11.25.2012

Road Sign Lounger

A few years ago, down in Alabama, I led a group of students in the construction of a fence made of scrapped road signs. I had long been fascinated by road signs -- the graphics, the reflective surface, the raw materiality of 1/8" solid aluminum -- and finally had a stockpile, donated by the county, to play around with. The fence was fairly straightforward: we just cut the signs into strips, which then served as pickets on a conventional wood frame. Offcuts and stop signs were pieced together to make gates, doors, and roofs for shade structures. 

The daycare fence and H.E.R.O. community garden gave me a chance to experiment with techniques for cutting the signs. Aluminum is fairly soft, and I found a carbide-toothed finishing blade (60 teeth) jacked into a regular circular saw to be a simple, effective solution. We also tried a similar blade in a table saw, but the kickback and strain on the motor was kind of nasty. 

The Road Sign Lounger.


Moving forward, I wanted to bend signs to make more complex forms and stiffen the sheets, which are rather floppy in their flat form. I had built a dining table out of a flat sign when I lived at Arcosanti, and engineered a folded chair with a single bent sign back in Baltimore, but both of these were kind of amateur iterations. Experience had shown that a series of 3/8" holes, drilled 1" on center, could form lines of weakness that allowed the signs to bend. However, this was time-consuming, hard on the drill, chewed up bits, and left a ragged edge that had to be laboriously hand-filed smooth. 

Forget the chair, that's a pretty handsome model . . .

Side view.
I could use a brake -- a conventional sheet-metal bending tool -- but it only allows for bends in one axis, preventing the sort of origami-esque contortions I had in mind. Other folks working with road signs have run up against this one-axis problem, which means they have to do a lot of overlapping and joining of pieces, which is time-consuming, un-ergonomic, materially wasteful, and, well, kind of ugly.

Back-seat joint, with velcro for cushions.

Armrest and cushion. Recycled soda-bottle felt, by the way.
So I pursued a new method, which used the circular saw, set very shallow, to cut grooves into the metal. I then held the signs over a sharp edge (table, stairs, etc.), and beat it with a hammer until it bent. The result was much cleaner and faster than the line-of-holes method. I made a series of chairs this way, as well as metal fruit bowls. This technique -- cutting slits, overlapping triangular flaps, and pinning the folds with machine bolts or rivets -- has led me down a whole new avenue of iterations, each a little more refined than the last. 



Recently, I came into a sign, former decor in a friend's apartment. He was moving, and upgrading his look from that dorm-room aesthetic. I took the opportunity to put together a little armchair. Using some of the lessons learned from the Bent Cardboard chair, I designed a plywood "box" frame, made up of four pieces. The two sides come up higher, in this case, to make armrests. The frame was treated with pickling stain, a sort of whitewash, and then polyurethaned. 

Cutting out the frame -- circular saw for long straight cuts, handsaw to hack out the corners.

Assembled with glue and plugged screws.

The box takes shape.
The road sign itself was 30" square, allowing me to divide it out into two 15" halves. I followed the same general folding scheme as my previous road sign chairs, only adding a small back cutout. However, this sign was of thinner, crappier aluminum, and I had some minor cracking that required the addition of some steel "L" brackets to beef up the back-seat joint. It was then attached to the frame with isolating rubber washers and machine bolts and upholstered in charcoal-gray felt. 

The shell, ready to join with the frame.

Hand-sewing the cushions was rather laborious and a bit messy.
Overall, I am pretty pleased with how it turned out. In the front elevation, it is a bit wide, but looks graceful from the side. The back projects, unsupported by wood, allowing for a comfortable amount of flex. It is super-lightweight, with a nice interplay of colors on the sign, the wood, and the cushion. 

I am not happy with the arms, which are too low, and the cracking in the back that necessitated the "L" brackets. Some of the sanding was a bit sloppy, careening through the veneer. In the future, I am going to steer clear of crappy big-box store birch plywood, which is expensive and has super-thin veneers, and just stick with construction-grade BC stock. I'll also avoid the back cutout, which weakened the sign without adding to the comfort.

I still love signs, and can't wait to get my hands on another one. Or three. Or twenty.

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