It must have been around the year 2000 that I started to tire of playing
flight simulators behind a desk. It never felt "right"; your stick and
throttle sit too high on the desk and your rudder pedals sit too low. And
it's a drag to set up your HOTAS every time you want to fly and take it
down afterwards. So I built my own "SimSeat" from a couple of MDF boards
and an old desk chair:
The old "SimSeat I">
But it wasn't without its problems. It was built from 18 mm. MDF and
assembled with glue and screws, which made it pretty much indestructible
but also heavy and bulky. Especially lifting it in and out of cars and
getting it through doors and up and down stairs was a nightmare. This
sucks if you go to LAN meets every once in a while. Also, I had tilted the
desk chair back around 30 degrees for that "racy" feel, and it was never
meant to do that. After some extended flights my back did start to
protest. I was also not happy about the distance between myself and the
computer screen. I like to get close to the action, but getting in and out
of the seat requires a certain minimum distance between me and the table
the screen was on.
So around April 2002 I started thinking about a SimSeat II that would fix those problems.
I had a set of specific demands for a new SimSeat:
Easy to assemble and take apart (so no screws or nuts and bolts), but
sturdy enough to withstand being assembled and taken apart on a
regular basis. This was so I could take it to LAN meets. So I decided to
use wooden dowels to join the parts and snap locks to fix them in
A table on wheels so I could pull it in after I sat down and push it
away to get up again.
Easy to build. I'm not much of a carpenter myself, so I like to get the
MDF cut when I get it. That meant straight cuts at right angles as much
Multi-functional. I play not only a number of different flight sims but
other games as well. So not only did I want to use this SimSeat to play
flight sims, but it should - at the very least - not get in the way when
playing RTS and FPS games. It would be even better if I could hang a
steering wheel on it and use it to play racers as well.
A slightly more attractive color scheme than the monotonous gray of the first SimSeat.
So I fired up TGIF
and I started to make some drawings. This is always the bit that I like
the most. Coming up with ideas, trying to get everything to fit together
and to design someting that will do everything I want from it. In the end
I came up with this:
Click on the thumbnails to download a PDF version of the drawings.
The last page of the drawings shows the parts you need. The first order of
business is to get those parts from your local hardware shop. I usually go
there first to see what board sizes they carry and draw up a sawing plan
myself. There are some dimensions that need to be exactly the same to get
everything to fit nicely together, such as the lengths of parts 5 and 6
(the front-to-back boards that form the basis of the seat), the lengths of
parts 14 and 15 (the legs of the table) and the widths of parts 10 and 11
(the bottom and back of the seat). I like to lay those critical dimensions
out so that both parts can be cut in one straight line. This makes sure
that, even if their absolute size is not quite what I had in mind, they at
least match as closely as possible.
Work in progress
As said, I've used 8 mm. by 40 mm. wooden dowels to assemble SimSeat II.
All in all there are 60 of them in the pit, but it's never a bad idea to
have a few spares. There are special toolsets available that make working
with them much easier. These contain a special drill with a central point
and an adjustable collar, and a set of marking pins to line up the dowels
and the holes into which they slot. Then there are the locks, of which I
used 9 in total. I used ordinary white wood glue to glue the dowels into
place (I've been told it's "polyvinyl acetate" glue).
Tools and locks
So, when we've gathered all the parts (the boards, the dowels and the
tools) it's time to get our hands dirty. First we'll cut through parts 7
and 8. If you use the measurements as they appear in the drawings the seat
and the seat-back will have an angle of about 90 degrees. Practice has
shown that this arrangement is surprisingly comfortable. Make sure the cut
is nice and straight and that the halves of both pieces are as uniform as
On to the dowels. They are 40 mm. long and we'll sink them 30 mm. into the
edges, so that they stick out around 10 mm. The boards are 18 mm. thick,
so as long as we drill the holes in them to a depth of somewhere between
10 and 15 mm. the dowels will be hidden nicely. We'll start with parts 8a
and 8b. Mark the halfway point on the slanted edge (the one you've just
cut) and two points at 1/6th and 5/6th along the edge, and use the drill
from the toolset to drill a hole in the edge: halfway the board's 18 mm.
thickness, perpendicular to the edge and 30 mm. deep. The distance along
the edge doesn't need to be very precise, but it is important that the
hole is in the middle. It's even more important that it is perpendicular
to the edge. This will make sure that the dowel and the hole line up so
that they slot together nicely.
Once you've drilled the holes put the marking pins in them and carefully
line it up with the back of the seat. In fact, it's best if the edge of
the seat back (part 10) is set back slightly from the edge of part 8a and
b, so that if you look squarely at part 10 with part 8 behind it you can
still see a very narrow edge of part 8 sticking out (half a mm. is more
than enough). Tap part 10 lightly (a rubber mallet is ideal for this), and
the marking pins will put a small dent in the seat back where the holes
for the dowels should be. Drill another set of holes into the seat back
(set the collar on the drill bit to a depth of 15 mm.), using the dents as
a guide. Again, make sure that the holes are perpendicular to the surface
of the board. You don't want to have to use the same rubber mallet to
assemble the pit later, so make sure those holes line up!
When both sets of holes are drilled put some glue into the ones in part 8a
and b and put the dowels in. You'll probably need to tap them in gently.
Make sure they go in around 30 mm. If they don't, you have two choices:
either pull them out immediately to drill the hole a little deeper, or (if
they go in almost, but not quite 30 mm.) you can decide to leave them and
cut a little off their top later. Carefully wipe away any excess glue.
Repeat for the other half of part 8.
Dowels in place
And that's the basic principle of fabricating SimSeat II:
- Drill holes in one side of the connection;
- Insert marking pins;
- Mark positions on the other side;
- Drill holes there using the dents as a guide;
- Glue dowels in place, and
- Wipe away excess glue.
Be careful to check and double-check before each hole you drill. It's
easier to drill a hole than to fill it, so make sure you're drilling in
the right place!
The dowels are glued into the edge of the boards in most places except for
the feet. Those are small enough to put them in a box somewhere, and it's
very useful that you can make the sides of the seat (parts 5, 6, 7 and 8)
stand up by themselves while you're assembling the pit.
Repeat the process for the bottom of the seat and parts 7a and b. Note
that the seat bottom doesn't sit all the way back on parts 7a and b. The
back of the seat is held in place by the bottom there, so there needs to
be 18 mm. of parts 7a and b sticking out at the back where the back of the
seat will sit.
When the dowels have been placed in parts 7a/b and 8a/b they can be
attached to the sides (parts 5 and 6). Check which parts have to be
attached to which, and clearly mark them by writing their part numbers on
them, or by drawing a single line across their bottom edge (or both).
Spread a thin layer of glue on the appropriate surfaces of parts 7 and 8,
align them carefully on parts 5 and 6 and clamp everything together
tightly. You might want to drill a few holes through parts 7 and 8 and
part of the way into 5 and 6, and use wood screws to really pull them
together. That's the first step finished!
Parts 3 and 4: the front and back of the seat.
You can see on drawing number 4 that parts 3 and 4 are cut from two 200 by
940 mm. boards. I blew up my drawings to full-size and traced the curves
onto the MDF and then I used a jigsaw to cut along the curve. If you want
to keep things more simple you can, of course, use any shape you like.
Now assemble what you have of the seat (put the back of the seat in place
on the sides, then add the bottom), so its sides are the correct distance
apart. Then drill holes into the front and rear surfaces of the sides
(parts 5, 6, 7 and 8), use the marking pins to transfer their positions
onto parts 3 and 4 (making sure that the top and bottom edges of parts 3
and 4 and those of the sides of the seat are lined up!) and drill holes in
the marked positions. Glue the dowels into place in the front and rear
surfaces of parts 5, 6, 7 and 8.
Parts 1 and 2: the side surfaces.
Mounting parts 1 and 2 is not much different from mounting parts 3 and 4.
With parts 3 through 8 assembled we drill holes into the top edges of
parts 3 through 6, copy their positions onto parts 1 and 2 (again using
our trusty marking pins), drill holes there (being especially careful not
to drill too deep so as to avoid unsightly holes in the top of our side
surfaces) and glue dowels into the top edges of parts 3 through 6
(not 8, that part will not be covered by the surfaces!).
Parts 9 a though d: the feet.
It's time to put our seat on its feet. These are simply very small boards
to keep the underside of our seat together. We do the same as we did
before: drill holes in the undersides of parts 3 through 8, copy them onto
parts 9a through 9d and drill holes there as well. The only difference is
that this time we don't glue the dowels into parts 3 through 8 but into
the feet (parts 9a through 9d). This will allow the seat to stand on its
bottom edges instead of on a set of dowels while we assemble it.
Once all the glue is dried we can add the locks. Assemble the seat and
mark where you want the locks to go. I would recommend two locks at the
front of each top surface so that they can be securely fastened. Otherwise
you might find that the top surface wriggles when you are "yanking and
banking" and putting a lot of strain on your HOTAS. The rear is less
critical, one lock is enough there. I use two at the front, one at the
rear, as described.
The locks I used had two holes in the locks themselves and two in the
brackets that they latch onto. So for me it was a question of lining up
the locks and the brackets, marking the position of the holes, drilling
holes in the MDF and fastening the lot with wood screws. Depending on the
exact type of lock you have, your method of assembly might differ. The
wood screws I used where actually longer than 18 mm. so they stuck out of
the other side of the MDF. I simply filed down the excess. And with that
done we'll leave the seat for a while.
Parts 12 through 16: the table.
Now we come to the other major component of SimSeat II: the table. The
method of assembly is exactly the same as that of the seat: first of all
the back panel (part 13) is attached to the legs (parts 14 and 15), making
sure that the top edges are aligned. Then the surface of the table (part
16) is attached to the legs and the back panel. Locks are added to secure
part 13 to parts 14 and 15. The table surface is kept in place by the
dowels, and once you put a computer monitor (especially a CRT) on top it
will have no way of coming off. However, I recommend that you add a lock
at the back of the table to keep it securely fastened, even when no
display is present. I've had a number of instances where I had only put
the surface on, pushed down at the front of the table and the whole thing
came off. With today's much lighter LCD monitors there's a chance of that
happening even when there is a monitor on the table.
Note that the dowels and locks down the table legs are not centered on the
back panel. I have moved them down slightly because the more they are
moved toward the bottom, the better they can deal with the sideways forces
exterted on them.
I glued a couple of pieces of left-over MDF to the side of the table legs,
aligned with their bottom edge. Then I glued a spruce beam to their
bottom. To this beam I attached a couple of wheels. I didn't use castered
wheels because I wanted to be sure that the table would end up at more or
less the same position after I pushed it away and pulled it back again.
The idea was to have it run as if on rails. Also be sure to get wheels
that can handle the combined load of the table and your display. With
today's LCD monitors that's not much of a problem anymore, but if you
still use a CRT (especially if it's a big one) this might be cause for
concern. And that's the table finished as well!
As I said before, I wanted to have a bit more colors this time. I took
inspiration from the actual F-16 color scheme: A light grey nose and a
darker grey body, with the top of the glareshield painted black. I also
used yellow and black cross-hatches to accentuate the locks. I painted the
edges of the seat red because of something that you tend to see in
museums: whenever a cutaway model is shown of an engine or a pump, the
edges of the removed parts are highlighted in red. In the same way I
wanted to suggest that my cockpit was "cut out" of an actual aircraft.
I used a dark-green cushion from a lawn chair as a seat cushion. The color
looks fairly authentic, only the (fake-) wooden buttons let it down
slightly. Oh well.
When I originally built the SimSeat II I still had a Suncom HOTAS which
had suction cups for fixing it to a table. Remove these, and you were left
with the perfect solution for mounting them onto the side surfaces of a
SimSeat II: drill 3.5 mm holes through both surfaces and fix them with M3
bolts. Unfortunately Thrustmaster was not quite so thoughtful with their
Cougar, but nevertheless a simple and satisfactory solution could be
found: the bottom plates of the stick and throttle are held in place by M4
and M3 bolts respectively. Remove two bolts on opposing corners from both
the stick and throttle, drill holes through the table tops at those
locations and use 30 mm. M4 and 40 mm. M3 bolts to secure the stick and
throttle from below. You will have to countersink the holes for the
throttle slightly, because even with 40 mm. bolts you can barely reach the
thread in the throttle.
Room for improvement
As always, you only find out what you should have done after
you've done it. SimSeat II was no exception. Here are some improvements
that you might want to consider.
- Stiffen the back of the seat
Some people have remarked that the seat back looks kind of flimsy. I've
never had cause to fear it breaking, and even after 4 years of regular
use it show no sign of weakening. If you agree that it could use some
strengthening you might want to add a thin wooden beam or two along the
- Fix the ugly hole behind the seat back
There's a bit of an unsightly hole just behind the seat back where you
look straight down to the floor. You should probably get a small piece
of MDF to close it up. With some imagination you might even turn it into
storage room for CDs, DVDs or documents.
- Lose more weight
One of the goals I set myself for SimSeat II was that it should be
easily transportable. I think I've reached that goal, but it's always
possible to shave off some more weight. The drawings show
weight-reducing holes in parts 3, 4, 14 and 15 that I, in the end,
didn't cut out. You might want to. Also, in an earlier design I had the
top surfaces of the seat taper down to almost nothing towards the back,
whereas the final product has them going in a straight line towards the
back. This turned out to be good for me because I can put a keyboard and
a mouse behind the throttle and the stick. You might decide that the
weight reduction is worth it, however.
- Simplify the paint job
An embarrasing moment just after I finished my SimSeat II: someone
remarked how clever I had been to use black tape to make the black lines
on the black-yellow crosshatches. I had to agree that would have been
clever - if only I had thought of it. As it was I had painstakingly
masked out every black line before painting them.
- Paint everything
I hate painting and I'm lazy. These two conditions conspired to convince
me that I could skip painting some surfaces that, I thought, would never
be seen in everyday use. The result is that, when looking from some
unusual angles, you are confronted with an ugly expanse of unpainted
MDF. In retrospect I should have just bitten the bullet and painted
every surface in sight. You probably should as well.
- Countersink the locks
All the locks that fix the side surfaces sit on top of them. This means
that the stick and the throttle can't go all the way to the front of the
table. Had they been sunken into the side surfaces I could have moved
the stick and throttle another 20 mm. or so towards the front, which
might have looked and felt better.
Detail and overview
SimSeat II has been a great success, as far as I'm concerned. It has been
in more or less constant use since it was finished in 2002, and I still
enjoy every moment I spend in it. It has turned out to be exactly what I
wanted it to be: a seat for playing my favorite games, be they flight
simulations, racing games or even first person shooters. Since it was
finished, two people have built their own versions (with their own
modifications) which are also still in use today. Maybe (hopefully!) this
article will inspire even more people.