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Road Sign Chair
Tools and Materials
Last fall, while working as a teacher in a job training program called YouthBuild, I had the opportunity to work with some students to build a fence for a daycare center adjoining our campus. With a limited budget, a mandate to reuse materials, and an in at the local county engineer's office, I decided to make the pickets out of old cut-up road signs. The reflective coating on the signs makes them hard to recycle conventionally, so there was a big pile we could pull from. You can check out more about that project here.
So, this spring, I had a stack of surplus signs, and decided to make some laid-back lounge chairs by applying bent sign shells to wooden bases. In an attempt to rep my adopted town in rural Alabama, I made the legs out of salvaged pecan wood. Pecan is a species of hickory, which is a dense, hard, tight-grained wood perfect for furniture building. I put cushions on some, to dress 'em up for the living room, and left others plain and waterproof for the back deck. You can make them either way, depending on your patience and budget.
Signs can be a tough find, but they're not as hard to come by as folks may think. Check your local junk and salvage yards, antique shops, flea markets, and pick-a-part auto emporiums. You might also check in on your local highway engineers, who might be willing or able to part with a couple of signs. Whatever you do, don't go out and steal any -- they keep us all safe out there on the roads. If you can't find hickory, oak, or some other hardwood, pine will do -- just bulk up the dimensions of the pieces a little bit for extra strength.
Counting design time, this project took quite awhile. With instructions and a little ambition, I think you could crank a chair out in two successive weekends. Grab your tools, snag a sign, and you'll be relaxing in road trip style just as the season heats up . . . .
How to Make
Wash and Measure Signs: Start by giving your sign(s) a good scrub with a stiff brush, dish soap, and a hose. Once it dries, measure out the holes and cuts on it with a pencil according to the plan (attached as a PDF to this article.) Basically, the chair shell is two 16" squares. The holes, drilled in the sign to weaken it for bending, are 3/8" dia., 1" on center. Pay attention to which side of the chair you want the graphic to be on -- the seat side if left uncushioned, or on the backside if you're going to upholster it.
Cut and Drill: Cut the outline of the chair out of the sign with a circular saw. You can buy specialty aluminum blades for siding at your average big-box home-improvement store; I used a 40 tooth carbide-tooth blade instead. It bites right through the aluminum and leaves a nice edge. Set the blade depth to 1/8", lay the sign on a piece of plywood, and run your cuts. Wear eye and ear protection, as this step is very loud and spits little aluminum shavings everywhere. Drill out all the holes. There are 117 on them on each chair shell. Make sure to give your drill a break from time to time so it doesn't overheat. Aluminum is a soft metal that is pretty easy to drill through, but it still puts a lot of strain on a battery-powered drill; use a corded one if available.
De-Burr: The backside of the holes you drill in the side will be quite sharp. Sand the backside of the signs with a power sander and 60 or 80 grit sandpaper to remove burrs. If the backside of your chair is the graphic side, wait until you bend it, then de-burr with the rounded side of a metal file. Use some 60 grit sandpaper to knock down all the cut edges around the perimeter of the sign as well. The edges will be razor-sharp after cutting, but the sandpaper takes the edge right off. Use a file or folded-up sandpaper to round off the corners.
Bend the Sign: Lay the lines of holes over a hard edge, like a step or fence post, and hammer with a mallet until they bend. Put a towel or rag down first to prevent marring the surface of the sign.
Bend the Sign 2: Stand on the sign, toes by the center crease, and grab the edge of the sign, pulling the sign towards you. It should bend (somewhat) easily along the seat/back crease, with the triangular side tabs overlapping. The smaller holes there should align, allowing you to feed some #10 machine bolts through to pin the sign in place. Congratulations! You are now done the shell, and can move on to the base. I laid down a coat of spray metal lacquer on the sign to keep it nice and shiny, but you really don't have to. You can check out a movie of the bending here: http://www.youtube.com/user/who1man1?feature=mhee#p/a/u/0/l-vN9OZ4wBw.
Legs!: Rip your hardwood down to approximately 1-1/4" square; you can go bigger, but my plans are scaled to 1-1/4" widths. Cut it into roughly 18" lengths.
Templating : Make a cardboard template for each leg piece, according to the PDF plan attached to the article. Trace onto your legs; use a miter saw to cut the angles on the ends, and a jigsaw to take out the notches. A chisel will help you clean up inside the notches. Drill three evenly-spaced holes in the topside of the top pieces for the bolts that attach the frame to the seat shell. Counter-bore on the underside of those three holes to hide the nuts and washers.
Leg Assembly: Fit the frame together with glue; pre-drill with a 1/8" bit into each joint and secure with a 3" deck screw, counter-sinking heavily. Using an impact driver is not strictly necessary, but hugely helpful here, as it draws the pieces together. Wipe up any glue squeeze-out.
Screw Disguising: Use a 1/4" drill to make a hole on top of each screw head. Drop a little chunk of dowel in there with some glue, leaving the dowel proud of the surface of the leg (we'll sand that down later.)
Sanding: This step can be tedious, but good finishing is the crux of any woodworking project. Sand everything down so it's nice and flush and smooth to the touch. Ease the edges (just hit all the edges by hand so they're not razor sharp) and get in all the joints and crooks where pieces come together. Fill in any little gaps with a paste made from sawdust and woodglue, wait for it to dry, and sand again. This will look much better than any wood putty, since it is an exact color match. For hardwood, start with an 80 grit, on a belt sander, to get everything flush; move to 100 on an orbital to take out streaks from the belt sander; then finish with a 120 to get everything smooth.
Base Assembly: Take two 5/8" dowels and glue into two of your frames to link them together. A mallet may be needed to persuade everything into place. Once the glue dries, sand over where the dowels poke through to ensure flushness.
Finishing: Wipe your smooth, sanded frames down with a damp rag. Let dry. Paint with one coat of your favorite finish -- I used spar urethane, a tough finish appropriate for outdoor use. Hickory or pecan would look fantastic with a light hand-rubbed finish, like tung oil. After the first coat dries, sand with 220 grit and peel up and drips or runs with a razor blade. Wipe with a damp cloth and coat again. Once that dries, smooth everything with 000 steel wool, wipe, and give it a hand-rubbed coat of carnauba wax for that final shine and protection.
Attaching the Seat: Use a little polyurethane glue (like Gorilla glue) and three machine bolts to attach the shell to the seat. Hold the nut underneath with a ratchet and screw the bolt down from above with an impact driver or hand screwdriver. The glue isn't strictly necessary, but it is good at joining dissimilar materials -- i.e. porous and non-porous -- and will just firm things up a little bit.
Cushioning: This step is totally optional, and, as a sewing novice, I will offer the briefest of instructions. I simply doubled a piece of cloth over and sewed it into eight equal pockets, each a strip straight across. Each strip was measured at 4", pinned in place, then run through a sewing machine. I stuffed each pocket with a strip of foam 3-1/2" wide by 16" long by 1/2" thick. The foam was just a cheap camping pad from a big-box store, cut up with a box cutter. Once the foam is in, fold the edges over and whipstitch shut by hand. I sewed some strips of Velcro to secure it to the chair. Now you're done! Sit down and take a well-deserved rest.