Project Plans: Outdoor Rocking Chair

This classically designed rocker is easy to build and very comfortable.

This inviting outdoor chair just begs you to rock away a lazy summer afternoon. Designed specifically for HANDY, it is made of rot-resistant white oak, assembled with waterproof glue and rust-resistant screws and finished with clear exterior-rated oil finish, so it will last a long time if you recoat it every year or so.

I know from experience that it is essential to build a prototype of any new chair design (see “Crafting a Successful Prototype,” below). I did that so you don't need to — unless you decide to modify the plans, in which case I highly recommend that you build your own prototype.

This project requires basic to intermediate woodworking skills and tools. It takes about 20 hours to build and costs about $200 for materials. The cushion, a few tools and some of the supplies I used are available online.

Chairs are typically complex woodworking projects, and rocking components add yet another complication. If you've never built a chair, this is a good "first-timer" project that's sure to challenge you, but the results will be well worth your effort. You’ll find that it’s and easy-to-build design that does not compromise comfort.

Construction notes
Aside from common woodworking machinery and tools (planer, jointer, table saw, band saw, drill press, belt or disc sander, orbital sander, router, biscuit jointer, jigsaw or scroll saw), building the rocker requires a spindle sander (stationary or drill press attachment), trammel points (used to draw large circles and arcs), a self-centering dowel-hole drilling jig, dowel centers (see photo 9), eight 24-in.-long bar clamps, a few shorter bar clamps, a 1/8-in.-radius roundover router bit and a 1/4-in.-radius roundover router bit. The rocker has four shaped pieces. You can use the illustration (see the PDF below) as a guide to lay out the shapes.

Most of the pieces are joined with offset biscuit joints. This means the faces of those pieces do not align flush with each other. All that's needed to create the joint is a spacer equal in thickness to the desired offset. The rest of the setup is very straightforward.

The front-leg and corbel-to-arm joints are doweled, as are the rocker-to-leg joints. The dowel holes in the legs and corbels are drilled using a self-centering doweling jig; then the corresponding holes in the rockers and arms are marked using dowel centers. This sequence of drilling, marking with dowel centers, and drilling is a very effective way to align dowel holes. Merely laying them out with a ruler and pencil is sure to lead to misalignment.

The arms are set into notches cut in the rear legs, an elegant solution to the common problem of how to carry a load placed on the arms. The only downside is that the joint is fussy to cut and fit. I used a fine-tooth handsaw to cut the notch sides in the rear legs; then I roughed out the notches with a band saw and made the final fit using chisels and files. If you've never done this before, you may want to practice on scrap wood.

Each rocker is made of two pieces because the areas where the rockers join the legs need to be perfectly flat. (If the rocker were a single piece, trying to make those areas flat by hand would be nearly impossible.) My solution was to saw and joint the top edge of the rocker bottoms (A), add the rocker top (B) and then cut out the shapes.

Arms, rear legs and rockers
Cut all of the pieces to size (see cutting list in the PDF below) except for the rockers (A and B) and the corbels (L). Following the arm layout shown in the illustration, cut out the arm shapes. Rout the rounded-over top edges of the arms, but be sure to stop short of where the inside rear ends of the arms join the rear leg notches. Those ends of the roundovers need to be filed and sanded so they blend and taper to a point just before the arms fit in the notches. In the sides of the arms, drill the holes for the screws that go into the rear legs (and the holes for the plugs that cover the screwheads). Finish-sand the arms.

Make the rear-leg template out of scrap 1/4-in.-thick plywood or medium-density fiberboard. Trace the shapes for both rear legs on the blank (C, photo 1). Cut out and shape the rear legs. Cut and fine-tune the arm notches in the rear legs so the arms fit snugly.

Trace the shapes of both rear legs on the rear leg blank (C). Laying out the shapes this way reduces waste.

Cut each set of rocker pieces (A and B) from one long board. This makes matching the color and grain of the glued-up rockers much easier. Cut the rocker pieces to size; then glue the parts together (photo 2).

Glue and clamp the rocker bottom pieces and rocker top pieces together. Try to match the color and grain of these pieces so the joints will be concealed.

Make the rocker template. Draw the rocker-bottom arc using trammel points. The arc must be smooth and continuous so the chair rocks unimpeded. Trace the rocker shapes on the rocker blanks; then cut out and smooth the shapes (photo 3).

Use a curved sanding block to smooth the concave sides of the rockers. Be very careful not to disturb the flat areas where the legs will be joined.

The seat back
Cut the hand hole in the upper back rail (G). Rout the front and back 1/8-in.-radius rounded-over edges of the hand hole. Cut the offset biscuit grooves in the back slats (M) and seat-back rails (G and H, photos 4 and 5). Finish-sand the back slats. Use sandpaper to ease the edges of the back slats and the inside edges of the back rails. Assemble the seat back (photo 6).

Cut the offset biscuit grooves in the back slats (M). The height of the fence with the 1/8-in. spacer is set to cut the groove in the center of the back slat end.

Cut the offset biscuit grooves in the back rails (G and H). Do not change the height of the biscuit jointer's fence, but remove the spacer. This setup creates the 1/8-in. offset.

Apply glue, insert biscuits and clamp the upper and lower back rails to the back slats. Use two straight wood scraps clamped across the rail ends to bring the back into alignment.

Lay out and cut the biscuit grooves used to join the seat back to the rear leg. Use a 1/4-in.-thick spacer for this offset biscuit-groove-cutting setup. Rout the rounded over edges of the back rails; then finish-sand the back rails.

Chair assembly
Lay out the corbel (L) shapes on one or two oversize pieces. This makes cutting the biscuit grooves safer and drilling the dowel holes easier. Cut the biscuit grooves in the corbels and then cut all of the remaining biscuit grooves. Drill the dowel holes in the tops of the corbels (photo 7) and in the legs. Cut out and shape the corbels.

Drill the corbel (L) dowel holes using a dowel-hole drilling jig. Both corbels are placed on one board to make drilling the dowel holes easier and cutting the biscuit grooves safer.

Round over the bottom outside edges of the seat rails (E and F). Finish-sand the corbels, the insides of the legs and the outsides of the seat rails. Next, assemble the chair sides (C, D and F) and join the assembled back and the front and rear rails (E) to one assembled side (photo 8). Apply glue, insert biscuits and clamp on the other assembled side to complete the main chair assembly. Finish-sand the outsides of the legs.

Apply glue, insert biscuits and clamp the assembled back and the front and rear rails (E) to one assembled side. This is a complicated glue up. It's best to set it up without glue first so you know what to expect.

Corbels, arms and rockers
Attach the corbels to the front legs. Mark and drill the dowel holes in the undersides of the arms (photo 9). Apply glue, insert dowels, clamp and screw the arms in place. Glue face-grain wood plugs in place to conceal the screws that fasten the arms to the rear legs; then sand the plugs so they are flush with the surrounding edges.

Place dowel centers in the front-leg and corbel dowel holes. Align the arm tight in its rear-leg notch and push it down onto the points of the dowel centers to mark the arm dowel holes.

Rest the chair on its arms over two blanket-covered sawhorses and use dowel centers to mark the dowel-hole locations in the rockers (photo 10). Drill the dowel holes. Finish-sand the rockers and use sandpaper to ease all of the chair's exposed sharp edges. Attach the rockers.

Use dowel centers again to mark the dowel holes in the rockers. You'll need to visually align the rockers’ flat areas with the leg bottoms. Drawing lines on the rocker sides helps.

Finishing touches
Glue the seat cleats (K) in place. Cut the notches on the ends of the front and rear seat slats. Round over the outside top edges of the front and rear seat slats (J). Finish-sand the seat slats and any other exposed surfaces.

Apply two coats of clear penetrating exterior wood sealer and let the finish dry for a few days. Attach the seat slats, starting with the outside slats first and then spacing the others equally. Drill the screw holes through the seat cleats as you attach the seat slats.

I've designed many chairs over the years, and I still can't tell how one will feel by looking at it on paper. Building a full-size prototype is the only way to know whether a new design will be comfortable and appealing. Of course, every person is shaped differently, and it’s impossible to achieve a perfect fit for everyone. I always ask people of various sizes to sit in my chair prototypes and give their opinions. After making any necessary adjustments, I’ll poll testers again until most of the responses are positive.

Building a prototype is simple. I use a combination of cheap dimensional lumber, shop scraps and plywood, disregarding aesthetic details (unless I'm concerned about how they will look). I quickly rough out the parts and assemble them with screws so I can easily replace parts and make adjustments. This chair prototype cost about $30 and took about two hours to build. That’s cheap insurance against a design disappointment.

When I've built custom-fit chairs for individuals, the prototypes only apply to those people. It's fun to hear them say, "Aaahhh," as they sit down, whereas other folks sitting in the same chair would frown.

Bonus Video: