Building a "Club Couch" from Scratch

      A newcomer to furniture building learns on his first couch, and gets feedback. October 19, 2013

Question (WOODWEB Member)


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I posted a thread a while back about wingback chairs and I learned a lot about what not to do, and what works in a new world for me and my business. Included was my choice of wood as well as my methods of construction. They were all influenced by books and folks opinionís here at WOODWEB, so thank you for all of your help. I ended up using alder as my choice of wood for the chairs and after doing this as my first project in furniture I learned a lot. I made templates of everything and produced pre-made pieces. I altered the back on one and left the wings off, and I rounded the corners slightly as an experiment and it looked great (these are at the request of a designer I build for, he foots the bill while I experiment).

The designer had a pair of club chairs in his living room and being a designer, he has some ideas about what he wants me to build for his furniture line and I am a complete novice (I do cabinets, finish carpentry, but am just getting into the furniture thing). The chair is deep, 30" or so, and he wants a couch 90" wide of the same type. I was at a loss, so I told him I would have to tear the new upholstery off of one of the chairs to see how it was built. I had books, but to be perfect and exact I needed the actual chair frame. He said no problem Ė he has the money. I tore off the fabric and I am horrified at the craftsmanship that passes for fine furniture these days.

The cuts were off by ten degrees or more, and it was all stapled together. There was one gap of over 3/8" that was just left there. It was somewhat stable, but dang, what a shame. I made mine in the same type, but used tight joints, lots of glue, and here's the thing I know many will cringe at - I used screws in the entire project, namely pocket screws. I used 5/4 material, screwed with a Kreg jig and cabinet screws, and used Titebond II - not a single dowel, tenon or biscuit.

Trying to make a decent product in comparison to what I was copying was easy but I went a step farther and made a very high quality product. How many people think the pocket screws and glue will hold for 20 plus years, and how many think it will fail? I am curious. If the original chair lasted this long, I believe I have a quality product.

Opinions are welcome! Am I over building or underbuilding? My experience with glue and screws is very positive so far. (NOTE: The picture is not finished. It still gets complete 5/4 by 3" frame around the bottom, corner blocks, and a 5" board across the front footrest area for support. Itís beefy already, and it will survive a tornado after I am done).


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Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
From contributor K:
What you have built using pocket screws is a piece of furniture with butt joints. Screws (even pocket screws) are just a clamping mechanism to hold a joint until the glue dries. Your joints that are end to edge grain will not hold up over time. Pocket screws and glue hold up well in a static situation such as a cabinet face frame, but are not good for furniture where there is movement and stress placed on every joint. You should consider using mortise and tenon construction. Your club couch will be fine if no one ever sits on it.



From Contributor D:
I know you said you will add corner blocks and it is not done in this picture. In my opinion if you add corner and glue blocks at every intersection of screwed parts the piece will be stout. Even if the screws were removed the glue surfaces from so many places will survive. Is it better than mortise and tenon? Itís probably quicker and maybe more accurate.

From the original questioner

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As for Contributor K's comment, I have to disagree. I have been using pocket screws in all of my shop jigs and rolling cabinets without glue for years. They are more than a clamp, they are a permanent fastener. Saying if no one sits on it is a little extreme. I also stated corner blocks and 2" wood screws at joints. Even now, unfinished, I can lift it by one corner and the flex is so minimal it is less than the chair was, which is only 30" wide. It held up for years under abuse with no glue and only staples. Have you ever looked at the inside of a couch? They are built poorly these days.

There are a few dowels and interlocking pieces, but really, how many people have built an entire couch with mortise and tenon joints unless it is going to be exposed? You would have to charge $3000 just for the frame. Contributor D has it right; even if I removed the screws I would guarantee it for a long time. Glue today is exceptional, and I have glued up joints many times and tried to break them; the wood always fails before the glue. It may seem pocket screws are too small or won't hold, I'll let you know in 20 years! I can't even get a squeak when I twist it and lift it. In fact, with all the couches I have sat on it feels the beefiest even before corner blocks (20 of them).


From Contributor N

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You're dead wrong. Glue will not hold end grain, screws are not substitutes for sound joinery, and those who do top flight work would indeed use mortise and tenon joinery throughout and charge accordingly. Here's a photo of a wing chair frame built by the Headley shop; full mortise and tenon construction with a few screws where appropriate.


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From the original questioner

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Yes, but those are wing chairs. I am using mortise and tenon on all my chair parts when I can. I'm not making a chair here. Show me a picture of a fully upholstered couch frame like mine with mortise and tenon on every joint. I have yet to find a single one. It doesn't make sense if you expect to make a profit. Not to say there are no interlocking pieces, there are indeed. The armrests are 8/4 material, shaped to fit and locked into the back with a mortise. I understand procedure, but old timers have told me so many times my way won't work, and it did.

How did the chair I am reproducing from survive a couple of decades with staples and nothing else? The amount of pieces is why - there are a lot of parts and corner blocks. I would feel free to let any person sit on my couch when finished and be confident in its construction.

It's like this - if a few staples and 1/4" gaps held up on the original, and well, my piece with glue, screws, and blocks will hold up to anything a family can throw at it. I may eat my words in 20 years, but I highly doubt it. Have you taken apart a standard couch and seen the inside? It is junk. Besides fine furniture, like the picture above of the chairs, screws have come a long way.

I have built dozens of different types of things, panels, murals, mantles, and I have a pretty good idea of what works. While I know furniture is completely different, a couch is going to spend a lot of time getting used, if my crappy couch at home can survive years of dogs and kids my new one will do ten times better. I guarantee the springs will go out long before it squeaks! If anyone has ever used this method of screws and pocket screws I would love to hear from your experiences. Modern fasteners have come a long way.


From the original questioner

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I agree that glue holds bad in endgrain. I was more referring to all the joints and blocks as a whole that work in harmony. I would never remove the screws and just trust glue! I don't want people to think that I used no tenons at all. The top rail and bottom rails are all two pieces of 5/4 sistered together, crown in and lapped on the edges. I staggered as many as I could, and I am cutting many of the final pieces into notches. As it sits, I can throw it around the room without any flex and it really feels solid. If I left it similar to the picture, I am sure it would hold awhile but fail eventually.

From the original questioner

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Is that wingback in the picture made of pine? It sure looks like it. I received some grief for using pine. Maybe it's an east coast thing?


From contributor K:
Place one corner of your couch against a wall and then give the opposite corner a good push with your knee and hear the glue joints pop. Sorry I can't agree with your joinery choices for furniture, upholstered or not.

From the original questioner

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I'll go a step further. Not only did I push it against a wall, I had my friend and I each stand on one of the armrests and shake back and forth and jump up and down. He's around 220 and there wasnít a single pop to be heard. Apparently you are underestimating the strength of screws and glue, with proper blocking and locking joints. All the borders on top and bottom are rabbeted into the frame, and there is no give at all when I hold one corner, less than 1/2" deflection total. So whether you agree with me or not, I have enough faith in my skills to insure that it will endure for decades to come. I know it may not be the way many people learned to do it, but that never stopped me before.

Unless you have built a couch this way before and had a callback, there is really no way to prove it one way or another. Like I said before; if staples work then screws can only be an improvement. If it was a $25,000 couch I would tenon everything but that's just not the case. Even if I did I doubt it would make that much of a difference. I finished it now and it's one beefy beast. Heavy and ready for upholstery!



From contributor W:
Why not dowel? Isn't that the best of both worlds here? It's quick, accurate, strong, and might eliminate the need for the corner blocks. (This would assume you have a CNC and horizontal boring machine, which I don't know if you do). Thanks for posting your work. It looks like a fun project, and hopefully profitable. I can rarely make money on the one-off furniture pieces I build. The critiques of your construction method posted here sound valid, but unnecessarily harsh, and I tend to agree with your conclusion. Why use mortise and tenon when you've seen that a stapled and glued couch survived as long as it has.

From the original questioner

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Thank you Contributor W. I can't ever get anyone to compare the work to what I am duplicating, as opposed to what they do, or how someone else would make it. Dowels are absolutely being used, though I didn't mention it, because every time I say dowel I get a bunch of grumpy old guys telling me tenons are better, which I agree with wholeheartedly. However, sometimes tenons are impractical. This couch is a prototype and I am sure on my next model (now that I have the dimensions and drawings I made) I can use tenons where necessary and change up any small problems that arise. That being said, I bet this couch is more durable than the ones in most of our living rooms even as is.

I use dowels anywhere I can as long as I am not compromising the integrity of the piece. I also like to use #12 2" screws in areas that are too fragile or awkward to dowel or tenon. While many of the above points from folks are totally valid, I still see no reason why not to use screws and dowels where able. I guess when we get used to doing something a certain way we often fail to be objective toward other possible methods. Many times for good reason, many times just because it is out of our comfort zone. "Why take the risk" becomes a phrase we use on big projects, and seldom do we have the chance to take a different approach and see what happens. It is too costly to make a mistake.

I am in a good place for that. I will take everything I have learned here on the forum and in books and combine them to make a method that is solid and durable. I recently made my first chair from scratch, with no plans, and no idea what it may look like in the end. My only thing was it had to have no fasteners other than wood - I used mostly dowels, with the base mortised with floating tenons. So I do know how to do these things I just like to experiment with other joinery methods. The picture below is a photo of the armrest joined to the back - pretty darn solid!


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From contributor H:
To the original questioner: Drill out for dowels on any joints you have and it will be fine. The major thing about sofa and chair frames is getting the back pitch. Seat depth, arm height, and seat height should be right for comfort. I have an outside framemaker for when we get busy and he charges $300 for a sofa frame with rolled arms and uses solid 5/4 and 4/4 alder which is included. I wouldn't spend a lot of time figuring out how to build frames like this. He charges $200 for a chair frame. We make our money on springing and upholstering.


From contributor M:
I build mostly cabinetry so I'm not adverse to using pocket screws when they are hidden. I have also restored my fair share of old furniture. Finishes fail, screws fail, dowels fail, and old glue fails all from normal use. The naysayers know this; I suspect that you do too. You seem to be driven to doing a better job than the piece that you've disassembled; why? Your designer is willing to emulate the past; perhaps you be should too. As has been stated before, production work of this sort is cheap, and the middle of the road just means getting hit from both sides.

I can, however, offer some small bits of info to help in your project. Screw failure is generally caused by either carelessness in installation or corrosion. Impact drivers and proper selection help with the first, and for the latter stainless steel fasteners last forever. The other thing to keep in mind when factoring into your engineering all of the improvements in materials that have occurred over the years is that the dominant material that you're working in has effectively degraded in as much time.

On another note, it may be helpful in the future, perhaps even with your existing client to be a bit more realistic about the longevity of the pieces. Or, stated another way; the useful life of anything is an important design criteria. I imagine that you want to continue your education in this field, so be careful about overselling your current endeavors. In the company of the above posts, this may sound like I'm giving you a hard time, but really, I'm not. I think that you've done a good job making a middle of the road frame.


From the original questioner

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To contributor M: Yes, you are right I do want to make the best product possible. The problem is I have to work on his budget, which is in the middle. I am getting $1,000 per chair for the wingbacks. I am using all mortise and tenon joinery and I have to finish the exposed mahogany legs so it takes a while. I know I am getting good money still. You are right the money is in the upholstery. Unfortunately, I feel like the odd man out now. I usually get praise for my work, and with the couch I get a little defensive because I know many comments are right, and I really am winging it for my first one.

It is going to be more of a show piece than for sale. The designer wants me to make a few chairs, and a sofa and couch, plus a couple of end tables and coffee table. Then he will take pictures, and start his furniture line. If it takes off, it will be great. I have to be cost effective until he actually sells something. Right now he is investing his own money, so I am in a tight spot.

I do use stainless fasteners, and try to get the cleanest 5/4 and 8/4 hemlock for my body. It is important to make a quality product, as I am a nitpicker about detail. Now finished, there are dowels, laps and screws throughout. I think it will be a good first run. I guess I have to be firm, at $300 a frame I would get eaten alive. I don't even know how to charge.

So if I am getting $1100 for each chair including material, how would I charge for a couch? I mean, it takes about the same time, and I know the money is in the upholstery. Would $1500 be too much for me to charge? I know that is really a dumb question. It depends on where you live, who you sell to, what your expenses are.

I run a tight ship. I have very little overhead, no expensive machinery, just the basics. I can't invest too much in furniture making machinery, because by trade I am a finish carpenter and if the furniture business fails, I don't want to be stuck with a huge investment in tools. Because of that, I spend a lot of time tooling up for different furniture, new templates, then next month a full kitchen of cabinets, you get the picture. I don't have a "dedicated" space for this, and I work alone. So if he is willing to give me $1500 a couch frame, it would allow me to make a much better product without feeling rushed or cheated.

I am sure he will price them at $4500 or more, so I can't feel too guilty. I like to be fair and I have no idea what the client expects as far as longevity, but if he is anything like me, hopefully a long time. I have brushed nickel plaques I place on every cabinet and furniture piece I make. I don't want someone calling me in 20 years to tell me what a crappy product I made!



From contributor H:
If my guys build a frame and they are very good, I figure $720 is my price for just the frame at $60 per hour x 12 hours. To spring it and upholster it takes another 36 hours at $60 then the designer provides the fabric. After they mark the piece up it can cost the client $5300 with an average to high end fabric. The money is not in the frame work and we build them to last for generations.

From the original questioner

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To contributor H: Thanks for that pointer - everything helps. Twelve hours sounds about right to me. I charge $75 an hour, so that would work out to about $1000 a piece. I add for overhead, profit, and price accordingly. I know I can do it for a lower price, but I won't. The guy wants a great product and I have to accommodate. If I begin mass producing them I will get the price down. Until then, I will keep my prices up there unless he has a problem getting his asking price. Finished product, without feet!


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From the original questioner

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Hereís an update: I delivered the sofa last week with the best hopes the upholsterer would be happy, and she was pleased. She said she does a lot of chairs and couches, and that it was one of the best built pieces she had ever upholstered. In the end, there was less than 1/2" of deflection when I lifted one corner. Not bad for a huge sofa!

From the original questioner

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Here is the final pic before it gets upholstered!


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From contributor H:
Ask her how she is springing the seat. It looks like the frame is made for zig-zags. If she uses those for the seat it is not going to be a quality piece of furniture.

From the original questioner

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Yes, that is what was on the chair that I am duplicating. I had concerns about that as well; but I don't know what else to do. I have no plans, and the designer wanted it made exactly the same. I guess we will find out after she is done. I hope it turns out okay. What would be used instead of springs? What options are there for me instead? I don't know enough about upholstery.


From contributor H:
We use hand tied coil springs on all of our sofas and most chairs unless they are thin rail. We need at least 5-6" on the front rail for coil springs. If it is a high leg sofa we will use zig-zags. If itís a low seat European contemporary we will use elastic webbing for the seat. She may have enough room for coil springs on that frame.

From the original questioner

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Thanks Contributor H. I am sure the upholsterer will do the best she can. In the future, I will have a better idea of what to do and what not to do. This is still new to me; I am fortunate to have the opportunity, but it is frustrating when I have nothing to go from. He just says "here, duplicate this" and they are all his sketches and ideas, or current furniture he wants to modify. I truly want to make the best product possible without going overboard, if you can go overboard. Anyway, I hope for the best and next time I can add more locking joints since I have handmade plans to go off. At least I am not in the dark.

I just found out that he wants me to make another couch, same size. This time I will M&T the handrail and base. I will use floating tenons until I get a perfect frame size, then I can modify as needed. It is like stepping into a new career; I am used to building cabinets and libraries, shelving, hanging crown, mouldings, and the like. Now I have to re-tool my shop for furniture. I'll get it figured out!



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