DIY Ergonomic Cedar Rocking Chairs

June 2, 2024
Ergonomic Cedar Rocking Chairs

My parents just bought a 1915 Craftsman home, and I’m fixing it up before they move in later this year—starting with the back porch! And no Southern back porch is complete without a pair of rocking chairs. But not just any pair… I want these to be super comfy with built-in back support and made of durable cedar so that they’ll last a lifetime.

YouTube video

Project supply list

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Step 1: Purchase plans and materials

I purchased my ergonomic rocking chair plans from April Wilkerson’s company Wilker Do’s. You’ll get a downloadable PDF with instructions, and her company will send you thin plastic template cutouts that you can use to trace your rocking chair parts.

If you order the same plans, I highly recommend that you also watch April’s video on how to build the chairs. She doesn’t show every single step of the build, but some of the written directions in the plans can be a little confusing without watching the video as well. For example, I messed up and rounded over the edges on all of the rocking chair pieces, even though I only needed to do that on the slats. It didn’t ruin the chairs, but it did waste a ton of time.

It looks like Wilker Do’s also sells plans for tall rocking chairs, but I just made the normal height chairs. Note that if you purchase the templates for the tall chairs, the plans won’t match exactly to your project, which can be a little confusing.

Step 2: Plane your cedar (optional)

In my hardware store, I was only able to find cedar with one rough side and one smooth side, but I wanted all of the sides to be smooth. I ended up using this as an excuse to buy a thickness planer, which is now one of my favorite new tools. If you hate sanding like I do, this saves you a ton of time!

NOTE: If you end up planing both sides of your cedar, it will remove at least 1/8″ of thickness. With 1x material like April lists in her plans, that will only leave you with about 5/8″ thick material. It still creates a pretty sturdy chair, but in retrospect, I definitely would have preferred to use 5/4″ thick cedar deck boards. Even after planing them, I’d still end up with thick, sturdy material to build with. Note that if you do that, you’ll need to purchase longer fasteners as well like 2″ deck screws. Your chair will also end up looking chunkier, but I wouldn’t mind it.

Step 3: Trace and cut out templates

The plans will tell you how to trace the templates most efficiently so that you waste as little material as possible, so I recommend sticking to those layouts. When you’re tracing your templates, try to avoid tracing the edges where you’ll cut over knots in the wood. Sometimes when you cut through a knot, a piece of the knot will fly out, leaving you with a chunk missing out of your piece.

NOTE: I received two of the seat piece template and none of the back piece template, which admittedly look similar but are still very different shapes. I’m sure that if I reached out to the company and let them know, they would have followed up with the correct template, but I was on a tight timeline to finish these chairs and didn’t want to wait any longer. Fortunately, I’d built my porch swing with similar plans and was able to recreate the back template from that design.

Once you’ve traced all of your pieces, it’s time to start cutting. You could use a jig saw for all of these cuts, but if you have multiple saws, it’s easiest to use the saw that’s best for each cut.

For long straight cuts, I used my table saw. There are a ton of these cuts for the slats on the chairs, so the table saw really sped things along.

For short straight cuts, I used my miter saw. You could use a table saw if you have a cross-cut sled for safety, but a miter saw works just fine, too. I used a sacrificial piece of plywood under the boards when cutting to prevent splintering on the underside of the cedar.

For curvy cuts, I used my jig saw with a scroll cut blade. For more control and less splintering, set your orbital action settings to 0.

Step 4: Round the edges of your slats

Oops! This is where my brain fully departed from the build plans. In my head, I like to get all of the power tool parts of a woodworking project done before I start constructing. But in the build plans, April instructs you to assemble the chair parts before rounding the slats. This was totally a me problem, but I wanted to share in case that messes with your brain, too. You don’t need to round all of the cutouts—just two edges of each slat!

To round my slats, I used a fixed-based router on my router table with a 3/8″ roundover bit. The plans suggest a 1/2″ roundover bit, but that wouldn’t fit in the collar of my router, and 3/8″ turned out just fine.

Step 5: Sand and stain your pieces first (optional)

I guess I’m one of those people who starts following a recipe and then completely deviates from it, because I did that again here. Rather than starting construction, I did a final sand of 180 grit on my pieces and used two coats of a stain/sealant combo. I’ve found in the past that for me, it’s much easier to get nice even coverage on a piece by staining the parts separately before assembling.

NOTE: If you use an oil-based stain or sealant like I did, be sure to give your pieces several days to dry before assembling because the wood glue construction outlined in the plans won’t be able to create a strong bond otherwise. That messed me up, but fortunately it was easily salvageable by using screws as the fasteners instead.

Step 6: Assemble your chair

Again, I deviated from the plans here—big surprise! In addition to swapping out some of the wood-glue-and-brad-nail joints for screws, I also added carriage bolts where the legs met the seats and where the back met the seat. In April’s plans, she used wood glue and screws for these joints and also wood glue and dowels at some point, but I just felt safer giving these to my parents with the sturdy carriage bolts.

NOTE: If you’re using these rocking chairs outside, be sure to use waterproof wood glue, stainless steel carriage bolts, and coated exterior wood screws.

The other change I made is that I noticed that once the chair legs were attached to the seat, they wanted to curve in at the bottom toward each other. I fixed this by cutting a stretcher piece of cedar that I wedged between the legs and secured with wood glue and screws.

Step 7: Test it out and enjoy!

Despite its hiccups, this project was a nice palate cleanser after all of the “fix-it” work I’ve been doing lately. It’s so rewarding to build something from scratch! And I learn a little more about woodworking every time I take on a project like this. Next up, I’m tempted to build a full cedar patio set out here!

What wood is best for a rocking chair?

If you’re using your chair indoors, you can choose from a wide variety of wood species. Hardwoods like oak, maple, and walnut will be stronger than soft woods like pine, but if you use thicker pine boards, they can still create a sturdy chair. If you’re using your chair outdoors, you’ll want to use a wood that can withstand the elements like cedar, cypress, teak, or pressure-treated pine (as a last resort).

Note that pressure-treated pine is often treated with copper and will have a blue-green hue that can be very difficult to stain over without the blue-green peeking through. You’ll notice that straight from the store, pressure-treated pine is also much heavier than untreated pine. That’s because it retains a lot of moisture from the pressure-treating process, and it can take weeks or months to fully dry out. Until then, it will be hard to paint or use a solid stain on the wood because the finish will crack once the wood dries and shrinks.

How do you weatherproof a wooden rocking chair?

If you build your rocking chair with a weather-resistant wood like cedar, cypress, or teak, you’re already at an advantage. You can then apply waterproofing sealants to the wood that will make it fully waterproof. Note that it’s most effective to apply these sealants to the individual parts before you construct the chair because unsealed joints can become weak spots over time if water seeps in, even if you consistently reseal and maintain the rest of the chair.

How hard is it to make a rocking chair?

Not hard, especially if you purchase templates that show you the exact angles and measurements to use. If you’re building rocking chairs from scratch without plans, the trickiest bits to figure out will be the length and curve of the legs and the angle between the back and seat. If possible, I’d suggest finding a rocking chair that you already love and try to recreate it, using its exact measurements, angles, and curves.

What are the disadvantages of rocking chairs?

Often, rocking chairs don’t come with ottomans like gliders do. This can easily be fixed by finding a stool or ottoman, but they won’t rock with the chair like the glider ottoman would with the glider. Rocking chairs also have a slight angle backward between the back and seat pieces that creates a recline. Depending on the person, this recline may be too mild or too extreme. Comfort with a rocking chair can be very subjective, which is why it’s always nice to build your own to the specifications you prefer. For example, I added more lower back support to my chairs because that’s something I need to be fully comfortable.

How do you make rocking chairs more comfortable?

You can always add cushions or lumbar pillows to your chair if it’s not providing enough support. I also suggest building ergonomic rocking chairs that curve with the body to provide proper back and leg support. An ergonomic chair will get you 90% of the way there, but of course everyone’s body is a little bit different. From there, you can solve the remaining 10% of the equation with a lumbar pillow or foot rest until you’re completely comfortable.

Want to learn more about woodworking but don’t know where to start? Check out my course DIY Renovation for Beginners, where I have an entire module dedicated to woodworking basics.

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