Build a Sturdy, Stylish Child’s Rocker

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This article is from Issue 86 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Transform plywood into fun furniture with pattern-routing techniques.

Ready for action. The turned spindles in traditional-style rockers inspired the hole-and-slot treatment used to embellish the sides and back of this kid-sized version.

I can’t take credit for the design of this kid-size rocking chair; that belongs to fellow woodworker and writer Spike Carlsen. But not long after Spike provided me with the plans, I learned that my daughter was expecting twins. So the challenge became how to make a pair of matching chairs. Pattern routing is the solution. The investment you make in creating pattern-routing templates has a great payoff: Chair parts that can be created quickly, easily, and precisely. Plywood never looked so good. Once your buddies check out this project, they’ll be lining up to borrow your templates and create chairs of their own. 

Just four pieces of plywood…

A 4 × 4' sheet of 3/4" plywood will yield all four parts. Matching sides contain shallow grooves that match up with tongues on seat edges. Each side also contains two mortises that hold short tenons made in the back panel. All joints are assembled with glue and flathead screws, installed with finishing washers.

Order of work

  • Make the templates.
  • Use the templates to make the chair parts.
  • Sand and finish the plywood.
  • Add runners and armrests.
  • Assemble the chair.

Keys to Success

  • When boring through-holes or routing slots, always use a backer board to minimize tearout. 
  • Take extra care to sand or file all template surfaces smooth and even, since these surfaces will guide your router bit.
  • Fill voids in template edges and chair parts with wood putty, then sand these surfaces flush.
  • Lay out the side’s shape, and the slots for the back mortises, seat groove, and spindle details.
  • Use a trammel-mounted router and a 1⁄4" upcut bit to rout the bottom curve in the template.
  • Cut out the rest of the template with a jigsaw, beginning by drilling 3⁄4"-dia. holes at the ends of each slot.
  • Rip a single sheet of 1⁄2" plywood to a finished width of 143⁄4". 
  • Lay out the seat and back shapes on the plywood, including the slots in the back. 
  • Rout the big curves in the seat and back, using a trammel-mounted router and a 1⁄4" spiral upcut bit. 
  • Bore the ends of the slots in the back with a 3⁄4" Forstner bit. Then complete the openings with a jigsaw.

Start with a trio of templates.

Strange but true: It takes longer to make the templates for this project than the actual parts. I used 1/2" hardwood plywood to make my templates, painting them when they were complete for improved durability. 

You’ll notice that the side and back templates have rectangular, 3/4"-wide cutouts, or slots. Take time to make these carefully, since you’ll use the slots to position a Forstner bit, and also guide a 3/4" OD guide bushing to rout slots, mortises, and grooves.

Trammel technique. Rout the big curves in all three templates using a trammel-mounted router and a 1⁄4" upcut bit. The router’s plastic baseplate can serve as a template for drilling mounting holes in your trammel board. Complete each curve by making successive passes, cutting no more than 1⁄4" deep each time. 

Give openings a boring beginning. After laying out the rectangular slots in the side template, use a 3⁄4" Forstner bit to create holes at the ends of each slot. Also bore a hole at each corner of the leg cutout.

Saw, then smooth. Complete template openings with a jigsaw. After all interior cutouts have been made, cut the template free from the workpiece, then smooth all edges with rasps and sandpaper. Make sure that a 3⁄4" OD guide bushing can slide smoothly in all rectangular slots.

Perfect parts are the reward for well-made templates.

The hard work is done, and I haven’t even begun to make chair parts yet. But trustworthy templates make this part of the build easy. You’ll need some double-stick tape to temporarily adhere templates to workpieces, several router bits, and a 3/4" OD guide bushing. The chair sides and back require the most pattern-routing work; the seat requires very little. Get set to make a seat side by attaching the side template to an oversize workpiece on top of a large backer board. After completing the chair sides, use the same techniques to make the back and seat. Once the back’s shape is complete, the four tenons will require some trimming in order to fit their mortises. Dry-assemble your parts to make sure they fit together well, and make any necessary adjustments.

Drill, then rout. After drilling 3⁄4"-dia. holes at the ends of spindle openings, use a 1⁄4" upcut bit inside a 3⁄4" OD guide bushing to plunge-rout connecting slots, as shown above. Then replace your 1⁄4" bit with a 3⁄8" upcut bit to plunge-rout two back mortises and a seat groove (right photo). 

Pattern-rout the final shape. After cutting about 1⁄8" outside the template edges with my jigsaw, I use my router and a 5⁄8"-dia. pattern-routing bit to remove the last bit of waste and complete the side. Repeat this process to produce a matching side, making sure your mortises and grooves will face each other when you assemble the chair.

Rout tongues for the back and seat. Complete this joinery work in a single plywood workpiece (3⁄4 × 143⁄4 × 24") you’ll use to make the seat and back. Adjust bit height and fence position so the tongues fit snugly in the mortises and grooves made earlier in the chair sides.

Time for a rockin’ finish!

Once your dry-assembly checks out, it’s time to give all four parts a final sanding. I routed a 1/8"-radius roundover on all exposed edges, but this edge-easing work can also be done with sandpaper. 

It’s best to finish chair parts separately. The bright blue stain I chose for this rocker goes well with the solid cherry runners and armrests. Hold off on attaching the armrests and solid wood runners until the plywood has been stained. The armrests can simply be glued in place. 

The cold-molding technique for installing the runners is easy to accomplish if you use clear, straight-grained hardwood like oak, cherry, or maple, with strips that are sized 3/16" thick and 1" wide. Allow each two-layer runner assembly to run long when you install it, then trim runner ends to extend about 1/4" beyond the plywood after the glue sets. Give your runners and armrests a thorough sanding to ease edges, then give all four parts two coats of wipe-on poly varnish. Final assembly is the easiest part of the job: glued joints, reinforced with screws that are installed with finishing washers.

Two strips to make each runner. Cut each strip to about 27" long. Spread glue along the curved plywood edge, center the strip over the plywood, and secure a strip to one end with a 11⁄4" finish nail. Bend the strip the full length of the curve, nailing every 6"-8". Repeat to install the second strip, then clamp both ends to the seat structure until the glue sets.

Assembly! Tongue-and-groove joints, secured with glue and 11⁄2" FH screws, ensure that this little rocker can endure rambunctious use. I used finishing washers beneath screw heads for appearance and extra holding power. 


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