Perfect Patio Chairs
A classic design, reinvented for comfort and easy building
This chair is hard to beat for comfort, economy and ease of building. The design is based on a couple chairs I’ve had at the family cabin for more than a decade. Being a fiddle-with-it kind of guy, I modified the originals over the years, built others and eventually chose this design.
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I think it’s about as close to perfect as you can get: It’s comfortable to sit in for hours at a time, the arms are wide enough to hold a drink, and you’re reclined enough for relaxation, but not so much that you’ll groan every time you get up (unlike with most Adirondack chairs). It will accept a common type of outdoor chair cushion, available at any home center, but doesn’t require one. It’s light enough to move around easily, and you can fit it through a doorway without contortions. Plus, it’s inexpensive and easy to build.
Skills, tools & lumber
This is a beginner to intermediate level project. If you have just a little experience with tools, you can do it. You’ll need an orbital or a random-orbit sander, a 7/16-in. wrench, six clamps and a drill. You can cut parts with a circular saw and drive nails with a hammer, but you’ll get faster, nicer results with a miter saw, an air compressor and an 18-gauge brad nailer.
I’ve built this design from both pine and cedar. Each pine chair will cost you about $60, cedar about $90. Cedar is a better choice if your chairs are going to spend much time out in the rain. You may find it hard to buy 1×3 cedar, so you may have to rip a 1×6 in half. Also note that rough cedar is usually thicker than 3/4 in., while pine boards come in the standard 3/4-in. thickness. When you’re building the seat and back, keep those different thicknesses in mind (see Photos 2 and 3).
Build a prototype
Over decades of chair building, I’ve learned this: Every chair is a compromise, and no chair is right for everyone. This chair, for example, is midsized and may not be comfortable for large people. So I strongly recommend that you build a prototype before you settle on this or any other design. Use pine or plywood scrap, and don’t bother sanding the parts.
The biggest advantage to a prototype is that you and your family can test it for comfort. You can also shop for cushions and actually try them out on the chair. Thicker cushions change the feel of a chair significantly. A prototype is also a building lesson: Once you’ve built one chair, you can churn out others faster, better and without mistakes.
Not ready to make your own? Check out our patio dining sets buying guide instead.
First, cut and sand the parts
Begin by cutting all the parts except G and H (Photo 1). If you’re using cedar that’s rough on one side, you need to cut each part so that the smooth side will face out. That means you’ll have left and right sides to parts A, D and E. In other words, for each pair of parts, make sure the angled cut goes one direction on one part, the other direction on the other. This will allow you to assemble the chair with the smooth face of the cedar facing out.
As you’re cutting, label the parts with masking tape. Parts G and H are cut after the chair is assembled so you can get them to fit perfectly. In cedar, the length is likely to be about 19-3/4 in. instead of 20 in. Once pieces are cut, sand them. Generally, you don’t need to sand finer than 120 grit. For cedar parts, sand only the smooth face.
1. Cut the parts. Making more than one chair means cutting a lot of pieces to the same length. A stop block lets you cut a bunch without measuring and marking each board.
Build the frame
For pieces that are screwed together, you should drill a pilot hole. In pine, you should countersink a little so the screw head doesn’t splinter the wood; cedar is so soft that it’s better not to.
Build the seat frame on a flat surface so it stays flat (Photo 2). Begin by screwing the front (B) to the sides (A), then screw and glue the seat support (C) to the inside surface of A. Now glue and screw the back supports (D) to the back sides (E), keeping the square ends flush (Photo 3). The angles at the ends should be parallel. Put the sides in position and tack them on with one screw each at the bottom into the seat sides (A). Screw the back top (B) to the top of the back sides (E). With the back lightly screwed in place, drill two bolt holes each through the seat sides and the back supports (see Figure A). Install galvanized carriage bolts and tighten the nuts firmly (Photo 4).
2. Assemble the seat base. Screw the front to the sides, then glue and screw the seat supports to the sides. If needed, raise or lower the seat supports slightly so that the space above them matches the thickness of the slats.
3. Build up the back supports. Screw and glue the back supports to the back sides. Position the back supports to match the thickness of the back slats.
4. Bolt on the back. Attach the back to the seat side with galvanized carriage bolts. Then screw the back brace to the back side supports.
Note: Test the bolts. A heavy buildup of zinc coating on galvanized bolts can make it nearly impossible to thread on the nut. So try a nut on each bolt first. Better to discover a stubborn bolt before you pound it into the hole.
Attach the legs
Mark two legs (F) at 7-3/4 in. from the end and mark the other two legs at 11 in. Turn the chair assembly on its side and clamp two legs into place (Figure B) so one leg is flush to the angled cut on the seat sides (A) and the other is 2-1/2 in. from the front edge of the seat. After clamping the legs to the seat sides and back, turn the chair over and clamp on the other two legs. Turn the chair right side up to adjust the legs (Photo 5).
5. Attach the legs. On a flat, level surface, clamp the legs to the seat and back. Check the legs for plumb and the seat for level, then bolt on the legs.
Tweak the position of the chair seat so all four legs are on the work surface, the legs are plumb and the seat is level (assuming your work surface is too). Don’t worry if the chair seat is not quite on the leg marks you made earlier. When all is well, drill the bolt holes and attach the bolts. Be careful drilling; your holes must go through the back and seat supports (C and D), well away from the edges where the slats will rest.
Seat slats and arms
Measure the inside width of the chair seat and cut a test slat. If it’s a good fit, drill the ends and screw it to the bottom edge of the seat supports, in back (see Figure A). Cut part G and the rest of the slats (H).
Divide your slats into good and better, and use the better ones on the back, where they’re more visible. Nail on the top slats of the back, the front slat of the seat, and the bottom back slat (G). Then space the other slats out and nail them on (Photo 6). It helps to tip the chair over to do the back slats. Follow Photos 7 – 9 to install the arms.
6. Nail on the slats. For both the seat and the back, position the end slats first. Then space the others between them (typically 3/8 in. apart).
Note: Hide the ugly boards. If the seat and back will get covered by cushions, use up knotty or odd-colored stock for the slats (see photo above). But check the slats before you use them: Big, loose knots can create a weak spot that will crack under stress.
7. Mark the arm for a notch. Hold the arm in position and mark the angle of the back onto its edge.
8. Cut the notch with a handsaw. When you reach the end of the long cut, angle the saw to match the angled cut. Any handsaw will do, but smaller is better.
9. Mount the arms. Screw on the arms. Round over corners and sharp edges with a file or sandpaper. Give everything a final sanding and you’re ready for finish!
Sand and finish
Gently round the corners of the arms with a file or sandpaper. Then file a small round-over on all exposed edges, especially on the undersides of the arms, to prevent splinters.
You can cover the screw heads with exterior-grade wood filler or leave them exposed. Lightly sand the entire chair to 120 grit and it’ll be ready for finish. I finished our chairs with transparent deck stain.
Note: Soak the legs. If the chair will sit on a wet patio or deck, the legs will wick up moisture and rot. To prevent that, soak each leg in a pan of finish for a few minutes (see photo above). Set the leg on a nut or washer to expose the end of the leg. The finish will penetrate deep and lock out moisture.