)
❏ 2 Front leg frame 1 1⁄4 x 7 3⁄8 x 40 7⁄8 From shape to motif
❏ 2 Rear leg frame 1 1⁄4 x 5 7⁄8 x 33 1⁄2 From shape to motif
❏ 14 slats 5⁄8 x 3 x 23 1⁄2 Fit width and edges
To download full-size models of the Deck / Dock Chair leg profiles in PDF format, click here.
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