Adirondack Chair

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This article is from Issue 89 of Woodcraft Magazine.

By Tim Snyder

The Adirondack chair got its start over a century ago, on the shores of Lake Champlain, in the small town of Westport, NY. Thomas Lee, who designed and built the first of these chairs, came from a wealthy Massachusetts family who owned a summer house at the edge of New York’s Adirondack mountains. Lee graduated from Harvard University but dropped out of law school to spend more time in the Adirondacks, where dramatic natural vistas were abundant but rugged outdoor furniture was scarce. It took Lee three years (1900-1903) to come up with a comfortable design that could be built easily from locally available lumber, using the most rudimentary tools. 

Don’t be deceived by the hard angles and flat surfaces of the original “Westport” Adirondack chair (opposite page). Lee’s design came about through a rigorous trial-and-error process, with comfort and utility as major goals. He experimented with various seating angles, getting feedback from some 20 family members over the course of several summers. His final version seemed to achieve the impossible, providing comfortable, relaxing seating without curves or cushions. The secret to this success is an angled seating position that distributes weight evenly throughout the user’s back and upper legs. It’s much more comfortable than an upright position that concentrates weight on the butt and lower spine.

From its humble beginnings as a piece of slab furniture assembled with nails, the Adirondack chair has evolved into a classic, gaining iconic status not just in this country, but around the world. Lee’s original design was patented in 1904 by Harry Bunnell, a local carpenter and hunting companion of Lee’s who recognized the chair’s potential to keep him busy through long winters. 

The next major milestone in the chair’s history occurred in 1938, when Irving Wolpin of New Jersey patented a “lawn chair” that incorporated the slanted seat and wide armrests of the Westport chair. But Wolpin’s version had curves, achieved by replacing wide boards with narrower slats that were supported by contoured parts. Most modern Adirondack chairs incorporate the curved details that Wolpin added to the design. 

Today it’s nearly impossible to explore any selection of lawn, porch, or beach furniture without encountering Adirondack chairs in numerous forms. Countless woodworkers and designers have incorporated the slanted seat, tall back, broad armrests, and slatted construction elements into a wide range of designs. Yes, there are Adirondack-style benches, love seats, rocking chairs, recliners, and paired chairs that share a built-in table (see photos). The basic form of the chair lends itself well to folding designs that make it much easier to store and move. Despite its crude joinery and bulky form, this all-American chair seems to have as much staying power as fancier classics like Windsors and ladder backs. I think that’s because the best versions retain the exemplary qualities of Lee’s original design—sturdy, comfortable outdoor furniture that helps us relax on the porch, lawn, or beach.

fastFACTS

  • The Adirondack chair was initially called the “Westport chair.” It was briefly known as the “Bunnel chair.” In Canada, it’s known as the “Muskoka chair,” due to its popularity in the Muskoka region. 
  • Some of the most popular Adirondack chairs today are made from recycled plastic lumber.
  • Build your own best version! Woodcraft sells 18 different plans for Adirondack chairs and Adirondack-style furniture; you can also buy full-size templates to make all the parts for a classic Adirondack chair. Visit woodcraft.com for details.

The original “Westport” chair

At the Spruce Point Inn, in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, guests can still enjoy the view while sitting in an original “Westport” chair, shown below. Constructed from wide boards, the original design was patented in 1904. Many such chairs were sold to wealthy owners of vacation camps in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York. 

Wolpin’s patented design

From slabs to slats

In 1938, Irving Wolpin patented a revised chair design that replaced the wide wood slabs of the Westport chair with narrow slats. This modification made it possible for builders to incorporate curves into the seat and back. Slats also improved water-shedding characteristics, facilitated easier repairs, and allowed for even more variations. 

Today, folding chair designs are popular, and the Adirondack chair’s signature details can be found in many different variations. Just a few are shown below.

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