What you need to start building your own patio furniture

Why in the world would you spend an entire day or weekend building a patio chair when the home goods store sells plenty of them?! Well, I’ll tell you why I started building my own outdoor furniture. My home has plenty of outdoor spaces to entertain and relax.  So I searched in stores and online for patio furniture for these spaces. I found plenty of affordable patio chairs and tables but I didn’t love the style and I seriously questioned their durability.  I already had a couple of Adirondack chairs falling apart after only a few years and I didn’t want to buy more junk that wasn’t built to last.  So in this article I’ll share with you my journey of jumping into the world of woodworking and creating my own beautiful, durable outdoor furniture.  After reading this, you’ll see what it takes to build your own patio furniture, too!

couldn't you just buy quality patio furniture?

Of course you can! As a commercial interior designer I have been to furniture trade shows and have seen absolutely gorgeous outdoor furniture.  Modern styles, beautifully crafted. Unfortunately, those cost much more than I was comfortable spending on patio furniture.  

So, what’s another option?  

After my disappointing search online, I considered DIY.  I had never built a chair before, but I mean how hard could it actually be? 

One day, feeling inspired and ambitious, I spent an afternoon looking at furniture plans online and in books borrowed from the library.  More disappointment! Most of the instructions were so full of woodworking jargon and used tools I don’t even own. I had no idea what they were even talking about most of the time. Additionally, the styles in the DIY magazines were so traditional – totally not what I would buy, much less give up a weekend to build. 

Furniture plans are clearly written for expert woodworkers.

I was so disheartened, but I took another look at the furniture plans, watched some YouTube videos, and thought, I’m a skilled interior designer and fairly good at figuring things out.  I could take those furniture plans and figure out how the pieces are constructed.  So if I ignored the jargon and just sifted through the illustrations, I felt like it was possible to figure out how to build it.  I also could see how a little tweak here and there would change the traditional or rustic style and modernize it nicely.  And so I sat down and created new designs using the furniture plans as rough guidelines. 

DIY is not as difficult as you might think

Okay so once I had furniture plans that I completely understood, because I wrote them myself, I was ready for Phase 2 – putting the plans in action!  Just starting out I didn’t really know what tools I would need, where to buy lumber, or what the best hardware was. I was a complete newbie! But I was surprised to find out that the lumber yard employees are super helpful and friendly. I also realized that you can do a lot, build beautiful things, with just a miter saw and a cordless drill along with a few other hand tools.  

Since that first day of lumber shopping, I’ve built several pieces of outdoor furniture.  Do I consider myself a woodworker?  No, not really.  Those build plans in woodworking magazines still baffle me with their crazy jargon! But I’m more confident and I really enjoy building a unique piece of furniture that reflects my personal taste and will last a very long time.  I’ve learned that there’s more than one way of doing things, and if you don’t have a lot of woodworking tools or experience it’s still possible to create your own patio furniture.

If a complete newbie can build beautiful patio furniture, anyone can!

So the following advice is based on my personal experience of jumping into woodworking without any prior skills or know-how.  If you are in the same situation, thinking about building your own patio furniture but have never done any woodworking before, then this will really give you a good idea of what you’re in for.  Just know that anyone can do this, including you. 

It is helpful to have a friend or relative assist with your first project, especially if that friend is somewhat woodworking savvy.  I had my dad to help guide me through my first projects.  But even if you don’t know anyone that fits the bill, there is so much information and videos out there to learn from that you can do just fine all on your own. 

And even if your project takes a left turn or doesn’t come out exactly how you planned, chances are you learned enough in the process to change it if you want!  If not, sell it on Facebook and create a new and improved version next time!  

what it takes to build your own patio furniture:

Woodworking requires space:

You don’t need to completely take over the garage or basement, but you do need some space to work.  I like to build outdoor furniture on nice days out on my driveway.  I designate an area to lay out my lumber, an area to cut wood, and an area to lay out the cut pieces.  Think of a mini assembly line where you have the lumber on one side, the saw set up in the middle, and the cut pieces laid out on the other side.  Lumber goes in, cut pieces come out.  You’ll also need a bit of space for assembly of parts. 

Now, I have my miter saw attached to a mobile folding stand. It folds up and stores in the garage without taking up a lot of space.  And I can wheel it out of the garage and set it up in the driveway.  But you might secure yours to a workbench or table in your garage or shed or basement.  Either way, you want to be able to lay out your lumber and your cuts nearby to save steps.  

If you don’t have space or you don’t own a miter saw and have no intention of buying one, you could investigate using makerspaces in your area.  Where I live, there are tool libraries and makerspaces where you could bring your raw materials and hardware and utilize their tools and their space. You’ll also likely meet a community of helpful and like-minded people that are into creating wonderful art, furniture, or crafts.  So, don’t let lack of space or tools stop you!

Woodworking requires tools:

Speaking of tools.  At a minimum, you will need to use the following tools to build basic outdoor furniture:

For cutting lumber:

  • Miter Saw
  • Sanding block
  • tape measure
  • speed square
  • carpenter’s pencil
  • I also like using painters tape and a sharpie marker for labeling pieces

For assembling:

  • Cordless drill or impact driver with an assortment of drill bits
  • Screws for exterior use
  • wood glue
  • clamps
  • a level

For finishing:

  • A sander
  • Finish of choice (oil, stain, paint)
  • Finishing tools (brushes, rags, sponges)

If you’ve never used any of these before, there are tons of helpful videos to show you how to safely use them.  If you do have a friend or relative that has some woodworking experience, ask them to join you for your first build.  They are the best shortcut to learning to master the tools by showing you in the moment how to do something. For more information on specific tools, check out these other posts: 

For using a cordless drill, check out this post:  A Proper Screw: The Basics Of Using A Drill

For using a miter saw, check this one out: Chopping Wood: Miter Saw Basics

For an overview of woodworking tools to have: The Tools To Have If You’re A True DIYer

Woodworking requires.... Wood

Okay, so now that you own or have access to the tools needed to build outdoor furniture, you’ll need to go buy wood for your project. For outdoor furniture, cedar is readily available where I live in the Midwest and it smells amazing.  I could find cedar at big box home improvement stores or lumber yards.  I prefer to shop for wood at lumber yards.  Why? Read on and I’ll tell you about my experiences at both the lumber yard and the large home improvement store.

Shopping for Wood at the big box stores

There’s a couple of big, home improvement mega-stores near my home.  If I want 1” thick boards, I go the the boards section inside the store and I have to climb a stair to the upper loft in this “boards” section.  I must overcome my sense of vertigo in the loft and try to choose the best boards – the ones that are most straight, free of cracks and large imperfections.  Then I must haul them down the stairs to my cart.  Next I have to go back to the lumber department and place my order for the 2” thick boards that are out in the lumber yard.  Next, back up to the front of the store to pay for everything.  Then out to my car to load up my 1” thick boards.  And then drive around back to the lumberyard to find and fish out the best 2” thick boards.  Load up those and finally head home.

Shopping for Wood at the Lumber Yard

When I go to buy wood at the lumber yard, I call ahead and make sure they’ve got a decent selection of what I need.  Then I hop in the car and head over.  I park in the front and head into the office with my list. They ring me up and send me back out to my car to pull around into the lumber yard.  I wait in my car for an attendant who will look at my receipt, and then go pull the boards I need and load them in my car. And then I drive away.  Now which sounds better to you? Yep, thought so.

The 411 on wood - what you need to know when shopping for wood

So, the 2×4 lumber you’re about to buy is actually not 2″ by 4″.  Lumber has what is called a nominal size and an actual size. When you go to get a 2×4, that is referring to the thickness and width of the board.  However, the board is actually 1-½ inches thick by 3-½ inches wide.  Why is that?  Well, when a board is first cut, it actually is cut to the nominal dimensions – a 2×4 is a 2×4. But then it is kiln dried, which causes it to lose some thickness. After the wood is completely dried, it is planed to the actual dimension.

What you should know about surface finish – rough vs smooth faces. Western Red Cedar boards are typically available in one of three surface finishes: rough; surfaced – or smooth – on one side and both edges (S1S2E); or surfaced on all four sides (S4S).  Generally what I have found is that the 1” thick boards are surfaced on one face and both edges, so they do have one rough face.  And 2” thick boards are surfaced on all sides and have rounded edges.  You can have the 1″ boards smoothed on both faces, but it does add to the cost of the boards.

Finally, you should choose a species of wood that will endure the wind and rain and sunlight. In the Midwest, western red cedar is widely available.  Out west, I’m told that redwood is more readily available. Do a little research and make sure that what you are buying is a good species for exterior use.

And one more thing to consider when buying lumber: Consider what will fit in your vehicle. An 8′-long board is a good fit for me and my vehicle and the length is manageable for me to load and unload.  My vehicle has 3 rows of seats and still these 8-footers take up a lot of real estate.

Woodworking requires hardware

To assemble patio furniture, you’re going to need an assortment of screws and wood glue.  And you may run across furniture plans that call for the use of bolts, with washers and nuts.  For more information on the best screws to purchase for your patio furniture project, see this post: Which Screw Is Best For Woodworking?.  As for wood glue, get a good exterior wood glue, but get the smallest bottle you can find.  A little goes a long way.  You could build a dozen projects and not even use half a bottle.

Protecting your outdoor furniture

If you took the time and effort to build your own patio furniture, you’ll want to make sure it will last.  Wood such as cedar and teak and redwood will stand up to wind and rain and sun without doing anything to protect it.  However, the wood will show age if you don’t use a finish to preserve it’s color.  

There are many ways to finish your DIY projects, from oils to stains to paint.  What you choose will depend on your taste.  For more information on wood finishes take a look at this post: Is Your Outdoor Furniture In Need Of Refinishing?

Where to find plans for your DIY project

You can find plenty of free and for purchase plans and videos online for a variety of woodworking projects. There are also plenty of plans in books or e-books from your library or Amazon kindle. And you can also find woodworking magazines with build plans.  Or right here in our online store.

Some plans are written for beginners and are easier to follow than others.  And some are clearly for expert-level craftsmen. The language in most of them still confuses the heck out of me! 

Most plans will usually indicate a suggested skill level for the project.  If you’re a first timer, look for ones that say they are for beginners.  YouTube videos are great for beginners to visually follow along.

You also want to think about the time and cost investment.  The plans may indicate how long the project should take, a day or a weekend or longer. Additionally, there is the cost of lumber and materials to consider.  You should be able to price out your lumber online to estimate how much the project will run you.

One last element to think about before you build.  If you’re building a chair or bench that requires cushions, go buy the cushions first.  That way you know the exact size the seat should be.  Likewise, if you’re building a planter or plant stand and plan to insert a plastic planter into it, then go purchase those first.  

Conclusion

If a complete newbie like me can create beautiful, unique pieces of furniture, anyone can do it. Not a lot of tools are required to make a basic, modern patio chair or table that will last for years and years. Search online or at your local library to find plans and videos to help guide you through a project.  And even if your project takes a left turn or doesn’t turn out exactly how you planned, chances are you learned enough in the process to fix it!  If not, sell it on Facebook and create a new and improved version next time!  

What is your first DIY project?  Leave a comment and let us see your handy work!

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