Build a Custom Live-Edge Bench

Chairmaking “cheats” take care of the tricky stuff. Find a slab and make yourself a seat.

There’s always something new on The American Woodshop, and Season 24 was no exception. In the season’s first episode, Scott and Suzy built a Nakashima-inspired live-edge bench, using a walnut slab reclaimed from an old barn and a few store-bought dowels...in 26 minutes and 40 seconds. Having watched woodworking and DIY shows since I could reach the dial on my TV, I knew that this project would take longer to build in real-life. Still, I was intrigued by the way Scott crafted a handsome project from a handful of humble ingredients. 

Inspired by Scott’s enthusiasm and the project’s apparent simplicity, I decided to try my hand at making a bench of my own. Of course, just as no two live-edge slabs are ever alike, the same can be said about two woodworkers. I used Scott’s methods as a starting point, but I discovered that I needed to employ a few tricks of my own to suit my slab, skills, and tool assortment. 

As you read through this project, you can follow my techniques, borrow a few tricks from Scott, or devise your own methods. However you cut it, you’ll wind up with a gorgeous bench.

Start with the slab

Scott designed his bench around a walnut plank and a few beams salvaged from an old barn. Unfortunately, I didn’t have access to Scott’s secret stash, so I purchased a walnut slab from my local hardwood dealer. I paid more than Scott did, but my slab was kiln-dried, so I didn’t need to worry about moisture content or powder post beetles. For the legs and spindles, I opted for ash instead of red oak. The two woods look similar to each other, but ash is less expensive, and a little easier to work.

Since the slab dictates the size and shape of your bench, your project will be uniquely your own. Scott’s bench measures 21 × 64"; my bench version is slightly smaller. You can adjust the dimensions of the crest rail, and the spindle count, to suit the size of your seat.

Order of Work

  • Prepare the slab seat.
  • Make the back rest.
  • Make the legs and spindles.
  • Drill the seat and crest rail.
  • Install the legs and the spindles.
  • Trim the legs, and apply a finish.

Prepare the slab seat

All live-edge lumber requires the same basic prep, but each slab needs special treatment. (For detailed prep and advice for fixing defects, read “Success with Slabs,” on page 30.)

Scott took the traditional approach, starting with a drawknife to slice off the sapwood. He then flattened the face, first using a scrub plane to hog off the high spots, followed by a jack and a block plane, and finally sandpaper. 

To save time and sweat, I paid a little extra to have the slab skip-planed at the lumberyard. The planer shaved off the high spots, enabling me to finish the flattening process with a belt-sander. After filling the knots with slow-set epoxy, I sanded the slab through 220 grit. 

I prefer featuring a board’s inner (heartwood) face, but in this case, I decided to orient the sapwood up in order to take advantage of the slab’s naturally rounded edge.

Mind the gap. My jointer plane was a handy tool for sighting high spots. I did most of my flattening with a belt sander.

Quick mop-up. A sanding mop follows the curves while polishing the live edge. You’ll need to use both hands to control the spinning mop. 

Finish first. It’s easier to spray a few coats of finish on the seat and crest rail before drilling and attaching the spindles. Future layout lines will wipe off the boards with a damp rag.

SCOTT SAYS

When using air-dried wood, “wait one year per inch” is a good rule of thumb, but thicker slabs often require twice as long to dry out. When in doubt, use a moisture meter.

Making the legs

After bandsawing the leg blanks to size, Scott turned the legs for his bench by eye, in less time than it takes to read this paragraph. Lacking Scott’s turning talents, I relied on carbide-tipped turning tools and a template. 

Lucky for me, round legs aren’t rocket science. Starting with 2 × 2" square blanks, I ripped off the corners at the table saw. I then mounted each blank on the lathe, turned them to 1-3/4" dia., and then used the plywood pattern to mark out the tenon and taper. Before removing each leg from the lathe, I applied two coats of Enduro-Var, sanding between coats, and making sure to keep the finish off the tenon. (Note: If you don’t own a lathe, or if your bed isn’t long enough, there’s another way to skin this cat. Check out “Get a Round Without a Lathe” on page 45.)

Taking a quick turn. Carter’s new carbide-tipped tools transform anyone into a competent turner. Use the square-tipped tool for square shoulders. 

SCOTT SAYS

If your slab’s on the thin side, try attaching the legs to cleats, then screwing the cleats to the underside of the seat. I’ve used this technique many times over the years and never encountered joint failure.

Making the spindles

I wanted the spindles to match the legs, but didn’t want to spend hours at the lathe, so I decided to rely on my table saw instead. The six-sided “pencil post” spindles add an interesting angular element to the soft-edged slab. To make the spindles, rip a stack of 7/8" square blanks, then lay out a hexagon on one end as shown (see Hexagonal Spindle Layout, right). You’ll use this “master spindle” to set your saw, and to check your planing progress.

To fit into the holes in the seat, I used my router table and a 1/2" core-box bit to rout the ends to create 5/8"-dia. tenons.

Pencil-post spindles. After setting the blade and fence, practice the ripping sequence on the master spindle, and then finish the rest. As you rip and flip the hexagonal spindles, make sure that the reference lines remain horizontal.

Shave away the saw marks. A notched board finishes the spindles in pairs. Finish the spindles before routing the tenons.

Router-turned tenons. The jig consists of a base and a block. To make a tenon, attach the jig to your router table, then adjust the bit height and stopblock. Insert the spindle into the block, and spin.

1. Find the blank’s center point and establish a circle.

2. Without changing the compass, set its point on the ends to find the corners. Connect the corners to make the hexagon.

3. Draw a reference line, then rip the side faces.

4. Plane away excess material from top and bottom faces.

Drilling holes for spindles

Leg holes offer a little leeway, but in order to fit the spindles in the seat and the crest rail, the spacing and angles need to be spot on. Scott drilled these holes freehand, but I opted to use a Milescraft portable drill press (see Buyer’s Guide, on p. 64). For the price, the jig is a bargain, but it requires a few minor modifications. First, I removed the stop and spring (to increase the drilling depth) and installed a plywood base, complete with crosshairs. (To locate the centerpoint, drill a small hole before installing a Forstner). Drilling perpendicular holes in the crest rail was a cinch. To set the angles needed for spindles and legs, I set a digital protractor on a post and shimmed the base as needed. 

Since live-edge boards don’t offer a straight reference edge, laying out the holes for the spindles and legs can be challenging. Take a cue from the grain, and lay out your holes with a wax pencil. If need be, wipe off your lines and start over.

Add a cleat for straight spindle holes. To keep the guide on track when drilling spindle holes in the crest rail, I made a longer plywood base for the drilling jig and added a cleat.
Straight line solution. After laying out the spindle line along the sapwood, I clamped a straight strip of plywood to register the jig. If the holes veer too close to the edge, use a cutoff from the bench to support the jig.

Drill the legs from the top down. Use the spindle line to lay out the leg lines. The scrap wood strip keeps the jig from twisting when the bit touches the wood. You’ll need to remove the drill from the jig to finish the hole.

SCOTT SAYS

If you don’t have a drilling guide, you can drill the holes by eye. Set a bevel gauge alongside the hole, and keep the bit parallel with the gauge’s blade as you bore into the seat.

Assembly

Fitting the spindles into the seat and rail can be nerve-wracking. If one spindle doesn’t slip in, it will block the rest from fitting. And if you’re too slow, the glue can swell the tenons and seize the rail in mid-assembly. I found that chamfering the spindles and holes in the crest rail facilitated the fitting process. I also used liquid hide glue, instead of PVA, for more assembly time. Most importantly, check the tenons right before assembly.

Immediately after driving the spindles into the crest rail, clamp the spindles between strips to keep them in proper alignment, and then tip the rail in place. Once the last tenon finds its mortise, clamp the rail to the seat, and then set the rail with a mallet and leather-padded tapping block. 

All that’s left now are a few final touches. After cutting the top ends of the legs flush, I applied two lights coats of finish. Finally, I set the bench on my assembly table, inserted wedges beneath the legs to correct any wobble, then marked and trimmed the legs for a solid stance.

Set the spindles. Brush glue on the bottom tenon and then immediately set it into the seat. As you tap, turn the spindle so that a flat side faces the front of the bench. Drive the spindles until the tenon’s shoulder touches the back edge of its hole.
Gentle (and not-so gentle) persuasion. After fitting the spindles into the crest rail, use a mallet to pound the rail in place. The long clamps keep the rail from popping off when tapping the far ends of the rail.

SCOTT SAYS

Watch out for humid weather. Tenons that fit snugly yesterday may be too tight the following morning. I sanded the top tenons more than the bottom tenons to be certain that the rail wouldn’t stick.

Back to blog Back to issue