Leopold Chairs

August 31, 2014 Comments Off on Leopold Chairs

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I recently finished a couple of simple outdoor chairs that follow the “Leopold Bench” design made famous by the late conservationist and writer Aldo Leopold. He is credited with this simple design, and although none of his originals are still around, you still see versions of them scattered about parks and nature centers all across the United States, not to mention countless back yards. As a piece of furniture, they are quintessential utilitarian, and are simply meant to be strong and stable and easily built by anyone. Like anything, you can jazz them up with beautiful woods and add a few bells and whistles, but these were never intended to be heirloom items (mine were built with CVG Douglas-fir). Build it, stick it outside under a tree or on a deck and when it succumbs to Mother Nature, build another one.

Though most commonly seen as two-seater benches, many people have also narrowed them to be chairs as I’ve done here. I didn’t stray too far from the simple design. I did hollow the seat a little for comfort. It’s amazing how much longer you can comfortably sit on a chair or bench with a hollow seat as opposed to a flat piece of wood. Without a hollow, a cushion is almost mandatory after about 15 minutes. The back supports are also hollowed a little for comfort. The seat is angled back about 5 degrees, as much to shed rain as anything. No fancy joinery, just carriage bolts and screws keep everything together.

They are finished in milk paint with an outdoor additive. It’s been several years since I’ve used milk paint. User-friendly milk paint is not. Apparently I had forgotten that part. No matter how well you mix it, it’s still a gritty, weird consistency. Of course after I was done I realized I had forgotten to strain it through a paint strainer. Of course my challenges here were all due to my lack of experience with milk paint. Many others (especially chair makers) can do amazing things with this paint. General Finishes does make a “milk” paint that isn’t milk paint at all, but a modern acrylic paint that comes in milk-paintish colors. For those of us who grew up with latex, the General Finishes version is much more familiar. Still, the look of milk paint is unique, and you can only get that look with the real thing. And I suppose that is what keeps people going back. I set the chairs out in the sun for a few weeks to completely dry and then wiped them with a thinned spar varnish. Clear finishes are doomed to failure in any outdoor setting, and I don’t mind if the paint and the varnish gradually wear away.

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After a few coats of Ella Blue

For more on Aldo Leopold’s life and work, visit the Aldo Leopold Foundation website. And scroll down on this page for a short narrative about his benches.

There are two main distributors of milk paint – The Old Fashioned Milk Paint Company and The Real Milk Paint Company. Although they take a few pot shots at each other in their respective websites, I imagine the end result is much the same with either. Peter Galbert, one of those chairmakers that does amazing things with milk paint, describes the differences between the two here. He has lots of other posts about milk paint, and the beautiful finishes he puts on his world-class chairs.


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