Make an Asian-Inspired Outdoor Bench
Built from standard 2x lumber, this cedar bench is elegantly simple.
I first saw an outdoor bench like this one a long time ago, at the shop of a pro woodworker in Idaho, Mark Edmundson, who was selling them because they were so quick to make yet so pretty. Ten years later, when I set out to design a little bench, made from standard deck boards and a box of screws, I didn’t intend to copy Mark’s design. But when I finished sketching and prototyping and refining, I realized I had come up with something similar, with the pieces of 2x2s and 2x4s in the uprights combining in a similar way to create the square hole for a long 2×4 beam to pass through. There just aren’t that many ways to skin this cat, and Mark’s method rules, apparently.
Luckily for me, and you, Edmundson didn’t mind sharing his great idea (I checked!). Mark is a way better builder than me, and an accomplished author. Check out his book, Pocket Hole Joinery (The Taunton Press, 2014; www.taunton.com), which covers a simple but strong way to build sturdy cabinets and furniture of all sizes using a simple pocket hole jig.
This bench would be comfortable on a porch, patio, or deck, on grass or in a garden. It looks so good, I would even let it come indoors. Feel free to play with the size and design details of the bench. For example, you can make it as long as you want. But 18 in. tall will be about right for most body sizes.
For me what makes this bench Asian-inspired is the way the top overhangs the base and also how the beam sticks through the uprights and is beveled on its ends. The real beauty of this sturdy, stylish bench is that it is built with deck boards and deck screws (like cedar, these resist the weather). That’s it. And you have to look hard to see any of the screws. By the way, you can apply an oil finish to darken the cedar and keep it tan for a bit longer, but ultimately it will weather to a silvery grey just the same. So I say don’t bother with the oil.
Two Types of Angled Cuts
There are two ways you can move a miter saw for angled cuts, either tilting it over sideways or rotating it horizontally. It’s easier to cut with it rotated than tilted, but do whatever makes sense for the cut you are making.
1. Bevel the feet. The bottoms and tops of the uprights have small bevels on the end, which are pretty to look at and simple to cut on the miter saw. Start by marking a line 3/4 in. from the end to guide your cut. Then tilt the saw over to 45 degrees, line your mark up with the inside edge of the blade, and make the cut.
2. Beam gets angled, too. This time you’ll need to pivot the saw table instead of tilting the saw. Mark the overall length of the beam, pivot the saw to 15 degrees, and cut at your mark. Simple. You’re gonna love that miter saw.
Start with the Uprights
By screwing and gluing four pieces together in the following sequence, you’ll create a perfect hole for the long beam to pass through and a pair of strong uprights to support all butts large and small.
1. Cut and match the pieces. To create an accurate hole (mortise) for the 2×4 beam to pass through, the thickness of the 2×2’s needs to match the 2×4 beam. The 2×2 probably isn’t the same thickness in both directions, so after you cut all the pieces to length for the uprights, flip the 2×2 pieces each way to find the thickness that matches the thickness of the 2×4 most closely.
2. Mark the surfaces to be glued. Check marks are an easy way to keep track of important surfaces on workpieces.
3. Predrill. The small center pieces need clearance holes for the screws. Drill two holes in each piece. Don’t go too close to the ends or you might split the pieces you are screwing into.
|Yellow Glue Basics
Cheap and available everywhere, yellow wood glue creates a powerful bond. In general, Titebond III is your best bet. It gives you more working time than other versions (before it starts to seize up), and it also happens to be rated for both indoor and outdoor use, which is great for this bench project.
SAND AND SPREAD. Yellow glue likes flat, sanded surfaces, and to be spread out evenly with some kind of brush. If you do that, and clamp the pieces together tightly, the bond will be stronger than the wood itself.
4. Short pieces first. Feel with your fingertips to be sure the ends of the pieces are even as you screw them on. You don’t need pilot holes in the lower pieces, as cedar is spongy and won’t split easily. Use the longer screws here.
5. Now use the 2×4 spacer. Take a cutoff piece of the same 2×4 used for the beam and use it to space the next piece you are attaching. Press that second 2×2 piece firmly against the 2×4 as you screw it on. Use glue and the long screws as before.
6. The last piece gets clamped on. Take away the 2×4 spacer block, spread glue on the two short pieces, and clamp on the last section of 2×4, making sure it is even with the end of the shorter middle piece. Try to keep the parts as flat as possible as you clamp them. If they are bowing one way or the other, it might help to put one of the two clamps on the opposite side.
7. Trim the far end. One end of the whole assembly should line up at this point, but the other ends of the pieces probably won’t. You can trim them on the miter saw. Trim as much as you can with one thin slice, and if the saw can’t quite reach the end, as shown here, flip the workpiece over, line up the blade with the trimmed edge, and nip off that last bit.
Add the Top and Bottom of the Trestles
1. Mark and drill clearance holes. Mark a centerline and then lay the feet flat against the upright assembly to mark the best locations for screws—not too close to the edges of the pieces, to prevent splitting. Then drill clearance holes for the screws.
2. Use a spacer to line up the parts during assembly. The top and bottom pieces should be centered on the center section. Place a 1-in.-thick spacer of some kind below the uprights to line them up while you drive in 3-in.-long screws.
3. Break all the edges. Cut the rest of your parts and pieces to size and then clean up the corners. Workpieces look much better if the sharp edges and splinters are replaced by nice little bevels or roundovers. A sanding block makes this easy.
4. Drill through the tops of the trestles. This is where you will drive screws to attach the top boards of the bench. The upright boards in the trestle are similar to the top boards, so use those as a visual guide for lining up the screw holes. It’s fine to drill at a slight angle here.
5. Insert the beam. If you’ve lined up all the parts pretty well, the beam should slide in. Check the drawing to see how far it should stick out at both ends.
6. Make sure everything is square. Use your combo square to make sure the trestles are square to the beam in every direction.
7. Drill and drive. Drill clearance holes on the inside corners of the beam, at a sharp angle so the screws will pass into the trestle. Do one hole on each side. Then drive in 3-in.-long screws, burying the heads so the screws are tight. That’s all the grip you need on the beam.
8. Attach the the top boards and you’re done. Line them up and measure to be sure the base is located in the center. The two outside boards get two screws each, and the center strip gets one. Use 2-1/2-in. screws here so they don’t pop out the top. (I traded the cordless drill for a stubby screwdriver in the tight space under the beam.) Then sand the corners of the top boards and put the bench where everyone can see it.