And Now For Something Completely Different

So I built a couch this week–one of those Home Reserve sectionals where all the parts are made on a CNC router and you have to put them together jig-saw style. I’ve never been a fan of “flat-pack” furniture, but with advancing technology, it’s lost most of the deserved stigma it once had. Indeed, if you buy a $1,000 or $3,000 couch, flip it over and pull off the bottom cover, you might be surprised how much is familiar from the IKEA flat pack experience.

So, when our couch upholstery wore out for the second time in 15 years, I was willing to consider options. I went to the store where we bought our first couch in Houston, but they sell refrigerators and their furniture selection is spotty at best. I went to the store where we bought the second, and they had lots and lots of options, but none would quite work for one reason or another–plus they cost three times as much. Most other furniture stores cost more-much more–and while my aunt’s ranch-oak living room set did survive three growing boys–it looked it by the end, so…

Finally, I started looking online and narrowing options. For our house and lives, I knew we needed:

  1. A small sectional, with slightly shallower seats than the old one.
  2. Durable, dog proof upholstery with a tight weave that can’t catch on tiny claws.
  3. Legs. We have a rescue terrier who is a super good little guy and has adapted to all the rules of living in the house except one–to him, any fabric of any kind hanging down to near the floor is in need of a little watering. Upholstered furniture sitting directly on the floor is unlikely to pass the Mr. Lucky test.
  4. Either no bottom cover (cambric) or at any rate, no hidden spaces that Mr. Lucky might use to hide food–because he’s been known to do that.

I looked and looked and kept coming back around to Home Reserve. The company offers a number of designs and every sectional configuration you could ever want. They are affordable and have excellent reviews. They offer a wide range of fabrics, including pet-friendly fabrics. But no legs. Their furniture is all made of OSB panels, and the feet are black plastic glides, pressed over little protrusions from the bottoms of the OSB panels and hidden from view by the item’s proximity to the floor.

So I contacted the company. They recommended a nice pet-friendly fabric and commiserated about the legs, saying they were working on one day having a leg kit, but hadn’t figured out how to do it.

All the assembly instructions are available for download, and these include lots of drawings of the panels, so I went looking for my own solution. Whatever it was, it had to preserve the engineering of the furniture as delivered. Forces had to be transmitted up the frame as they were meant to be, in roughly the same locations. The modification could not interfere with the fabric installation–and so could not change the edge profile of the OSB panels anywhere there would be fabric. I could fix adjacent units together but not in any way that can’t be undone later. The solution should work with–but never fight against–the forces holding the unit together while in use. The solution should add no more height than absolutely necessary (finished units are already 18″ high, and couches are typically between 18 and 22 inches from floor to seat). Oh…and I shouldn’t need any furniture-grade woodworking tools or skills, just simple carpentry.

Okay. So, simply building a platform was out (too high), but looking through the drawings (which are not measured, so I could only estimate dimensions) I could see that most of the pieces have bottoms (in the image shown here, the bottoms are revealed by the tabs by which they insert into slots in the #4 side panel). So I had the space between those bottoms and the feet to work with. Further, while I cannot place any weight loading on the bottoms (that’s not how they are meant to be used and could cause a failure) I can place a cleat between the bottom and my solution to accept screws as long as any weight that might incidentally flow through the cleat will flow into the side panel where it belongs.

So, the solution was obvious. Simply cut off the existing feet and cut a recess (colored pink on diagram) exactly deep enough to accommodate a rail of ordinary 1x pine (which is actually about 3/4″ thick) as a base to hold the legs. Cleats glued to the side panels between this base rail and the bottoms would take screws to hold the base on without damaging the OSB. In those locations (like the back of #4 in this drawing) in which a weight saving void was added at the factory, a larger cleat is glued in to distribute load around the hole just like a header over a window or door in a house.

With this plan in hand, I took the risk and ordered my sectional units, along with a couple of sets of couch legs of standard design (which I got, of all places, from NewEgg). I say standard–couch legs come in two varieties. The first screw onto a central threaded spike, and that kind is of no use here. In the second, you attach a steel plate to the leg with screws, then screw the plate to your couch. Perfect.

To the left you can see the finished solution. This is a finished Jovie arm unit standing on its back. Two 4″ hardwood legs have been attached to a central rail made of ordinary hardware store 1x stock. The rail is set in recesses cut with a router into the spot where the factory feet were (and the rest of the foot support panels have been cut down with a saw (on the arm unit, the original feet ran the whole width of that little cross panel).

The base rail is cut long so that the leg is almost centered over the inner OSB panel that was the original foot. I could have exactly centered it, but then I wouldn’t have been able to screw it into the wooden cleat (hidden) holding the rail to the OSB. This is close enough to allow the rail to easily resist any torque, and I opted to go with longer screws and a firmer mounting for the legs (so the leg is attached with longer screws on one side than the other).

To the right is shown one of the ottomans during assembly. Recesses have been routed straight through, then reinforced with 1.25″ cleats glued to the OSB. The cleats could have been slightly higher as long as they didn’t stick up above the OSB, where they’d have gotten in the way of the bottom panel. This assembly is upright; legs have not yet been installed.

The ottomans were simple as the original feet were all in a line. The arm units are not completely symmetrical in that the factory foot positions were slightly offset left to right (clearly to reduce waste when cutting the panels). I split the difference and cut my recesses right down the middle.

The only real problem I ran into in the whole project was on the corner unit. Here, none of the feet locations were lined up, so I had to cut two angled rails to span two sets of two foot locations in the back of the unit, then a corner cleat to span the other two (on the inside corner) into one, with only one corner leg. I could probably have just used straight rails and moved the support locations a bit, but again, some engineer somewhere designed it that way and I wanted to minimize my impact.

I did the corner unit first, knowing it would be the most complicated and that if worst came to worst, I could always buy another, but it worked out beautifully. I used a router, a Black and Decker Workmate bench, and a piece of scrap pine clamped in place as a fence to regulate the depth of the recesses. After a few careful test cuts, I set a combination square as a depth gauge for setting the fence for all further cuts. Where the factory feet extended beyond my new recesses, I cut them off with a small circular saw.

After routing off the factory feet and my new recesses, I set up partial sub-assemblies (the corner chair and ottoman, then the corner and all the chairs) with 2×4 blocks filling in for the legs and rails just to test fit the modification. All the modules bolted together without the slightest trouble, and after putting weight on the frames and rocking, I found only one corner that might need a tiny shim (and that slight wobble vanished after final assembly, so I turned out not to need any shim).

I completed legs assembly for the corner chair, ottoman, and arm unit ahead of time. Then after installing the upholstery, I laid all the arm units on their backs in the living room and bolting them together and to the (already completed) arm unit. I then screwed two base rails across the length of the assembly (of three armless chais). The design was so true and my routing so good, I had no trouble aligning the bolts that join the finished units and ensuring the recesses of adjoining units were exactly aligned. That just left installation of the legs themselves. If I ever want to replace the upholstry or do a repair, the rails (legs and all) can he removed. After this, I just had to tip the chairs up onto their feet, bolts on the corner and the corner ottoman, and add cushions and dogs.

So what so you think? Have you performed a similar modification? Do you have questions? Let me know in the comments below.