There are few things that compare with the simple joy of sitting down for a nice meal outdoors with the sun shining and a gentle breeze blowing. While this alfresco dining set can’t do a lot to guarantee you the perfect weather, it does provide a great place to enjoy it.
When my client approached me with this commission, the goal was to design a dining table-and-bench set that would accommodate up to eight people without appearing oversized or undersized. She wanted something with the kind of subtle grace that is usually lacking in commercial outdoor furniture, and made of material that would withstand the elements and accommodate the kind of extreme movement that wood encounters outdoors.
To suit the bill, I designed the top to allow a variety of seating arrangements (some requiring extra chairs in addition to the benches shown here] while incorporating gentle curves and inward slanting legs to provide comfort and a touch of style. To ensure durability,
I used naturally weather-resistant cedar, joining the parts with strong, but easily made «loose” tenons fixed in place with waterproof glue. Topping all this off with a tough finish guarantees that this furniture will be part of the family for a long time to come.
Make the tabletop.
1. Lay out your nicest looking stock for the long rails, end rails, and crosspieces. As both cedar and redwood are most commonly available as 2x lumber for the construction trades, the parts for this table were designed to make the most of these dimensions. Keep in mind that you can hide any waney edges by orienting them downward.
2. Cut the pieces to the sizes shown in the Cut List.
3 Clamp the two long rails together with their better faces (the «show» faces) oriented outward, as shown in Photo A. Mark these faces with an «X» to identify their orientation later. Now lay out the mortises as well as the end rail and crosspiece edge locations, Mortise Layout Detail, working from the center of the long rail outward.
4. Make the mortising jig shown on this page. Install its horizontal fence, and attach toggle clamps along its length. Outfit your plunge router with an edge guide and a 1/2″ spiral upcut bit, adjusting the router’s depth stop for a 1 1/16″-deep cut.
5. Clamp one of the long rails to the jig with the marked «show” face oriented inward. Adjust the router’s edge guide to center the cut across the thickness of the rail, and set the stops to control the mortise length. Once you’re set up, extend the mortise reference lines onto the top of the jig for positioning of subsequent cuts. Then rout the mortises, beginning the cut with the router positioned against the right-hand stop (as viewed from the face of the jig), and pulling it toward the left-hand stop.
6. Mount the second long rail onto the jig with its show face oriented inward, and rout all of its mortises.
7. Lay out the mortises on both ends of both end rails, and one end of one crosspiece. Mark the show face of each piece with an «X».
8. Swap the jig’s horizontal fence for the vertical fence, and screw toggle clamps to the fence. Clamp the marked-out crosspiece in the jig with the show side facing inward, and reposition the stops to suit the mortise location. Leave the edge guide set as it was.
9 Rout the mortise in the end of the crosspiece. Then unclamp it, rotate it end for end in the jig, and rout the other end, still keeping the show side against the jig. Repeat for every crosspiece.
10 The mortise on one end of each end rail will align with the setup you just used to mortise the crosspieces. Cut mortises in those particular ends of both end rails. Then reposition the stops to mortise the two opposite ends.
11. Mill at least 64″ of 1/2″-thick x 2 3/16″-wide stock for loose tenons. (When thicknessing the stock, ensure that it fits snugly in the mortises without force.) While you’re at it, cut the same amount for each bench you’re making. Bullnose the edges of the stock using a 1/4″ round-over bit in a table-mounted router. Then crosscut the individual tenons to 2″ long.
12. Enlist someone to help you with the glue-up, as there is a lot of glue to spread and a lot of pieces to align. First, perform a complete dry-assembly to check the fits of the joints, to set up your clamps, and to rehearse your assembly procedures.
13. When you’re ready to glue up, begin by spreading glue in the mortises of one of the long rails. Then spread glue on that rail’s tenons, and tap them home. Spread glue in the mating mortise on one end of each end rail and crosspiece, and slide them in place, aligning their edges with the reference marks on the long rails. As you work, be sure to keep the show sides of all the pieces properly oriented.
14. With the assembly standing on edge, spread glue in the opposite mortises of the end rails and crosspieces. Spread glue on the rest of the tenons and tap them in place. Finally, spread glue in the mortises of the second long rail. Start attaching the rail at one end, working your way along its length. When all the joints are together and properly aligned, add clamps to pull the assembly tight. (Don’t worry about protecting the edges from clamp damage, as you’ll be cutting them away later.)
16. Bend a strip of 1/4″-thick, straight-grained wood against the nails, and trace along it to lay out the curves. Cut to your layout line with a jigsaw, and sand the curves fair and smooth. Round over the edges with a 1/4″-radius round-over bit in a handheld router.
Make the table base.
1. Mill the pieces for the legs, rails, and runners to the sizes listed in the Cut List.
2. Crosscut both ends of the two end legs to 75°. Crosscut one end of each of the side legs to 78°.
3. Set up a dado head on your tablesaw, configuring it for as wide a cut as possible. Adjust the height to 3/16″. Use a miter gauge set at 75° to feed the end legs over the blade to create the 3″-wide angled rabbets. Reverse the miter gauge angle to cut the opposite sides.
4. While you have the dado head set up, cut the mating notches in the center rails. Locate these notches 4 3/8″ in from ends of the stretchers. After you cut the four notches, clamp the end legs in place between them. Then hold the center runners in place to mark them for their notches, and then cut the notches using the same dado head setup.
5. Increase the height of the dado blade to exactly half the width of the rails and runners (theoretically 1 1/2″). Lay out pairs of mating notches where the center rails and runners intersect the cross rails and runners. The distance between the notches should be equal to the distance between each pair of runners (and rails) with the legs clamped in place (theoretically 5/8″). Saw the notches.
6. Lay out the notches in the cross rails, insetting them 2 1/4″ from the ends. Change the dado height back to 3/16″, angle your miter gauge to 78°, and use the setup to saw the notches in the cross rails. Also, saw the rabbets on the angled ends of the side legs.
7. Set up the table base with the end legs clamped in place between the center rails and runners. Fit one cross rail and one cross runner into their notches in the center rails and runners. Clamp the side legs in place, mark them to length, and mark the rabbet shoulders at the lower end of the leg. At the same time, mark one cross runner for the locations of the angled notches that will accept the side legs. Use this cross runner as a guide to mark its companion. Repeat the process at the other end of the base.
8. Saw the rabbets on the bottom ends of the side legs and the notches in the cross runners, using a dado head as before. Then revert to a standard saw blade and cut the legs to length.
9. Lay out the bevels on the ends of the runners. Then cut the bevels on the bandsaw. Clean up the saw marks with a hand plane.
10. Lay out the curves on the ends of the rails. Make the cuts with a bandsaw or jigsaw, and clean up with a sander.
11. Using an exterior glue, such as Titebond III, glue and screw the end legs in place between the center rails and runners. Temporarily place one of the cross runners in its notches to help the assembly stand upright on your bench as you glue and screw the cross rails and runners to the side legs at the opposite end of the base. As you do this, be sure that the cross runners extend through the opening between the center rails and runners. When assembling all of these joints, clamp the pieces together to hold them tight as you predrill the holes and then drive the #8×2″ screws home.
12. Once the side legs are attached to the cross rails and runners, glue and screw the cross rails and runners into their notches in the center rails and runners with #8 x 2 1/2″ screws.
Make the Benchtops.
1. Make the parts for the long rails, end rails, and crosspieces to the sizes shown in the Cut List. When milling stock for the crosspieces, work with lengths that can be safely fed through the planer, crosscutting the individual crosspieces to final length as the last step. Mark the show face of each piece with an «X”.
2. Clamp the long rail pairs together, and lay out the mortises as you did for the tabletop, but referring to the Benchtop Mortise Layout.
3. Rout the mortises in the long rails as you did those in the table rails, orienting the show face against the jig.
4. Lay out a mortise on one end of one crosspiece, and on each end of the end rails. Use the marked pieces to set up the mortising jig to rout the crosspieces and the end rails in the same manner as you did for the tabletop. Remember to keep the show face against the jig.
5 Crosscut tenons from the stock you milled when making the table. Using waterproof glue, assemble the benchtops in the same manner as described for the assembly of the tabletop. Like the tabletop, each of the benchtops involves a lot of pieces to align and glue to swab, so you may want to enlist a helper.
6. Once the glue dries, lay out the curves on the ends of the benchtop using your fairing strip. The benchtop is narrow enough that there’s no need to support the strip with nails. Simply brace the strip against your leg, and bend it with one hand as you trace with the other. Round over all of the edges with a 1/4″ round-over bit.
Make the bench bases.
1. Cut the legs, cleats, and runners to size. Crosscut the ends of the legs to 81°. Arrange the parts for each end assembly in their final orientation. Then mark what will be the exterior face of each part with an «X» for orientation in the mortising jig.
2. Lay out the mortises on one of the cleats and on the upper end of each of two paired legs.
3. Cut the mortises in the undersides of the cleats using the horizontal fence on your mortising jig, as you did when mortising the top rails. Mount the pieces on the jig with the marked face oriented inward.
4. Change to the vertical fence to rout a mortise in the upper end of each leg. However, instead of registering the leg against the fence, angle it so its end is flush with the top of the jig.
5. Rip enough tenon stock to 1 7/16″ to use for joining the bases, and then crosscut them to fit the mortises you just routed. Working with each end assembly in turn, dry-fit the legs to the cleat, put the runner in place, and then mark out the runner mortises based on the positions of the legs.
6. Rout mortises in the runners using the mortising jig outfitted with its horizontal fence.
7. Cut the stretcher and beam to the sizes shown in the Cut List, and saw the bevel on each end of the beam.
8. Set up a dado head on the tablesaw and cut 1/4-deep notches in the center of each cleat and runner. Cut mating 1/4-deep notches in each stretcher, and 1/8″-deep notches in each beam.
9. Glue the leg assemblies together.
10. Glue and screw each stretcher and beam in place with #8 x 2″ screws.
11. Cut the braces to the thickness and width listed in the Cut List, but leave them a coupleinches oversized in length for now. Hold one of the braces in place at a 65° angle. Mark the piece for length, and then use it as a guide as you cut all the remaining braces on the tablesaw. Glue and screw the braces in place with #8 x 2″ screws.
1. Apply a clear finish that is formulated for outdoor use. The pieces in the lead photo were treated with Cabot’s Australian Timber Oil. I’ve found that a yearly recoating with this product will keep your table and benches looking good, despite whatever Mother Nature dishes out.
2. After the finish is dry, fasten the table base to its top with #8 x 3 1/2″ roundhead screws counterbored 1/2″ deep into the underside of the center rails and cross rails. Attach the bench bases to their tops in the same manner, but with #8 x 2″ roundhead screws.
3. Screw plastic glides to the undersides of the runners on both the table and benches to elevate the wood above the ground or deck.