Nature-Loving Garden Bench

Outdoor materials and sound joinery make for a bench that lasts.

Designer/Builder/Writer: Andy Rae

Spring is in the air, and it’s time to spend some quality time outside—sitting down, of course! To serve this purpose, why not make a great outdoor bench that you can “plant” in the garden or on a patio? This classically-inspired bench is fun to make, and it’s constructed using a weather-resistant wood. We chose cypress, because it’s inexpensive, readily available, and known for its weather resistance. Other insect- and decay-resistant woods include redwood and cedar. 

For solid joinery, we chose mortise and tenon. To build your skill set, we’ll show how to mill the mortises with a router and a pair of edge guides, but you can also use a benchtop mortiser or employ the loose-tenon routing jig on page 28 to  bore the mortise half of the joint. You can use a jig on both mating parts of the joint and replace the more time-eating traditional tenon with a loose one. As long as your joints fit snugly, nobody—not even your bench—will detect the difference. 

Note: Check out the Convenience-Plus Buying Guide on page 39 for a list of the materials and tools used to build the bench.

Start with stock prep

1 Face-glue 6/4 boards to create stock thick enough to make parts A-J. (See the Cut List for reference.) Use a foam roller to spread the glue evenly, then space the clamps to ensure uniform pressure over the boards.

2  Plane the front legs (A), back legs (B), and crest rail (I) to 2½" thick. Continue planing the arms (C), side seat rails (D), front seat rail (F), back seat rail (G), center seat rail (H), and lower back rail (J) to 2" thick. Plane the stretchers (E) to 1¾" thick. (Note that the stock for the back legs (B) needs to be 6" wide). Leave the back legs (B) over-width, but cut the rest of the parts (A, C-J) to the finished sizes. Leave the arms (C) and crest rail (I) square for now. 

3 Thickness enough 5/4 stock to make three 7/8"-thick back slats (K) and six seat slats (M, N). Finally, thickness 6/4 stock to make ten 1¼"-thick back posts (L). Leave these parts oversized for now; trim them to final width and length after assembling the bench frame.

Avoid errors with a full-sized side assembly drawing containing pattern measurements and angles. 

Use the leg template to lay out the back legs. Align the template with a straight edge of the stock.

Keep the leg front against the fence. Stop the saw when the blade touches the bottom inside corner. 

Make the leg

1 Referring to Figure 1, make a full-sized drawing for the side on a piece of 1/4"-thick plywood (Photo A). Include all the joinery. The drawing makes it easier to lay out the joints and measure the sloping angle at the bench back. 

2 Make a pattern for the back legs (B), using another piece of 1/4" plywood. Bandsaw or jigsaw the pattern, and smooth its edges with sandpaper. Use the pattern to draw the shape of the leg onto the leg stock as shown in Photo B. 

3 Cut the back legs (B) to rough shape on the bandsaw, staying about 1/16" outside the pencil line. Use a stationary belt sander or hand plane to work up to your line on the front of the leg. (Note: Save the wedge-shaped offcuts. You’ll use them as clamping cauls during assembly.)

4 Using your table saw, set the rip fence to 2½", raise the blade to full height, and trim the rear face of the back leg as shown in Photo C. Stop when the forward-most part of the blade—the teeth closest to the tabletop—touches the intersecting angle. Carefully turn off the saw, then flip the leg end to end and make a second cut in similar fashion. 

Rout the mortise in two passes using a handheld router and straightedge attachment, registering the edge guide on both faces to ensure that the mortise is centered on the stock. 

Square the rounded ends of your mortises with a chisel. Marking the mortise depth on the chisel’s back is an easy way to gauge your progress. 

SAFETY ALERT: When making stopped cuts on the table saw, keep the workpiece firmly against the fence as you turn off the saw. Make certain that the blade has come to a complete stop before flipping the workpiece. This proves to be an ideal application for a leg-operated power safety switch. 

Remove the remaining ridge from the inside corner with a chisel. Smooth all the faces with 150-grit sandpaper. 

Clamp a scrap straightedge over both front and back seat rails to rout the cross-grain mortises. 

With a dado sled and stopblock you can cut tenons on long pieces with control and precision.

Cut the mortises, and then the tenons

1 Lay out and cut the mortises in the legs (A, B), arms (C), seat rails (F, G), crest rail (I), and lower back rail (J). Refer to the spacing in Figure 1 and the slat and post mortise layout in Figure 2. To cut the 1"-wide mortises in all the parts, except the seat rails (F, G), I used a handheld router, a ½" upcut spiral bit, and a commercial edge guide. Set the fence to rout one-half of the mortise, then turn the stock around, register the guide against the opposite side of the stock, and rout the second half (Photo D). Square the double-rounded ends with a chisel as shown in Photo E.

2 Mortise in the front and back seat rails (F, G) by clamping both rails together and then clamping a straightedge made from a piece of 3/4" MDF or plywood across the stock  (Photo F). Reset the straightedge after the first cut to complete the 1"-wide mortises. Use a chisel to square off the rounded ends of the mortises.

3 Referring to Figures 1 and 5, lay out the tenons to match your mortises. Note that the tenons on the front (A) and back (B) legs are mirror images of each other; make sure you lay them out correctly before cutting. 

4 Use your table saw and a dado blade to cut the tenons on the front legs (A), back legs (B), side seat rails (D), stretchers (E), front seat rails (F), back seat rails (G), center seat rails (H), and lower back rail (J). To do this tenon work, you can use a jig or simply lay the stock flat on the table saw and use a crosscut sled to carry the parts over the dado blade, as shown in Photo G. 

5 Cut the tenons on the angled back legs (B). Depending on your saw, you may be able to switch from the sled to the miter gauge and let the stock hang down over the side of the table saw  (Photo H). If making the cut as shown is impossible without removing your table saw’s wing, you may decide to use a tenoning jig.

6 As shown in Figures 3 and 4, the tenons on the stretchers (E), front seat rail (F), and back seat rail (G) are mitered so that they can remain as long as possible. To do this, dry-fit each square-ended tenon into its respective mortise and mark where the inner mortise wall meets the face of the tenon, as shown in Photo I. Set the mitersaw to 45° and trim the end of each tenon, cutting on or just past your marked line, as shown in Photo J. Overcutting the miter by 1/16" ensures that the tenons don’t hit when you assemble the bench.

7 Cut a 10° miter on the ends of the arms (C) using the mitersaw. Now, using your table saw and miter gauge set for a 10° cut, saw one shoulder, then reset the gauge to 10° in the opposite direction and saw the opposing shoulder, as shown in Photo K.

8 Attach a 10° fence screwed to a tenoning jig and cut the tenon’s cheeks as shown in Photo L. (Note: Remove most of the waste with a handsaw to prevent the risk of offcuts getting caught between the jig and blade and flying backwards at the end of the cut.) Set the rip fence to the desired tenon thickness and make two rip cuts for each arm.

9 Lay out the width of the tenons and make these cuts on the bandsaw  (Photo M). Finally, crosscut the shoulders with a handsaw. Use a chisel to clean up any inside corners. 

Hanging the leg over the side of the saw will enable you to cut the tenon cheeks on the back leg and allow the table to carry the weight of the leg.

Mark the inner face of the miter by inserting the tenon into the mortise and drawing a line as shown.

Set the saw to 45° and miter the end of the tenon just past the pencil line.

Use the table saw’s miter gauge to cut the 10° shoulder, setting the end of the arm against the fence. 

Cut the angled and curved parts

1 Bevel the top edge of the front seat rail (F) by angling the table saw blade to 6°. Be sure to orient the rail so the bevel slopes towards the back of the seat as shown in Figure 3.

2 Draw the curve on one arm (C), the crest rail (I), and one side seat rail (D) using a pliable stick of straight-grained wood to draw the curve. (I made my “fairing stick” from leftover ash and attached a piece of string to one end to hold the curve.) Bend the stick into the desired curve, then tie off the opposite end of the stick. Position the stick to mark on your stock, clamp it, and draw the curve (Photo N).

3 Using the patterns on page 77, make a full-scale template of the ends of the arm (C) and crest rail (I) from 1/4" plywood. Use the template to draw the curves on the stock. Now saw the curves on the arms (C), crest rail (I), and seat rails (D, H) using the bandsaw or jigsaw. (Save the long offcut from the crest rail (I); you’ll use it as a clamping caul during the assembly process.)

4 Smooth the curves on the arms (C) and crest rail (I) with a sanding block or hand plane, taking light cuts and feeling for a continuous curve with your fingers. The concave curve of the seat rails (D, H) is hidden under the seat slats, so smoothing this area isn’t very important. I used an oscillating spindle sander on the curved areas, removing most of the saw marks in the process.

5 Refine the ends of the arms (C) and crest rail (I) using a spindle sander or 150-grit sandpaper wrapped around a wood block. Check that the curve is true by nesting the pattern you made earlier against the rail’s end (Photo O).

Set up a 10° fence on a jig to rip the tenon cheeks. Remove the bulk of the waste with a handsaw to avoid kickback.

Cut the tenons to width on the bandsaw, then finish the short shoulders with a fine-tooth handsaw.

Clamp a piece of curved stock to the face of the crest rail and draw the curve onto the stock.

Measure and fit the back

1 Rather than rely solely on the Cut List, dry-assemble the frame and measure between the crest rail (I) and lower back rail (J) as shown in Photo P. To your measurement, add 2½" for the 1¼"-long tenons on both ends the back slats (K) and 1½" for the pair of 3/4"-long tenons on the back posts (L). Go ahead and cut the slats and posts to finished length. 

Note: The tenons on the posts are shorter than the slats to ease assembly. This lets you connect the crest rail to the three back slats before lining up and connecting the 10 posts. Trying to position 13 tenons all at once in a single glue-up is asking for trouble.

2 Using a table saw with a dado set and a miter gauge, or the dado sled shown in Photo G (page 34), cut the tenons on the back slats (K) and back posts (L), as shown in Photo Q.

3 Round over all sharp edges. I used a  3/16"-round-over bit chucked in a table-mounted router and routed all the accessible edges. For those areas where the bit can’t reach, use a block plane or a rasp to knock off the corner, then smooth the curve with 150-grit sandpaper.

*note: the length between the tenons of part H in Figure 5 is incorrectly listed as 15”; the correct measurement should be 15-1/2”

Use the plywood pattern to check your progress as you refine the curve on the ends of the crest rail. 

Dry-fit the bench, then measure the distance between the crest rail and the lower back rail with a rule to obtain the exact length of the slats and posts, including the tenons.

Position a scrap block behind the slats and posts to ensure clean, tear-out-free cuts on the front and back faces of your workpieces. Then use your miter gauge to make the cut.

Assemble the sides first. Use the leg offcuts to keep the clamp square to the work. Remove excess glue in the open mortises.

Assemble the frame and the back

1 Starting with a side assembly, brush glue into the mortises in the legs (A, B) and onto the tenons on the arms (C), seat rail (D) and stretcher (E). Press the parts together by hand and close the joints with clamps. Use the wedges you saved earlier to help with clamping the angled back leg, as shown in Photo R. 

2 Glue and square the center seat rail (H) to the front and back seat rails (F, G). When dry, attach the rails to one side assembly, making sure that the shoulders on both rails seat snugly against the legs. Add the lower back rail (J), join the remaining side assembly, and then pull it together with clamps  (Photo S). Set the assembly aside to dry, but before you do, add the crest rail (I)—without glue—to the back legs (B) to help keep the frame square while the glue sets.

3 Add the back slats (K) and back posts (L), then cap it with the crest rail (I). Work quickly, so that the glue doesn’t have a chance to set up before bringing all the joints home. Use the curved offcuts you saved earlier to protect the crest rail and as a clamping aid, tapping the joint home as shown in Photo T. 

Add decorative pegs to the mortise-and-tenon joints if you wish. (See below and the garden planter on page 40)

A square peg for a round hole

Thanks to modern adhesives, pegging a joint is usually unnecessary. I like pegs because they look great, especially the square ones. With the exception of the 2" pegs used to attach the planter’s top frame (see “Made-to-Match Garden Planter,” page 40), most of the pegs are less than 1"-long. 

After laying out the peg locations, use a 1/4" chisel (I used a hollow chisel from my mortiser—without the inner bit), striking it firmly enough to create a 1/4"-deep hole. Next, drill through the square hole with a 1/4" twist bit 1/2" deep. Wrap a piece of tape around your bit to flag the correct depth.

Rip some stock 1/4"-square, then cut pegs (O) about 11/2" long. To make the pegs easier to set, drill a shallow divot with a countersink bit into a block of hardwood. Place the peg in the divot and tap it with a hammer to compress-bevel the corners.

Spread glue on the beveled end of the peg and drive that end into the hole, lining up the square edges with the edges of the hole. Thanks to cypress’ relative softness, the hole will compress to accommodate the edges of the peg, leaving a square peg in a round hole. Once the glue has set, trim the protruding peg flush and sand smooth.

Add the seat

1 Double-check the fit of the seat slats (M, N) on your bench, then cut them to length. Set up your drill press with a countersink/counterbore bit and drill the slats for #8 coated deck screws and  3/8" plugs. Soften the edges and ends of all the seat slats, but rout a larger radius as shown in Figure 3 on the front seat slat (M) to make it more thigh-friendly. 

2 Attach the seat slats with #8 deck screws. To maintain consistent slat spacing, use 1/4"-thick spacers during installation. 

3 Chuck a  3/8" tapered plug cutter into your drill press and cut matching plugs using some leftover project scrap. Tap the face-grain plugs into the holes with glue, carefully orienting the grain of the plug in line with the grain of the slats. Once the glue has dried, saw the plugs flush with the seat using a flush-trimming saw. Finish up by sanding the plugs smooth with 150-grit sandpaper wrapped around a block of wood or using a paring chisel.

Join the two side assemblies to the seat rails and lower back rail, gluing the joints and clamping the frame square.

Tap home all the back slats and posts, then cap them and the back legs with the crest rail. Use your curved offcuts for good clamp purchase, taping them in place as shown.

Finish … or not

Left unfinished, cypress holds up really well outdoors. After a season or two it will turn a beautiful silvery gray. However, I think applying a finish is a smart idea, because it can help prevent moisture absorption and movement issues as the bench sits though seasonal extremes. Plus, a coat or two of finish makes the bench look great upon delivery or installation. 

To apply a penetrating-type finish, flood the surface with the brush, let it sit for 30 minutes, then wipe away any excess with a clean cloth. If you detect any roughness after the first coat has dried, sand with 220-grit sandpaper. Give the first coat a day to dry before applying a second. To be safe, give the final coat a week to cure before you let anyone take a seat.

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