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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

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
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
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".

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