How to build a Muskoka chair of any size

Published: July 19, 2013 · Updated: January 8, 2020

Muskoka Chair

In a world that is designed for big people, kids love anything that’s been made especially for them, and these chairs are no exception—my kids gleefully called them the “papa bear, mama bear, and baby bear” chairs. I used 5⁄4 cedar decking (which is actually 1″ thick) for durability and rot resistance. It comes surfaced from the mill—you don’t have to thickness-plane it for the smaller sizes unless you really want thinner stock. I used 5/4 throughout so I could countersink and plug the screw heads; a little extra thickness lets me do this without compromising the strength of the connections.

Cutting the pieces
These chairs use many small pieces; you can save money by cutting around knots in lower-grade lumber, giving you affordable chairs that look like they were made from highgrade wood. I prefer to cut parts as I need them. It’s a little slower than cutting everything at once, but if I make small cutting errors—and everyone does—I can cut again or compensate as I go.

1. The building method is the same, regardless of size. First, create tracing templates for the curved parts. I printed out my drawings and mounted them to the wood using spray glue—you can later sand off the paper or dissolve the glue with thinner. If you’re making a single chair, just cut curves close to the layout lines with a jig saw, before sanding the edges smooth. Clamp matching parts back to back while sanding and they’ll be identical in shape.

2. If you’re making multiple chairs, and have a router table, you can cut curved parts faster and more accurately by “pattern routing.” Cut and sand templates out of MDF or Masonite. Trace the templates on your workpieces and cut the shapes out, leaving 1⁄16″ to 1⁄8″ of waste wood. Instead of sanding this waste off, use a flush-trimming bit in a table-mounted router. Fasten the templates to your workpieces temporarily with finishing nails or double-sided tape, adjust the height of the bit so it rides just on the edge of the template, then slowly trim off the waste by working the wood around the bit. Each piece will be identical to its pattern.

3. Since cedar is prone to causing splinters, I also rounded edges with a 1⁄4″ roundover bit on a table-mounted router.
Use care wherever the grain runs contrary to the direction you’re routing: Slow down and take shallow passes.

4. Sand the parts with 180-grit paper before assembly. I put my chairs together entirely with weatherproof screws and bolts. I used brass screws with pan heads; tapered heads can easily split softwoods. Use stainless steel or hot-dipped galvanized bolts. As you assemble, drill pilot holes for all screws and, if you prefer to hide screw heads, use a Forstner bit to create counterbored pockets for tapered screw plugs.

Below is a full cutting list for the chair.

Sides, legs, and seat
1. Clamp together the mating parts where the back posts and front legs meet the seat sides. Bore holes for 1/4″ carriage bolts while the parts are clamped, for a perfect fit. I used a Forstner bit in my drill press, backing up the stock with scrap wood to prevent tear-out.

2. With so many small parts, these chairs can be tricky to assemble. Start with the simplest part: the seats. Working from front to back, attach the front seat slat, the remaining seat slats (note that the toddler chair uses two fewer seat slats than the others), and the lower backrest support. Keep the assembly square, and use spacers to maintain uniform gaps between slats.

3. Attach the corbels to the front legs with two screws each from the inside face of the legs. Bolt the front legs and back posts to the seat sides, lightly tightening the bolts so the legs and posts stand upright.

4. Set the armrests on the front legs, use a level to make them horizontal, and then pencil in their location on the back posts. (Advanced tip: You can also slope the armrests slightly to shed water.) Attach the stretcher to the back posts, aligning it with your pencil marks. Mark the location of the stretcher, corbels, and front legs on the underside of the armrests so you can see where to drill the related screw holes. Attach the armrests.

Below is an illustration of the chair assembly.

Cut and assemble the back
1. Lay the upper backrest support atop the two back posts to mark screw positions, then drill pilot holes and screw it in place.

2. For the backrest slats, the width in the cutting lists on p. 95 is the width at the top. When you cut them, rip each to taper to 1 1/2″ at the bottom for the adult chair; 1 5⁄16″ for the tween chair; and 1 1⁄8″ for the toddler chair.

3. Clamp a scrap under the lower backrest support to hold up the backrest slats as you arrange them for installation. Once again, use spacers to spread the slats evenly across the upper and lower supports before drilling pilot holes and driving screws.

4. With the backrest in place, mark a smooth curve for the top. The easiest way is to lay out a curve on cardboard, cut it out, and then trace that onto the chair. Remove the slats, cut, and sand. Don’t forget to round over the edges before reattaching the slats.

Finishing touches
1. All that’s left is to plug the screw holes and choose a finish. Glue tapered plugs (ideally, cut from your offcuts) into the counterbored pockets using weatherproof adhesive. Polyurethane glue is an excellent choice: It’s strong and easy to sand, and it takes stain and paint wonderfully—but it needs moisture to cure. Spray a little water into the holes before the glue and plugs go in. Let sit overnight before sanding the plugs flush.

2. I used white exterior latex paint to seal my chairs. Exterior-grade tung oil is another good option, or let the bare cedar weather to its natural silvery grey. When all is done, get ready to enjoy your chairs by heading into the cottage to grab a cold drink. If you come back and find them occupied by three bears, you’ve made them just right.

 All illustrations are by Len Churchill