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Two Garden Benches That’ll Take Your Backyard To the Next Level

Lajos Geenen

POP Projects is a collection of new and classic projects from more than a century of Popular Mechanics. Master skills, get tool recommendations, and, most importantly, build something of your very own.


Few things refresh the human spirit so thoroughly as simply sitting outside on a beautiful day. It’s even more satisfying if you sit with somebody, and if the seat is something you’ve built, well, so much the better. Build a bench now, and you’ll be ready for that first warm day this year and for years to come.

Here are two benches that’ll feel right at home in any backyard.

These Tools Will Help

Slatted Backless Garden Bench

Plans and Materials

garden bench plans

Staff, Illustration by George Retseck

Cutting and Drilling

Start with seven pieces of lumber and a handful of hardware. Spend a couple of free afternoons cutting and boring.

When you’re done, you’ll have fine seating for one or two—in fact, three kids could even rest comfortably on it. It’s built to last, with a slatted top made from 2 × 4 lumber turned on edge, bolted to stout 4 × 4 legs. We recommend using Western red cedar, which is naturally rot resistant.

Make the shoulder cuts: With a power miter saw or a circular saw and a crosscut guide, cut four legs, nine seat boards, and 12 spacers to length. Cut the tenon into the top of each leg with a table saw. Make a shoulder cut into opposite sides of each leg. Clamp a small stop block to the rip fence, and adjust it so the outside of the blade is 3 1⁄2 in. from the stop block. With the blade set to 1 3⁄8 in. high, butt the leg against the stop block, and use the miter gauge to push it across the blade [1].

Pare to perfection: Flip the leg over and make the second shoulder cut. Repeat for the other three legs. Move the fence to the side and, while holding the leg against the miter gauge, make repeated passes over the blade to remove the bulk of each tenon. Pare away slivers of wood with a razor-sharp chisel [2].

Add the spacer blocks: Blocks 3⁄4 in. thick and 3 1⁄2 in. square must be nailed to six 2 × 4 seat boards as spacers. Using polyurethane glue and 1 1⁄2-in. 4d galvanized finishing nails, fasten a block with the outer edge 3 1⁄2 in. from each end [3].

Attach the legs: Use the glue and 1 5⁄8-in. galvanized decking screws to fasten a leg at each end of two seat boards that don’t have spacers attached [4]. Mark center points on the two outer seat boards for the counterbored holes for the nuts and rods that hold the seat together. On these points, drill a 3⁄4-in.-deep hole with a 1-in.-diameter spade bit. The counterbored holes will receive a wood plug to hide the hex nuts on the ends of the threaded rods.

Bore the rod holes: To drill the 7⁄16-in.-diameter holes for the rods, make a plywood jig and bolt it onto a drill guide. This ensures that the hole through each piece is accurately positioned relative to the board’s end. Hold the jig against the end of each seat board, then drill through the board and spacer block [5].

Bench Assembly

Clamp the Parts: Glue and clamp the parts together on a workbench [6]. Hacksaw each threaded rod to a length of 19 in. Thread a nut onto the end of each rod, then remove the nut, to clean up saw damage. Feed each rod through its hole; use light hammer strikes, if necessary.

Finishing Touches: Place a washer and nut on the ends of each rod, and ratchet tight with a 9⁄16-in. socket [7]. Glue a dowel plug into each hole [8] and cut it flush to the face of the seat board [9]. Smooth surfaces with belt and orbital sanders, using 80- and 100-grit sandpaper, respectively. Use a clean brush to remove sanding dust, and apply a clear wood preservative. This should provide sufficient protection for the wood, but to preserve the finish, keep fallen leaves brushed off (tannins will stain it), and store the bench indoors in winter.


The Arts & Crafts Garden Bench

pm6035051a

Neal Barrett

If the only thing you do in your yard is mow the lawn, maybe it’s time to add some creature comfort to your outdoor space. Our stately cedar bench is ideal for relaxing in the fresh air, enjoying the greenery and just getting away from it all. And, it’s more than just a great place to sit. Featuring a design influenced by the Arts & Crafts style, the piece will bring an upscale look to any yard. Best of all, the construction details are solid and simple, giving you a long-lasting piece of outdoor furniture, that’s relatively easy to build.

We used red cedar for the bench—a material that’s generally available at lumberyards and home centers throughout the country. Since cedar is widely used for outdoor decking and trim, it’s usually not kiln-dried and is often sold with a high moisture content. For the best results with this project, buy the material at least two to three weeks before beginning construction. Stack the lumber in a dry location with spacers between the boards, allowing for good air circulation so the material will dry. And, be sure to use a glue designated for exterior use. We used Titebond II to assemble our bench.

Plans and Materials

garden bench plans

Staff

garden bench plans

Staff

Preparing the Legs

The 2 3⁄4-in.-thick legs are made by gluing together thinner stock. To make each rear leg, crosscut a pair of 2 x 6 cedar pieces to about 40 in. Use a roller to spread glue on the mating surfaces of the boards [1] and clamp the pairs together to form the leg blanks. For the front legs, follow the same procedure with 30-in.-long 2 x 4 stock.

When the glue dries, rip the rear blanks to a width of 5 in. and use a band saw to trim them to 2 3⁄4 in. thick. Then saw the front legs to 2 3⁄4 in. square. Plane the cut surfaces smooth and crosscut the front legs to finished length.

Lay out the side profile of the rear legs on the cedar blanks [2] and cut to the waste side of the lines with a band saw [3]. Then plane the sawn surfaces [4]. Use a sanding block or scraper to smooth the inside corner of each leg where the plane won’t reach. Use a plunge router with a spiral up-cutting bit and an edge guide to remove most of the waste in each leg mortise [5]. Square the mortise ends with a sharp chisel [6].

garden bench plans

Neal Barrett

garden bench plans

Neal Barrett

Notice that the arm mortises in the rear legs are cut at a 7 1⁄2-degree angle to allow the arms to be level. To start the angled mortises, clamp a block with a square end to the vertical face of a leg and use it as a guide to drill out most of the waste [7]. Then, use a sharp chisel to finish each mortise. Crosscut the top end of each rear leg so that it’s square to the angled face of the leg. Chamfer the ends with a block plane [8].

Bench Rails

Rip and crosscut 1-in.-thick stock for the rails. Also, cut a piece of 2 x 4 stock to size for the center seat-support rail. Use a scrap stick as a beam compass to mark the 39 3⁄4-in. radius on the top side rails and center rail, but don’t cut the curves at this point.

Install a dado blade in the table saw and cut the tenons on the ends of the side, front and back rails [9]. Use the table saw rip fence as a stop to ensure that the tenons are of equal length. Readjust the blade height to cut the shoulder at the top and bottom edge of each tenon.

Clamp a scrap fence to the table saw fence and position it so that only 1⁄2 in. of the dado blade will be exposed. Turn on the saw and raise the blade to a height of 7⁄8 in., and cut the tenons on the top ends of the front legs [10]. Readjust the saw again to cut the tenons on the ends of the center seat-support rail.

Next, mark the locations of the slat mortises in the side, front and back rails and use a plunge router to cut them [11]. Since the rails are narrow, clamp a second board to the workpiece to help support the router base. Square the mortise ends with a sharp chisel. Work carefully when making these cuts, as there are no shoulders on the slats to hide oversize mortises.

Lay out the mortises for the center seat-support rail in the front and back rails. Use a Forstner bit in a drill press to remove most of the waste [12], and square with a chisel. Then, cut the curved profiles on the side and center support rails, and rip and crosscut the bench slats to finished size.

Assembly

Begin assembly by joining a set of slats to the side rails [13]. It isn’t necessary to glue the slats in place since they will be held captive between the rails, but if they fit too loosely, you can place a spot of glue in the mortises to prevent them from rattling.

Spread glue in the leg mortises and on the side rail tenons, assemble one of the bench sides, and clamp until the glue sets [14]. Repeat the process for the other side.

Join the slats to the front rails If necessary, use three or four clamps to press the slats all the way into the joints [15]. Then, spread glue in the front and back rail mortises and on the center rail tenons, and join the parts [16]. Use a clamp to pull the joints tight, and set the assembly aside to let the glue dry [17].

Assemble the back rails and slats and join this subassembly to one of the bench sides [18]. When the glue cures, join the front and back seat rail assembly to the same side. Complete the bench frame by joining the opposite side to the rail ends.

Rip and crosscut 3⁄4-in. stock to size for the seat slats. Adjust the table saw blade angle to 9 1⁄2-degrees and bevel one edge of the front and back slats. Leave the rest of the slat edges square. Use a combination bit to bore screw pilot holes and 3⁄8-in.-dia. x 5⁄16-in.-deep counterbores in the seat slats. Then, fasten the slats with galvanized deck screws. Maintain an equal space between the slats. Use a 3⁄8-in. plug cutter in your drill press to cut screw plugs in a cedar board [19]. Then, spread glue in the screwholes and on the plugs, and insert a plug into each hole [20]. When the glue dries, pare each plug flush.

Rip blanks to 4 1⁄4 in. wide for the arms, and crosscut them a few inches longer than finished length. Use a dado blade in your table saw to cut a square shoulder tenon on the end of each blank. Then, lay out the angled shoulder and cut the finished tenon with a sharp backsaw [21]. Refine the cuts with a sharp chisel where necessary. With the tenons done, crosscut the arms to finished length.

Mark the location of the mortise on the underside of each bench arm, and use your drill press with a Forstner bit to bore overlapping holes that remove most of the waste. Then, use a sharp chisel to square the mortise walls. Note that the arm mortise is elongated so the tenon at the opposite end of the arm will easily slide into the leg mortise.

Lay out the finished shape of the arms on the blanks and cut to the lines with a band saw. After smoothing the sawn edges, join the arms to the bench using two clamps to ensure pressure is applied to both joints while the glue sets [22].

Finishing

Sand the bench with 120-grit sandpaper. Brush off all sanding dust before applying a finish. We applied a coat of Cabot Clear Decking Stain to our bench. This finish is easy to apply and provides good protection for outdoor pieces. Brush on a liberal coat and allow it to dry for at least 24 hours before using the bench.

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