Full-Service Potting Bench

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This article is from Issue 40 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Get the jump on spring with this mini garden center.

Overall dimensions: 51"w × 235⁄8"d × 59"h

You don’t need a green thumb to appreciate that a potting bench is as much of a necessity to a gardener as a workbench is to a woodworker. For starters, a potting bench provides a comfortable work surface, enabling gardeners to tend seedlings and repot plants without having to work on their hands and knees. A good bench also keeps supplies, such as potting soil, pots, garden tools, and fertilizers, in one convenient location, so that gardeners can make the most of their green time.

The design shown here does all that in spades, combining form with function. In addition to its elegantly-arched aprons, it features a segmented work surface with three removable panels. Two of the panels are slotted, making cleanup a simple matter of brushing leftover soil into the bins below.

Construction is downright easy: basic butt and miter joints, a few rabbets and dadoes, followed by assembly with screws. (Check out the Convenience-Plus Buying Guide, page 41, for the list of materials.) You can build the bench in one or two weekends and make gardening easier for many seasons to come.

Use a dado blade to cut a 1⁄4" deep rabbet on the inside faces of the wider leg components. The rabbets help with leg assembly.

Make the legs and stretchers

1 Cut the wide (A, C) and narrow (B, D) pieces for the back and front legs to the sizes shown in the Cut List. Install a 1⁄4" dado set in your tablesaw, adjust the dado height to match the thickness of your stock, and then rabbet the inside faces of the wide leg pieces as shown in Photo A. This rabbet provides a shoulder that will help align the leg pieces during glue-up.

Apply exterior glue to the rabbet on the wide legs (A, C), and then clamp them to their mating narrow legs (B, D) to make four “L-shaped” leg assemblies (A/B and C/D).

2 Cut the front, back, and side stretchers (E, F), the front, back, and side aprons (G, H), and the top and middle shelf supports (I, J) to the sizes shown in the Cut List.

3 Referring to Figure 2, at right, make a tapered batten and a buckle to lay out the elliptical curves on the aprons and shelf support. Drill holes in the batten and buckle. Thread the buckle between the ends so that the string can be pulled taut, like a bow.

Clamp the string to the buckle to keep it taut; then trace the curve along the aprons. Mark the curve’s start and end points on the batten.

4 Lay out the curves on the aprons (G, H) and the top shelf support (I) (Photo B). As shown in Figure 1, the curves start 31⁄2" in from either end of the front and back aprons (G), and 3" in on the side aprons (H). The aprons and support are 41⁄8" wide at their center points.

Sand the curves on the aprons with a custom sanding block suited to the curve.

5 Cut the curves on the aprons (G, H) and the top shelf support (I) with a jigsaw or a bandsaw. Save one of the cutoffs to use for the crest rail (K). Make up a curved sanding block, and sand the curves fair, using coarse sandpaper, as shown in Photo C. After removing any lumps, finish-sand through 220 grit.

6 Cut 3⁄4" wide by 1⁄8" deep grooves on the inside faces in each of the four aprons (G, H) for the cleats (L, M) that support the bin holder (N), where shown in Figure 1. Miter-cut the cleats to the sizes specified in the Cut List. Fasten them in their grooves with exterior glue and 15⁄8" screws. Be sure to predrill for the screws to avoid splitting.

After drilling and countersinking screw holes through the stretchers and aprons, screw each part to its leg assembly.

Space the bins evenly across the bin holder and trace around them. Cut the openings so that the bins drop in place.

Assemble the bench

1 Using a mitersaw, miter the ends of the front/back and side stretchers (E, F), front/back aprons (G, H), and the top and middle shelf supports (I, J) to 45°. Place each stretcher or apron in position against its leg, and drill a pilot hole, clearance hole, and countersink for 15⁄8" screws. Then screw the parts together using exterior glue, as shown in Photo D. Next, glue and screw the shelf supports in place where shown in Figure 1.

2 Cut the bin holder (N) to the size listed in the Cut List. Next, trace the openings for the three bins as shown in Photo E. (Note: Almost any wide-lipped container will work. I purchased these four-gallon storage bins at my home center.) Make a second layout line 1⁄4" inside each of the traced lines. Cut along these inner lines with a jigsaw. Screw the holder to the cleats (L, M) with 11⁄4" screws.

3 Cut the top and middle shelves (O, P), the back piece (Q), and the ledger (R) to the sizes listed in the Cut List. Notch the back corners of the middle shelf and the back piece, as shown in Figure 1, so they fit inside the legs. 

4 Cut the shelf brackets (S, T) to the sizes in the Cut List. Crosscut one end of each at 45°. On the opposite end, trace a quart-sized can to lay out a decorative curve on the lower corner of each piece. Cut along your layout lines and sand the curves true. (Before cutting the curves, be sure each bracket is a mirror image of its partner, so you end up with the angled cuts on the inside face of each piece.)

5 Drill and countersink the shelf brackets (S, T), and then attach them to the back leg assemblies (A, B) with exterior glue and 15⁄8" screws. Drill and countersink the ledger (R) and fasten it to the underside of the back piece (Q) with glue and 11⁄4" screws. Center the ledger from end to end with its front edge extending past the front edge of the back piece by about 5⁄8". Drill and countersink screw holes for the shelves (O, P) and the back piece (Q) and attach them with 2" screws.

Hot Stuff: Thermo-Wood

While cedar, cypress, and redwood make great choices for outdoor projects, I made this bench from thermally-treated (or “thermo-”) wood. Thermo-wood is heated to temperatures much higher than normal kiln-drying (400° F). In addition to changing the wood’s color, the process makes the wood harder, more stable, and resistant to bugs and decay—without any chemicals. In my area, thermo-poplar costs about 30% more than regular poplar. I found it pleasant to work with, although it was dustier and more brittle than normal kiln-dried stock. The color, similar to aged cherry, runs completely through the wood. It will fade if left untreated, but the wood will withstand decades of outdoor use. (For more information, see thermotreatedwood.com.)

Make the top panels

1 Cut the solid center panel (U) to the size in the Cut List. Edge-glue pieces as needed to make up the required width. Also cut the pieces for the front slats (V), regular slats (W), and short and long spacers (X, Y) to the sizes listed. To rip the narrow spacers, position a stopblock in front of the blade to its left, as shown in Photo F. Set the stop so that the distance from its end to the blade path equals the width of the spacer. Move the rip fence over until your workpiece touches the stopblock and make the cut. Readjust the fence for each subsequent cut.

2 To glue up the slotted panels, fasten one long spacer (X) and one short spacer (Y) to each of the regular slats (W) using exterior glue and 3d finish nails, as shown in Photo G. Glue six of the spacer/slat assemblies to each of the front slats (V).

3 Cut the battens (Z) to the size listed in the Cut List. Check their length against your assembled bench: the battens should be about 1⁄8" shorter than the distance from the front edge of the ledger (R) to the inside of the front apron (G). Cut both ends of each batten at 45° creating a 3⁄4" wide chamfer, as shown in Figure 3.

4 Drill three 3⁄16"-diameter holes through each batten (Z), a hole 11⁄4" in from each end, and one in the center. Countersink and counterbore the holes as shown in Batten Detail, below. This creates a little space for the screws to move as the panel expands and contracts with changes in humidity.

5 Screw two battens (Z) to the underside of each top panel as shown in Photo H. Position the battens 3⁄8" in from the ends of the solid center panel and 3⁄8" in from the inside ends of the slotted panels. Position the second batten on each of the slotted panels so it will fall just inside the side apron (H). From front to back, position all the battens so the rear edge of each panel sits on the ledger (R) with its back edge butted up to the back piece (Q).

Use the blunt end of a featherboard as a fence-setting stopblock when ripping a series of narrow strips.
Tack the spacer slats to the regular slats prior to gluing to prevent the parts from slipping out of alignment under clamp pressure.

Fasten the battens to the undersides of the top panels with 15⁄8" screws. Omit glue to allow the panels to move with changes in humidity.

Finish up

1 Sand the crest rail (K) to a smooth curve. Cut its ends to terminate with a 1⁄4"-wide flat instead of a sharp point. Attach the rail by gluing it to the top shelf (O), and screwing it in place from underneath. Use 2" screws, and be sure to predrill the holes.

2 Cut the center support (AA) to the size listed in the Cut List. Center it from side to side between the front and rear stretchers (E), and screw it in place with 21⁄2" screws.

3 Cut the bottom shelves (BB) to the size in the Cut List. Screw them to the side stretchers (F) and center support (AA) with 2" screws.

4 Finish the bench with a clear outdoor finish. Screw the tool hooks in place along the side stretchers and start planting. 


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