Build a Classic Garden DIY Bench with Dowel Construction
Dowel construction makes it solid-and surprisingly simple.
You've probably seen benches similar to this one in parks, porches or movies. That's because this classic style fits into any setting, rustic or elegant. If you've ever considered building one of your own, you might have been discouraged by the complexity of the project-all those parts, all that joinery…But read on and you'll see how I simplified the building process. Dowels make the joinery easy but strong, and router templates guarantee that the curved parts will be perfectly uniform.
- Dowel jig
- Router and bits
- Table saw
- 1/4' fluted dowels (48)
- 1x6 x 8' cedar (6 - You can substitute two 8' 2x6s for three of the 1x6s for the leg stock if you have access to a planer.)
- 2-in. deck screws
- 2x4 x 8' cedar (4)
- 3-in. deck screws
- 3/8' fluted dowels (28)
- No. 6 or No. 7 stainless steel trim-head screws (48)
- No. 8 x 1-1/2" trim-head screws
Project step-by-step (14)
Gather Tools and Materials
You’ll need a dowel jig for this project. A planer, miter saw and band saw will come in handy but aren’t absolutely necessary. You’ll need two specialty router bits: a ‘pattern’ bit and a ‘flush-trim’ bit (1/2 in. diameter or larger, with a 1-1/4-in. cutting length). You can find both at some home centers or online, starting at less than $20 each. You’ll also need 1/4-in. and 3/4-in. round-over bits and a plug cutter to make plugs to cover the screw holes.
I used cedar lumber for my bench. Other good choices for outdoor furniture include redwood, teak and white oak. If you choose cedar, select stock that’s free of large or loose knots and knotholes. If you prefer a knot-free look, buy wide stock and use the best of it. For example, a 2×10 board might yield enough knot-free stock for the legs, back and seat rails. Avoid any boards with a lot of white ‘sapwood’ because it doesn’t weather as well as the darker heartwood.
Glue Up the Leg Stock
- Make the back leg stock from two 2x6s or three 1x6s.
- Use 2×4 cauls to spread clamping pressure evenly.
- Pro tip: Don’t skimp on clamps, and be sure to use waterproof glue.
Cut a Straight, Even Edge
- Nail a straightedge made from an MDF or wood scrap onto the leg stock with the straight-edge overhanging slightly.
- Run the stock across a table saw with the straight-edge against the fence to cut a perfect edge.
Shape the Back Legs
- Rough-cut each back leg with a jigsaw.
- Make a template from 1/4-in. MDF and tack it to the leg.
- Run a top-bearing pattern bit around the template.
- Note: The bit will cut only about halfway through the leg thickness.
Complete the Back Legs
- Flip the leg over and make a second pass using a flush-trim bit.
- Note: This bit has a bearing on the bottom and will follow the shape already cut by the pattern bit.
Craft the Other Pieces
- Using the other templates, cut and machine the seat rails (D), top rail (G), leg braces (H), seat slat (K) and back slats (L).
- Rout the 1/4-in. radius on all the long edges plus the 3/4-in. radius on the top front edge of the front seat rail (D) and the front and back top edge of the top rail (G).
- Pro tip: I also rounded over the ends and corners on the seat slats. It’s a lot easier to shape and sand the parts now, before assembly.
- Note: Do not cut the seat braces to final length yet. It’s best to wait until the bench is assembled for final fitting. Also, lay out and rout the braces on a single board. Then cut them to length.
Mark the Dowel Locations
- Center a block of 3/4-in. plywood on each back slat.
- Mark each slat and the rail along both sides of the block.
- Label each joint with a letter as a guide for assembly later.
Set the Drill Depth
- Bore through a block of 1/2-in. plywood to make a stop collar for your drill bit.
- Insert the bit through the jig and adjust the bit to establish the proper depth for the dowels.
- Pro tip: Always add a little extra depth to allow for excess glue in the bottom of the hole.
Drill Dowel Holes
- Align the marks on the dowel jig with your marks on the bench part and lock the jig onto the part.
- Pro tip: It’s best to drill the holes in two steps. Drill about halfway, remove the bit to clear out the wood chips and then finish the hole with a second plunge.
Drill the Rail Holes
- Note: The dowel jig can’t position the holes for the lower back seat rail (D), so make a simple block jig.
- Align the dowel marks on the jig with the dowel marks on the leg.
- Align the centerlines on both ends of the jig with a centerline marked on the leg.
- Clamp the jig in place and drill.
Assemble the Back
- With all the 1/4-in. holes drilled, go ahead and assemble the back with dowels but no glue.
- Pro tip: Double-check to be sure everything lines up correctly first. It’s well worth the extra time and effort to do a dry fit before final assembly. If everything fits, reassemble with glue.
- Spread the glue in the hole with a 1/8-in.-diameter dowel as an applicator.
- Pro tip: Just dip the narrow dowel stock into your glue and then swirl it around the dowel hole. Also put a light coat of glue on each dowel with a small flux brush.
Put It All Together
- After building the back and leg assemblies, dowel and clamp them together.
- Note: If your pipe clamps are too short, join pipes with threaded couplers.
Add the Final Parts
- Attach the arms, seat braces and rail supports with screws.
- Pro tip: Use stainless steel or coated screws to guard against rust stains. For the visible screw holes on the arms and rails, countersink first and insert plugs to cover the screws.
- Do a little touch-up finish sanding before you apply a finish.
- Note: A quality outdoor deck stain is a good choice. I used a clear stain on mine, which greatly enhances the natural color of cedar. A darker stain obscures the wood a bit more, but it does offer better UV protection. For best results and the longest life for your bench, you should recoat it every year. Don’t forget to add an extra dose of finish on the end grain of the wood where it contacts the ground.