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Reitveld Chair

We’ve turned an icon of modern design into a comfortable, easy-to-build outdoor project.

By Tom Caspar

In 1918 the Dutch cabinetmaker Gerrit Rietveld reduced the idea of a chair to a 3D grid of painted sticks and boards. His revolutionary design became one of the most famous pieces of 20th-century furniture—the Red- Blue chair.

Let’s take a new look at it. Although his chair appears easy to put together, getting all those sticks precisely located is tough, especially if you have only two hands. And all the pieces look alike! To make this jigsaw puzzle simpler to put together, I’ve figured out a building system based on two plywood boards and a few spacing blocks. If, like most people, you want to build a bunch of chairs instead of just one, this system is the ticket. Once you’ve built the first chair, the rest will be easy as ABC.


The Design

I’ve revised Rietveld’s elegant design to make a chair that’s stronger, easier to build, more comfortable to sit in and rugged enough to put outdoors. I’ve used screws instead of Rietveld’s dowels to hold it together, increased the size of the sticks and added a stretcher. We tested our chair with both large and small people, and it gets two thumbs up for comfort. Some said it was perfect for leaning back and playing video games!


Tools and Materials

Building this chair requires only a minimum of tools and experience. You’ll need a tablesaw, planer and router to mill the wood, and a #2 square-drive bit for your drill to put it together. That’s it. A drill press and a router table are helpful, but not necessary.

Honduras mahogany is a good choice for this chair. It’s easy to cut, sands quickly and is weatherproof, even without a finish.Alternative woods include teak and white oak. Softwoods that are often used for outdoor furniture like cedar, redwood and cypress are probably too weak for this chair and do not hold screws well. If mahogany is too pricey for you, I’ve scaled the chair so you could use tough construction lumber such as Douglas fir or Southern yellow pine instead. Both are available at most lumberyards and should hold up outdoors if painted.

One chair requires about 12 board feet of 6/4 wood and about 10 board feet of 4/4 wood. That’s about $150 per chair for mahogany, $50 for fir.

If your chair will be outdoors, use stainless steel screws and waterresistant glue.Unlike stainless steel, standard screws will leave unsightly stains on the wood. I prefer Titebond II glue for kiln-dried hardwoods such as mahogany, but if you’re using construction lumber, polyurethane glue (Gorilla Glue, for example) would be a better choice because it works well on wood with a high moisture content.


Getting Started

Begin by cutting all the parts to size (see Cutting List, below). Rout a bevel or roundover on every edge, including the ends (Fig. C, Detail 1). A router table makes this repetitious job go much faster. Make some extra legs and rails, too. You’ll need them to make spacers (see Cutting List, below, right) and stop blocks. The spacer you’ll use over and over again, spacer #1, is simply a scrap piece of rail. I added a tab to it to make it easy to use (Photo 3). Most of this chair’s dimensions are based on multiples of this block of wood.

Don’t sand the sticks before you glue them together, or you might accidentally round over the flat surfaces. They must remain flat for a good glue joint.

Now build the two gluing and screwing fixtures (Fig. E) and follow the photo sequence 1 through 12.


Finishing Touches

You don’t have to apply a finish to your chair. Mahogany turns a silvery-gray color if left outdoors and stays sound for many years.However, if you’d like to preserve its original color, you can apply a clear exterior oil (see Sources, below) each year.

The most vulnerable part of an outdoor chair is the bottom of the legs. Moisture wicking up into the legs can support the growth of wood-destroying fungi. You can slow down that process by liberally coating the end of the legs with epoxy glue.


Sources

McFeely’s, mcfeelys.com, 800-443-7937, Square-Drive Stainless Steel Screws, #8 x 1-5/8", #0815-FA5, $13.50 for a box of 100; #10 x 2-1/2", #1024-FA5, $23.45 for a box of 100.

Penofin, penofin.com, 800-736-6946, Marine Oil Finish, $49.95/gal.


Cutting List


Fig. A: Guide Block for Screw Holes


Fig. B: Good Screw Joints


Fig. C: Exploded View of Chair


Fig. D: Side View of Chair


Fig. E: Screwing and Gluing Fixtures


This story originally appeared in American Woodworker April 2000, Issue #79.

April 2000, Issue #79

Purchase this back issue.

Click on any image to see a larger version.

We've changed the chair show in these how-to photos to show you how easy it is to put together. Each color refers to a separate group of parts.


1. Mark the ends of all the D rails with this reversible guide block (Fig. A). Drill holes on your marks by hand or with a drill press. The screws must easily slip through these holes. Countersink both sides (Fig. B).

While you have the drill set up, put holes in rails E and F as well (Fig. C, Details 1 and 2) and countersink both sides.


2. Assemble the front legs and bottom rail. Lock them in place on Fixture A (Fig. E). Spacer #1, at the end of the rail, sets the overhang. Spacer #2 (which is actually a chair arm) fixes the rail’s distance from the bottom of the leg. Drill pilot holes into both legs, then remove the rail and blow off the wood dust. Apply water-resistant glue to the joints. Then replace the rail and drive in the screws.

Repeat this operation for the middle and back assemblies.


3. Flip the leg assembly around and re-install it in the fixture. Then insert spacer #3 to position the upper rail. (See Cutting List for size.)


4. Install the upper rail of the middle assembly with two #4 spacers. (See Cutting List for size.)


5. Butt rail E of the back assembly against the stop stick. Place two seat boards under the fixture to raise the stop stick to the level of the rail. Use two spacer blocks #1 to set the overhang.


6. Screw the back leg assembly to the arms. Clamp the arms in place across Fixture B. Spacer blocks #1 position the arm rail from the stop stick and set the overhang.


7. Clamp the middle leg assembly in place with spacer #4 (the same spacer you used in Photo 4, but turned the other way around). Spacer #1 sets the legs in from the arm’s edge.


8. Drill pilot holes through rail F, then screw and glue it in place.

Repeat the same process on the other side of the chair and remove Fixture B.


9. Install three corner brackets on both arms (Fig. C). Use stainless steel screws if your chair’s going outside.


10. Clamp the front leg assembly in place. Drill pilot holes into the legs and drive in two screws to temporarily hold the assembly in place. Then remove the clamps, drill the pilot holes into the front assembly’s rail and remove the temporary screws. Apply glue to the assembly and drive in all the screws.


11. Add the backboards. Tilt the chair back on a support block made from the spacers. Pre-drill the holes in the backboards and cut registration dadoes in them (Fig. D). Then drill pilot holes into the chair rails and drive in the screws. This is not a glued joint.


12. Insert a thin spacer between the seat boards to keep them parallel. The seat is not glued to the rails.

Glue and screw the cleat behind the top of the backboards.


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Comments

John wrote re: Reitveld Chair
on 05-30-2011 9:24 AM

I love this chair.  I am wondering if there is way to download this project without using up a ton of ink printing the existing page.  Or is this project for sale on your site?  I am looking for a printer friendly version if that is possible.