DIY Whiskey Barrel Chairs

Reader Contribution by Instructables
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This article was originally posted in Instructables and is reposted with permission from Ken Miner.

Sun and weather take a toll on outdoor furniture. I had four outdoor bar stools covered with plastic resin wicker that had cracked and split. I priced new outdoor bar stools at $75 and up. I figured I could renovate my old stools for about the price of a single new chair. The plastic wicker had to go, but the powder-coated steel frames still looked good. 

I repurposed an old whiskey barrel to provide all the material for the seats, backs and bracing. If you are even a little bit handy, possess basic woodworking skills, and have some ordinary tools, you can knock this out in a weekend. I wound up with great looking and very serviceable outdoor bar stools from a single half-barrel and a handful of screws.

Step 1: Remove Resin Plastic Wicker

I cut away the plastic wicker from the bar stool frames using a utility knife, taking care not to scratch the powder coating.

Step 2: Materials List

• 1 oak half-barrel with hoops                                          
• Bar stool frames (up to 4)                                                     
• Zink-coated Phillips screws (per bar stool)                     
       14 – #10-by-1 1/2 inch oval head
         8 – #10-by-1 1/4 inch pan head    
         9 – #12-by-5/8 inch pan head
• 1 quart Spar exterior polyurethane, oil based
• 1/2 pint wood stain, oil based
• Sandpaper belts (80 grit)
• Sandpaper  sheets (120 and 220 grit)

Optional *
      * 1 pint rust remover (for barrel hoops)
      * 1 quart wood bleach (oxalic acid)

Step 3: Tools and Personal Protective Equipment

• Circular saw                                                            
• Electric or cordless drill                                       
• #2 Phillips bits and holder                                    
• 7/64-inch and 1/8-inch steel drill bits              
• Angle grinder                                                           
• Utility knife                                                             
• Wood chisel                                                               
• Rubber hammer or mallet                                    
• Tape measure                                                          
• Steel brush
• Belt sander
• Palm sander  
• Jig saw     
• Hand saw           
• Hacksaw 
• Sanding block 
• Wood rasp     
• Quick clamps 
• Torpedo level
• Long handled scrub brush

Use the correct PPE (safety equipment) to prevent injury:
• Dust mask                                                          
• Face shield                                                          
• Safety glasses
• Long sleeve chemical resistant gloves
• Hearing protection
• Disposable gloves for staining

Step 4: Disassemble the Barrel and Barrelhead

The first thing I did was to pull out the barrel staves, taking care not to damage the hoops or barrel head. The barrel head was also made of oak sections that had been put together with dowels. Because the barrel was empty and allowed to dry out, it came apart easily. The dowels were pushed into the holes and cut flush. I sorted and stacked the staves by size.

I did a mock-up to determine the count and placement of staves to get an idea of the positioning and proportion. I settled on using three of the larger staves for the back and five smaller ones on the base. I needed a total of 32 staves to do the four chairs and there were only 30 in the barrel. So I ripped the two largest staves in half with a circular saw.

Step 5: Sand Off the Char

A clamping worktable held the uneven staves securely so I could sand off the charring. The belt sander and 80-grit sandpaper made quick work of this part of the DIY chair project. Be sure to use eye and hearing protection as well as a dust mask when doing any sanding. I did all my sanding outside to make cleanup easier. What sawdust the breeze didn’t take away, I blew into the lawn with a leaf blower. Just how much charring you ultimately take off is up to you, but at least remove all the loose bits. I sanded off nearly all of the char.

Step 6: Prep the Hoops

I wanted to use sections of the whiskey barrel hoops to maintain a rustic look and provide additional bracing for the back and seat.  The barrel hoops had powdery red rust covering both sides. I needed to remove or neutralize the loose rust so that the polyurethane would adhere better. I coated the hoops with a rust-removing gel and worked it into the metal using a steel wire brush. Warning! This chemical is acid! Follow the instructions on the container! Use heavy rubber gloves; both eye protection and a face shield.  I let the hoops sit and after about an hour (or however long it took me to sand the staves), I used plain water and the steel brush to clean off the gel. I dried the hoops thoroughly with an old rag.

Step 7: Prep the Staves

I used a coarse plastic-bristled brush to work wood bleach into each stave. The main component is oxalic acid which is commonly used to remove aging and stains from outdoor wooden decks. Warning! This chemical is acidic! Follow the instructions on the container! Use heavy rubber gloves, long sleeves, eye protection and a face shield to prevent burns! After letting the bleach work for about 30 minutes, I rinsed the surface with plain water and let dry. The bleach removed most of the weathered gray color, but it hardly touched the black stains left by the steel hoops. You can eliminate this step depending on how you want the finished surface to look. You could just sand everything down to the bare wood. Or if you want to keep the patina as-is, lightly sand the surface and — after removing the charring — apply an exterior (Spar) polyurethane.

Sanding down the bare wood and protecting the surface with a clear finish will give you a rich, honey-colored surface. I used a palm sander with 120 grit sandpaper to smooth out the back and prepare both sides for staining.

Step 8: Braces for Seat and Back

The staves were too short to span the full length of either the seat or the back. With a jigsaw I cut cross-braces from the barrelhead pieces. I positioned the back brace about three-quarters of the distance from the top, and for the seat brace roughly the same distance from the front. I sanded, prepped and stained all sides.

When I did the mock-up, I saw that I needed to notch the staves for the seat-back to get a solid fit against the cross-brace and also sit flat against the curved back. I cut a tapering notch into the seat-back side pieces and took three-eighths-inch out of the center stave (now repurposed as chair slats.) I used a handsaw, a wood rasp and a wood chisel to cutaway the wood a little at a time until I got a good fit.

Step 9: Stain and Finish

After a quick once-over with a tack cloth to remove any remaining sawdust, I brushed on a dark walnut oil-based stain and wiped off the excess with an old t-shirt. I let the stain dry overnight before applying a thin coat of oil-based exterior (Spar) polyurethane. I recommend using either the semi-gloss or satin finish. Stir — don’t shake — the urethane often or the solids used to de-gloss the finish will stay on the bottom of the can. It took only a few hours for the first coat to dry. I roughed up the surface with 220 grit sandpaper on a hand sanding block and applied another light coat of polyurethane finish. The second coat also dried very quickly. You could shorten application and dry times by using a combination stain and varnish aerosol spray.

Step 10: Attach the Braces

When the pieces were dry, I attached the seat and back braces to my outdoor chairs using #10-by-1 half-inch oval-head screws, one at the end of each brace. I used quick clamps to hold the braces in place. For the back-brace, I angled the screws from the top of the brace into the steel frame. The seat brace was attached by angling the screws from the front into the steel frame. I held the braces in place with quick clamps while I drilled the 7/64-inch pilot holes and attached them. Drilling pilot holes will prevent the screws from splitting the oak.

Step 11: Attach the Back and Seat Slats

The slats designated for the seat backs of my whiskey barrel chairs were attached to the frame with one 1-1/2-inch #10 oval head screw at the top and one 1-1/4-inch #10 screw through the back brace. Again, quick clamps were utilized to hold the slats in place while they were being fastened. The seat slats were attached from the bottom to hide the 1-1/4-inch #10 pan head screws. The outermost seat slats were attached to both the brace and the metal frame with the 1-1/4-inch #10 screws.

I cut the hoops to fit with a hacksaw and used a metal file to remove any sharp edges. Each piece was attached with three 5/8-inch #12 pan head screws — two sections for the back and one on the seat. Using an angle grinder, the screw heads were ground flat to look more like rivets. A piece of 18-gauge sheet metal with a hole drilled the diameter of the screw-head was used to protect the surrounding area while the grinder did its work.

Step 12: Ready for the Patio Party

I now have four refurbished bar stools — a great set of outdoor furniture that’s surprisingly comfortable and will hold up to the elements. A half-barrel sells for about $30 at one of the big-box home improvement centers. Adding in the screws, stain, polyurethane and other materials, I spent less than $80 on this project to build whiskey-barrel chairs.

You can see more photographs of this outdoor chair project on my original Instructables post.