Spring is the perfect time to replace a rotting and rickety old picnic table. Our space-efficient and durable cedar picnic set will provide many years of service if you coat it annually with a water-repellent stain. The best part is that the set is simple to make; you can easily tackle this project in a weekend.
All the wood parts are made from dimensional cedar lumber, so you won’t need many tools for this project: a table saw or circular saw, a drill/driver, a router, a jigsaw and a few hand tools (chisels, mallet, wrenches, C-clamps, square and tape measure).
Depending on what cedar goes for in your area, the lumber should cost less than $200 and the hardware should be less than $40.
Make the picnic table top
I made the table’s round top with nine cedar boards, laid edge-to-edge, that alternate between 2x6s and 2x8s. With a 1/4-in. gap between boards for drainage, the tabletop has a 58-in. diameter.
Cut the nine boards for the tabletop to length (see cutting list). Mark the center of the tabletop on a 2x6 x 60-in.-long board. Use a combination square and a pencil to draw the centerline along the length of the board. Lay out the boards in order, with the marked one in the middle. Insert 1/4-in. hardboard spacers between the boards; then draw the boards into position with a long clamp at each end.
Mark the center of the top by drawing a line perpendicular to the first centerline. Use a framing square to verify that the lines are perpendicular. Use the centerpoint to scribe a 58-in.-dia. circle onto the boards. (I used a shop-made hardboard trammel to draw the circle.)
Cut the seven battens to size with mitered ends. The center batten is made from a 2x4, but you’ll need to rip stock for battens (D) to 1-1/2 in. and leg battens (F) to 1-3/4 in. Rip 2x4s in half for these pieces.
Miter both ends of each batten to 60 degrees (see drawing, detail 1) with a power miter saw or a circular saw. The miters eliminate hazardous pointy ends and provide a more finished look. Note that you install the leg battens with the 1-3/4-in. side running vertically, so be sure to cut the miters correctly. Mark the middle of the center batten’s length and extend the line around the board. Now measure in 1-3/4 in. on both sides of the top’s centerline (see drawing) and center the batten between these marks and along the length of the tabletop. Bore countersunk pilot holes and attach the center batten to the top boards with No. 10 x 2-1/2-in. deck screws. Use only coated or stainless steel screws; galvanized screws will react with the tannin in the wood and cause black staining. Position the remaining battens on the underside of the tabletop and attach with screws.
With the tabletop tied together with the battens, you can cut out the circle with a jigsaw. Cut along the waste side of the line and smooth the edge with a pad sander. Then round over the top edge using a router and a bearing-piloted 3/8-in. round-over bit. Ease the bottom edge with sandpaper.
Picnic table legs
Now you’ll need to lay out and cut the four table legs. Cut the parallel, angled ends and the 90-degree tip cutoffs on the table saw or miter saw. Lay out the half-lap joints as shown in the drawing. I used a dado blade set mounted in a table saw to cut the half-lap joints. Set the blade to its maximum cutting width and raise it to make a 3/4-in.-deep cut. Set the miter gauge for an 85-degree cut and make multiple passes until you complete it. If you use a circular saw, make multiple passes and remove the waste with a chisel. Put the halflaps together to assemble the legs. Clamp the joints temporarily; then position the leg assemblies in place against the leg battens. Align the ends of the leg tops flush with the endsof the battens.
Clamp the legs to the battens (along with a scrap backup block to prevent tearout) and bore clearance holes for 3/8 x 3-1/2-in. carriage bolts through the battens and the leg tops.
Insert the bolts from the outside and secure the legs to the battens with washers and nuts. (You may want to use carriage bolt washers with square holes and barbs to prevent the bolt heads from stripping the wood.)
The table legs are supported laterally with a stretcher and two braces. To make the stock, first rip 2x4s down the middle to a nominal 1-3/4 in. Then cut the braces to length and make 45-degree miter cuts on the ends (see drawing, detail 2). Cut the center stretcher and miter the ends.Measure 12-1/2 in. from the underside of the tabletop to the inside juncture of each leg assembly and mark the center. Extend this line vertically. Also mark the center on the end of each brace. Hold a brace in place against one of the leg assemblies as shown in the drawing. Use a brad-point drill to bore a pocket hole into the brace, then follow with a clearance hole for a carriage bolt. Bolt the brace to the legs with 3/8 x 3-in. carriage bolts. Do the same on the other side. Bore countersunk pilot holes in the top end of the braces to screw them to the underside of the top. However, before making the attachment, use a framing square to check that the braces are in the right position and the legs are perpendicular to the top.
Attach the stretcher by drilling angled pilot holes and then screwing the stretcher to the braces with No. 10 x 2-1/2- in. screws. For more secure joints, also use polyurethane glue.
Build the picnic table benches
Lay out the boards for the benchtop with 1/4-in. spacers between them and stabilize the setup with clamps. Draw the outline of the benchtop shape on the boards using the measurements and arc radii shown in the drawing. (To speed up the process, make a hardboard template.)
Next, rip and then crosscut the batten stock to size. Cut the mitered ends as you did with the table battens. Screw the battens to the underside of the benchtop as shown in the drawing. Use a jigsaw or band saw to cut the top to shape and to round the corners (see drawing, bench assembly). Smooth the edges; then run a router with a 3/8-in. roundover bit around them. Cut the legs and braces to size. Lay out and cut the leg half-lap joints with the same methods you used on the table legs, but cut the joint angles at 60 degrees instead of 85 degrees. Use the same assembly sequence for the benches as you did for the table. Sand the wood lightly to smooth out rough or splintered surfaces. Then coat it with a water-repellent deck stain.
Step 1: Use a trammel to swing a 29-in.-radius circle from the point where the two centerlines intersect (see text).
Step 2: Attach the battens to the underside of the top with coated or stainless steel No. 10 x 2-1/2-in. deck screws.
Step 3: Round over the top edge of the tabletop with a 3/8-in. roundover bit. Move counterclockwise around the tabletop.
Step 4: Use a dado blade to cut the half-lap joints into the legs, guiding the stock with the miter gauge set to 85 degrees.
Step 1: Clamp the legs and battens in position. Bore clearance holes for carriage bolts through both parts.
Step 2: Drill holes for carriage bolts through the end of each brace, then through the halflap leg joint.
Step 3: Screw the braces to the tabletop while using a framing square to keep the legs perpendicular to the top.
Step 4: Fasten the stretcher to the braces at each joint. Make sure the stretcher is parallel with the top.
Step 1: After you’ve attached at least two of the battens, cut out the shape of the benchtop with a jigsaw.
Step 2: With the aid of a square, attach the bench braces as you did the table braces; then add the middle batten.