Canadian Woodworking

Cedar garden bench

Author: Michael Kampen
Illustration: James Provost
Published: April May 2009

This garden bench will make a wonderful place to relax and ponder life’s mysteries.

Whether you place this bench in a quiet corner of your garden or beside the door as a convenient place to rest when putting on your shoes or to set down your bags as you unlock the door, this simple project can be easily completed in a weekend. The bench is comprised of a top, apron and four legs; a shop-made template, bandsaw, and a portable hand sander are all you will need to make the curved legs. You’ll also need access to a jointer and thickness planer for the other parts. All the pieces for this project can be made from commonly available dimensional deck lumber. If you have trouble locating the thicker pieces, you can easily glue up thinner cedar fence boards.

Securing tops with Z clips

A web clamp makes for quick and easy assembly

The Top

The top (A) on this bench started out as a couple of cedar 2 x 6’s. Cut the 2 x 6 stock 1″ longer than the final length, and then use a jointer and thickness planer to dress the pieces to the final thickness. Joint one edge of each board to remove the rounded edges and then raise up the cutter head on your planer and pass the pieces through on edge so that the other edge can be squared up. Use a cross cut sled on the table saw to square up one end and then use a stop block on the sled to cut the pieces to the same length.

To ensure perfect alignment during the glue-up you can use a dowelling jig or biscuit joiner to facilitate alignment of the pieces. While this is not necessary for a successful glue-up, it significantly reduces the sanding time resulting from misaligned boards. Apply glue to the joints (check the boards for alignment if you are not using dowels or biscuits), and tighten the clamps carefully to avoid damaging the soft cedar edges.

When the glue has cured, trim the panel to ensure a straight edge at each end. To continue the line of the curve suggested by the legs, tilt your table saw blade over to 80º and undercut the ends using a cross cut sled on the table saw. Undercutting the sides on a right hand tilt table saw will pinch the top between the fence and the blade, setting up the conditions for a dangerous kickback. You are best to make this cut on the jointer by tilting the fence and taking several passes until the required material has been removed.

The hard edge on the seat must be broken and this is best done on a router table. Install a ½” round over bit in the router table and use a fence to limit the amount of the cutting edge that is exposed to the outer portion of the bit. This will create a soft curve at the edge without having the complete round over ruin the undercut profile of the top. You can now finish sand both sides of the top.

The Apron

Mill the long (B) and short (C) aprons from either a 2 x 6 cedar or some 5/4 deck boards. With these pieces milled to the correct cross sectional dimension, cut them to length. Use a dowelling jig to drill seven dowel holes in the end of each board for the leg to apron joints. Set up the table saw to cut a groove ⅜” down from the top edge on the inside face of the apron for the Z-Clips,, that will hold the top in place. Sand each of these pieces for finishing.

The customer I was making this bench for requested that I include his favourite quote by one of the great thinkers of the 20th century. I used a CNC router to carve the inscription into the front apron, but this could also be done using a router with template guides or the old-fashioned way, by hand with a fine carving knife (

The Legs

The legs are the only portion of this project that might throw you a curve; two actually. Each of the legs has a concave face on the two faces that face out from the bench. Adding a curve to a project gives it a sense of movement and makes its outline seem a lot less blocky. The two curves in each leg serve to visually lighten the look of the bench; by removing a little material from each leg, the appearance of the entire bench changes dramatically. I found some rough cedar 4 x 4’s at the local yard but dressed stock would work just as well, although you will need to reduce the cross sectional dimension just a little to accommodate the smaller stock. When choosing stock for the legs, pay particular attention to the grain. Try to choose material that has the grain running straight up the leg on all four sides as this will result in a clean appearance on the final leg; flat grain showing on the legs would give the bench a confusing and busy look. If you can only find pieces with vertical grain on two or three sides, use the straight-grained sides for the curved faces and orient the flat grain to face inwards.

Mill the rough stock into flat square blanks for each leg. Use a cross cut sled on the table saw to cut them all to the exact same length. Again, use a dowelling jig to drill dowel holes in the two inside faces of each leg for the leg-to-apron connection.

Before cutting the curves on the leg stock, take the time to make a pattern so that all eight cuts will be identical. Cut a piece of MDF to the same size as the leg, and use a drawing batten or a 24″ stainless steel ruler to trace a gentle curve onto the MDF. Then cut this out using a bandsaw. If you plan on using this template with a bearing-guided router in the future, take the time to smooth the curve with a sander. If you will only be using it to trace the curve onto the legs, such as in this case, the band-sawn edge should be smooth enough.

Place the template onto the leg stock and then trace out the curves on the two outside faces. Cut these curves out on the bandsaw in one slow, smooth operation. Set the off-cuts aside as they will be needed during assembly. Take your time cutting this thick stock or you may find that your blade wanders or you may find yourself with a barrel shaped cut. Before making the cut, check to see that your bandsaw table is 90º to the blade or you will have additional sanding to do to square it up again.

Using the largest drum on an oscillating spindle sander, remove the saw marks from the curved faces. Keep the legs moving against the drum or you will end up with a series of ridges running across the face of the piece. If you don’t have a spindle sander, you can use files and sandpaper attached to a contoured block of wood. After removing the saw marks, use a random orbit sander to sand the legs for finishing. Use a sander, block plane or file, to slightly round over the bottom edge of the legs to keep the sharp corner from snagging on something and chipping out.

The Finish

Glue that gets onto cedar will make a mess of any finish you plan on using so it is best to finish these pieces completely before assembly. The finish you put on this bench will be determined by where it will be placed. If you are placing this bench outdoors, then a finish that will protect it from sun and rain is required unless you want the bench to fade to the natural gray appearance that cedar takes on when exposed to the elements. Early on in my woodworking career I used a film forming finish on cedar and while I still have some of the pieces I built a dozen years ago, they no longer have any finish on them. Cedar is a very soft wood and will dent and deform much easier than the finish covering it, so wherever there is a ding, the finish separates and allows water underneath. Eventually the moisture under the finish causes it to peel off almost completely. I now use a non-film forming finish for outdoor cedar projects as these can easily be renewed every year without the need to strip off old finish completely. As this bench was destined to be placed in an enclosed front porch, an easily repairable coat of Tung oil and wax is all that was required.

The Assembly

Place some glue into the dowel holes in each leg and then insert the dowels. Because the dowel holes are drilled on adjacent faces, they will intersect and you will need to insert 2″ dowels into the holes on one face and 1 ½” dowels into the holes on the other face. Be sure these have bottomed out completely in the holes. Place some glue into the holes on the ends of the apron pieces and assemble the base of the bench. To apply clamping pressure, use the off-cuts from the legs that you had set aside earlier and place them over the curves so that you have a square surface to clamp to. To keep the legs open and parallel as they are clamped, cut some spacers to the same dimensions as the aprons and set them between the bottom edges of the legs. As I mentioned, cedar is very soft and if there are any saw marks or ridges on the off-cuts, the clamping pressure will transfer these to the sanded faces of the legs. Place some form of gasket material between the two surfaces to prevent this; I keep a roll of sill gasket on hand for these occasions but the thin foam packing film that surrounds electronics in transit will also work for this purpose. When the glue in the base has set, turn it upside down on the inverted top and use the Z-Clips to fasten the base to the top.

You’re bound to get a lot of great compliments over this project, and hints about upcoming birthdays and anniversaries, so you might want to consider making several at a time.

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