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  • Writer's pictureIvan Pigott

A bench is born.

At a recent market (don't worry, pre-lockdown), we were approached by someone after a bench for their garden, based on a simple ash bench we had displayed, but with the small matter of a back and arms to add... This was a step up from anything we'd made before, but with lessons learnt from previous chair/stool/bench endeavours, we accepted the challenge!

The original ash bench that inspired the garden bench. Still for sale!

The first decision was wood choice. As decisions go this was fairly easy, as the most rot resistant woods available locally (maybe even globally?) are sweet chestnut and oak. We got hold of some lovely green chestnut from Phil at Hampshire Chestnut to make all of the components other than the seat itself. Becky drew up a quick design and we got to work, cleaving, axing and shaving down the components on the shavehorse. These were then set aside for a few weeks to dry out and shrink slightly, before thinking about cutting tenons on them. This step needs to be done once the wood is thoroughly dry, otherwise the tenons will shrink in the mortices and risk coming loose.

In the meantime we sourced a nice slab of oak, courtesy of Rushmere Farm, approx 2" thick, perfect for the seat of the bench. This was cleaned up, removing bark and sapwood with axe and drawknife, and working the surface with our new travisher from The Windsor Workshop - such a great tool!

Working on the oak seat.

Next was the small matter of putting it all together. Our design involved 32 mortice and tenon joints, and these all needed to be the right size and at the right angles to make it look and behave like a bench. Once dry, the tenons for the legs were turned to 1 1/4" on the pole lathe, as we don't have a tenon cutter this size. We wanted these chunkier for structural integrity - all other joints were either 1" or 3/4", which we have tenon cutters for (a real time saver!).

There was a lot of standing, staring, head scratching and beard stroking involved in drawing sightlines and drilling holes in the seat. This is a bit of a point of no return, so we wanted to get it just right. We based our angles and sightlines roughly on previous chair-making experience, and what we thought would look right. Importantly, the rear legs should angle more steeply backwards, to prevent the bench tipping backwards when leaned back on. The front legs should angle more sideways, so that they don't create an annoying trip hazard in front of the bench.

The undercarriage went together nicely and the legs were secured with oak wedges. Moving onto the top half, the first step was the arm structure - a new challenge for us. Even more standing and staring ensued, but eventually we plucked up the courage to drill some holes. First the outer spindles into the seat. Then the arm into the outer spindle. Then the front arm support into the arm, and finally using this hole to line up the hole for the front arm support into the seat. Our 3/4" auger bit turns out to be significantly bigger than 3/4" annoyingly, so by this point we were using a 19mm bit in a cordless drill (sorry purists), which gave a snug fit for all the 3/4" tenons.

Home straight now, and we moved onto drilling the two outer holes in the long comb back, with things starting to look scarily bench-like. With this dry-assembled, we were able to sight up and drill all of the holes for the remaining spindles. The cordless drill came into its own here, as it fitted neatly between the seat and comb back, whereas a hand brace would have been too long, making the process trickier and less accurate. We checked it all went together (it did, with some gentle persuasion), before taking the entire top half apart again for glueing up.

Spindles in position to decide where to drill the mortices for them.

We took this opportunity to do some finishing touches on the seat. There was some significant cracking on the oak slab, which shouldn't affect its structural integrity, but we decided to fill them with clear epoxy resin, to avoid any sharp, clothes-catching edges.

The final step was glueing up the mortices, and working quickly to re-assemble the top half of the bench, securing the arms with oak wedges along the way. Some solid thumps on the top of the comb back and it all felt pretty sturdy!

Glueing up - no better tool than the finger.

We're really happy with how this turned out, and it looks remarkably similar to Becky's original sketch! Hopefully it lasts many years to come and brings some joy to its new owner. We have another one to make now for a family member - there will likely be some subtle adjustments to a few angles, but this is definitely an overall design that we'll repeat.

If you like the look of this bench, or know someone who might like one, please do get in touch as we'd love to make more. Equally, if you want more details about the build process, we're really happy to help, just didn't want to make the blog any longer than it already is...

Thanks for reading if you got this far!

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