Garden bench overview: Design, tools and materials
I built this bench four years ago. Since then, it’s been used and abused as a prop on photo shoots, and sat on and commented on by staff and passersby. The first thing they all notice is the design—simple but handsome. Then, as soon they sit down, they’re all surprised by how comfortable it is.
Finally, everyone admires my amazing woodworking skills. But the truth is, this bench is just plain easy to build. I used only biscuits and screws, the simplest types of joinery. Still, the bench is surprisingly strong. It’s been hauled around, knocked around and used as a mini scaffold—and once it even fell out of a moving pickup. But it’s still solid.
Round up the tools and materials
I spent about $95 for the lumber for this bench. You may have to buy more lumber to get knot-free pieces, so your cost may vary. You’ll find everything you need to build this bench at your local home center or lumberyard. Refer to the Materials List in Additional Information below, then choose the lumber carefully to avoid large knots.
In addition to the lumber, screws and wood plugs, you’ll need No. 20 wood biscuits and a special tool called a plate or biscuit joiner to cut the biscuit slots. You can buy a good-quality biscuit joiner for $100 to $170. You’ll also need some clamps, a table saw and a router fitted with a 1/4-in. round-over bit.
Figure A: Garden Bench Details
Overall Dimensions: 60" long, 16-1/2" wide, 16-3/4" tall
You can download and enlarge Figure A, including Part B and Part F Details, in “Additional Information” below. You can also download a complete Materials List and Cutting List in “Additional Information.”
Step 1: Cut out and drill the parts
Start by inspecting your boards and planning the cuts to take advantage of the knot-free sections. Use a table saw to rip the boards to the right width. For crisp, clean edges, rip about 1/4 in. from the edge of the boards before you rip them to the final width. To work around knots, you may have to rough-cut some of the boards to approximate length before ripping them. When you’re done ripping, cut the parts to length. We used a 1/4-in. round-over bit and router to ease the edges of the seat boards. It’s a great task for a router table setup if you have one.
Next, measure and mark the center of all the screw holes and drill 3/8-in.-deep holes for the 1/2-in. wood plugs. I used a Forstner bit to create clean, flat-bottom holes.
Step 2: Cut the biscuit slots
Photo 2: Cut biscuit slots for the seat rails
Mark the centers of the biscuit slots on masking tape. Then, with the plug recesses facing up, cut the slots in the narrow sides of the legs. Keep the plate joiner and leg tight to the bench top as you cut. Use tape to avoid marks on the wood and to keep track of the orientation of the pieces.
Photo 5: Cut slots in the long rails
Position the long rails with the masking tape facing down. Use a Speed Square as a guide for cutting biscuit slots for the intermediate rails. Align the square with the edge mark for the seat rail. Make a center mark on the square as a reference for lining up the plate joiner.
The final step in preparing the parts for assembly is cutting the biscuit slots. If you’ve read my previous plate joiner story, you know I’m a proponent of a technique I call the bench reference method. Rather than use the adjustable fence to position the slots, you simply place your work-piece and the base of the biscuit joiner against the bench top and cut the slot. To find the story, type “biscuit joints” in the search box above.
The only downside to this method is that the slot isn’t always centered on the part, so you have to pay close attention to orientation as you cut the slots and assemble the bench. You’ll see how I use masking tape to keep track of the orientation. Photos 2 – 5 show the plate-joining techniques I used to cut slots in the parts.
Step 3: Assemble the garden bench with biscuits and screws
Photos 6 – 10 show the assembly steps. Biscuits connect the legs to the rails for extra strength. Spread exterior wood glue in the slots and on the biscuits. Then clamp the parts until the glue sets. Use 2-1/2-in. deck screws to attach the legs to the braces (Photos 7 and 9). If you aren’t using self-drilling screws, drill pilot holes to avoid splitting the parts. Attach the top slats to the frame with 1-5/8-in. deck screws.
Step 4: Finish the garden bench
I plugged the screw holes with 1/2-in. flat-top birch plugs, but if you own a drill press, you can make your own cedar plugs using a 1/2-in. plug cutter.
I finished the bench with Cabot Australian Timber Oil. This penetrating oil finish leaves the wood looking natural, but it has to be reapplied every year. For a glossy, more permanent finish, you could use Sikkens Cetol SRD or spar varnish.
Video: How to Make Wood Plugs
Jeff Gorton, an editor for The Family Handyman, will show you how to make wood plugs, for countersunk screws, match perfectly.