Build a Classic Shaker Bench
Furniture maker Christian Becksvoort presents a straightforward way to build a stunning, classic Shaker settee.
Synopsis: This 6-ft.-long Shaker settee has a clean, elegant silhouette enhanced by its dramatic ebony finish. The bench has six turned legs and three stretchers, instead of the usual four and two. To improve on the classic Shaker design, Becksvoort beefed up the leg-to-seat joint using stepped tenons, which eliminates the possibility of breakage at the shoulder. The seat is shaped with a tablesaw, router, and hand tools.
Benches have a long history in Shaker meetinghouses. The Shakers made Windsor-style, spindle-back benches, but they left off the arms and the medial stretchers, producing, in my opinion, a more elegant design. Their benches were usually between 4 ft. and 6 ft. in length, but longer versions were sometimes used instead of fixed pews. I based this 6-ft. settee on one in The Book of Shaker Furniture (University of Massachusetts Press, 1980) by John Kassay, although I made some modifications.
Kassay mentions that in the original bench the leg-to-seat joint was a weak point, because the hard maple of the legs compressed the soft pine of the seat. To avoid that, I made both seat and legs from maple. To beef up the connection further, I redesigned the leg and the joint. Rather than copying the original leg’s bamboo swell—thick in the middle and thin at the top and bottom—I decided on a straight taper, thickest at the top. With a full 1-1⁄2 in. dia. at the top of the leg, I had room for a 1-in.-dia. tenon with a 1⁄4-in.-wide shoulder.
In place of the simple mortises in the original bench, I drilled stepped mortises. Each one has a deep hole at the center to accept the tenon and a shallower recess around it where the tenon’s shoulder lands. This joint eliminates the breakage point at the shoulder, and I use it on all my chairs.
I made the tapered back spindles straight, not steam-bent to a curve like those on the original. Steam-bending so many spindles adds quite a bit to the workload but doesn’t add enough to the comfort to make it worth it, in my opinion.
Most notably, perhaps, I changed the original’s clear finish. The original craftsman might have approved, since ebony is a finish the Shakers offered on chairs and benches they made for sale. The black finish creates a taut, clean, refined silhouette, and I decided to try it on my settee.
I began the bench by sawing the kidney-shaped ends of the seat blank with a jigsaw, and then fairing them with a file and sandpaper. Before moving on to shaping the seat profile, however, I drilled the holes for the spindles and legs while both faces of the seat blank were still flat and parallel.
The holes are all angled, and to cut them I used an adjustable jig that I bolt to the table of my drill press. The jig is two pieces of plywood hinged together, and it has a stay on one side; when I have the angle I want, I lock it in by tightening a nut on the stay.
To make the stepped mortises for the legs, I first drilled the outer holes with a 1-1⁄2-in.-dia. Forstner bit. Then I drilled the deeper, inner holes with a 1-in.-dia. brad-point bit, using the dimple left by the Forstner bit to center the brad point.
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More on FineWoodworking.com:
- Build A Shaker Workbench – With a stout base, thick top, and abundant tool storage, this is one bench you’ll never outgrow
- Greene and Greene: Master the Details – Perfect the classic cloud lift and ebony accents while building this iconic bed, using stepped mortises
- Tool Test: Forstner Bits – For unmatched quality and precision in your drilling, you can’t beat these bits. We look at 18 brands to see which are best