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Rustic Chair


Rustic Chair

Make a chair in a day, using green wood saplings.

By Jonathan Benson

You can make a pretty good case for bending and attaching green wood sticks as the second oldest wood furniture making method (after coming upon a fallen log, and sitting). Today, this type of furniture is labeled "rustic," so exposed nails, screws, and other hardware are acceptable for joining the individual pieces. Larger pieces can be joined using mortise-and-tenon joints cut by hand, a drill, or a commercially available tenon cutter. Nails or leather straps also work well for joining the wood together.

Building this child’s chair (see Fig. A, below) is a good introduction to rustic chairmaking and a testament to the great bending properties of willow.With rustic furniture, there are often no drawings or set plans. The shapes and sizes of the wood at hand and the maker’s eye are often the determining factors when creating a design. A few basics are important, however. For rustic chairs, they include the height, width and depth of the seat, and also the height of the arms. (see Fig. B, below) As this chair is designed for a child, it’s smaller than an adult-size chair. But both chairs are made the same way.


Working with green wood

Green wood is either freshly sawn or has not undergone any formal drying process. It retains moisture and the wood's natural resins, which makes it easier to bend than wood that has been thoroughly dried. Alder, birch, beech, hickory, and willow are commonly used to make bentwood rustic furniture.Willow may have the best qualities of all because it bends easily, stays in place, and the bark usually doesn’t come off when the wood dries. It can also be a reliable source of material—a good stand of willows near a creek or river will yield new saplings year after year.

Saplings work best for bending, because they are relatively straight and have few offshoots and leaves, so they're easy to prepare (Photo 1). Use saplings and small branches to construct bent components, such as the arms and seat of this chair.Use thicker branches to construct the support structure.

When you cut live branches and saplings, it's best to use them right away, before they have a chance to dry out. The sticks can be wrapped in plastic and stored for a while, but they'll continue to dry and mildew can be a problem.

For the bent pieces in this chair, I cut willow and Osageorange saplings that were about 1" in diameter at their thickest.The structural members were cut from branches of willow and Osage-orange and were slightly more than 1" in diameter.This chair's structural frames hold the bent elements in tension, which adds much strength to its overall structure.To create bent pieces that are uniformly shaped, you must pre-bend the thick end of each piece by hand or over the edge of a bench.Otherwise, the pieces will tend to bend more where they are thinner and less where they are thickest, resulting in uneven curves.Use galvanized nails (with heads) to fasten the pieces. Some joints could be wrapped with leather to add strength and detail.

Fig. A: Rustic Child's Chair

Fig. B: Common Chair Measurements

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker April/May 2009, issue #141.

April/May 2009, issue #141

Purchase this back issue.

Click any image to view a larger version.

1. Willow saplings and branches about 1" in diameter make suitable bending material. Slightly larger branches are best for structural members.

2. Start by making a pair of frames. One frame supports the seat; the other frame supports the legs. Using a slightly cruved branch for the front of the seat frame makes the seat more comfortable.

3. Nail each frame together after pre-drilling each hole to avoid splitting the wood. Orient the pieces firmly against the bench so the force of the hammer is directly transferred through the nail to the bench.

4. Nail the first arm inside the leg frame.

5. Bend the arm inside the opposite rail and nail it in place.Then trim the ends.This chair has a total of four bent arms. Pre-bending the branches before installation makes their curves more uniform.

6. Install the second inside arm. The remaining two arms are attached on the outside of the frame.

7. Install the seat frame by nailing it between the four arms. Angle the frame 5° to 10° to the back, to make the seat more comfortable. Here I've installed one of the outside arms to help with positioning.

8. Construct the back frame by bending two long branches into a loop and threading them through a pair of nailed-on cross braces.The brace on the seat frame determines the seat's depth.The arm brace determines the pitch of the back—usually between 15° and 20°. Slightly bending this brace makes the back more comfortable.

9. Create the back's U-shaped frame by wiring together two long branches, so the thick end of one branch is attached to the thin end of the other.The wire helps the two branches bend uniformly.Nail the back frame in position.Then remove the wire.

10. Fill in the seat and back to complete the chair. Pre-bend the first branch to create a comfortable seat and back, after passing it between the two pieces that form the back's frame. Center the branch and make sure it's vertical. Then nail it in place, to the front rail, cross braces and back frame.

11. Install the remaining branches, working from the center to the sides. Space the branches as far apart or close together as you want, depending on your design and how much wood you have.These branches are spaced about 3/4".