I refer to some of the things I've built as "crap" because a) It's often built from leftover materials, b) I'm more concerned with utility than a high level of finish, and c) Not knowing what to do, I often make it up as I go along. Here I'll walk you through how I built some banquettes.
Pornographers ruined my couch. I had a nice big couch in the photography rental studio that I run, and I unwittingly rented the studio out to a porno film crew, and they ruined the couch in exactly the disgusting way you'd think they would. I tried cleaning it but eventually sent the couch back from whence it came, Craigslist.
Now couch-less, I needed to provide my studio clients with a comfortable seating surface, but had very little money. I also had a bunch of building materials left behind by a legitimate film crew who constructed a fake elevator interior in the studio for a shoot. So I decided to use what I could scrounge to build a banquette, or actually, two of them. An industrial design grad should be able to build what they need, even if they don't know how to, no?
Here I'll show you what I've done, including all the mistakes I made and things I wish I'd known beforehand, in case you want to attempt similar.
What I Needed
Comfortable seating for 6-7 people that would be easy to clean
What I Had
- Some 4x8 sheets of construction-grade 1/2-inch plywood
- A shit-ton of 2x3's in various lengths
- A variety of power tools
- Duct tape
- An attitude that says "Can do" (and occasionally, "That'll do")
- A buddy named Shane to lend an extra hand. But you can use any buddy, he needn't be named Shane
What I Didn't Have and Ended up Having to Buy
- White vinyl
- High-density foam
- Dacron for batting
- "Bendy board," plywood whose layers have been laminated in alignment, making it very flexible along one axis
Someone I Had to Hire for Help
- A tailor
First I got a banquette's "ingredients" from a friend who had owned a bar and had built them before for his seating area. He said you basically have a wooden frame of some sort, then the cushy stuff on top is thick foam, which you can buy in sheets; over the foam you wrap Dacron, which you buy in rolls, to round the edges; then you stretch your final fabric over that and staple it to the bottom, where it won't be seen.
Next I started doing some rough sketches of what the thing should look like. My drawings are never going to make it into the MoMA, but it really helps me to work things out on paper: Envisioning what a thing could look like, then figuring out if I can build it with the materials and tools I had.
I had no idea what the wooden frame should be like, so I "built" several different kinds through sketches: Assembling 2x3's on paper with a pen, calculating what I'd have to do to join them, guessing if it would be strong enough, and estimating how big a pain in the ass any particular iteration would be.
I also toyed with the idea of building in some storage, like drawers, a rolling box or cabinets in the bottom, but ultimately decided I should keep it simple first time 'round as I didn't really know what the hell I was doing.
Next I let the sketches sit on my wall for a week. I figured they would germinate in my brain and I'd suddenly realize which option to pursue. But that didn't happen, there were too many open variables and frankly speaking, I don't possess that kind of design brilliance.
I then decided it was better to do something and get it wrong than do nothing at all, so I got up off my ass and measured the space the banquettes needed to fit in.
Then I hit the CAD and started drawing up top views of what would actually fit in the space. To estimate sizes, I turned to the handy furniture designer's Bible, Panero's Human Dimension and Interior Space.
Both banquettes would have to turn 90 degrees to maximize seating area in the space allotted. I realized I could either build this thing with straight edges and angles to turn that corner, or make a sweeping curve. I drew all of those options up in CAD, as well as some side views to figure out how I'd support someone's ass and back using a combination of 2x3s and sheets of 1/2-inch ply. It would have to be very strong, because one of my regular clients was a plus-sized women's clothing company, and during one shoot one of the larger models broke a Rietveld chair I'd built when she sat in it.
I eventually decided I'd use the 1/2-inch ply to make repeating shapes, a sort of side template, that I'd join with 2x3's. Half-inch ply can seem flimsy, but I reasoned that on edge and joined to other pieces like it, it would be strong enough, like the cardboard chairs we made in ID 101.
I worked out the specific dimensions of the side template by using the Dimensions book again, subtracting the height of the foam padding.
I then played around on the CAD to see how many templates I could get out of the 4x8 sheets I had available.
I cut the 4x8 sheet into four parts and stacked them to cut the angles out, ensuring each piece would be the same, and also to save on some cutting. I used a circular saw where I could and a power jig saw where I couldn't fit the circ saw. I avoided making plunge cuts because I'm kind of clumsy and didn't want to go to the hospital because I was too cheap to buy couches.
Then I used a chopsaw to hack some 2x3's down to length, and used them as crossbraces for the side templates. I now had the basic "building block" of the banquette.
Next I had to figure out how to make the curving corner. I went back to the CAD and calculated the angles I'd need to cut the bracing at.
Then I cut the bracing, again using the chopsaw. Here's the first mistake I made: The thing was drawn up in CAD assuming the walls of the room were exactly 90 degrees to each other. They weren't. So though my angles on the braces were perfect, the room was not. With the bracing in place, the banquette did not sit flush against one wall if it was flush against the other. To compensate, I only attached a few braces, so the thing had plenty of "wiggle room." Then I muscled both ends of the banquettes against both walls, observed what the corrected angle should be, and cut the rest of the braces at that new angle.
Now it was time to make the seat bottom, a plank of wood I would attach the foam and Dacron to, wrap in vinyl and staple at the bottom. It would have to be one big piece of wood, which pained me since each required sacrificing an entire 4x8 sheet.
I had drawn the shape on the wood and was just about to cut it when I stopped myself. Since the CAD drawings of the banquette no longer lined up with the reality, as I'd had to adjust the angles to match the walls, the CAD-drawn seat bottom would not be correct. So I used some scrap pieces of foamcore and cut those to match exactly the shape needed, then traced that new shape onto the wood. (Marking on black foamcore, by the way, is a pain in the butt. Hard to see your mark. Would've preferred white foamcore but black was all I had.)
Laying the wood for the seatbacks involved some trickiness. As you can see, simply laying a sheet of Bendy Board in the curved corner for the seatback center does not quite work; the edges are all over the place.
So I had to screw it roughly into place, mark where the edges should be cut to cleanly line up with the edges of the pieces next to it, then unscrew it, cut it, and add the side pieces.
Once I did that, there was still the problem of the top and bottom edge, which was not level with the side pieces despite my best estimations. So once again I screwed it in, marked a level line on the top and bottom, then unscrewed it and cut it again. (At least this time I had the foresight to trace the irregular shape onto the foam, to save me a little hassle down the line.) Then I reattached it, and finally, everything fit.
I turned back to the seat bottoms, starting with cutting the foam. Frustratingly, the shape I needed didn't jive with the size of the foam sheets available, so I had to cut it from several pieces, as you see here.
This just about tripled the amounts of cuts I had to make. I also discovered that my plan to stretch one big piece of vinyl over the whole thing wouldn't work due to the 53-inch width rolls that vinyl comes in and the amount of overage I'd need to wrap the seat. So I had to cut three different pieces and hire a tailor to sew them together. This added a lot of time to the process.
If I had to do it all over again, I would've checked to see what sizes vinyl and foam come in, and tried to design something that accommodated those sizes. Because I did not do this I added a lot of time and expense to the project. Live and learn.
Next I just made a seat bottom sandwich: Wood on the bottom, then foam, then Dacron wrapping, then the sewed vinyl piece, which I stretched and stapled to the bottom.
Almost done. Now I duct-taped the thinner foam sheets onto the back, then wrapped those in Dacron.
Then I began the laborious process of stretching the vinyl over the whole funky shape and stapling it in the back: One in the top, stretch, one in the bottom, stretch, one in the top, stretch, et cetera. This proved impossible for one man and so my buddy Shane lent a hand. We started in the center and worked our way out to the edges.
This is Shane weeping in shame after we spent 30 minutes doing the first piece and realizing it was way too wrinkled.
We had to pull all the staples out with a pair of pliers and start over, super stretching the vinyl to get the wrinkles out. We really had to muscle it and there was a lot of cursing. You can also see that to close off the bottom, we used a flexible piece of 1/4-inch ply. My buddy Darren, aforementioned bar owner, got it to curve by running the piece of wood under hot water in the bathroom sink.
And finally, at long last it was done. And as a bonus, the little cavities between the side templates and underneath the removeable seat bottoms became a great place to store wood cut-offs.
It's not quite porno-proof, but I'm definitely a lot more inquisitive of whom I'm renting the studio out to.