Stanley and Kristi's eco-friendly cardboard furniture

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Engr305 Appropriate Technology page in progress
This page is a project in progress by students in Engr305 Appropriate Technology. Please do not make edits unless you are a member of the team working on this page, but feel free to make comments on the discussion page. Check back for the finished version on May 15, 2010.

Humboldt State University - Arcata, Ca, USA]]

Project Participants

Spring 2010:


We are taking Engr305 – Appropriate Technology at Humboldt State University. The project we have chosen is to design and build furniture made from cardboard for those people who want to save money, reduce their carbon footprint, or just be creative. We want to demonstrate that stylish furniture can be made completely from recycled materials at a very low cost.

Our plan:

  • To use recycled cardboard donated from businesses or individuals in the community
  • Make our own homemade eco-friendly non-toxic glue from rice, flour, or liquid glycerin.
  • Use eco-friendly fabrics and paints for upholstery and decoration.

Opportunity Definition

During the 2010 spring semester at HSU we decided to build stylish and functional furniture for Engineering 305, Appropriate Technology. We want to demonstrate that furniture could be made with reused and renewable materials using sustainable methods. We also want to be able to create a design on par with trendy brand name furniture as well as be safe and durable. Our goal is to describe a method in which students on a budget can have furniture they can be proud of and feel comfortable using in their dorm room or first residence. We hope to try out different materials, binders, paints, upholstery and cushions.

Furniture Design and Inspiration

Inspiration for designs and projects can be found everywhere around you and can be made out of a variety of materials, including cardboard. [1] The aesthetics and design will be an important component of this project. Anyone can make any type furniture. Cinder blocks and plywood can be a functional bookshelf, a stack newspapers can serve as a seat, or wooden cask can be used as a table. We can stack cardboard to an appropriate height for a chair, but the overall look and feel would not be appropriate for a warm and inviting living space. For the aesthetic design, we can get inspiration from traditional furniture designs,[2] from artistic designs,[3] or from simple functional designs. [4] The chair will be my own (Stanley Instness) design was inspired from art deco architecture. Once the general look of the furniture is decided upon the dimensions and functionality will be determined. The dimensions for the chair have not been determined as of yet, but size will be typical of a cushion-armed chair. The method of design will vary for different projects. For this project I decided on the look first and the dimensions and functionality second, but some projects may be limited by space, in which you would want to determine your dimensions first and then find an appropriate look or design that works for the space.

Literature Review

This is a review of some of the available literature pertaining to Cardboard Furniture.

Cardboard Architecture

Cardboard is used extensively for packing and shipping, but it's use as structural material has only been minimally explored,[5] but there are examples of architects and designers who have used cardboard to make different types of furniture and temporary structures. Cardboard is relatively inexpensive and easily recyclable, which makes it's use as structural material appealing to those willing to explore alternative building material uses. We are confident that we can reuse cardboard shipping material for furniture and add another use to its life-cyle. When our furniture reaches its end-of-life, it can then be recycled as it would have been following its shipping use.


When designing furniture out of cardboard it is necessary to take into account the structural integrity of what you are building. In the case of using cardboard, you must consider the five forces that act upon your structure. These five forces are:[6]

  • Compression - is when the load is applied to the top of a structure.
  • Tension - is load applied along the structure in a pulling action.
  • Bending - is like a bookshelf loaded down with heavy books.
  • Shear - is when forces are exerted on the same plane but in opposite directions.
  • Torsion - describes forces that try to twist the structure apart.

Ply's of Cardboard

Corrugated cardboard comes in different ply thicknesses: [7]

  • Single Ply - is the most used cardboard when making furniture because it's readily available, extremely inexpensive, and ease of use.
  • Double Ply - is used when structural support is important, like when making bookshelves or beds.
  • Triple Ply - is the least used cardboard because it is hard to find and very expensive.


The art deco inspired chair will be upholstered. This will disguise the cardboard structure and is necessary to cover and protect the cushion material. The method of upholstery will be learned from how-to-websites.[8] The fabric will be made from eco-friendly or reused materials.


Upholstered furniture should be fire resistant.[9] Since some people smoke, we want to make sure that a burning cigarette will not set the furniture on fire. We will conduct tests on sample pieces. Our criteria and method of testing has not been determined yet.

Types of Glue

Natural home-made non-toxic glues can easily be made out of a variety of materials, including wheat flour, rice, or liquid glycerin.


Glue made from flour is non-toxic, convenient and easy to make. It is unfortunately not very strong, but we will know more after testing.[10]


Rice glue is an extremely resistant adhesive and can be used to glue all types of paper. In Asia, it is used in traditional bookbinding and luxury cardboard products: papers bonded with rice glue are considered tear-proof. Though white when moist, rice glue becomes transparent as it dries.[11] By adding a little turpentine to the mix, it gives the glue natural pesticidal properties.[12]

Liquid Glycerin

Glycerin, derived from plants or animals, can be purchased at your local craft or drug store, and can make your glue waterproof. [13] [14]


The first test we performed was a qualitative test on glue strength. We glued small pieces of cardboard together, then we let the glue set up. Once dry, we did a destructive analysis by pulling the pieces of cardboard apart. We determined that the rice glue was stronger than the liquid glycerin or flour glues.

Our next test was a fire test which was performed to see if borax, used as an additive to the glue, would retard combustion. We lit 2 pieces of 3 inches by 3 inches, glued cardboard on fire, one with borax and one without. The cardboard sample without borax caught on fire after 36 seconds and was completely burnt by 1 minute 6 seconds. The sample with boarx caught on fire after 1 minute 13 seconds and was completely burnt by 2 minutes and 14 seconds. The boarx does act as a fire retardent.

The final test was a weight test on the final projects. This was a non-destructive test to see if the projects would be safe for normal use. The tests were performed by sitting on each piece and shaking slightly so we can evaluate stability. The stools held the weight of one adult holding 50lbs of weight and were very stable. The table held the weight of one adult, but could only sustain a minimal amount of shaking. The upholstered chair could support the weight of two adults and withstand shaking, but the chair back felt weak and was unstable when leaning back.

The table and stools should be safe for normal use and hopefully last for a long time. The upholstered chair should work fine if the seat back is against a wall. By itself, the chair back will likely fail. The seat of the chair is strong enough to support an adult and will be safe for routine use.


Upholstered Chair

The upholstered chair will be donated to an appropriate technology instructor, and used by his students for office hours. The client specified a chair that was comfortable enough for 20 to 30 minute sessions. The chair will be used several times a day by different individuals, and will be moved throughout the office, therefore, the chair must be durable enough to withstand this type of stress. The office is newly remodeled and the chair should reflect professional quality along with a neutral color scheme. The client specified having a chair with low embodied energy as a priority. Despite being upholstered, the client would like some of the cardboard exposed to show what the chair is made of.

Criteria Constraint Weight
Durability Must hold up to normal wear and tear on a daily basis 8
Aesthetics Must have an appealing and desirable look 7
Mold Resistant Must resist mold propagated by Arcata's wet climate 9
Cost $100 dollar Budget 8
Pest Resistant Must not attract pests for nesting or food 6
Sustainability Low eco-footprint, low embodied energy and recyclable 10
Niftiness Should have at least one innovative feature 5
Fire Safe Resist igniting from a smoldering cigarette 4
Strength Glued joints should not fail from weight of adults 10
Ease of Construction Must be replicable and easy to build 6

Desk and Office Chair

Due to an overwhelming schedule and not enough time, I have not met with CCAT (potential client) to discuss criteria. As a back up, the desk and office chair will be built for the use by a twelve year old boy. Therefore, durability and strength would be the most important criteria.

Criteria Constraint Weight
Durability Must hold up to normal wear and tear on a daily basis 8
Aesthetics Must have an appealing and desirable look 7
Mold Resistant Must resist mold propagated by Arcata's wet climate 9
Cost $100 dollar Budget 8
Pest Resistant Must not attract pests for nesting or food 6
Sustainability Low eco-footprint, low embodied energy and recyclable 10
Niftiness Should have at least one innovative feature 5
Fire Safe Resist igniting from a smoldering cigarette 4
Strength Glued joints should not fail from weight of adults 10
Ease of Construction Must be replicable and easy to build 6


Budget: This is the budget for what we anticipate spending on the furniture. We will try to find most of our materials through a donation process or by utilizing Thrift Stores, so the costs are subject to change.

Qty Material Needed Source Cost Total cost
4 months Workspace Warehouse space from my friends with Italian Dragon Pasta Donated $0 $0
50 lbs Cardboard Various sources Donated $0 $0
1 spool Upholstery Thread $2.29 per spool $2.29
1 bat cotton fiber insulation Alternative Building Center Donated $0 $0
4 yds Hemp Fabric Fabric Temptation $21 per yard $84
~3 lbs. Rice Flour Wildberries $1.59 per lb. $4.50
1 container Organic Vegetable Liquid Glycerin Wildberries $5.99 per container $5.99
1 package Unflavored Gelatin Wildberries $1.79 per package $1.79
1 container Eco-Friendly Turpentine Ace Hardware in Arcata $5.99 per container $6.53
1 cup White Vinegar Wildberries $1.89 per container $1.89
~3 lbs. Wheat Flour Wildberries $1.39 per lb. $4.07
7 oz. White Rice Already had some Donated $0 $0
Total Cost $ 111.06

Proposed time line

To be Completed Date of Completion
Finish gathering all supplies/tools 03/14/2010
Design construction 03/14/2010
Actual construction 03/28/2010
Testing 04/11/2010
Finish Appropedia page (Infrastructure) 04/30/2010
Turn in completed project 05/09/2010



Upholstered Chair Frame

Originally, the chair was going to be a series of cut cardboard glued together to provide a solid frame, similar to the stools. The shape of the frame required our largest pieces of cardboard, and we needed to be able to use some of the large pieces on the table and stools. The design was changed. Instead of a bunch of pieces glued together, the frame was made up of 13 2-ply ribs, hand cut, spaced 2 inches apart. The ribs were notched and are held in place by 6 notched bracing members. There are 2 bracing members in the chair back, 2 on the bottom and 2 on the seat. The bracing members are 26 inches long, 4 inches wide and 1.5 inches thick. They were made by gluing 15 pieces of cardboard together and then cut to the above dimensions with hand held jig saw. During the dry fit, the ribs and bracing members held tight enough, that it was decided glue would be unnecessary. Once the frame was together, 3 plies of cardboard was glued to the seat and seat back.

Batting and Upholstery

The batting comes from one bat of cotton insulation that was 16 inches wide. The bat was donated from the Alternative Building Center. It was considered defective and was to be sent back to the manufacturer. The batting is made from recycled blankets and denim.

The Batting was cut and placed on the seat and seat back. The seat back piece extended over the top of seat back frame and was folded back and held in place by the upholstery fabric. Additional pieces were placed on the sides in between the protruding bracing members. Scraps were used to bolster the seat, which caused the seat to be a little lumpy.

There 2 types of upholstery fabric. The first was a black piece that was purchased from a thrift store for $1. This piece was used on the bottom, but it extends up 3 inches on either side. The other piece is neutral hemp purchased for $12.99 per yard from Eureka Fabrics. 4 yards were purchased. The fabric was 60 inches wide. The fabric was draped over the chair and pinned to the bottom piece. Folds were made and pinned on the sides which would become the seams. The fabric was hand stitched with and double loop stitch, followed by a straight stitch. 1 yard of fabric was left over. The front of the chair has flap that can be lifted so that the ribs and bracing members can be seen.

Construction of the Stools

The stools were made by gluing 16 inch by 19 inch hand cut pieces of cardboard together. Some pieces were two ply and other one ply. The plies were alternated 90 degrees on every piece. One stool has 68 pieces and the other has 78 pieces. The stools have different thicknesses, 14 inches and 15.5 inches. The sides of the stools were decorated with a decoupage of appropriate technology pictures, using glycerin based glue.

Construction of Table

The table is made up of three parts; the feet, the stem and the table top.

The feet were made by gluing 13 pieces of alternating plies of cardboard together. There are two pieces that are 19.5 inches long, 5.5 inches wide and 1.75 inches thick. Each piece was notched in the center by hand to receive the other piece, forming a cross which supports the stem.

The table stem is made of 7 inch by 29 inch pieces of 2-ply cardboard. 23 pieces were used and glued together, which resulted in a thickness of 6.25 inches. 1.75 inch wide slots were cut in the bottom on both sides. Each slot is 5.25 inches deep. The slots were cut by Miles Smith, my IT 225 Construction Systems instructor, on a band saw. The slots were designed to receive the feet. The sides of the stem were decorated with a decoupage of appropriate technology pictures.

The table top has 4 layers. The top layer is a 24 inch by 24 inch piece of salvaged particleboard that Miles Smith squared on a table saw. The 2nd layer is made up of 3, 24 inch by 24 inch alternating pieces of 2-ply cardboard, designed for extra stability. The third layer is a single piece of 2 ply cardboard, 34 inches by 34 inches. The edges were creased, cut and folded underneath, then glued in place. A 2 inch flap on the underside of the table allows for a connecting surface for the stem connection piece. See diagram.

The final layer is the stem connection piece. The stem connection piece has 4 sections which are notched and fitted together in the shape of tic-tac-toe. Each section has tab on either end that tucks under the 2 inch folded section of the third layer. The table stem is glued into the center square and the whole section is glued to the third layer. Each section is made up of 4 layers of cardboard glued together. Each section is 23 inches long and 7 inches wide. The tabs are 2 inches wide.

Conclusion and Reflection

Upholstered Chair

The upholstered chair underwent several design changes. The original design called for a series of pieces of cardboard glued together to make the frame. This would have created a solid piece that would have been extremely stable. The ribbed frame is strong enough to support over 300 lbs, but the seat back is unstable. The seat back wobbles and will fail over time. In order for the chair to be functional, it will have to be placed against a wall. A cross bracing piece was place where the seat back meets the seat, the point of failure, but this didn’t help. Using more ribs, spaced 1 inch apart, having a solid frame or making the seat back portion wider would make the seat back more stable.

Originally, the chair was going to have upholstered arms, but we were limited by the amount of large pieces that would be necessary to make the arm pieces. Omitting the arms has the added benefit of making the chair smaller and more appropriate for a small office; however, the arms would have made the back of the chair more stable. Legs were omitted when it was agreed that chair height was ideal and comfortable by those who tested it.

Hand cutting the cardboard was a challenge. Over time I was able to cut straighter lines, but my first cuts were very crude. Individual pieces of cardboard were cut with a box cutter. I would recommend using a band saw to anyone attempting to make their own furniture. A band saw would ensure more uniform and straighter cuts, and it may be faster.

The cotton insulation works well as a seat cushion, but I would recommend using a 6 inch thick piece or two 4 inch thick pieces. The insulation used was from a 4 inch thick piece and you can feel the hard portion of the seat. Overall, cotton insulation is an excellent alternative to foam cushioning. The biggest test for the upholstery fabric is the test of time. I am curious to see how well the fabric holds up, as well as the hand sewn seams.

My original goal was to create chair out of environmentally friendly or reused products that would be indistinguishable from a designer chair. The chair fails in this regard, but I’m still proud of the end result. I’m confident that with what I’ve learned and with more practice I could create really nice furniture. I’ve never made a chair before, so this is my prototype. If I were to make another, it would be much nicer, and incorporate all that I’ve learned from this experience.


Donated Cardboard

Alternative Building Store, Eureka, CA

Sears, Eureka, CA

Harbor Freight Tools, Arcata, CA

Deidre Russel, Thanks for collecting and delivering extra cardboard

Donated Cotton Insulation

Alternative Building Store, Eureka, CA


Carrie and Jen

Thanks for your sewing work and teaching me how to sew.

Miles Smith

Thanks for your help and your ideas on how to make the table work.


Italian Dragon Pasta

Thank you for providing us with a space to put the project together.


  1. Ragsdale, Linda. Creative Cardboard: Making Fabulous Furniture, Amazing Accessories & Other Spectacular Stuff. illustrated edition ed. New York: Lark Books, 2002.
  2. Emery, Marc. Furniture by Architects. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1983.
  3. Domergue, Denise. Artists Design Furniture. First Edition ed. New York: Harry N Abrams, 1984. Print.
  4. Hennessey, James. Nomadic furniture 2,. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1974.
  5. Eekhout, M., F. Verheijen, and R. Visser. Cardboard in Architecture: Volume 7 Research in Architectural Engineering Series. illustrated edition ed. Amsterdam: IOS Press, 2008.
  6. Linnell, Charles C.. "Designing and Building a Cardboard Chair: Children's Engineering at the TECA Eastern Regional Conference." Technology Teacher, The, April 1, 2007.
  7. Hennessey, James. Nomadic Furniture 1. New York: Pantheon Books, 1973.
  8. "Learn to Do It Yourself: How to Reupholster Furniture." Repair-Home - Kitchen, Bathroom, Window, HVAC and Other Home Improvements. (accessed February 13, 2010).
  9. Waxman, Lisa K. 2008. Voluntary Flammability Regulations for Residential Upholstered Furniture. Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences 100 (4): 34-39.
  10. "How to Make Glue: 5 steps - wikiHow." wikiHow - The How-to Manual That You Can Edit. (accessed January 28, 2010).
  11. esprit cabane. "*** Rice glue recipe, esprit cabane, eco-friendly DIY and decorative arts." *** esprit cabane, the magazine of crafty & green living ideas. (accessed January 28, 2010).
  12. esprit cabane. "*** Wallpaper paste recipe, esprit cabane, eco-friendly DIY and decorative arts." *** esprit cabane, the magazine of crafty & green living ideas. (accessed January 28, 2010).
  13. " Formulas making your own homemade glue." Welcome to Make-Stuff. (accessed January 28, 2010).
  14. Gaulin, Pam. "Paper Crafts: Homemade Glue Recipe for Kid Crafts - Associated Content -" Associated Content - (accessed February 13, 2010).

All references are in Chicago style format and were obtained from