Upholstered Rocking Chair

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Blog entry by DaveConry posted 11-24-2010 01:16 AM 2581 reads 0 times favorited 5 comments Add to Favorites Watch

About 30 years ago, just before the birth of our first child, I bought my lovely wife a brand new heavy duty upholstered rocking chair. I don’t recall exactly what it cost, but I remember working a heck of a lot of overtime to save up for it. I think it was in the neighborhood of 600 dollars. That was a lot of money to a newlywed couple in the early 1980’s. I think it was the first piece of new furniture we ever owned. After about 25 or so years of daily use it was finally retired to the basement. Having endured countless thousands of hours of use and abuse, it was no longer presentable on the main floor of our home.

A few months ago I decided that I was going to have it re-upholstered and give it to my daughter-in-law who was pregnant with our fifth grandchild. My wife was devastated. She refused to let it go. I soon learned that she can recall at which child or pet’s hand or paw each and every scratch, ding, dent, tooth mark, claw mark and stain occurred. We finally agreed to re-upholster that chair, and that I would make a similar one for my daughter-in-law.

That is how this project originated. I have never built a piece of furniture before, so this will be a learning experience for sure. Fortunately I have the old chair to examine how it was assembled, and to get some idea of the basic measurements needed. The new chair will not be a copy of the old one, but it will be similar in size.

I like to use recycled or reclaimed materials in my projects. In this case I will attempt to use up about 120 square feet of left over oak flooring that I have accumulated over the years in my remodeling business. The image below shows a small portion of the materials that I will be using. Please note that I have drawn out the basic shape of the chair on the top of my melamine benchtop for a reference.

Once I determined what the basic size and shape of the individual parts would be, a cutting list was devised. This was followed by numerous hours of cutting, jointing and planing the flooring into pieces 1/2 inch thick and 2 inches wide. These pieces were then glued up into blocks and panels from which to cut the parts for the chair.

I wanted to use mortise and tenon joinery wherever possible, which almost immediately steepened the learning curve. Notice in the photo below that the back of the seat frame is about 3 inches narrower than the front. That means that either the mortises or the tenons had to be cut at an angle. The exact angle was calculated using a little program called Win Estimating. Just plug in the length of each side and it displays the angle. After several attempts using the tablesaw and my mortising attachment for the drill press, I was not satisfied with the fit, so I had to figure a different method.

I made a simple tilting table attachment for my drill press using some scrap MDF, melamine and a piano hinge. The angle is adjusted by inserting a pair of wedges, cut to the proper angle on the miter saw, between the two tables and taping them in place. I will fashion a more permanent and functional adjustment method at a later date. This allowed me to clamp the workpiece to the jig and drill holes for the mortises, which were completed and trued up with a sharp chisel. The tenons were cut on the tablesaw using a dado setup.

I made a template out of a piece of scrap depicting the shape of the front legs so that I could trace the shape on the front and side of blocks, which were then cut on the bandsaw. Again the mortises had to be angled to allow for the taper from front to rear. These were again done using the drill press with tilting table attachment and finished up with a chisel. I am quite pleased with the way they fit together.

I then repeated the same process for the rear legs and glued the entire leg assembly together. One of my tenons was a bit undersized. I was able to repair it by cutting a 1/8” shim from scrap, which was glued onto the tenon and pared to a precise fit with a chisel.

I then set the leg assembly and the chair seat base together to check the fit. These will eventually be held together by 1/2” dowels, but I think I will wait until after the finish is applied to attach them.

I transfered the drawing of a rear upright onto the stock and cut it out on the bandsaw. Once it was sanded to it’s exact size and shape I used the first upright as a pattern for the second.

A dado was cut into the lower end of each upright to accept a raised panel for the side of the seat. The upright is curved, so I used a slot cutter with a bearing and a guide pin in the router table cut it.

I needed a rabbet on the back side of the upright so the fabric on the rear of the chair would be recessed giving it a cleaner look. Again, the curvature of the upright prevented me from using the standard fence on the router table, so I fashioned a simple curved guide behind the bit so I could follow the contour with a straight bit.

The front arm supports were then cut and sanded. The dado for the raised panel was cut with the slot cutter on the router table.

Templates were made from scrap to depict the approximate shape of the arms which were then cut out on the bandsaw.

After a lot of shaping with rasps, files and sandpaper an acceptable shape for the arms was achieved.

The front and rear uprights were laid out in thier proper relationship to the arms and a dado was cut in the bottom of each arm using a slot cutter and a chisel. This arrangement gave me the shape for the raised panels that were made for the seat sides.

A dado was then cut in the seat base to accept the side assemblies.

With the side panel in place I was now able to adjust the final fit of the arm to the rear upright using a file and sandpaper.

The top rail was then cut on the bandsaw and a dado was cut on the router to accept the fabric and trim for the back.

The framework for the upholstered back was cut and doweled in place.

With all the components shaped, fitted and sanded, everything was assembled using dowels as the only fasteners. Up to this point there are no metal fasteners anywhere in the assembly.

The side wings were then cut, sanded and doweled in place.

A template for the rockers was made from scrap. The rough shape of the rockers was cut on the bandsaw, Then the template was taped to each rocker which were then finished shaping on the router table with a pattern bit.

The rockers were then fitted to the legs by filing and sanding the bottom of each leg until a perfect fit was achieved. Holes were drilled and counterbored allowing the rockers to be fastened to the legs using lag bolts. I elected to do this so that the rockers could be replaced if the need should ever arise.

This concludes the actual building of the chair. The upper portion will be attached to the rocker base once all the sanding, finishing and upholstery are done.

I had really been agonizing over the application of finish to this project. Being made entirely from glued up pieces of scrap I was concerned about all the glue joints and end grain. I had never applied finish to a piece of furniture before and I knew this was going to be a problem. So I started reading everything I could find on finishing and grew even more concerned. After all the work I had put into it, I had almost decided that the only way to get an even finish was going to be to paint it. Heaven forbid! Then I came across a couple of products that allowed me to get an even finish and to show off all the hard work I had done.

After countless hours of testing on glued up scraps that depicted the makeup of this chair, I finally got the courage together to finish it. I applied two coats of Charles Neil’s Pre-Color Conditioner and then rubbed on several coats of TransFast water soluable dye follwed by 2 coats of poly. The conditioner evened out the end grain while allowing the face grain to show through the dye.

I took the assembled chair to a couple of different upholstery shops only to learn that it was going to cost between four and six hundred dollars to have it upholstered. So I went back to reading and decided to do the upholstery myself. I figured worst case I could tear the fabric off and have a pro do it. I purchased all the materials needed online and gave it my best shot.

-- Evil can only thrive when good men do nothing.......E. Burke

5 comments so far

View chrisstef's profile


15466 posts in 2427 days

#1 posted 11-24-2010 01:45 AM

This will surely be a sentimental piece for both you and your daughter. When i first started woodworking (2 years ago lol) i set my goal to one day build rocking chairs for the family so im interested in how this turns out. Good Luck and congrats on your newest grandchild!

-- "there aren’t many hand tools as awe-inspiring as the #8 jointer. I mean, it just reeks of cast iron heft and hubris" - Smitty

View DaveConry's profile


66 posts in 3118 days

#2 posted 11-26-2010 07:47 AM

Thanks Chrisstef…...I am really enjoying the entire process and learning a lot along the way. Hopefully when it is done it will be something worth having.

-- Evil can only thrive when good men do nothing.......E. Burke

View DaveConry's profile


66 posts in 3118 days

#3 posted 06-04-2011 05:38 PM


-- Evil can only thrive when good men do nothing.......E. Burke

View dustyal's profile


1275 posts in 2896 days

#4 posted 06-05-2011 04:07 PM

This chair would definitely outlast the rocking needs of five grandkids. Thanks for the work and sharing of the how to blog. Really well done.

-- Al H. - small shop, small projects...

View DaveConry's profile


66 posts in 3118 days

#5 posted 06-08-2011 03:53 AM

Thanks Al. I really enjoyed building it. And I learned a lot along the way too. Had someone told me 5 years ago that I could make a chair and upholster it, I would have thought them crazy. I guess an old dog can learn new tricks….to replace the one’s he can’t pull off anymore.

-- Evil can only thrive when good men do nothing.......E. Burke

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