Those who know me, know that I’m a bit of a DIYer. Not sure why, but I’m always drawn to trying to build or fix things myself. There are places where I draw the line (like making my own music – I’m a decently talented player of other’s notes, but that’s the extent of it, it seems). But for mechanical things, I seem to have “the knack” and I often can’t stop myself from trying to Do It Myself. Even when it’s less efficient or will take me longer to do it myself, I have this irresistible urge to learn and accomplish it myself. Sometimes it makes sense, such as when I’d save a ton of money or gain an important skill, and sometimes it’s just about improving myself, and maybe proving to myself I have what it takes. Maybe I just took Ronald Reagan a bit too seriously when he said (possibly apocryphally, as I can’t find a quote) words to the effect that the world needs more people who are capable of rebuilding an advanced society from first principles if necessary.
Today’s DIY corner is about re-slinging your patio chairs. You know, the kind that have a polymeric fabric sling stretched across a metal frame? The ones that are comfy and nice looking, until suddenly they’re fifteen years old and falling apart? The kind that rips a little every time you sit down, so you lower yourself ever so carefully into place and try to minimize shifting and heavy laughter once you’re seated? The ones where you’re constantly trying to intercept your guests before they plop themselves down in the one that’s about to finally tear through and drop their fat ass deep into the metal framework, probably requiring a costly and embarrassing call to the local fire department to give them practice with the Jaws of Life?
Yeah, those patio chairs are the best.
Anyway, I have a set of these chairs, and they’ve been coming apart for the last three summers or so, and finally I got around to Doing Something About It. I could have done some local research and found someone who does this professionally. In fact, after I started this process, one of my friends told me about just such a shop. But who needs them; I’m going to Do It Myself.
Somewhere around here’s a picture of the one that hasn’t completely disintegrated yet.
Instead, I did some Internet Research and discovered that, boy howdy, there are places that will sell you replacement slings for your chairs, and all you have to do is measure them, select a fabric, and type in your credit card. In a few days you’ll have new slings on your doorstep. It’s as simple as that.
Unless you have a particular type of chair. See, companies that make these types of chairs make three main kinds: The first type has a continuous sling stretched between two rails, left and right, and the sling is a single piece from the top of the chair back to the front of the seat. The second type has a separate back and seat, and both are stretched between rails, left and right. The third kind has the seat stretched from left to right, and the back stretched from top to bottom.
This third type is, shall we say, problematic. In the first two types, you stretch the sling from left to right. In order to stretch a sling from left to right, all you need to do is insert a plastic rod (provided with the sling) into the loop sewn into the edge of the sling and then slide the sling and rod into the rail on one side, which is bolted to the chair frame. Then you slide the other rail over the other side of the sling, and insert bolts on that side, and tighten them a bit at a time. Once the bolts are tightened, the sling is tight, and you can move on to your next important home maintenance task, like resetting that toilet that has loose mounting bolts and wobbles a little when you sit on it, and your significant other is concerned every time Aunt Shelly comes over to visit, she’s going to lose her balance and cause the toilet to fall over and spill everywhere, and also possibly crack her skull on the edge of the vanity countertop, because it’s just a little too close to the toilet, and maybe we should do something about renovating that bathroom soon, anyway.
Where was I? Oh, right, sling chairs. The third type was designed by a Very Clever Person who Needed To Be Different because Maybe I Can Get a Patent on This New Type of Sling Mounting System. The back of the third type is secured in a very different manner. The bottom of the sling slides through two parallel horizontal rails, and then the aforementioned plastic rod is inserted into the edge loop. This rod, as in the other sling types, forces the sling to expand to a size that cannot be pulled out of its track, unless, of course, the track is made of two parallel hollow aluminum tubes that have been welded to a frame at each end and can bend enough in the middle to make a slot wide enough that the expanded sling loop can slide between them and make anyone supported by the sling experience a sudden and substantial decrease in lumbar vertebrae support.
In order to prevent this (and also prevent the sling from wrinkling – you can consider this parenthetical to be a literary device known as “foreshadowing”), the designer added the “feature” of multiple pulled rivets to hold the rails together after the sling is inserted. How do I know this feature was added late in the design or manufacturing process? Because if you were going to use pulled rivets from the outset, you wouldn’t bother having a sling loop and rod arrangement, and you wouldn’t bother to weld two parallel rails to the frame. You’d have one rail and a backing plate through which the rivets would be installed. Less custom size rectangular cross section aluminum tubing and two fewer welds in the design, and aluminum welds are expensive, even when performed by slave labor in western China. I’d have done it differently. But don’t ask me, ask Mr. Nobel Prize in Sling Chair Physics over there.
The top of the sling is held by a handy slot formed into an extruded aluminum piece just like the first and second chair types. This extrusion is bolted to the frame via three Allen socket head cap screws. But, for reasons we will understand later, not now, the screws are run through the sling itself as well as the extrusion and the frame. The mental gymnastics required to justify all of this were at one point clear to our Hero Chair Designer, but not to anyone else.
Did I mention that when you search online for replacement slings for these kinds of chairs, most sling suppliers say outright, in large, italicized print, something like the following words:
“If you have slings with top and bottom rods, as opposed to side rods, give up now. There is no possible way we can replicate these properly, and why are you such a dumbass for buying this kind of chair in the first place. I mean, really. I bet you bought those chairs at some place like Lowe’s or Home Depot, instead of a reputable outdoor furniture retailer that understands patio chairs. Unlike you, dumbass.”
I found this little nugget of information out rather quickly, but persisted in my search and finally came across the fine folks at American Slings and Patio Supplies (americanslings.com), who understand patio sling chairs and their owners, and exist only to make us all happier and satisfied. Seriously, American Slings can do these, when all others pale at the thought of top and bottom rods. They just need you to send your old slings back to them, so they can make custom replicas, which are, by the way, sized pretty well, even if your old slings are fifteen years old and badly damaged and stretched. I definitely recommend the nice folks there, who are very helpful on the phone and will happily and courteously sell you the supplies you need to complete your trip into insanity.
So, where was I? Right, remember sling replacement? This is a DIY How-To on patio chair sling replacement.
So, in order to do this job, as with most DIY jobs, you will need some tools. If you’re a DIYer, you might have some tools lying around. If you don’t, you’re probably not a DIYer. Anyway, here are most of the tools I found helpful and/or necessary in my quest to restore the chairs I bought at Lowe’s and not some really nice patio furniture store about fifteen years ago.
Tools you’ll wish you had:
Socket set, socket wrench, socket wrench extension, socket wrench extension extension, drill index, hacksaw, rivet pullers, cordless drill, 90 degree drill attachment, threaded drills for the 90 degree drill, steel rule, Allen wrenches, pair of dykes, open end wrenches, needle nose pliers, adjustable (nee Crescent) wrench, flashlight, lighter.
In addition to tools, there are some consumables you’ll need:
Replacement slings, replacement plastic dowel rod, irreplaceable time, beer.
Once you have collected all these things together into an appropriate working space (more on that later), you may begin. If you are an inexperienced DIYer, you may crack a beer at this point. If you are a VERY Experienced DIYer, you will have already cracked a beer at this point. Before you sent the old slings away, you would have discovered the pop rivets holding the bottom rails together and removed them by drilling them out, so we won’t go into that. If you need instructions on drilling out aluminum pop rivets, perhaps you shouldn’t be trying to repair your own patio chairs.
First, use a socket wrench to remove the bolts from the seat rail that’s still bolted to the chair. If you’re an experienced DIYer, you’d only have removed one rail in order to detach the slings to send them to the manufacturer for copying, thinking that it would be easier to only reinstall one rail later on. You’d have been wrong about that. Seriously, just remove that other rail right now. It’s going to be in the way.
Once the rail is removed, start working on the chair back. Seriously, once you get through the frustration of installing the back, you’ll be happy to just glide down the slope of the seat. If you install the seat first like I did, you’ll end up removing it because it interferes with the back installation, and then you’ll be sad, and half of the work you’ve already done will end up being doubled.
So: Now you’re working on the back, right? OK. The first thing you will notice when you begin installing the back sling is that you have to put the bottom through the rails first, then install the dowel rod, and then tighten the upper extruded rail to pull it tight. But of course, you’ve noticed that the bottom rails can be stretched apart such that if too much force is applied to the back sling, it will pull the sling loop and dowel through the space between the rails. You also know this because of the aforementioned kludge of using pop rivets at the factory to tie these rails together.
What you might not have figured out at first, is that these pop rivets perform a second, also vital function, which is to help stretch the bottom of the sling to keep it conforming to the concave curve of the chair back. If they aren’t installed, not only will the sling pull free of its mounting, it will bunch up in the center of the curve over time, causing unsightly wrinkle lines, much like you might see in a commercial on daytime TV.
At this point, forget about installing the back sling at the top. It’s going to get difficult, and a little weird, so just take my advice and work from the bottom up. First, slide the sling through the slot. Then insert the dowel rod into the sling loop. Use your pair of dikes to trim the rod (“heh-heh. yeah!” “Shut up, Beavis!”) so that it sticks out from each end of the loop just a little bit. You can cut it again later, if you like, to fit better, but for now it makes sense to keep it a bit long.
Center the sling as best you can. Pull the sling toward the front in the center, in order to seat the dowel rod in the center of the curved slot, at tightly as you can. Now, take your cordless drill motor, 90 degree drill adapter, threaded drill, and Bic lighter and heat the drill with the lighter while it is rotating. While the drill is still hot, match drill the hole in the bottom rail through the sling. The hot drill should help cut the plastic fabric and prevent fraying. Now, without disturbing the setup, insert a pulled rivet into the hole and through the sling, into the upper rail. By this point you’ll have noticed that the size of rivet needed is uncommonly long for pop rivets, and you’ll have driven to several supply sources, none of which will have the correct length on the shelf. If you’re exceedingly lucky, you’ll find a plastic bag of appropriately sized rivets in one of the drawers of your auxiliary toolbox, and you won’t have to order them online.
Now, pull the rivet with your rivet puller. You may have a choice of pullers, depending on how insane your tool collection is. Some are simpler, lighter, and easier to handle, others are more flexible.
Once you have pulled the first rivet, tension the fabric sling on one side of the rivet such that it pulls the dowel rod tightly into the slot between the rails, and that it is not wrinkled. Then install the second rivet. Continue this process, stretching the sling to pull the dowel rod tight and remove wrinkles, until all of the rivets are installed. Mine had five rivets.
At this point, you’re ready to start on the top of the seat back. This is not easy, unless you figure out a special trick. It’s not really that special, but you might think so if you have had enough beer. The problem is that the seat back needs to be stretched, and the way they design this is to use the screws that hold the top mounting rail in place to pull the sling tight as they’re tightened. Of course, the screws that are provided with the chair are too short to engage the threads in the fixed nuts in the frame of the chair unless the sling is already stretched. Chicken and egg, meet the world’s greatest chair designer. I think he’s over at the hors d’oeuvre table.
The trick I found to doing this was to rummage around in my junk screw and bolt box (you *do* have a junk screw and bolt box, right?) until I found some really long screwsthat matched the threads on the chair screws and were long enough to allow threading into the frame without having to stretch the sling. Oddly enough, the ones I found happened to be leftover toilet base mounting screws (see, I know the tropes, that’s a Chekov’s Gun, right up at the beginning of all this, disguised as a lame toilet joke. I know you thought that was just a useless waste of time and word count, designed to get a half laugh at wobbly old Aunt Shelly. But it was more. So much more.)
So, what you do now (after acknowledging my dramatic and comic genius) is to stretch and drill holes in the upper part of the sling, similarly to what you did at the bottom, trying to
limit wrinkling as much as possible. On my chairs there are three upper mounting screws. Once you have those holes drilled through the fabric, insert the factory screw in the middle hole, and one Mark I Chekov’s Toilet Bracket Screw in each of the outboard screw holes. You’ll note in the photo above that I have threaded a nut onto the screws. You’ll want to do that as well. If you care about the finish of the upper seat back sling mounting rail on its underside, also install a small flat washer above that nut. Then thread the outboard extra long screws into the frame as deep as they will go. Then take an open ended wrench of the appropriate size and turn the nuts to press upward on the mounting rail, stretching the sling in the process. Keep doing this, swapping sides frequently, to maintain alignment, until the center screw is capable of engaging its corresponding threads in the frame. Then tighten that screw completely. Remove one of the outboard screws and replace it with a factory screw and tighten. Then finish the final screw.
Now you have the seat back installed and stretched. You are about to move on to the seat. Remember what I said about the seat being the easy part? Yep, it is totally the easy part. This is because Mr. Super Chair Einstein took a page from other chair designers and copied their much better shit for the seat. You know what? You don’t even need my advice for the seat. It’s a fucking cake-walk after the rest of this shit. Except for the part where Marilyn vos Savant over there decided to use two different length screws to mount the seat rails for no apparent reason. It’s up to you to figure out why, and if it matters. Asshole.
Anyway, the sincere sense of accomplishment you feel when you’ve completed a DIY project like this will last a lifetime. Or at least five minutes when you remember you still have three more of these chairs to fix. Once you’re done, you can move the chair to a place with a nice view, crack a good beer, and enjoy your handiwork.
One final note on workspace (I bet you thought I forgot my earlier promise). Those of you who are very observant, or perhaps just so bored to tears over a life poorly lived that you’ll read a DIY guide on sling chair repair because you simply lack the willpower to just end it all, will have noticed that this work was performed on a wooden floor, the boards of which in some places have gaps approximately the size of the screws that hold the top rail to the chair frame. This, you’ll note, may not be the greatest idea since sliced bread. If you noticed this, there’s still hope. Turn off the hot water, get out of the bathtub, and for fuck’s sake put away that razor blade and go buy yourself some new patio chairs.