Visiting the Artek factory in Turku – see how the iconic stool 60 is made!

Did you know that all bentwood furniture by Artek is made in Turku, Finland, which is also the home of Finnish Design Shop? Design Stories visited Artek’s a-factory to see how the 90-year-old stool 60 and other Artek classics are made. Join us for a tour!

L-legs at the Artek a-factory
The Aalto stool 60 by Artek has been in production for 90 years, ever since 1933. All bentwood Artek furniture is crafted at a-factory in Turku, Finland.

PILES AND PILES of L-legs, tea trolley frames, and Tank chair armrests lie in neat formation wherever we look. We have arrived at Artek’s a-factory located around 7 km, or 4.3 miles, from the Turku city center (and 10 km from the Finnish Design Shop head office and showroom!). This is where all of Artek’s bentwood furniture is made, but our purpose here today is specifically to see how Alvar Aalto’s three-legged stool 60 is manufactured. Our guide, Artek’s product manager Riku Rehell, has promised to show us the process behind the 90-year-old design classic.

Aalto’s stools have a very special role in the history of the factory. Not only because the stools are the factory’s most popular products, but also because it was the factory’s founder, cabinetmaker Otto Korhonen, who helped Aalto develop the stools’ famous manufacturing technique.

In the late 1920s, Aalto and Korhonen began experimenting with new wood bending techniques, and one of their inventions was a groundbreaking process that involved using veneer strips to bend the wood to a 90-degree angle. And so, Artek’s signature L-leg was born.

Stool 60 at the Artek a-factory
The classic stool is made from Finnish birch, whose light hue is nurtured at several stages of the production process. The production method of the stools was also developed specifically for birch wood.
Felled birchwood at the Artek a-factory
The birch wood is felled in winter when the wood is at its lightest. Check out the video at the end of the article!
Pile of Aalto Stools in black, white and birch
In its 90 years of production, the stool has been available in a variety of finishes and is currently available painted black or stained dark, for example. The four-legged stool E60 was launched in 1934, a year after stool 60.

Honoring the material

We have just walked up to the machines and our tour is about to start when Rehell has an idea: he wants to show us the factory’s backyard filled with innumerable piles of timber.

“The birch we use grows in old mixed forests, and it is not harvested until it reaches the age of 50, often not until 60 or 70. The timber is stored and seasoned outside for a period of 6 months to a year before it’s ready to be used,” explains Rehell.

“The birch we use grows in old mixed forests, and it is not harvested until it reaches the age of 50.”

The reason for this is that air drying helps maintain the light color of the birch wood. It could also be kiln-dried, but this would affect the hue and might make the wood crack. The traditional method also requires no energy – a lot of space, yes, but luckily there’s plenty of that in the backyard.

Black and white photo of Stool 60
The L-leg structure developed by Alvar Aalto and Otto Korhonen made it possible to attach the leg to the seat with screws instead of complex joinery.
L-legs at the Artek a-factory
The L-leg is designed specifically for stool 60, but the same technique was quickly deployed to other furniture, like Artek dining tables.

No wood goes to waste

Our actual tour starts at the cutting department, where the timber is cut to size. The cabinetmakers’ trained eyes go over each piece of wood to choose what it is best suited for. The most light-colored wood is used for the most visible parts of the furniture, while the darker or knotted pieces are painted over. Cut-offs are used for the stools’ seats.

“There’s a lot less birch than spruce in a mixed forest, and so we want to cherish the material. Each and every inch of the timber is utilized. All excess wood and even sawdust is used for heating the factory,” says Rehell.

Amongst the neat piles of sorted wood, there are piles of legs double their usual width. We are very surprised to hear that these are actually two legs glued together. In the next stages, the legs are handled in sets of two to optimize the process.

Black and white photo of the production of Stool 60
With the original molds, the L-legs could only be bent one at a time, and the process could take up to eight hours.
L-legs at the Artek a-factory
By developing the production methods, a-factory is able to meet the growing demand for the iconic stools – without compromising on the original design.
Making of stool seats at the Artek a-factory
Today, the factory is semi-industrial, using mechanical processes and robots as well as relying on traditional craftsmanship. Many steps are finished by hand.

Bend it like Bentwood

Next, the legs are planed, sawn, and veneered. Before the pieces are bent, they are sawn at their ends to create multiple parallel slits that are then filled with adhesive and strips of birch veneer. This is the secret of Alvar Aalto’s technique – the veneers allow the solid piece of wood to bend into the iconic L-shape.

The wood veneers glued to the leg allow it to bend into the iconic L-shape.

It is this bending that we will next witness. With the original molds, the legs had to be bent one by one and the process took up to eight hours. Nowadays the legs bend in no time, as the same machine both presses the wood and hardens the adhesive.

“In modern hydraulic press molds, we use an electric current that heats up the wood, the veneer, and especially the adhesive, causing it to harden quickly. The legs can be removed from the mold after just a few minutes,” explains Rehell, and points at a machine that looks a bit like a cage. Inside, the legs move swiftly from one step to the next as if by magic.

• Read more: Aalto stool 60 Kontrasti celebrates the ingenious construction of the classic L-leg >

A robot polishing an L-leg at the Artek a-factory
After bending, the legs are dried in the kiln, and drilled to accommodate the screws. The Kuka robot, Finnish for “who”, helps with the polishing.
Black and white photo of making of Stool 60
At the factory, production methods are constantly being developed to be more environmentally friendly and more ergonomic for the employees. However, humans are still irreplaceable in quality control.
Surface treatment robot lacquering L-legs at the Artek a-factory
The surface treatment robot and the electrostatic spraying of lacquer have reduced lacquer consumption significantly. At the factory, all surface treatment is done with water-based varnishes, paints, or stains.

Cooperation between people and robots

The factory is a fascinating combination of tradition and craftsmanship, innovation and technology – Rehell describes this as “a symbiosis of man and machine”. Next up on our tour is the polishing department, where this symbiosis is very evident: on the left, there’s a person hand-polishing wooden furniture, while on the right, a similar job is done by a robot. Near the end of the production line, we find the surface treatment department where the most in-demand items are lacquered by the factory’s new surface treatment robot.

These kinds of automation help the factory respond to the growing demand for Aalto’s stools and to promote work ergonomics for the employees. In the most meticulous work and quality assurance, however, the human eye is irreplaceable.

“The robot can only do the task for which it is programmed. It can’t help a colleague out or cover their shift,” Rehell says with a smile.

Black and white photo of Stool 60
Starting in 2023, in honor of the stool's 90th anniversary, Artek grants every new Aalto stool 60 a lifetime warranty.
New packages of stool 60 at the Artek a-factory
“The new, smaller package significantly reduces both the amount of cardboard used and the CO2 emissions, as more stools can fit in one truck,” says Rehell.
Vintage Stool 60
Artek's Aalto stool 60 has proven to last at least 50 years, the minimum age of the birch trees that are used in their production.

Made to last

The last stop on our tour is the packaging department, where we see parts of the three-legged stools being carefully placed in their cardboard packaging – they are usually sold unassembled. We also get to hear a tidbit about the packages: although it is barely noticeable to the untrained eye, the stools’ packages have become a bit smaller and thus more eco-friendly at the beginning of the anniversary year 2023.

A more noticeable change to someone purchasing a stool 60 is their new lifetime warranty. It covers the entire lifecycle of the stool, which Artek has defined as being 50 years. Rehell points out that there is also a deeper symbolism related to the length of the warranty:

“During their 90 years, the stools have proved they can last for at least 50 years in regular use, if not more. Each Finnish birch tree we use is also at least 50 years old when harvested.”

More favorites from Artek

Armchair 41 "Paimio"
Chair 66
Tea trolley 901
Stool E60
Table 90B
Chair 69
Armchair 402 "Atelje"
Wall shelf 112B
Table 82A
Chair 65
Side table 915
Armchair 400 "Tank"

Stool 60 and the lifetime warranty

  • From 2023, Artek warrants that your new Stool 60 will be free from any defects in both material and workmanship for 50 years after the date of purchase.
  • The warranty applies to any Stool 60 purchased after 1 January 2023  for use in a private home outside the U.S. or Canada.
  • Make sure to keep your receipt or order confirmation!

See also:

Artek products at Finnish Design Shop >
Pre-loved Artek items at Franckly >
Read also: How to take care of your Artek furniture >

Text: Emmi Ratilainen Images and video: Mikko Ryhänen and Artek

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