Spiffing up your Campsite...

A 16th Century German Folding Chair

by Ld. Chas. Oakley

Well, the array of seating possibilities continues. This project is very similar in many ways to the 16th Century Fauldstool that I have presented before but, in actuality, much simpler to build. To the right is an image of the existing original... below it is a photo showing the prototype I built and a second one that is partially constructed. Note how flat the finished chair will fold up... very nice for tucking into the trunk of that ol' Volkswagon or Geo. You may notice that the original chair has a couple of legs more than the one I built. This is just a choice that I made... If you want to add the extra legs just adjust the parts list accordingly.

For materials, I used some dimesional 1" x 2" (3/4" x 1 " actual) poplar from a local woodworker's store. The choice of material was influenced by a:) the fact that I already had two chairs made from poplar and I thought that these would go rather nicely with them... and 2:) because the hardwood store had a sale going on and there was enough material there to make two chairs cheaply... You may want to use some other hardwood. Unfortunately, the picture that I have in my files was photocopied and put in the notebook before I started making notes as to where I got the information... so while I have the picture... I don't have any text information beyond the fact that this image can be found on page 118 and the words "Germany, Early Renaissance, 16th cent. - Folding Chairs and Shaped Chairs from southern Germany" appear at the bottom of the photo... (note to self... you keep notebooks for a reason...).

Anyway... the chair is basically just an "X" chair and doesn't differ much in construction techniques from any other "X" chair. What is a bit unique about this chair is that it has a back. While the back isn't overly useful it does provide some support to the lower back and can be leaned back into... if you do it carefully!! If you analyse the structure of the chair you'll find that the back foot of the chair is pretty much in line with the back of the seat... as long as you "sit up" in the chair and don't rest your back your center of gravity will be centered between the two feet and therefore keep the chair stable. If you do lean back in the chair the upper portion of your body will extend past the rear foot. The further back you lean the further your center of gravity will move toward the rear foot. Lean back far enough and your center of gravity can actually move past the rear foot and the chair will tip over backwards. But then again... back then folks weren't supposed to lounge in their chairs... sigh!

The materials needed:

Each chair consists of 25 pieces of wood. (Add 1 extra long and short leg, 2 extra seat boards and lengthen the back and foot boards and dowels if you want to build it exactly like the original.)

  • 4 - 7/16th dowel rods (15 inches long each)
  • 1 - Back board (4/4 [four quarter] x 8" x 14.5" actual length) [four quarter is one full inch thick]
  • 2 - Foot boards (1" x 2" dim.) 14.5" long
  • 9 - Seat Boards (1" x 2" dim.) 10" long
  • 4 - Short Legs (1" x 2" dim.) 22.25" long
  • 5 - Long Legs (1" x 2" dim.) 37" long
  • Cutting the Pieces:

    The first thing to do is to take your pile of material and cut each board to length. After rough cutting each piece, take the pile of long legs and short legs and begin cutting the tenons. On each long leg there will be a tenon on each end of the leg. The short leg has a tenon on only one end. It is really up to individual taste and technique on the proportions you wish to use for your tenons. I used tenons that were 3/8" wide (leaving a 3/16" shoulder all round the tenon). Each tenon was 3/8" long. The photo to the right shows the tenons on the top end of the long legs.

    The next step is to drill the holes in the leg and seat boards. The best way to do this that I've found is to clamp a long board to the work table of a drill press and then clamp a "stop block" at an appropriate length along this board.

    Once this "jig" is set up it is a simple matter of putting the pieces you are going to drill against the stop block and drill the hole. Make sure that all clamps are tight so that the jig doesn't slip on you. The next graphic shows where the holes are located on each piece. Note that on the measurements for drilling the holes on the long and short legs are taken from the shoulder of the foot tenon to to the center of the hole. This way, if you accidently made one tenon a bit longer than then next, the holes will all line up... very important detail here... The holes are drilled through the 3/4" side of each board. All holes are 7/16" in diameter.

    You should be able to easily find dowels in this diameter. If not... you can successfully use 3/8" dowels but I would stay clear of using anything much larger or smaller. Drill all the holes in both types of legs and the seat boards.

    After you have all the holes drilled you can begin assembling the chair. The illustration to the right shows the way the pieces are put together.

    There are a couple of things to mention at this point regarding the final trimming of the pieces. First, the pieces that join at the front edge of the seat (the seat board and the short leg) have not yet been trimmed. Trimming should be done after all of the legs and seat boards have been assembled. Trimming can be done using a backsaw and smoothed down with sandpaper.

    Second, each seat board needs to be trimmed where it butts up and rests against a leg. While it is possible to give general trimming directions it is better for the builder to "fit" each piece to find the correct length and angle to cut the piece at. The reason for this is that slight variations in dowel hole placement can vary how the seat board is to be cut... Once two seat boards have been fit so that the seat is flat and the edge that rests against the leg makes good contact the balance of the seat boards can be cut in a more production line manner... make sure of the first two pieces though...

    The Feet:

    Making the feet for the chair is a pretty simple and straightforward process. Set one of the boards under the long legs... which should each have a very nice tenon on them... The board should be centered under these legs so that there is an equal overhang on each side of the legs. With a pencil, mark where each tenon falls on the foot board and lay out the mortises to be cut. Cut the mortises. At this point you should test fit the foot to the chair. Check to make sure that the mortises are sufficiently deep and that the foot will fit snugly against the legs. Once the foot fits properly, measure the angle of the chair leg to the ground. Use this angle to determine the angle to be put on the foot (note the side view of the foot in the above illustration. Using a plane, saw or joiner (your choice...) bevel the bottom of the foot.

    Prepare the second foot for the foot that is to fit the short legs in the same manner. Once both feet have been made, glue the feet to the respective set of legs. Set aside until the glue dries (usually overnight).

    The Back Board:

    The long legs have a back board that sets on the upper set of tenons. The illustration to the left shows a general approach to making this board.

    As with the foot boards, first layout and cut all of the necessary mortises. Then test fit the back board to the chair to ensure proper fit. After this is done cut the design onto the chair. To lay out the design I would suggest first drawing one half of the design on a piece of heavy paper or matte board first and then, once you are happy with your layout, cut the design out of the paper or matte board and, using a pencil, transfer that design to your work piece. Flip the template over and lay out the other half on your work piece. Then, using a jigsaw or scroll saw, cut out the design. Finish sand the piece and glue it in place.


    If you intend to stain or seal your wood with something it would be best to do all of the finish work prior to assembly. However, if you do apply stains or other finishes to your work take care not to get any of the finish into the mortises or on the tenons or tenon shoulders as this may interfere with whatever adhesive you may use to glue the piece up.

    ... anyway... enjoy this project and I'll see what I can come up with next...

    Have fun... make stuff -

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