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How to Build a Classic Westport Chair

Take some stock cedar, make a few tricky cuts, and puzzle it all together to create an instant heirloom.

You know the Adirondack chair. What you may not have known is that the ubiquitous lawn lounger is based on an earlier design like this one—less refined, more rustic—called the Westport chair.

Thomas Lee was bent on comfort when he built the original, back in 1903, and the hallmarks of that vision remain. A deeply pitched seat and slanted back practically demand that you recline, and gratuitously wide arms easily host a good read and a cool drink, not to mention a lazy limb.

This Old House senior technical editor Mark Powers based our version on plans from the Adirondack Museum, in Blue Mountain Lake, New York. Follow along to put together your own piece of history.

Shown: The ingenious joinery actually tightens up when you sit down.

Download and print the Westport chair cut list.

Westport Chair Overview

Illustration by Gregory Nemec

Day-to-day timeline:

  • SATURDAY Cut the cedar boards to size (steps 2-13).
  • SUNDAY Assemble the chair and apply finish (steps 14-19).

Cut List for Building a Classic Westport Chair

All blanks for chair parts are cut from four 5/4 x 10 cedar boards, 8 feet long.

  • Front legs: 2 @ 4 x 24 inches
  • Front rail: 1 @ 3 x 25 inches
  • Battens: 4 @ 3 x 12 inches, with 45-degree bevels at the ends
  • Seat: 2 @ 9 ¼ x 22 ¼ inches
  • Backrest: 2 @ 6 ⅞ x 42 inches
  • Back legs: 2 @ 9 ¼ x 29 ½ inches
  • Arms: 2 @ 8 ¼ x 33 ⅜ inches
  • Arm brackets: 2 @ 6 x 13 inches
  • Rear brace: 1 @ 4 x 28 inches

Download and print the Westport chair cut list and parts plan.

Step 1: Rip a Board to Width

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

To make the blank for the front legs, use a sliding compound miter saw to cut a 5/4 cedar board to length per the cut list. Switch to a circular saw, attach a fence, and rip this blank down to 8⅛ inches wide.

Step 2: Bevel-Rip the Legs

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Clamp the blank to sawhorses or a workbench with its long edge overhanging. Adjust the bevel angle on the circular saw to 12 degrees and attach a fence. Bevel-rip the blank down the middle, as shown, to create two identical front legs. The easiest way to do this is to mark the center on one end of the board and line up the angled blade to bisect it when starting the cut.

Next, following the online cut list, use a sliding compound miter saw and a circular saw to cut blanks for the remaining parts.

Step 3: Mark a Notch

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Adjust a combination square so that its steel rule protrudes past the head by ⅞ inch—just thinner than a 5/4 board. Use the square to mark a 3-inch-long notch on the beveled front edge of the leg, as shown, 2½ inches from the bottom. The notches will later accept the horizontal front rail.

Step 4: Cut the Notches

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Use a jigsaw to cut the short lines straight into the board, as shown, but don't saw past the longer cutline parallel to the board's edge. Use a drill/driver to bore a ⅜-inch hole through the board's face in a corner of the notch's waste area. Tilt the jigsaw's shoe to 12 degrees, and insert the blade into the hole with its angle matching that of the beveled edge. Complete the notch by bevel-cutting along the long line. Mark and notch the other front leg to mirror the first.

Step 5: Attach the Battens

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Clamp together the two boards for the seat blank. If the edges don't mate evenly, flatten them with a hand plane. Center two battens across the boards, inset several inches from the boards' ends. Drill ⅛-inch pilot holes through the battens and attach them with 1⅝-inch stainless-steel trim-head screws, as shown. Do not use glue between the boards or under the battens.

Step 6: Mark the Cutlines on the Seat Blank

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Use a straightedge to mark the cutlines on the seat blank per the parts plan. These odd-shaped cuts allow the seat to fit precisely into the tapered space between the front and back legs.

Step 7: Cut Out the Seat and Backrest

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Trim the seat blank using a jigsaw. Cut the four long lines with the blade at 90 degrees, but bevel-cut the two short connecting lines with the saw set to 12 degrees, angled toward the back legs. Make the backrest the same way: Join the two boards with battens, mark the cutlines, and cut the piece to shape. Note that the long edge of each notch must be beveled at 12 degrees, angling in toward the rear of the chair, for the back legs to sit flat against the backrest.

Step 8: Mark the Cutlines

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Following the online parts plan, mark the angled cutlines on each leg blank. The unusual shape produces legs that support the seat at a 21-degree angle to the ground—"the limit of tilting comfort, with absolute safety," according to the W.C. Leonard & Co. furniture catalog, circa 1912.

Step 9: Cut the Back Legs to Shape

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Use a jigsaw with the blade set at 90 degrees to cut along the three long lines. Tilt the shoe to 12 degrees to trim the short line at the front edge of each leg. Cut the bevels so that the legs mirror each other and you can orient them correctly during assembly, flush with the beveled edges of the front legs.

Step 10: Trace the Arm Curve

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Each arm has a curved cutout along its inner edge to provide a generous seating area. To draw the curve, start by driving two screws partway into an arm blank, about ¼ inch from the edge: Place one screw 2¾ inches from the rear end and the other 12 inches from the front end. Find the center point between the screws, measure in 2 inches, and make a mark. Press a thin wood strip against the two screws, bending it until it meets the 2-inch mark. Hold it in place as you trace a line along the strip's outer edge, as shown.

Step 11: Cut the Curve

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Use a jigsaw to cut the gentle curve into the arm, then smooth the edges with 120-grit sandpaper.

Step 12: Round the Arm End

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Take a pencil compass and strike a 4⅛-inch radius onto the front end of the chair arm. Use a jigsaw to cut along the half-circle line, and hand-sand the cut end smooth. Then mark, cut, and sand the second arm blank.

Step 13: Attach the Legs

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Set the front rail into the notches of the front legs, toeing in the legs to make their beveled edges flush with the face of the rail. Drill pilot holes to prevent the screws from splitting the wood, and fasten the rail with 1⅝-inch screws. Working on a level surface, clamp and screw the rear legs to the inside of the front legs, as shown.

Step 14: Install the Seat

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Slip the completed seat between the front legs and press it down onto the back legs. Do not screw it in place yet.

Step 15: Fasten the Backrest

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Stand the completed backrest between the back legs, and hold it in position with a long bar clamp. Check that the seat, backrest, and back legs fit together snugly. Once you're sure they do, drill pilot holes and use screws to attach the seat to the top edges of the back legs and attach the back legs to the lower edges of the backrest.

Tip: Before fastening the horizontal front rail to the front-leg notches, set the seat between the legs to act as a perfect-size spacer.

Step 16: Mount the Arm Brackets

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Hold one triangular arm bracket in position, as shown, centered on the front leg's width and flush at the top. Drill pilot holes and screw the bracket to the leg. Repeat to install the other arm bracket.

Step 17: Mark the Arms' Positions

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Place an arm on top of a front leg, set a torpedo level on the arm, then raise or lower the arm until it's level. Mark the arm's position on the edge of the backrest, as shown. Repeat for the other arm.

Step 18: Fasten the Rear Brace

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Bevel-rip the top edge of the horizontal rear brace at 21 degrees, and clamp it to the backrest so that it holds the arms level. Screw the rear brace to the backrest, as shown; then drill pilot holes and screw the arms into the rear brace and front supports. Smooth all surfaces with 120-grit sandpaper. Wipe off the dust, then brush teak oil onto the chair. Wait 30 minutes and apply a second coat. After 15 minutes, wipe away any unabsorbed oil. Now the hard part: Wait at least 10 hours before you sit down, lean back, and enjoy the fruits of your labor.


Shopping List:

1. ½ x 10 cedar boards. Get four 8-foot lengths

2. 1 ⅝-inch stainless-steel trim-head screws

3. Teak oil to finish the chair

Tools: