Back in 1902, when Thomas Lee first developed his chair design, it is unlikely that he had any idea his effort would become an uberpopular American classic, but the attractive lines and comfortable and practical features of the chair have sustained it as an outdoor favorite for over 100 years.
Here in the 21st century, I found the “Westy” design impossible to improve upon, with the possible exception of the material from which to build it. Mr. Lee made use of wide white pine boards common in upstate New York in his era. But I was curious about the woodworking properties of thermo-treated lumber — which is purported to be exceptionally rot-resistant. Don’t confuse this lumber with chemically treated stock: it remains natural wood.
Repeatability and Accuracy
Have you noticed how outdoor furniture tends to travel in groups? (Flocks, herds, coveys … I am unsure what to call the aggregations.) That’s because we like to sit outside communally with family and friends. For that reason, when I decided to build our version of the Westport chair, I chose to make 1/2″-thick MDF templates for all of the shaped parts. Now I can easily build two, three or even an entire flock of chairs. But even if you choose to build a single Westy, I recommend working from templates. They allow you to fair the curves and refine your radii without ruining expensive stock. While I always advise folks to be precise in their woodworking efforts, don’t fret overmuch regarding the shapes of the curved pieces. The most important thing to achieve is a graceful, pleasing shape to the arms and other shaped parts. I laid out the template shapes by using the old trick of a flexed thin strip of wood to define my curves. For other radii, I used a handheld compass.
As I noted earlier, I built our chair from thermo-treated red oak, but this time-tested design will work well with cedar, cypress or any other type of wood that holds up well in outdoor use. Similarly, use a good quality waterproof glue — I chose Titebond® III — for any butt-joined lamination that you will need, such as for the back and the seat.