Outdoor Bench

A backless Arts & Crafts seater for the garden

With the warm weather here, you’ll want to spend more time outdoors. And what better way to do so than on an attractive bench you’ve built in your shop? Made from 8/4 white oak to withstand the elements, this bold Arts & Crafts design commands attention. And its subtle tapers and arches invite passersby to slow down and take a seat to appreciate the beauty that surrounds them.

While an easy, straightforward build, it does include making a few jigs. First, you’ll need a template for routing the mortises. Then you’ll build a table saw tapering sled for shaping the legs. And finally, you’ll need to put together a planer sled for beveling the seat slats along their length. These bevels serve two purposes: they contour the seat for comfort and encourage any rain to run off rather than pool on the surface, improving the bench’s longevity.

The bench also sports a tough yet, environmentally-friendly outdoor finish to add additional protection and has thin squares of UHMW (Ultra High Molecular Weight) polyethylene screwed to the undersides of its feet. This extra step helps safeguard against the bench scooting on the driveway and wicking moisture from the ground. In all, you’ll soon have a good seat from which to relax and enjoy the great outdoors for many seasons to come.

Order of Work

  • Shape leg parts and stretcher
  • Assemble base
  • Route mortises with template
  • Taper slats
  • Finish and assemble

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Subtle, strong, and smart

Tapered leg halves are notched and glued around an arched stretcher with mating notches to make up the base. Twin seat slats, tapered in thickness along their length, connect to the base via loose tenon joinery. The tenons are oriented parallel to the length of the slats to maximize long grain glue surfaces, UHMW risers screwed to the feet help protect the naturally rot-resistant white oak from ground moisture.

Shaping the leg halves

Dress all the parts to size, pairing the legs halves for attractive grain orientation. Lay out the notch on one leg half, and then outfit your table saw with a dado stack. Attach an auxiliary fence to your miter gauge, and clamp stops at each end to control the notch length. Saw the notches as shown, with the top end of each leg half oriented in the same direction for consistent notch placement. Install a thin-kerf rip blade in your table saw. Lay out the taper on one notched leg half and align it with the edge of a plywood sled sized to accommodate the workpiece and a fence and stop. Place the fence against the leg’s notched edge and the stop to its bottom end, screwing them in place. Attach toggle clamps to the fence to help hold the workpiece in place, and taper each leg half. Save the offcuts for assembly later. Now, pair leg halves together to saw and then sand the foot arches.

Notch the legs. Begin with a leg part end against one stop clamped to your miter gauge’s auxiliary fence to saw the opposite end’s notch shoulder. Make a handful of passes, working your way to the opposite stop to complete the notch’s entire length.

Taper the legs. Position a leg half against the sled’s fence and stop, and hold it in place with the toggle clamps. Running the fence side of the sled against your saw’s fence, push the sled through the saw to taper each leg part.

Sand the legs. Adhere mating leg halves together with double-faced tape, outside face to outside face, and lay out the arch on one face of each taped pair. Bandsaw shy of your layout line, and then clean up the saw marks at the spindle sander.

Making the stretcher and assembling the base

Lay out the notch and bevel on one end of the stretcher. Then lay out the arch by tracing a ruler bowed between the arch’s end points up to its center. Switch back to your dado stack and outfit your miter gauge with an auxiliary fence long enough to support the stretcher. Clamp a stop to the right of the blade to locate the cut for the inside shoulder of the stretcher’s notches. Make the cut and flip the stretcher edge for edge to saw the notch’s inside shoulder on the opposite face. Flip the board end for end and repeat. Add a spacer in between the stop and stretcher and repeat again. Follow suit with as many spacers as needed to equal just shy of the notch’s width, testing the fit against an existing leg half. Add shims to sneak up on a perfect fit.

Transfer the bevel angle from the stretcher to your miter saw with a T-bevel. Cut the bevels and then bandsaw the stretcher’s arch. Dry-fit the assembly to ensure the base doesn’t rock. When satisfied, glue up the base as shown.

Notch the stretcher. Position and clamp a stop to locate the notch’s inside shoulder. Abut the piece to it and make the first cut, and then widen the notch in a few passes by adding spacers and shims.
Bevel the stretcher. Place the bottom edge of the stretcher against your miter saw fence and align the blade with your layout line. Set a stop on the opposite end. Cut the first bevel and then flip the piece end for end to cut the opposite bevel as shown.
Arch the stretcher. Set up outfeed support to catch the long stretcher if needed, and bandsaw proud of your layout line as shown. Follow up with a card scraper and sanding block to clean up the saw marks and smooth the curve.
Assemble the base. Orient the workpieces upside-down for easier assembly. Apply glue to the notches and along the mating edges of the legs. Using the wedge-shaped offcuts from tapering as cauls, clamp the leg parts around the stretcher. Double-check the assembly for square.

Routing the mortises using a template

To rout the mortises, first make a template from a sheet of 1/4"-thick plywood, 14" by 48". Invert and center the base on the template. Trace the tops of the legs onto the template, and label the base and template for orientation later. Take time to label the seat slats, too. Remove the base and lay out the slots as shown.

Clamp the template and a backerboard of the same size to your bench, and set a router edge guide to align a 5/8" straight bit with the outermost slot location. Plunge the bit through the template at one end of the slot and rout it in one pass. Set and reset the edge guide to rout the remaining slots using the same process. Mount the template to the base and rout its mortises as shown.

Clamp the seat slats together with a spacer in between. Flip the template face for face and clamp it to the slats aligning it in the same orientation you marked earlier and rout the mortises.

Lay out the template. After tracing the tops of the legs on the face of the template, lay out one set of mortise slots at one end of the template. Then mark the length extents for the remaining mortise locations.

Rout the template. Set your router’s edge guide and rout all four outermost slots. Reset the guide to rout the center set of slots and repeat for the inner slots. I-beam risers elevate the work and provide clamping options.

Mount the template. Invert the base and realign the tops of the legs with their traced outlines. Place cleats against the outer faces of the legs and screw them to the template. Clamp the cleats to the legs before flipping the assembly over.

Mortise the base. Equip your router with a guide bushing and a spiral upcut bit with a 11⁄4" cut length. Insert the bushing into the template slot and plunge the bit to full depth at each mortise end before routing the rest in successively deeper passes.

Mortise the slats. With the slats face down, clamp them together with a spacer inbetween. Remove the cleats and use the inverted template to rout the slat’s mortises in the same manner as the base.

Make Loose Tenons

Make loose tenons from the same stock as your bench parts. First, mill a strip slightly narrower than the mortise length and long enough to yield all your tenons. I got the thickness close with my planer and then fine-tuned it using my #4 bench plane to create a snug fit that didn’t require force. Then round over all four edges using a 3⁄16" roundover bit at the router table. Crosscut the tenons to length at the table saw using a miter gauge, with a stop block set against the fence forward of the blade to prevent kickback.

Tapering the seat slats, and assembly

After making and fitting your loose tenons, dry-fit the slats and base to check for square and ensure the joints close tightly. When satisfied, ready the slats for beveling. Make a jig for your planer using dead flat sheet stock a few inches wider and longer than your slats. Use cleats to hold your slats in place and add a 1/4"-thick riser strip to raise their inside edges for beveling. Bevel the slats as shown.

Sand the slats and base through 220 grit, and break the corners of the slats for comfort. To assemble the bench, glue the tenons in their leg mortises before lowering the slats into place and tapping them home. Apply your outdoor finish of choice. I used Vermont Natural Coatings for a clear finish that’s waterproof and environmentally friendly. Finally, screw on the UHMW feet, and have a seat to appreciate your handiwork while enjoying the great outdoors.

Bevel the slats. Set a slat on the jig, registering it against the cleat and stop and making sure the inside edge rests on the riser. Run one slat at a time through the planer, taking small bites until you reach the full depth of the bevel.

Assemble the bench. Brush glue on the inside walls of the mortises and on the faces and edges of the tenons. Tap the tenons into the leg mortises before lowering one slat at a time onto the assembly. Use a mallet and wood pad to fully seat the joints.

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