As we're getting our house together, Asa and I have come to an interesting point where we have to decide on how to furnish this place. Though it's not the biggest apartment in the world, we still have a kitchen, a living room, a bathroom, and two bedrooms to furnish.

And as we like to look at things, with every problem or challenge is an opportunity.

Buy or Build?

It would've been pretty easy to go to Ikea or a furniture store and buying something... sure we'd save ourselves a lot of time, but there's a cost associated with simply buying everything that's not just money. To speak to just the money side of things, most places we looked, even at discount places, would've cost us thousands of dollars.

On top of that, we wouldn't really be learning anything new. As we're aspiring to buy a sailboat, refit it to our own tastes, and sail around the world, we reasoned that it would be much more beneficial for us to try to build our furniture.

We figured that we'll not only learn a lot about how to join pieces of wood together into a functional and sturdy thing we'll be using every day... but in the process, we'll also gather up lots of tools that we can continue to use along our journey to circumnavigation.

Designing the Couch

With that in mind, we decided that a nice sectional couch in our living room would make the best use of the space and help make the room comfortable and functional.

Step 1 - Sketch out the room

We'll first need to know what we're working with before we can make any other decisions...

With a tape measure and some quick math, I got down all the basic but important measurements. This included the basic dimensions of the room, the location of the windows and doorways, our heights relative to doors, doorknobs, etc.

The front door goes straight into our living room, with entry/walkways that cut up the room in such a way that there's only one corner. Within that space, we have about 12.5' in the long dimension and about 8.5' in the short dimension. Any more and it would make walking through the apartment kind of a pain.

We have an Expedit Bookshelf that we've kept with us that's found itself along one wall between a hallway and the kitchen. That takes up room and we want to make sure that we have enough space for us to be able to walk freely from the hallway - through the living space - and then to the kitchen without have to turn ourselves sideways.

Add to that a want to have a coffee table and as much open space as possible... and it turns out that the layout of our living room was such that most sectionals wouldn't fit, didn't quite fit, or were simply too big.

Step 2 - Some Initial Guesses

We have to start somewhere with getting an idea of what we can reasonably build and what would make for a comfy living room. So, as the sketch above indicates, we've decided to place the sectional in the corner and along the walls so that we'd have as much free open space as possible.

But as soon as we decided to make a sectional couch, a lot of questions came up. Questions like:

  • How high should the seat be?
  • How deep should the seats be?
  • How much space will we need between the corner of the couch and the bookshelf?

For that, I turned to the internet. I figured that since people have been making furniture for eons, some of these basic dimensions would probably have been figured out. And I was right.

For seat heights, I found this website:

Sofa Back

"The height of a sofa back ranges from 30 inches to 36 inches. These are common measurements for other types of seating as well, which keeps furniture profiles around a room in balance. Sofas with a low profile have a sleeker appearance. They fit well in modern spaces, and create the illusion of spaciousness in small rooms. If you have tall ceilings, the room can handle high-backed sofas, which create a focal point while visually filling the space."

Seat heights

"The most common measurement is 17 to 18 inches from floor to cushion top, but you can find heights as low as 15 inches and up to 20 inches."

Cool, easy enough. To verify, I looked around some more and found that a lot of other guides more or less agree. So, my initial guess was to go on the high side of 18". Through more research ( and refinements, we eventually moved that down to 15".

This is because we had decided against another idea of putting our bins under the seats. It ended being more of a "gee that's neat" idea that we didn't really need and couldn't justify the added complexity. Besides, ditching that idea meant that the area under the seats would be freed up as a fun cat tunnel for Ryo-Ohki.

We also eventually decided on a seat depth of 24" ( This would allow Asa to be in a pretty comfy seated position with both her feat on the ground when seated while allowing her to slouch down a bit too. Me, being a bit taller than Asa, would similarly be able to relax with my legs outstretched.

With those initial guesses in mind:

  • Seat Height: 15" to 18"
  • Seat Depth: 24"
  • Seat Back: 29" to 32"

I started searching the interwebs for any examples of where someone has already done it and published the plans for it!

I'm guessing that I'm not the first person to try to make something like this and I'd rather succeed on recreating someone else's plans than failing while reinventing the wheel.

A few hours of searching and lo and behold, I come across this fabulously wonderful person for having done all the hard work for me:

Take the bottom section off and it's basically everything that we were wanting and needing. It's designed for the corner and it comes in separate seat sections:

Perfect! I pull up her plans...

And quickly realize that it won't quite fit exactly as we need it. But that's no problem. The good part about doing it yourself means that we can adjust it to our liking.

But, it's essentially about 99% there. The seat depth comes out to be 24", the seat back is 29", and the seat height is 15" as well. Check, check, and check.

The only things that's not good for us is that the seat back is open (we'd like something to lean up against), and the width of each chair. From our room sketch, we'd need 6 chairs to make up our sectional... each of them a little bit wider at 25.75".

The Finished Plans

Leveraging my experience as a mechanical engineer, I fire up SolidWorks and make this quick design to make sure that I have a good parts list with accurate lengths:

Plans in hand, I now have to figure out what lengths of lumber I'll need to waste as little wood as possible. Found this handy tool on the web:

Enter the lengths you need and the lengths available and it'll spit out a cutlist for you. This one's for the 1x4's needed... you can play around with the tool to get the rest as everyone's situation will be different.

As Asa and I only have our bikes, I selected available lengths which we could strap onto our bikes:

Yes, we did get a lot of looks and one honk... but hey, we got the wood home. This will be for the first build.

An Excuse to Buy Tools!

Yes, we'll need some tools. But since I've never really made much furniture in my life and have no idea what I'll need to accomplish this, some research is in order.

Luckily, there's both a Lowe's and a Home Depot within walking distance to us. Not too hard to miss, they're right across the street from each other. The better question is - which one should I spend my money at?

Well obviously the one with the nicest people. I hop on over to yelp, look both of them up, and quickly find that the people at Lowe's get much better ratings for helpfulness and otherwise niceness. That's about all I need... so I go over there (plans in hand) to scope out the place.

Because I didn't want to invest in power tools before we knew what we'd need, I opted to buy a saw, a miter box, and a battery powered drill.

I ended up deciding on a Porter Cable drill as they also have an entire line of circular saws, etc which use the same battery packs. The associate at Lowe's helping me make a selection also gave it his seal of approval.


I won't bore you with the details, but here it is framed up with 2x4's:

Nice and level! (but notice I got the orientation of the two back pieces wrong...)

And after having both Asa and I verify the width, seat height, and depth for comfort... I completed the build:

I made a couple of quick changes from this learning exercise.

Consistent Gaps

To keep the gaps consistent, I found out that using the width of each 1x4 as a guide made it much easier than depending on getting each cut absolutely right. Within the design, I allowed for 1/8" of error. This made it so that each piece would possibly be 1/4" off.

Because of this, I had to make the seat slats narrower by a little bit so that I could wedge two pieces of 1x4 on each side to keep the seat slats centered.

Use a Miter Box and Get a Circular Saw!

Even though the miter box that I bought was a cheapy plastic one, it made the task orders of magnitude easier than trying to freehand this thing:

And from that, I also learned that sawing 2x4's with a saw by hand is extremely labor intensive. So for the next builds, I'll be looking into getting Porter Cable's Circular Saw to do the dirty work.

Screws Can Bump Into Each Other

One other great piece of learning on this first build is where to place all the screws while also keeping a consistent offset and pattern for aesthetics but wouldn't risk splitting in the 1x4's.

I also found that there were instances where screws could bump into each other. I'll leave my notes on that for another post about a hole pattern revision we made to account for it.

Fastener Selections

I used 2.5" #8 PH2 Philips Head Deck Screws for the places where the screws wouldn't be as visible.

I chose Deck Screws as again, I like to over-engineer when possible without introducing too much more cost. The main difference between deck and wood screws is that deck screws are coated to resist rusting.

The length was chosen because I wanted to be able to fasten two 2x4's together and have enough bite on the far end to get a good grip but not so far that it would poke out the other end.

I wanted to also make sure that there was enough thread engagement such that the screws were secure and wouldn't back out.

I chose #8 screws as I wanted it to be meaty enough to withstand lots of use. #10's would require predrilling every hole to avoid splitting and I didn't feel #6's were strong enough because I like to err on the side of over-engineering.

A 2x4 is 1.75" thick, so that means if I wanted to get just under halfway into the 2nd 2x4, the screw would need to be about 2.5" long.

The shoulder here is nice because it means that the screw would do more to pull the back piece of lumber tight onto the top piece.

2.5" #8 PH2 Philips Head Deck Screw

For the screws that would be seen, I opted for 1.625" #8 T20 Torx Head 305 Stainless Steel Screws. 1x4's are .75" thick, and I needed to attach them to 2x4's. That means that in order to get through the entire width of the 1x4 and then about halfway through the 2x4, the screws would need be 1.625" long.

The flute at the tip is nice for self-starting, but in my case I ended up pre-dilling to prevent splitting.

1.625" #8 T20 Head 305 Stainless Steel Screws

These were much more expensive but after building this first chair, I'm glad I used them as the Torx head meant no stripping. As anyone who's stripped a philips head to the point of having an impossible to remove screw knows - this is a major problem with philips head screws.

The stripping is a side effect of design as philips heads are meant to cam out when over-torqued. It was a way to get around needing torque limited drivers which were very expensive in the past. Nowadays, even cheap power drills have a torque selector on them.

Another thing I learned is that to prevent splitting in the 1x4's and to ensure that the heads sat flush, I had to:

  1. Predrill each hole with a 1/8" drill
  2. Countersink each hole on the 1x4's, and
  3. Ensure that the drill's torque settings were correct... as Torx heads don't cam out automatically.

I'm glad that I got a power drill for the screws... doing that by hand would've meant giving up sooner or a lot of stripped screws or both.

So in any case... one down, 5 to go before sanding, finishing, and making the cushions. :D