Adirondack chairs – delivered!

Late last year I decided to make a couple of Adirondack chairs for our upstairs balcony. These were designed to replace two chairs that we bought at a garden store. Those chairs, while quite nice, succumbed to the elements and finally fell apart.

I was determined to replace them with similar chairs made of a beautiful natural wood. After some deliberation, I chose Monterey Cypress custom milled at Pacific Coast Lumber in Paso Robles. The wood was cut for me, then kiln-dried for a month, and I took delivery in April.

Here are the new Adirondack chairs on the upstairs balcony of our home. It is a gloomy day, but they still look nice. It only took about six months to make them. The finish is Varathane water-based acrylic varnish. I love the effect is has on the Cypress, bringing out the honey color in the wood.

I took the lumber to my shop where I let it acclimatize for a couple of weeks before planing it and finish-sanding it to two thicknesses for the chairs: 3/4 inch and 5/8 inch. The thicker boards are for the load-bearing parts while the thinner boards are for the seat boards and staves.

This wood came from a tree that fell in Morro Bay State Park during a storm. I like that provenance, as I have obtained other locally-milled lumber from nearby Cambria and from a tree that fell on a highway east my city. There would be a story here: storm-damaged tree converted to elegant outdoor furniture.

Working with this lumber was more difficult than the romantic picture that I had painted. From the moment I began planing, the lumber’s internal demons began to escape, causing long (and sometimes loud) cracks to appear. While resting one day during the sanding operation I heard a loud crack come from my stack of 5/8 inch lumber. This would not be the last such crack.

This is the process of gluing the neck board to the vertical staves, the very last piece to be added to the chairs. I have a motto that says you can never have too many clamps! Variety counts, too. Here I am using four large Jorgensen clamps and five Rockwell narrow clamps to hold the staves to the board while the glue dried. For anything like this I use Gorilla Glue, because it is the only truly waterproof glue that I know.
The neck board was surprisingly difficult to make and attach. I cut it on the CNC machine then fit it by sanding it on the spindle sander. Then I broke three of them, and made them over and over until I finally succeeded.

I cut all the pieces (covered in previous episodes of this story), and then reduced them to final size both on my table saw and on the CNC machine where necessary. I did some manual cutting on my band saw (where a curve also had a sharp internal angle). Then I followed that with a lot of hand sanding and preparation for assembly.

Almost every day when I was working on this project I was faced with another debilitating crack. These would open up in boards as I screwed them to the frame, or they would open up overnight while glue was drying. This week I had a problem with the final board not fitting the vertical staves correctly. I changed my design, then made a new piece on the CNC machine, and while sanding it, I dropped it to the floor. It shattered.

So I made another one and tried again. That one cracked and broke in half while being clamped in place. So I made yet another one that I was successful in mounting to the back of the chair.

While doing my final sanding, I noticed that a crack had opened up on one of the vertical legs of one chair. Since this is structurally critical, I disassembled the arm and brace, and glued-up the crack with Gorilla Glue (waterproof). I let it dry overnight, then sanded it and reassembled the arm to continue my work.

When I finally finished sanding the chairs, making them ready for a spray coating of clear acrylic, I stood back to admire my work. CRACK! I heard it, but I can’t find it, so I decided to move ahead and get the first coat of acrylic on the chairs. Perhaps the acrylic coating will hold the wood together!

The chairs have a wonderful color when coated. I call it light honey. I completed the first coat yesterday, and the second coat today. After a day to dry, I will do a light sanding and put another very light coat on top, finishing (?) the project. Then I will deliver the chairs from the shop to the house and my wife and I can sit on them in the evening as the sun sets over Cerro San Luis Obispo.

The epitaph:

Would I do it again? Absolutely. I will almost certainly make more Adirondack chairs. These are my sixth and seventh, and I really like the design.

Would I use Monterey Cypress again? No. I think it’s lovely wood, and I am sorry that my relationship with it has been so troubled. I think it’s too brittle for this kind of project. I am very happy with the overall appearance of the chairs. They are very nice. But I fear that the cracking is not over… I have recurring dreams about sitting in my chair on the balcony and having a crack streak up one of the rear staves.

Also, this wood was quite expensive compared to other woods available at my local hardwood store. I could probably have made these chairs out of Hard Rock Maple and spent less money on the raw lumber (and it would have cracked less).

What wood should I use next time? In my Adirondack chair adventures I have used Monterey Pine, Baltic plywood (a prototype), red Oak, and now Monterey Cypress. I might try Birch on my next chair, or perhaps Poplar (I have read mixed reviews about Poplar). Birch is hard to get right now, but I can probably find some.

Would I build them the same way? Yes, but I will make small changes to the design to get the vertical staves to fit better. That would make them easier to assemble and complete.

Would I spend the better part of six months building them? Who knows?

Meanwhile, I have started a new project! It’s a custom utility trailer that will carry a military surplus 5KW generator to Burning Man. It’s my first trailer, and it will be made entirely of steel. Since I am not a welder, I’m having the best welder I know make the trailer for me. It involves fabrication, assembly, powder-coating, licensing, testing and ultimately the installation of high voltage electrical circuits to provide power to the Pinhole Project camp at Burning Man 2023.

More on this as it is built.

About Brian Lawler

Brian Lawler is an Emeritus Professor of Graphic Communication at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and was a Guest Professor at Hochschule München from September, 2021 to September, 2022. He writes about graphic arts processes and technologies for various industry publications, and on his blog, The Blognosticator.
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