Building the Dantesca Chair

One of my first big projects for myself was something to sit on. I looked around and came upon a web site called Spiffing Up Your Campsite. Looking through plans on the site I came upon The Coffer Chair and decided I wanted one. At the time I was in the army stationed in Texas, in The Kingdom of Ansteorra. The first chair I built I used a jig saw to cut out the shape, a circular saw to cut half laps and a drill to connect the dowels.

I was pretty proud of my success but found a few things I didn’t like. My back support was low and the arms were uncomfortable. I used a board for the seat with some padding but when it folded up I had to carry both parts. plus with my location of the dowels the supports for the back broke off and needed to be repaired. With one success under my belt I went on to a second one. I began the chair and then had to pause it when I deployed to Iraq. Upon returning I used some bonus money to expand my tools collection, adding a sander and a table top belt sander to my collection.

This one was much the same but instead of dowels I used 2×2’s and added a solid back. The arms were more comfortable but the back arms still broke and now the chair was in three pieces to move.

In 2004 when I started there weren’t very many people making chairs. Benches, bag chairs and coleman chairs were the order of the day. I liked the chair and also liked having something so different and unique. but it wasn’t quite right so I began looking online for more chairs to learn from.

My searching reveled a number of chairs and some background on the chairs. Coffer chair, Dantesca chair, x chair, curule chair. The chair has many names but Dantesca is what I am most familiar with.

Looking closely at the two chairs posted above you may notice some differences. First and foremost I changed my leg design from the original. This did several major things for me. First and foremost my new layout was more in keeping with the lines of the historic examples I was seeing. Second it let me put my own stamp on the pattern so I was not just copying the work of someone else. Third and final was that I could now cut a leg out of a standard 2×6 from the big box stores. Second I added a wider arm that is tenoned into the legs instead of the dowel. Third I went to all fabric for the seat and back, allowing it to be folded without having loose pieces to carry. Previously I had nailed the seat to the support stretchers but now I am using grommets set into the fabric and cord to allow the tension to be tightened or loosened as needed.

Supplies:

2 – 2x6x8′

4x6x30″

2 yards non stretch upholstery fabric.

10-15 grommets

2 yards of cording

2 carriage bolts 5/16 x 1 1/2″

4 washers 5/16

2 lock nuts 5/16

pattern

Arm Pattern

pattern is on a 1×1 grid

Better lumber will produce a better product of course but this pattern and these instructions are done using cheap lumber store dimensional lumber.

Take your time in selecting your lumber, if you have to go through the entire pile looking for flat and straight boards with no cracks and as few knots as you can get. As long as you make sure to leave the pile reasonably neat most of the time the store doesn’t mind.

I like to make sure my boards are flat to begin with so I run them through my jointer first. Once they are flat and smooth I run them through the planer to get them parallel.

I make a number of these chairs so I have created a one to one pattern out of mdf, if your only making one then you can use a paper pattern scaled out so the light blue blocks are 1″ square. Placing the pattern on the lumber and trace out. All four legs will be the same at this point.

Cut out the legs using whatever means are available, I have used a jig saw as well as a band saw, a band saw has a greater ability to keep the sides 90 degrees to the face but with care a jig saw will do so as well.

Cut out the legs and clean them up, sand the saw mark and remove any stray pencil marks.

The circular center of each leg needs to have half of the material removed to create a joint known as a half lap joint. My preferred method is to use a router and a circle cutting jig to cut the outside edge of the circle out, going to a depth of 1/2 of the thickness of the leg. 

From here the next step is to remove the remaining material. A hammer and chisel can be used but must be done gently taking a small amount of wood at a time.

If you try to take to much off at once you risk splitting the wood. 

At this point you can use planes, sand paper, files, or any other means at your disposal to get the wood smooth and flat.

Alternately you can use your router to free hand remove the rest, again taking a small amount out each time to avoid splitting.

The next step is centering a hole on the half lap joint and drilling through it. This will accept the bolt that holds the two pieces together., again the pieces will all be identical I prefer to use 1/4″ or 5/16″ bolts 1 1/2″ long, with washers and lock nuts. Once I have the holes drilled I will go in and counter sink the holes so the top of the bolt is just below the surface. The nut side will most likely end up being proud but as it is the inside it is less of a concern.

At this point you need to go through the legs and decide which is front and back of each set. From here out it makes a difference. Once you have decided you should mark which piece goes where so as not to confuse the pieces. Here is where you will layout the mortice holes for the top and bottom stretchers.

The bottom holes will be located behind the decorative protrusions on the lower legs, about 8-10 inch of the ground and parallel to the bottom of the feet and centered in the leg.. The seat supports are between 16-18 inches off the ground and again parallel to the floor, again centered in the leg.. Each mortise will be 1″ square, and 1″ deep. There are a number of ways to cut the mortices, dedicated hollow chisel machine, drill and square, or pure hand cut. I prefer to drill and square. I chuck a 1″ forstner bit into my drill press, set the depth stop and away we go. After drilling all of the legs I grab a one inch chisel and square up the holes. 

The stretchers and seat supports will be 1 1/2″ square and between 18 and 20 inches long depending on how deep you like the seat. Keep in mind the material you plan for your seat and back and how much stretching you are likely to have. For the stretchers I install a dado stack and raise my table saw blade to 1/4″. Setting a stop at just under 1″ I take a couple of passes each side to make the tenon. Once all four tenons are cut test fit and trim accordingly.  

The use clamps to get a dry fit.

The legs should all sit flat on the ground and rotate freely on the bolts. Be careful on your clamping and make sure not to pull the chair out of square. if all legs are not flat on the ground you may need to make some adjustments to how far the legs open, it should be pretty self evident where the adjustments need to be. Once everything is square, flat and looks good, glue it up and let it dry.
EDIT: Going back and reviewing this post I have to correct myself. When you test fit and later glue the body of the chair together start at the bottom two clamps. Tighten then in and set the chair on it’s feet. It should sit flat, if not your clamps are put on off center to the tennons and are pulling the chair out of square.
Loosen the clamps enough to let you push down on the high legs and then reclamp, if it raises again try shifing the clamps a little on one end of the clamp or the other. If you move it in and the chair is flat, your good, if it is even more out of square, shift the clamp the other way. Once you have the lower portion flap clamp the top being sure not to let the top pull the bottom out of square. 
Once everything is clamped make sure it still opens and closes easily. Let it dry. 

The arms. 

Next up is the arm construction. I have tried to keep mine fairly true to original lines but have adjusted the end result to my liking. I use a 4×6 for the arms. with a little care you can arrange them so that two nestle into each other with less waste. Once you have them laid out and you have marked the bottoms for the mortise holes that the top of the legs will go into, cut the mortises before you cut out the arms. Much easier while they are still a square block.
After the mortises are cut and fit the chair, cut the arms out. 

How you attach the arms is mostly a matter of personal preference. I have glued them in place, I have also used dowels to secure them to the legs. I have used a combination of the two. However you feel comfortable doing it, now is the time to glue them on and have something that resembles a chair.

There are a good number of in between steps in this process I have left out. Sanding, cleaning up glue. Rounding edges. Ultimately this is all the tedious minor stuff most people will get without me having to say it. Once your chair is assembled take the time now to check it over. No loose joints, rough patches, or dirt marks.

Once you are happy with the final product it’s time to finish it. Stain, oil, polyurethane, or wax, it’s important to put some form of protection between your hard work and the elements. I prefer to use helmspar polyurethane for my chairs, it forms a pretty durable finish, soaks in and enhances the grain of the wood some, and is relatively easy to apply. Several thin coats are much easier to work with than a single heavy coat.

Then set it aside while you prepare the seat and back.

At this point the chair body is complete and has a nice finish on it. Now for the seat and back.

The seat is nothing more than a rectangle of fabric, the back is pretty similar.

The Basics.

 Historically these chairs were found with either a leather or fabric seat. Most of the ones I have done have been fabric. It comes in a huge variety of colors and patterns and is pretty easy to work with. I prefer upholstery fabric, outdoor rated is even better. Keep in mind when you choose your fabric keep in mind who all it may end up supporting. My method of choice is a sandwich of 2 layers outdoor rated canvas and two layers of your decorative fabric.

Leather has it’s advantages and disadvantages as well. It can be more expensive, it is not so forgiving as fabric, and it is more susceptible to moisture. It is however very strong, can be painted, dyed, or tooled, and requires less steps than the portion does.

For a fabric seat and back you will need about 2 yards of material. 1 yard of the inner fabric, and 1 yard of the outer, more if you are trying to match a busy pattern.

Grab your cloth tape measure and first measure the height of the back of the arm.

Now measure from the outside edge of the arm back, to the outside edge of the other arm back, plus 1 1/2″ around to the side at both ends.

This is the finished width and length of the outside back of the fabric for the back. Add seam allowance  to preference, I like 1/2″ for these.

Now, that is the outside of the back, for the inside you will measure from the inside corner of the arm back, to the other inside corner, again adding 1 1/2″ to each end.

This will be the inside piece, again seam allowance. Cut two pieces of fabric for the outside with the measurements you have taken, and two pieces from the inside from those measurements. Sew them together right sides facing on three sides. Press with an iron, round your corner a bit and flip it inside out. Fold over your seam allowance and stitch it shut. I like to go over the outside and press it flat and top stich in about 1/4″ all around for a finished look. Repeat for the second piece if you haven’t.

Once you have two pieces, place them together center to center, the back piece should be an equal distance longer on both sides. Pin in place.

Here is where it gets a little tricky. On the shorter piece, mark in 1 1/2″ from the edge on both sides, you will sew the two back pieces together down the entire top and bottom length but do not go over that line. At the line a double or triple line of reinforcing is a good idea.

You should now have a 4 layer thick chair back that has two short stubby pieces sticking up near the ends. The reinforced seam you just made should go into the inside corner of the arm so that the longer piece of the outer part wraps around the back of the arm and onto the side.

I use wrought head nails from www.Rockler.Com, 1″ nails are fine. PRE DRILL. The nails are diamond in cross section and form a good tight bond, but can split the wood if not careful. I use three nails vertically on the inside, then again on the outside. Repeat for the other side.

Your fabric may be a little tight and need time to stretch, it’s pretty normal and unavoidable. If your fabric is so tight that your chair won’t open all the way you may need to move your nails a little closer to the edge of the canvas.

I usually put 5 or 6 nails on the back of the arm for support and decoration. The inner piece of fabric is there to take the weight of your body off the back so that those nails don’t put out or rip your canvas.

The seat is a bit more straight forward.

Measure the inside length of the tenon.

Then measure around the tenons, the tape should make a loop.

This is the seat, again add your seam allowances but here cut two outer layers, and your two reinforcing inner layers. You will want the finished piece to be a couple inches shorter than the total measured length of the loop. Once it is sewn up and a closed piece of sturdy material you will put in grommets near the edges on each side, 5 is usually a good number. The seat gets wrapped around the tenons and then laced on through the grommets. This allows you to tighten it up or loosen it as you find comfortable over the life of the chair.

At this point, you’re done.

I welcome feedback and questions. Have fun, make stuff,

Dare to Be worthy of Your Dreams

3 thoughts on “Building the Dantesca Chair

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