The little people in your life have to struggle in a world adult-sized objects, and I think that’s why they’re always so appreciative of furniture made to their scale. Building this project isn’t difficult, and, since it’s small, you can afford to expend extra time and energy on the details.
If you search for picnic table plans, you’ll find the possibilities are endless. I believe the classic design you see in backyards and parks everywhere has some real advantages—it’s a classic for good reason. The construction is naturally stable, and easily lends itself to modification. I decided to stick with tradition, making a version fit for a kid.
To make the project more elegant and keep exposed end-grain to a minimum, I capped the tabletop and bench ends with strips of wood. This detail is called “breadboard” ends, and although it adds a lot to the project—including stability and durability—you can leave it out if you want to simplify the design. Just remember to lengthen the tabletop and bench parts accordingly. Regardless of what you decide, cut a generous radius on the corners of these parts. These will soften the inevitable collisions by small bodies in motion.
I opted for half-lap joinery to connect the legs to the supports; this adds legroom and increases strength. The weak points of most picnic tables are the feet, since the end-grain surfaces draw up moisture. That’s why I added shoes— 1⁄4"-thick brass pads. Alternatively, you could use pieces of solid-wood composite deck stock or a rot-resistant hardwood such as white oak. While choosing your stock, consider the finish. I wanted a smooth, relatively knot-free wood for painting, so I chose yellow cedar, but other great options are red or white cedar, hemlock or even an exotic wood such as cypress.
Aside from a few tricky elements, this is a simple project. A little planning and some extra time makes finicky steps go smoothly. Take the angled half-lap joints, for instance. I drew full-size end view of the table on a sheet of 1⁄4" MDF to make sure I had everything right. To check the angles, I used a plastic 60º/30º drafting square for the layout. It is inexpensive and very handy in the shop. You can use this same square to set up your tablesaw for the required lap-joint cuts. After you draw up the full-size plan on the MDF you can take measurements right from it. This helps you visualize the correct orientation of the parts, taking all of the mystery out of the process
Begin by preparing your wood. I decided to go with two specific sizes for the project: 1" x 31⁄2" for the benches and tabletop and 11⁄4" x 3" for the leg assemblies. If you don’t have a thickness planer, you can use standard 11⁄2"-thick lumber cut to the right width, but remember to account for this change in dimensions when building the project. Make sure you have enough leftover scrap stock of both thicknesses to prepare test pieces while tooling up for the mortise- and-tenon and half-lap joinery later.
To begin making the top and bench assemblies, prepare your stock for the slats and the breadboard ends. Cut all of the breadboard ends a couple of inches longer than necessary for now. You will trim them to size later.
Take a look at the plans and you’ll see that the slats for the tabletop and bench need tenons on both ends that fit into corresponding mortises in the breadboard ends. It’s important that the distances between the tenon shoulders on all these parts are exactly the same.
It's always good practice to cut mortises before tenons, since tenon thicknessis easier to adjust after the fact than mortise width. There’s a trick to marking multiple mortise locations accurately. Cut six 3⁄16"-wide spacers from scrap wood to create equal spacing between the slats. Mark the shoulders of the tenons on the face of each slat with a sharp pencil, marking gauge or utility knife. The tenons should be 23⁄4" wide, centred on each face. Next, clamp the slats into three assemblies: one with five slats for the table, and two with two slats each for the benches. Keep the assemblies square and use the 3⁄16"-wide spacers between them. Now all you have to do is hold the corresponding breadboard piece into position up against the ends of the slats and transfer all the tenon locations to the faces of the breadboard ends. Draw an “x” in each mortise location to indicate where you will remove wood so you don’t cut in the wrong place.
When a mortise is going to be close to an end-grain edge, as in the case of the first and last mortises in all the breadboard pieces, you need to leave support in place. Don’t cut those couple of extra inches on the breadboard ends yet. This overhang is called a “horn,” and it strengthens the wood as you prepare the mortises.
Your mortises need to be 23⁄4” wide, 3⁄8" thick and 11⁄2" deep. I used a hollow chisel-mortising machine to remove the wood, but you could also use a Forstner bit in a drillpress. Bore overlapping, 3⁄8"-diameter holes in the area of each mortise, removing as much wood as possible before using a sharp chisel for final cleaning and squaring up.
Next, turn your attention to the tenons. I like to use a dado blade in my tablesaw for this job, although you can certainly cut tenons by hand too. Either way, practise on those pieces of scrap you made until you get a perfect fit. If you’re using a tablesaw, use a mitre gauge to support the wood as you nibble away at the tenon. Screw a sacrificial backing fence onto the mitre gauge to prevent tearout as the dado blade exits each piece. You can also reduce tearout with a zero-clearance insert for your blade. Using a chisel and a block plane, adjust the tenons for a perfect fit into the mating mortises.
When everything fits perfectly, begin assembling your parts. As you clamp, use the spacers to ensure proper spacing between the slats. Check that he assemblies are square before gluing. Just don’t get any glue on the spacers!
I used weatherproof polyurethane adhesive for my table. Use only what you need on each joint because it foams a bit while curing. Once the glue has cured, trim the breadboard ends to size. Add a curve with a bandsaw to the radius shown in the plans.
Turn your attention to the leg assemblies and the angled half-lap joints I told you about earlier. That full-size draw- ing and that drafting square will help. As you work, make absolutely sure that each lap cutout is located on the correct face of each piece. You’ll get best results if you fasten a 30" piece of plywood or hardwood to your tablesaw mitre gauge to stabilize your workpiece and reduce blade tearout along the back of each cut.
Prepare 11⁄4" x 3" stock for the table supports, bench supports, braces and legs now. A mitre saw is a great tool for the angled cuts on these parts, although a tablesaw works fine too, especially with help from that drafting square. Use the 60o corner to adjust the mitre gauge, make a test cut on some scrap, then complete cuts on the legs before bringing one piece over to your full-size drawing.
Lay the piece on the plan, aligning the angled end with the bottom of a leg. Use a pencil to mark the proper length of the leg and you’re all set. No tape measures, no numbers and no mis- takes! Clamp a stop block on your auxiliary mitre gauge fence and make the corresponding top cuts. You should end up with four identical legs.
To cut the lap joints in the table and bench supports, set your dado blade to take a 5⁄8"-deep cut, which is half the thickness of the parts you’re working on. If you went with standard lumber, you need to make this cut 3⁄4"-deep. Begin by making test cuts on a couple of pieces of scrap, then lay them together to check the fit. Adjust the depth of the dado until you get a joint that touches in the middle yet is flush on the faces. Now you’re ready to work on the real thing. To locate the laps properly, the easiest and fastest way is simply to transcribe directly from the full-size plan onto the pieces themselves. It’s a good idea to lay all the parts for each leg assembly down together in their proper orientation so each piece of the puzzle can be seen in relation to its neighbour. You’ll find it necessary to alternate between the right- and left- hand 60o settings on your mitre gauge to complete all the lap cuts. Use your drafting square to adjust the angle of the gauge and test the results against your full-size plan.
Before assembling the legs, draw and cut the rounded corners on the sup- ports. I traced a 4"-diameter can lid. Use a bandsaw or jigsaw to cut these curves, then clean them up with a sander.
Get ready to put the leg assemblies together by drilling angled holes for pocket screws to attach the benches and the top. Use polyurethane glue and stainless-steel #8 x 11⁄2" round-head screws to hold everything together. Setting these into pocket holes will pre- vent splitting. You could also drive #10 x 3" screws down through the top of the benchtop and tabletop into the leg assemblies, but pocket screws hide the fasteners.
Secure you leg assemblies with more outdoor-rated polyurethane glue and clamp them together. After the glue cures, trim off any glue squeeze- out with a chisel.
The last two pieces of the leg assemblies are the braces. You simply need to make corresponding 45o cuts on each end of the braces so that they measure 151⁄2" between the long points. Use a mitre saw or tablesaw. Install the braces with a pair of screws on each end, fastening them into the bench supports, and the underside of the tabletop’s centre slat. I used a Forstner bit to drill some pockets for the screw heads.
Use a random-orbit sander to smooth the parts before finishing. In order for the wood to have a little tooth to hold onto the painted finish, I stopped sanding at only 80 grit. An 80-grit paper creates an excellent surface for any outdoor finish that forms a protective film over the wood. Skip the sanding, or sand too fine, and the finish will peel much sooner.
I brushed on an exterior primer, then sprayed a couple of coats of CIL marine enamel in Ensign Red, sanding lightly between coats. If you’re going this route, wear a respirator and goggles, and work in a well-ventilated area.
I protected the end-grain of the table legs from moisture damage with 1⁄4"- thick brass bar stock. Note that a deck or patio may be stained by the metal shoes.
I went to Metal Supermarket to have the bar stock cut to length (www.metalsupermarket.com or call 866-867-9344). Then I filed a chamfer around the edge on the bottom side, and drilled and countersunk holes in each shoe for some #8 x 1" brass screws.
Put the shoes on the legs and your table is ready to be moved to a sunny (or shady) spot in the yard. In an adult- size world, your little ones will enjoy a kid-size table all their own.
|Size (T x W x L*)
|1 x 3 1/2" x 30"
|Table breadboard ends
|1" 3 1/2" x 18 1/4"
|Bench breadboard ends
|1" x 3 1/2" x 7 3/16"
|1 1/4" x 3" x 24"
|1 1/4" x 3" x 18"
|1 1/4" x 3" x 33 1/4"
|1 1/4" x 3" x 15 1/2"
|Brass bar stock
|1/4" x 1 1/4" x 3 1/2"
* Length indicates grain direction
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