How To Build a Bent-Willow Chair
I made my first bent-willow chair as a housewarming gift for my daughter and her husband. They had purchased ten acres—but the house on the property was a tiny cabin—much smaller than their city apartment. They needed to downsize, and it can be hard to think of a suitable housewarming gift for those who are downsizing.
Luckily, the tiny cabin had a large front porch—and the young couple had no outdoor furniture.
Making a bent-willow chair is not too difficult of a project—though if it’s your first time doing it, you should probably not expect to complete the job in one weekend—or even two. Wood must be cut, finishes must dry between coats, and bent-willow work can be “fussy.” The materials are natural, and have a little bit of a mind of their own.
Such a project is well within the strength and capabilities of the ladies, although this is assuming some familiarity with power tools, and preferably a bit of experience with simple woodworking projects. For those who lack any kind of background in woodworking but have a passionate desire to learn, I would suggest that you find a retired carpenter or woodworker who would be willing to guide you through your first project.
If you decide to peel the bark from the larger framing pieces, more time will be required. Bent-willow is beautiful whether peeled or unpeeled, and many types of stains and finishes can be applied to further enhance it.
I have suggested some methods for more careful alignment of benders and seat rails, but perfection—or even semi-perfection—need not be your goal. You may want to skip fussing around with a C-clamp and nail plates, and flat pieces of wood for perfectly lining up the front edges of the seat rails. You are, after all, building a “rustic” chair, and there is no need to make yourself crazy by being too finicky on your first attempt.
Where To Find Willows You Can Harvest
Willow trees grow almost everywhere there is adequate water. They are water-loving trees, often found growing right in the water. You can often find willow growing at the side of the road, usually in low spots with a lot of moisture. No one minds if you cut it—least of all the Highway Department, since any willow you cut will be willow they don’t have to cut.
If you mention your bent willow project on Facebook or other social media, you probably get many offers from people who have willows they will allow you to cut. They will say things like, “Whoa! We have a shit-load! Come over and visit!” (For those who are unfamiliar with the metric system, a shit-load is ten times a butt-load.)
Preparing Willow Wood
You can cut the 1 3/4” pieces of wood for the chair frame using a bow saw, pruning saw, or chainsaw.
It will probably be easiest to cut willows to the longest lengths you are able to haul. The larger 1 ¾”-diameter pieces for the frame will need time to cure before use, since “green” wood will shrink and twist during drying. Allow these larger pieces to season for one week before use.
Should you remove the bark from the willow pieces? The bark can be either removed or the wood left as-is. Some people prefer the rustic “bark-on” look—and a suitable stain and/or finish will bring out the beauty of such pieces. Willow wood with the bark removed is a pale blond color that can be easily stained, painted, or dyed.
If you intend to remove the bark, it’s easiest to remove the bark from willows harvested in the spring and summer. You can strip the bark by scoring parallel straight lines along the length of the branch and peeling off the strips—being careful not to score too deeply. Peeling the bark this way should be done before allowing the wood to cure.
Another way to remove bark is to use a drawknife. If you use a drawknife, bark can be stripped from wood harvested at any time of the year, whether green or fresh. Keep your sharpening stone handy when using a drawknife. The blade can dull quickly.
Can You Use Other Wood Besides Willow?
Yes! Willow is usually preferred for the traditional bent-willow furniture because it is so available and renewable. However, it may be that you have a large brush pile or three on your property. By sorting through your brush pile—which is likely a mix of several types of wood—you can easily find enough of the large (1 ¾” diameter) pieces for building a frame for a willow chair. Just make sure the wood is sound—seasoned but not decayed or hollow in the middle. You will probably want to remove the bark if you are using wood from your brush pile. The bark may not be in the best condition, and once it’s stripped off, you may find signs of insect damage to the wood—which will have to be cleaned up to make the wood usable.
Use willow for all smaller (3/4” diameter) pieces. If possible, they should be harvested immediately before use, so they are flexible. These pieces can be kept fresh for awhile by setting the butt ends of the benders in a bucket of water.
Drill bits: #2 Phillips bit, 1/8” drill bit, and 3/32”drill bit
Skill saw and/or miter saw
Pruning saw or bow saw—or chainsaw
Drawknife (optional—for removing bark, if desired)
Tailor’s tape measure (or use a piece of string instead)
#2 Phillips-head screwdriver
Suggested items: You can do without these, but there are places where these help a lot: 2-nail plates and 1 large (3”) C-clamp
NOTE ON DRILL BITS: It is hard to find information about pilot-hole sizes for drywall screws. I found that a 1/8” drill bit worked fine for pilot holes for the larger pieces with 3” screws, and even for the seat and back rails with 1 ¼-1 ½” screws.
For screwing down arm and back benders, a 3/32” pilot hole for 1 ¼”-1 ½” screws is probably best. In the directions, I have suggested drilling 3/32” pilot holes for seat and back rails as well. Some sources suggest using 3/32” pilot holes for all drywall screws. On the other hand, 3/32” bits can be hard to find, and a 1/8” bit works well enough for all pilot holes, if it's a bother for you to go looking for a 3/32” bit.
1 one-pound box 3” coarse-thread Phillips-head drywall screws.
1 one-pound box 1 ¼” or 1 ½” coarse-thread Phillips-head drywall screws
NOTE: You may want to get a box each of 1 ¼” and 1 1/2” screws. There may be places where a 1 ½” screw is a little too long and pokes through, so that the sharp point is exposed. Using a 1 ¼” screw in these spots will avoid exposed sharp points that could scratch someone later.
NOTE: Why am I suggesting you use screws instead of nails? Why drywall screws? The real reason is because that was the way I was taught by my grizzled old carpenter buddy.
Carpenters are traditionalists—even in matters unrelated to carpentry. When my carpenter buddy told me his mother said that his brother-in-law needed to be put down, he paused and then added, “And I always do what Mama says.”
Coarse-thread drywall screws have gained acceptance in many woodworking applications. They are cheaper and more readily available than wood screws. While wood screws with stand up to far greater stresses (without shearing off) than drywall screws, this is not an issue if you are building a chair, or, indeed, most furniture.
Most directions for making bent-willow furniture suggest assembling with nails. I would tend to assume that it’s because, “That’s the way the Gypsies did it.” Nevertheless, screws are far easier to work with than nails—for almost any application (except framing in stud walls). They fasten things together more securely—won’t work their way loose under routine stresses. You will find that this more secure fastening is a great advantage when you are fastening down the springy and often uncooperative benders.
Screws are also far easier to use in tight places, and they are easier to “back out,” if you need to remove them for a do-over.
The main things that are important to remember about using drywall screws for woodworking is that they must be coarse-thread drywall screws, and you must drill pilot holes of the correct size. (You would also have to drill pilot holes if you were using nails.)
When using a power drill to screw down the bent-willow benders, which are very soft, be careful not to screw down too hard. In fact, it’s best to leave about 1/8” of space and finishing screwing down by hand, on these more delicate pieces. If you screw down hard with a power drill, you are likely to split the wood benders.
BUILDING THE CHAIR FRAME
See the Photo Showing Where These Part Go
Seasoned Wood for Chair Frame
2 back legs 1 ¾” diameter 23” long
2 back rungs 1 ¾” diameter 18” long
4 side rungs 1 ¾” diameter 18” long
2 front legs 1 ¾” diameter 14” long
1 front bottom rung 1 ¾” diameter 18” long
1 front top rung 1 ¾” diameter 26” long
1 seat brace 1 ¾” diameter cut to fit
4 side braces 1 ¾” diameter cut to fit
2 slanted braces 1 ¾” diameter cut to fit
1 back support 1 ¾” diameter 28” long
1 seat support 1 ¾” diameter 17” long
8 arm benders ¾” diameter 67” long
4 back benders ¾” diameter 67” long
12-15 seat rails ¾” diameter cut to fit
12-15 back rails ¾” diameter cut to fit
Begin with the Chair Back
The back legs of the chair are 23” long, to accommodate extra height for the chair back.
When drilling pilot holes, lay the piece of wood on a piece of scrap lumber, so that you don’t damage your floor when the drill bit goes through.
Using a 1/8” drill bit, drill two pilot holes in the front of the back legs, one 9” from the top and the other 7” from the bottom. Pilot holes need to go all the way through to the other side.
Now rotate the legs 90° and drill two more pilot holes in each leg, each slightly below the level of the first pilot holes. These holes, too, need to go all the way through to the other side. (See illustration).
To attach the two back rungs to the back legs of the chair, drill a 1/8” hole in the center of each end of each 18”-long rung. Using your 3” drywall screws, screw through the pilot holes in the back legs and into the center (end) hole in each rung. (see illustration).
Attach the Front Legs, Front Bottom Rung, and Side Rungs
It may be easiest to get the front legs and front bottom rung put together next.
Drill one 1/8” pilot hole in the sides of each of the 14”-long front legs, 7 inches from the bottom. Drill pilot holes all the way through.
Drill one 1/8” pilot hole in the center of each end of the 18”-long front bottom rung. Now use the pilot holes to screw the front bottom rung to the front legs, with 3” drywall screws.
Now you can drill 1/8” pilot holes through the front legs, front to back, and placed slightly below the first set of pilot holes
There are four 18”-long side rungs. Drill a 1/8” hole in the center of both ends of all four 18”-long side rungs. Use these to attach the front legs of the chair to the back legs. You will notice that the bottom rungs are attached to both the front and back legs. The top rungs are attached only to the back legs. (See illustration.) You can see from the illustration that you are leaving an empty place to attach the front top rung.
Now you are ready to attach the 26”-long front top rung into that space. Center the front top rung on the front legs of the chair. (The top front rung overhangs the front legs a few inches.) It is good to attach the top rung to the front side rungs first. Drill 1/8” pilot holes horizontally through the front top rung, centered on the existing pilot holes in the top side rungs and fasten with 3” drywall screws.
Now is the time to look critically at the whole chair frame to make sure it is square. Make sure the chair is sitting flat on the floor. Adjust the position of the front top rung in relation to the front legs, as needed, to get things all squared up.
Drill pilot holes down through the top rung, directly over the pilot holes in the front legs and attach with 3” drywall screws.
Attaching Bracing Members
Attach seat brace (the length is cut to fit) by drilling pilot holes in each end of the seat brace and drilling pilot holes horizontally through the centers of both top side rungs and fastening with 3” drywall screws.
Now attach the four vertical braces between the top and bottom rungs. Vertical braces are cut to fit, so measure individually to see how long each needs to be. Drill vertical pilot holes through the top and bottom rungs. Drill pilot holes down into the center of each end of the brace and fasten the brace between the rung with 3” drywall screws.
Now attach the two slanted braces. Measure and cut to fit. It can be a little tricky to get this measurement right. I measure what looks like the right distance and then add 1/8”. Drill pilot holes down the into center of both ends of each slanted brace. Drill diagonal pilot holes through the seat brace and bottom front and back rungs. Fasten each brace so that it slants from the seat brace down to the bottom rung. Notice than the slanted braces are staggered. They don't have to be. Both top ends could be exactly centered on the seat brace, and the bottom ends exactly centered on the bottom rungs, but it's often more convenient to stagger them. (See photograph.)
Attaching the Back Support
The back support is centered across the top of the back legs. Place the back support on top of the back legs and drill pilot holes through the back support and down into the centers of the back legs. Fasten with 3” drywall screws.
Attaching the Seat Support
The seat support is the piece of wood attached to the front of the back top rung. (See photograph.) It will support the back ends of the seat rails. The bottom ends of the back rails will also be attached to this piece.
This piece is attached in front of and level with the top back rung.
Drill a pilot hole through the center of the seat support, and another through the center of the top back rung and fasten the seat support to the top back rung with a 3” drywall screw. Now you can drill two more pilot holes 1 ½” from each end of the seat support and through the top back rung and attach the seat support at these points with 3” drywall screws.
It can be frustrating to get benders arranged so they look good. Before you begin, you may want to stop and think about the look you are trying to achieve, and how to get it.
Attaching the Arm Benders
Points to remember:
Once they are in place, the four benders used for the chair arms should be uniformly flat in relation to each other, for their whole length.
On this chair, the benders turn just above the top rung of the chair, at which point all four benders are lined up nearly perpendicular to the chair’s top front rail. The benders need to maintain their flatness in relation to each other at the point where they make this turn—as well as everywhere else.
This turn—the point at which the benders line up nearly perpendicular to the chair front—should be at the same place on each arm.
Some ways to achieve this on the first try:
If you have enough Gypsy in your blood, you may be able to accomplish this feat by lovingly lining up each bender by hand and carefully screwing it to the previous bender in several places along its length.
If you are of some other nationality or woodworking persuasion, you may find this process is helped by wrapping the benders with duct tape, to hold them in place. Duct tape helps, but is not quite strong enough to work in many places.
What you really want, to achieve benders that are perfectly and gracefully lined up flat, is a system that allows you to clamp the benders flat against each other while you screw them to each other to hold them in that position.
My suggestion: Use nail plates and a C-clamp. If you notice one or more places where the benders are not lining up flat, position one nail plate on each side of the row of benders and squeeze them together with the C-clamp. Also, if there are unsightly gaps between benders, you can use the C-clamp alone to squeeze them together until you get the screwed down.
I did not use this system of clamps and nail plates on this project, so there are imperfections that I could have prevented this way. This is kind of an awkward process, but worth the trouble.
All the while you are attaching the benders, continually give their position a good hard and critical look, before you screw them in place, checking for flatness and to make sure they turn perpendicular at the same height on each arm.
Attaching the First Arm Benders
Try to get good, long sturdy ¾” thick benders for all parts. Six-foot lengths are about right, in that they assure enough thickness for the entire length. (Obviously, benders will be thicker at the butt end, with tapering thickness for the length.)
Limber up all benders before attaching them to the chair. Gently bend them in the desired direction several times, using your hands, bending them around your knees, or by standing on various placing along the length and gently bending. Give special attention to any stiff spots. Be gentle—and thorough—and take it slow, or the bender will break. Patience and thoroughness in limbering the benders will save you the trouble of having to go cut some more because of breakage—and sometimes they break even with care. Try to establish what part of the bender will need to bend most sharply and give extra attention to limbering that spot.
The first bender should tuck behind the bottom front rung of the chair. Then it curves around, so that the other end is tucked under the top back support (see illustration).
Begin by attaching the butt end to the inside of the bottom front rung. Caveat: Allow for two or three inches of excess length of the butt end to extend below the bottom chair rung. This will help prevent the bender from splitting when you screw it down. In fact, it is best to NOT screw and of the bender screws quite all the way down. Give them a little breathing room and finish screwing them down by hand to avoid splitting. Or screw in all benders by hand.
Since you will probably want the chair arm to flare gracefully outward, you will want to secure the butt end to the back of the bottom rung so that it is NOT flush against the chair leg. Place the butt end of the first arm bender about an inch from the chair leg—unless you would like the chair arms to be in a more vertical and less flared position.
This end of the bender will stay put pretty well while you drill the pilot hole, since you will want to lay the front of the chair down on top of it. (Make sure the bender is bending in the desired direction before you drill.) Mark where you intend to drill the pilot hoe with a dot, using a Sharpie. (A 3/32” pilot hole is going to be all but invisible after you drill it.) Drill your pilot hole with a 3/32” drill bit, then screw it down with a 1 ¼”-1 ½” coarse-thread drywall screw.
Set the chair back upright and bend the arm bender around so that the other end tucks under the chair’s back support—under where it sticks out (see illustration). Decide how much length looks right to you. Mine, measuring from screw to screw, measured 43 ½”.
For the first bender, you can just decide what looks right. However, you will want to measure the first bender before you screw in the second bender, since you will want them to be the same size. To measure, use a tailor’s tape-measure. (A carpenter’s tape-measure does not work well for this.)
If you don’t have a tailor’s tape measure, use a piece of string or yarn to mark off the length of the bender. Then lay it flat on the floor and measure the string with a carpenter’s tape measure.
Another approach to matching the first two arm benders is to check the tops of the arches to see if they are level. Lay a lightweight piece of wood across the tops of the arches of the two arm benders, place a level on top of the piece of wood, and adjust the second bender to level it up with the first bender before screwing it down. If you are a perfectionist, you may wish to both measure length and level. When matching up the first two arm benders, keep an eye on the angle at which they flare outward, so that both arm benders flare outward at about the same angle.
Once you have decided where to attach the first bender to the back support, secure it with duct tape. Also, trim off some of the excess length of the bender. That way you should be able to lean the back of the chair against a coffee table or other reliably stationary object, so you can get a good angle for drilling and screwing. Mark the spot where you intend to drill the pilot hole with a Sharpie. Drill a 3/32” pilot hole and then secure it with a 1 ¼”-1 ½” coarse-thread drywall screw.
Attach the arm bender to the other side of the chair in the same way, measuring the distance between screws so that its length matches the length of the first bender.
Attaching the Second Arm Benders
This is a good time to take a good look at how the arm benders are put in. The butt end of the second arm bender will be placed so that it is nearer the center of the chair seat than the first. Each subsequent bender is attached working inward along the front bottom rung.
The other, slender, end of the first arm bender was fastened flush against the back leg of the chair frame and tucked under the back support. The the slender end of the second arm bender will be flush against the first arm bender, working outward.
So, obviously if one end of the subsequent arm benders are placed towards the inside, while the other end is placed toward the outside, each bender will have to cross over the one before it, hopefully making a graceful, even, and flat curve.
You can probably see how this should look by looking closely at the picture at the end of this article, and at the picture of the finished chair.
To begin: The butt end of the second arm bender goes flush against the butt end of the first arm bender—each bender after the first moving towards the center of the chair. The other end of the second bender crosses over the first and is attached flush against the first bender, with the tapered end of each bender moving outward from the center. (See illustration.)
There is no need to measure lengths when attaching these subsequent benders; just match them up with previous ones, so they look right. What you probably will want to do, however, before securing the end of the bender that goes under the chair back, is to use duct tape here and there along parallel benders, to get them to line up right.
You may notice, when get the third bender in place, that there are uneven spots where the three (and later four) benders do not line up perfectly parallel and flat. If you want a little more perfect look, you can use two nail plates and a large (3”) C-clamp to compress the benders flat in these spots. This is kind of an awkward procedure, but it gets easier with practice, and using a large C-clamp helps. When you have compressed the benders between the nail plates, fasten with screws and remove the C-clamp and nail plates. You'll find that this little extra trouble is well worth the effort.
Once you like the positioning and have taped benders to stay put, lovingly mold each bender into position, screwing it the previous bender at intervals. Finally, attach the end of the bender that goes under the chair back.
Fasten the First and Second Benders Together with Screws
When it comes time to fasten the benders together, you might want to switch to a 3/32” drill bit. You are going to attach the benders together with screws. These screws should be pointed outward. The heads of the screws will be at the inside edge of the chair arm's first bender. This is because, as you will notice, many of the screw points stick out after they are screwed in. You don't want them pointed at the person sitting in the chair. To secure the benders together, drill 3/32” pilot holes at the desired intervals (It will help to mark the spots first with a Sharpie), and then secure with 1 ¼” coarse-thread drywall screws, to hold the two benders together. Do this in two or three (or more) places, as needed. (Be sure to stagger screws on subsequent benders.) Now you can remove the duct tape, and everything should stay put
Attaching Third and Fourth Arm Benders
Repeat the process described above, alternating sides. You need four benders for each chair arm. When both chair arms are completed, trim off any excess length of the benders sticking out from behind the top back rail.
Fasten the Second and Third Benders Together with Screw
Beginning with the third bender, it is okay to screw the benders together from the outside edge of the chair arm inward. To secure the second and third, and third and fourth, benders together, drill 3/32” pilot holes at the desired intervals (marking first with a Sharpie), and then secure with 1 ¼” coarse-thread drywall screws, to hold the two benders together. Do this in two or three (or more) places, as needed. (Be sure to stagger screws on subsequent benders.) Now you can remove the duct tape, and everything should stay put.
Attaching Back Benders
Use extra care to limber up the benders for the chair back, as these need to make quite a tight turn.
The butt end of the first bender is placed to the inside of the top side rung of the chair frame. It passes outside the chair arm and in front of the back support. Then it passes around the outside of the other arm of the chair and is tucked inside the opposite top side rung of the chair frame.
Once the first bender looks right, screw each end to the inside of the top side rung of the chair frame.
The second back bender should be begun with the butt end on the opposite side of the chair. As you now know, the benders are a bit springy. It helps to use duct tape to wrap the first and second back benders together, to get them to stay put as you line them up
If there are unsightly gaps between the first and second bender that you can't “muscle” out, your large C-clamp can be used to squeeze them together. Then you can quickly fasten with a couple of screws before removing the C-clamp. This is another finicky job, but is worth the extra trouble.
Once you’ve fastened the second back bender by screwing the ends to each top side rung, you can begin screwing the second bender to the first, using 1 ¼” screws, using 3/32” pilot holes.
The back benders are vertical in relation to each other and, like the arm benders, they make a turn and need to be kept uniformly flat throughout the turn. Both duct tape and a C-clamp and nail plates can be used to ensure that all four back benders are flat. As with the arm benders, take time to examine your work critically at each step.
Benders should be started on alternate sides, till all four are in place.
Attaching Seat Rails and Back Rails
The seat and back rails are attached alternately. That is, you are not going to put all the seat rails in, and then put all the back rails in—or vice versa. There are two reasons for this. If they are attached alternately, they are easier to space as needed. And if all seat rails (or all back rails) are done first, the space between them will be too tight, and you won't be able to get at the seat support to drill pilot holes.
So, what you want to do is measure your first seat rail so that it is long enough to overlap both the front top rung and the back seat support. Then cut your first seat rail and position it in the center of the seat and fasten down, using your 3/32 drill bit to drill pilot holes, and 1 1/4” screws. Fasten one end to the top front rung of the chair and the other end to the back seat support.
Now you are ready to measure and cut the center back rail. Measure from the bottom of the seat support to the top of the second back bender and cut a piece of 3/4” wood this length. Position this back rail vertically, in front of the seat support and back support, and behind the back benders, so that you can screw the butt end to the seat support and the then end to the second back bender. Then screw the center of this piece to the back support.
Now measure and cut a second back rail to go on the other side of the central seat support and fasten it in.
Then attach seat rails and back rails alternately, working from the center outward. Remember that the back rails will need to fan out, since the top of the chair is wider than the seat.
Also, as you attach seat rails, it is good to use a flat piece of wood to butt them up against, to make sure the front ends are even.
STAINS AND FINISHES
Once the chair is completed, stains and finishes can be applied. The most often suggested finish for natural-bark chairs is a mixture of half boiled linseed oil and half turpentine, or half boiled linseed oil and half paint thinner. This type of finish should be renewed once a year.
You can stain your willow chair before applying a finish, but water-base NGR (non-grain-raising) stains should be used if you will be applying an oil finish, since oil-base stains interfere with the penetration of the oil.
Willow furniture can also be painted, although a primer coat will be required first, to prevent colors from the wood or bark from bleeding through. Choose indoor or outdoor paint, depending on your chair’s intended use.
You can even dye willow with Rit dyes—available in many colors at hobby and craft stores, and sometimes in a few colors at your grocery store. Smaller pieces can be dyed in a dye bath, and larger pieces (or the completed chair) can be dyed by sponging on the color. You can apply the linseed oil/turpentine finish after dying.