Design & DIY

How to build a fun folding beach chair

Beach chair

Folding, canvas camping chairs are everywhere. They’re light, inexpensive and they collapse into small, cylindrical packages. They’re also flimsy, easily broken and bad for your back. I made a wooden chair as an alternative; plus, it is quick to make, lightweight and sturdy. The parts also nest together for carrying and storage. And, of course, this chair is quite comfortable for lounging on the beach.

It is rare that I make a full-scale mock-up of a project; sometimes, I’ll mock up a joint to see how pieces go together or I’ll put together some section of the project to test my chosen finish. But an entire mock-up out of scrap wood? Almost never. With this chair project, I built not only one mock-up but three full-scale mock-ups before I was sure I had the design right. The pursuit of comfort was the reason.

There are many variables involved in making a chair that’s both pleasant to sit on and stable: the seat width, the angle at which the two sections interlock, the height, how the seat fits into the back for storage and portability, the height of the seat above the ground, and so on. Using the mock-ups, I was able to remove and reattach pieces as I fiddled with fit and comfort.

Beach chairs
The simple beach chair consists of two basic parts: the seat back (which is made of both wood and fabric) and the seat itself. These two fit together for easy carrying and come apart to make storage a breeze.


Tools and materials

Tools and Materials

Build it for the beach

Begin by preparing your stock. I picked maple for most of the parts, along with some cherry pieces for accents. Your goal is a chair that is fairly light and portable, using some fairly thin components. But as a chair, it still needs to be strong enough to hold you up. You might think you need to use a rot-resistant species, such as white oak, but the chair will be stored in a sheltered location most of the time. As such, most sturdy hardwoods will work. Weatherproof glue and stainless-steel screws are a good idea for all joints on this chair, since it sometimes will support a body in a wet swimsuit.

Back it up

Begin by cutting the back legs and upper and lower crosspieces to the dimensions shown in the parts list. Mark a 4″-wide x 1/4″-deep hand-hold in the upper crosspiece, and cut it out with a scrollsaw or jigsaw.

To create the angled feet, mark a point 1″ up from the bottom of each back leg on the rear edges, and another 7/8″ in from the rear on the ends, then connect the marks and saw off the waste. These two cuts face to the rear of the chair, so take care as the assembly progresses to keep pieces oriented correctly. 
Next, mark the positions for the two lower crosspieces. The first of the two goes on the rear edges of the back legs, positioned on the front edge of the back legs so its bottom edge is 8 5/8″ above the feet. The second, lower crosspiece is positioned on the front edge of the back legs so that its upper edge is 7″ above the feet. This setup provides a gap of 1 5/8″ between the two lower crosspieces—1/8″ more than the width of the seat legs in the seat assembly.

Sand all the back’s parts before assembly. I recommend being quite aggressive in rounding over various edges. This chair will be moved and carried a lot, as well as sat upon, making sharp corners and splinters most unwelcome.

Position the two back legs on your bench, with the rear edges facing up, then glue and screw the upper crosspiece and rear-facing lower crosspiece into position. One simple way to keep everything parallel is to rip a scrap of plywood to 13 1/2″ wide and use it as a spacer between the two legs. 
Next, flip the assembly over, then glue and screw the other lower crosspiece into place.

Now, a place to sit

Mill the seat legs, seat crosspiece and seat slats to size. Cut the rear, downward-facing corners of the seat legs at an angle to form feet (as you did with the back legs), marking a point 1″ up the leg and another 3/4″ in from the front edge on the end to get the angle right. Connect the two points and then cut off the waste. Again, sand all parts before assembly.

Position the seat legs on your bench with exactly 11 5/8″ separating them. As before, a plywood spacer makes this setup easier. The goal is for the assembled seat legs to fit inside the legs of the back component with just a bit of clearance for ease of movement. Double-check these measurements against your actual finished back assembly, in case you have deviated from the specified dimensions. Just remember to allow space for the back’s fabric as it wraps around the legs.

Next, mark a line 91⁄4″ in from the upper ends of the seat legs. The five seat slats are then spaced out evenly within that 9 1/4″ area, which works out to a gap of about 3/8″ to 7/16″ between each slat. Then take the seat slats over to the drillpress, and use the fence to position and drill all countersunk screw holes so they are evenly spaced and in line. This is a small touch, but it does look better on the finished product. Position the seat slats on the legs, then secure them with glue and #6 x 11/4″-long screws. 
The final step is to secure the seat crosspiece, with its lower face positioned 4″ up from the foot of the legs, with glue and #6 x 11/4″-long screws.

Finish first, fabric last

Normally, applying a finish is the last step, but not with this project. Installing the fabric back needs to happen last. 
I finished my chair with two coats of Circa 1850 Tung ’n Teak oil, allowing 24 hours between coats. This oil is an outdoor-rated finish, and is easy to apply and reapply later. If you used cherry, as I did, leave the chair outside on a few bright sunny days for several hours before finishing. The UV rays give you a jump-start on the natural darkening of the cherry. Allow the finish to cure fully for several days before taking the final step of adding the fabric back (see “In stitches”). 
There is one more thing you need to do: find yourself a nice stretch of sand, preferably near the water, slide the seat and back together, then sit yourself down for some relaxation. There is a practical purpose to this, of course, which is to make sure that the fit of the seat is just right for you! 
Be sure to take your time.

Fit and finish 

If you find the fit of the chair isn’t quite right for you, then experiment with your prototype. I am 6’3″, and I sized the chair for me—but then again, my young sons also have sat on it and pronounced it fine.

Cutting the legs shorter on the back assembly tips you forward. Cutting the legs shorter on the seat assembly tips you back. Cutting both sides lowers everything. (Make sure you make only small cuts at a time.) Adjusting the space between the two lower crosspieces on the back component affects the seating angle. There are a lot of minor tweaks you can do to make everything just right, but perhaps you’d like to just relax on that warm, sandy beach with a book and a glass of lemonade in hand.

In stitches

Applying the fabric back on the chair can seem intimidating to a woodworker, for whom the world of sewing machines and seam allowances may be a mystery.

First, as with any project, you need to find the right material. Fabric is sold in metric lengths, in a number of standard widths. Look for fabric that is 120-cm wide and buy a 60-cm-long piece to give yourself enough to work with. To make two chairs, 24″ x 20″ is roughly 58-cm wide x 50-cm high.

If you can’t find fabric that wide, or if the pattern does not “divide in two” easily, then you will need a piece just over 1 m long to give you enough material for two chairs.

When working with fabric, ideally you want to have the edges finished, so they don’t unravel with time. This can be accomplished by finding a friend or family member with a sewing machine. My wife was a big help, as she stitched the vertical edges, then folded over and stitched the top and bottom edges. The result is just a large rectangle of fabric—nothing complicated.

A second set of hands makes installing the fabric easy. Fold the fabric around one of the back legs and staple or tack it into place with fasteners all along the inside front edge of the leg. When the fabric back is installed, it covers all four sides of the leg.

Once the fabric is attached to one leg, pull it tight to the other leg, wrap it completely around, then staple or tack it securely into place. If you measured carefully, it should just fit.

Recommended tools: Tablesaw, scrollsaw/jigsaw, drill/driver, drillpress, sewing machine (optional). 


To download a detailed illustration of the project plan, click here. 

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