“You pick the project that you like the best and we’ll build it.”
“I like the Aalto lounge. Think we can do it?”
To a woodworker who likes a challenge, anything is possible!
“Of course we can. Um, give me a few days to work out the details, OK?”
That’s how all good projects start – a great idea and a “How the heck are we going to do this?”
My daughter Kelly was taking an art history of design class. The instructor had the students create a project that would draw upon the style of an artist of their choice. Kelly had three different ideas, all involving building a piece of furniture. She finally chose Alvar Aalto’s lounge.
Working from a photo is sometimes the best you can do. We measured the lounge parts in the photo, sized them up to fit a person anywhere between 62″ and 72″ tall. I measured the distance from the top of Kelly’s head to her hips, then from her hips to the inside of her knees. We fit these with the bends in the seat of the lounge. The sides were proportioned to that.
We threw around a lot of dimensions, worked out radii for the various bends and finally had a full-scale plan.
I’ve bent a lot of wood over the years, but this was going to be interesting. We decided that the sides needed to be about 2″ thick and 3″ wide. That’s a hefty chunk of wood. We knew the bottom bend would need to be strong. The seat parts came out to 1-1/2″ thick and 2″ wide. Still fairly chunky, but strength was needed to bear the stress of the webbing.
Making the forms was the first task. We used 3/4″ MDF. The side forms required four pieces and the seat required two. Whenever you are making bending forms that require multiple layers, make the first layer as close the final shape that you can. Smooth the edges and fair the curves. Then add one layer at a time, using the first piece as a template. Rout each layer to match the first. That done, we bought some red oak with the straightest grain that we could find.
We tested various thicknesses of wood to see what would bend the easiest around the tightest radius. We found that each strip would need to be no thicker than 3/32″. That’s fairly thin. We would need about 22 strips for each side and 16 for each side of the seat. That’s 76 pieces, plus another 10 thrown in for good measure. Good grief.
I chucked up a new band saw blade and we proceeded to slice, and slice, and slice the oak. That took about six hours. Did I mention that the side strips needed to be almost 10 feet long? My shop is 25 feet long. The band saw is in the middle of the shop, so it worked. It got cozy very quickly as strips of wood were piling up. I own a thickness sander, so we sanded the strips to their final thickness. That only took two days.
One thing to remember when strip-bending wood – as you slice the strips, keep them in order so the grain pattern will match when you glue them back together.
Now it was time to bend and glue some wood. On a good day, this can be nerve-racking. Everything has to be in place and ready to go – clamps, glue, forms, strips of wood and, most important of all, calm nerves. After checking, re-checking and re-re-checking, we began. Kelly wetted the strips with lots of water and applied the glue using a small paint roller. The idea was to have a lot of moisture in the wood so it wouldn’t scream and yell and crack and split.
We clamped the straightest section first, and then made the bends. The sides of the seat were easy to bend and clamp. The sides of the lounge weren’t. After clamping the straight bottom section, both Kelly and I put our weight behind the sharp bend at the foot. It took all we had to grunt it into place and then clamp it. We let the glue dry for two days for each glue-up. That took eight days.
To make a long story shorter – we planed the edges of the parts, ran them on-edge through my thickness planer (yup, it can be done with some finesse), cut the parts to length, machined and cut the three cross pieces for the seat, doweled and glued the seat together and put the lounge together using some clamps. It was exciting!
Then we sanded, rounded and smoothed the edges, applied three coats of amber shellac (which gave the oak a nice, rich color), sanded with 320-grit and rubbed out the finish with No.0000 steel wool.
In the middle of all of this, we picked out some webbing and ordered it online. We had enough time to put one strip of webbing in place, and then we took it to Kelly’s design class. All the students were required to give an oral presentation. After class, the instructor wanted to see Kelly and a couple other students. He asked them to put their projects in an art show in the fall.
We finished the webbing and assembled the lounge using bolts and nuts. It won’t come apart anytime soon.
Is it comfortable you ask? Kelly caught me napping.
Working with Kelly is always a wonderful experience. I recommend that each of you build a project with yours kids, your grandkids, nieces, nephews or the neighborhood kids. Let them make some sawdust. Guide them when needed, but let them run with it.
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