Build a Classic Garden DIY Bench with Dowel Construction

Dowel construction makes it solid—and surprisingly simple.

You’ve probably seen benches similar to this one in parks, porches or movies. That’s because this classic style fits into any setting, rustic or elegant. If you’ve ever considered building one of your own, you might have been discouraged by the complexity of the project—all those parts, all that joinery…But read on and you’ll see how I simplified the building process. Dowels make the joinery easy but strong, and router templates guarantee that the curved parts will be perfectly uniform.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

TIME

Multi-day

COMPLEXITY

Moderate

COST

$100 - $500

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Tools and materials

You’ll need a dowel jig for this project. A planer, miter saw and band saw will come in handy but aren’t absolutely necessary. You’ll need two specialty router bits: a “pattern” bit and a “flush-trim” bit (1/2 in. diameter or larger, with a 1-1/4-in. cutting length). You can find both at some home centers or online, starting at less than $20 each. You’ll also need 1/4-in. and 3/4-in. round-over bits and a plug cutter to make plugs to cover the screw holes.

I used cedar lumber for my bench. Other good choices for outdoor furniture include redwood, teak and white oak. If you choose cedar, select stock that’s free of large or loose knots and knotholes. If you prefer a knot-free look, buy wide stock and use the best of it. For example, a 2x10 board might yield enough knot-free stock for the legs, back and seat rails. Avoid any boards with a lot of white “sapwood” because it doesn’t weather as well as the darker heartwood.

Make the legs

To make the leg stock, I planed 2x4s and 2x6s down to a thickness of 1-1/8 in., then glued them together for a leg thickness of 2-1/4 in. (Photo 1). If you don’t have a planer, you can use three layers of 1x4s and 1x6s to achieve the same thickness.

After the glue sets, you’ll need a straightedge to guide the leg stock on your table saw. Quarter-inch MDF works well. Use brad nails to attach the straightedge to the leg stock so it slightly overhangs the stock along one edge. Run the stock through your table saw using the overhanging straightedge as a guide (Photo 2). The result is a perfect edge. Use the freshly cut edge against the fence to rip your leg stock to final width.

Cut the front legs (B) to length. To shape the back legs (A), first make a template from 1/4-in. MDF. While you’re at it, go ahead and make templates for the arms (C; Figure C), side seat rails (E; Figure D), seat supports (F; Figure E) and seat braces (J). Templates save time—it’s so much easier to shape a thin scrap of MDF than a thick cedar blank. A template also produces perfectly matched parts with ease.

Use the back leg template to draw an outline of the leg onto the blank. Rough-cut the blank with a band saw or jigsaw. Attach the template to the rough-cut blank with brad nails and rout the profile using a pattern bit (Photo 3). Flip the blank over and finish the leg profile using a flush-trim bit (Photo 4). Use the other templates in the same way to create the arms, seat supports, seat rails and braces. Note: Do not cut the seat braces to final length yet. It’s best to wait until the bench is assembled for final fitting. Also, lay out and rout the braces on a single board. Then cut them to length.

Cut and machine the seat rails (D), top rail (G), leg braces (H), seat slat (K) and back slats (L). Go ahead and rout the 1/4-in. radius on all the long edges plus the 3/4-in. radius on the top front edge of the front seat rail (D) and the front and back top edge of the top rail (G; Figure A). I also rounded over the ends and corners on the seat slats. It’s a lot easier to shape and sand the parts now, before assembly.

Figure A: Garden Bench

Overall dimensions: 61-5/8" wide x 33-3/4" tall x 24-1/2" deep

Figure B: Bench side view

Figure C, D, E: Bench arm (C), Side seat rail (E), Seat support (F)

Dowel the back

Dry-clamp the slats between the top rail (G) and the seat rail (D). Clamp the first and last slats in place then fit the others into place (see Figure A for correct spacing). You may need to add a clamp in the middle to hold all the slats in place. Mark for dowel locations with a layout block (Photo 5). The layout block really speeds up marking for the dowel holes because there’s no need to measure. Be sure to use a letter mark for each slat, top and bottom. Write the corresponding letter on the top or bottom rail. It’s essential to glue up the slats in the same location as they were marked for drilling. With the slats and rails marked, it’s time to break out the dowel jig.

Screw two 1/4-in. sleeves into the threaded holes of the jig. Chuck a 1/4-in. bit in your drill. Brad-point bits work the best for doweling because they drill a flatter bottom. Set the bit for the proper depth (Photo 6). For shorter dowels, you’ll likely need a stop collar to achieve the correct depth.

Mount the jig on the end of a slat, aligning the marks on the jig with your pencil marks. On short, narrow stock like this, I use my bench vise to hold the stock and support the jig (Photo 7). Drill double 1/4-in. holes in the back slats. On the rails, set the jig on the first set of holes, drill, then loosen the jig and slide it down to the next set of marks.

Assemble the back

With all the 1/4-in. holes drilled, go ahead and assemble the back with dowels but no glue. You want to double-check to be sure everything lines up correctly first. Trust me; it’s well worth the extra time and effort to do a dry fit before final assembly. If everything fits, reassemble with glue. To spread the glue in the hole, I use a 1/8-in.-diameter dowel as an applicator. Just dip the narrow dowel stock into your glue and then swirl it around the dowel hole. I also put a light coat of glue on each dowel with a small flux brush.

Choosing a Dowel Jig

Dowel jigs are inexpensive and easy to use. They make very strong joints. But some jigs aren’t a good choice for this project. Look for two features:

  • It needs to fit over the 2-1/4-in.-thick legs.
  • Interchangeable bushings or sleeves that allow you to drill pairs of 1/4-in. or 3/8-in. dowel holes.

Build the sides

While the glue sets on the back assembly, mark and drill the double 3/8-in. holes for the side/leg assemblies. Use the assembled back to mark the dowel location on the back legs. Dry-clamp the back into position between the two legs, then mark for the dowel holes using the layout block. The back seat rail holes are located on the straight part of the leg but aligned with the angle of the back (Figure B). This won’t allow you to use the store-bought jig.

Instead, make a jig from a block of hardwood approximately 1-1/4 in. x 1-1/4 in. x 6 in. Mark two lines across the middle 3/4 in. apart. Square the lines around the block. Use your doweling jig to drill a pair of 3/8-in. holes centered on the marks. Also mark two vertical lines centered on each end of the block. Finally, draw a centerline down the top portion of the leg that supports the back.

Drill the double holes at the top of the leg using the dowel jig. To drill the bottom holes, set the block so the dowel position marks on the jig align with the dowel position marks on the leg. Also be sure the centerlines on the jig and the leg align. Clamp the jig in place and drill (Photo 8).

Final bench assembly

Dry-clamp the side assemblies with dowels and check for proper fit. Glue up the two side assemblies. Then glue and dowel the back assembly and the front seat rail (D) to the side assemblies (Photo 9).

Now all that’s left is to attach the arms and seat supports with screws (Photo 10). You’ll want to hide the screws for the best appearance, so make sure to drill a 3/8-in. countersink hole first, then the pilot holes. Attach with stainless steel screws or other corrosion-resistant screws such as deck screws. Use a 3/8-in. plug cutter to cut plugs. Glue the plugs into place with waterproof glue, making sure the grain in the plug aligns with the grain in the piece.

Finally, attach the seat slats. For the best look and fit, cut a 10-degree bevel along the front edge of the first slat and the back edge of the last slat. Attach the slats with stainless steel trim-head screws. The heads are so small on these screws that there’s no need for a plug.

Apply finish

After you do a little touch-up finish sanding, you’ll be ready to apply a finish. A quality outdoor deck stain is a good choice. I used a clear stain on mine, which greatly enhances the natural color of cedar. A darker stain obscures the wood a bit more, but it does offer better UV protection. For best results and the longest life for your bench, you should recoat it every year. Don’t forget to add an extra dose of finish on the end grain of the wood where it contacts the ground.

Now you can sit back, relax and enjoy the view.

Additional Information

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Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • Clamps
  • Dowel jig
  • Jigsaw
  • Router and bits
  • Table saw

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.

  • 2x4 x 8’ cedar (4)
  • 1x6 x 8’ cedar (6 - You can substitute two 8’ 2x6s for three of the 1x6s for the leg stock if you have access to a planer.)
  • No. 8 x 1-1/2” trim-head screws
  • 2” deck screws
  • No. 8 x 3” deck screws (16)
  • No. 6 or No. 7 stainless steel trim-head screws (48)
  • 1/4” fluted dowels (48)
  • 3/8” fluted dowels (28)

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