When it comes to tried-and-true designs, it’s tough to beat the picnic table. Although it’s not the most elaborate woodworking project, it remains one of the most popular, and with good reaon. This easy-to-build piece of outdoor furniture has proved its merit through decades of service in backyards and public parks. It’s been 13 years since HANDY last featured picnic-table plans, so we’re due for a fresh look at this backyard staple.
I tried to update our picnic table without straying too far from standard designs. A picnic table must first and foremost be sturdy and stable. The main choice I had to make was whether the benches would be attached or detached. I opted for detached benches for several reasons. First, we’ve already featured a picnic table with attached legs. Second, separate components are easier to move and store. Third, the table and chairs are useful as stand-alone pieces of backyard furniture. And fourth, the benches make great low hurdles in a backyard obstacle course.
I used 2x lumber for both the table and bench frames. Instead of 2x stock for the tabletop and seats, I chose 5/4 decking to add a different lumber dimension and to make these parts visually lighter than the framework. I also cut curves in the long edges of the table and benches, which gives the table a more contemporary appearance and turns those sitting in the outside positions inward, creating a slightly more intimate seating arrangement.
This is a project for all skill levels. It can be built with only a drill/driver, jigsaw and sandpaper, although a miter saw and router make construction easier and yield better results. An experienced builder could make one of these tables in a weekend, including time for shopping for materials and applying the finish.
Download the plans: Click here to download this complete story as a pdf.
Cutting and finishing the parts
Begin by cutting the top planks. I chose to use 5/4x6 composite deck boards for the tabletop and bench-seat planks. Composite deck boards are low-maintenance, but they also add considerable weight to the table and benches. If weight is a concern, use solid-wood deck boards instead. Make the narrow top planks by ripping one of the deck boards in half.
Draw the convex arc and corner-radius profiles on the outside tabletop and bench-seat planks (photo 1, above). Then draw the concave arc and corner-radius profiles on the inside bench-seat plank. If you are working with solid-wood deck boards, you can cut along the lines with a jigsaw and then sand the curves smooth with a sander. Note: If you’re using composite boards you can follow the same method, but use a coarse sandpaper such as 50-grit, and plan to change paper frequently.
Another method of cutting these curves, which I found easier with the composite material, is to make a template of each profile and cut along the curved template using a router and bearing bit. This method does not require much (if any) sanding. After cutting the profiles, round over all of the cut edges to match the factory edges (photo 2).
Next, cut the frame parts out of 2x exterior-rated lumber, such as pressure-treated pine, cedar, cypress or redwood. Cut the frame parts to length, mitering the ends of the legs and leg stretchers 18 degrees. I used a miter saw to make these cuts, but you could also draw the angled cut lines and use a jigsaw or circular saw to cut them. Cut 3-1/2-in.-radius curves in the ends of the top supports.
The angle braces provide lateral stability, keeping the table from rocking side-to-side. They fit between the leg stretchers and the center top support. The outside end of each angle brace is cut with a single miter angle, but the inside end is cut twice to create a point that fits into the intersection of the tabletop and center top support. I found it easiest to mark the cut lines on each piece before making any cuts (see photo 3 and drawing, for cutting layouts).
It is common practice to apply the finish after a project is built, but in this case I applied the finish to all of the parts before assembling them. This method ensures that all of the surfaces are sealed. If you use solid wood for the tabletop and bench seats, also apply the finish to those parts.
Exterior deck stain or paint are acceptable finishes on exterior-rated lumber — or you can leave the wood unfinished. If you choose to paint the table, apply an oil-base primer first and then two coats of water- or oil-base exterior paint. I prefer a semitransparent or solid-color exterior stain because it is easier to reapply in the future. In this case I used hunter-green Zar Solid Color Deck and Siding Stain (see SOURCES).
Assembling the table and benches
Follow the same construction sequence to assemble the table and the benches. Attach the top planks to the top supports with 2-1/2-in. deck screws (photo 4). Then flip the tabletop upside down and attach the table legs to the leg stretchers and tabletop supports with 3-in. carriage bolts (photo 5). Drill 1-in.-wide x 3/8-in.-deep counterbore mortises in the leg stretchers and 3/8-in.-dia. pilot holes through the leg stretchers and tabletop supports for each bolt.
Next, attach the angle braces. Position the inside face of each angle brace 1 in. from the center of the tabletop, leaving a 2-in. space between the braces. I left this space between the braces so that a hole can be drilled through the middle tabletop plank for an umbrella post.
Finally, drill a 3/4-in.-dia. x 1/4-in.-deep counterbore mortise and a 3/16-in.-dia. pilot hole for each lag screw. Drive 1/4-in.-dia. x 3-1/2-in. lag screws through the leg stretchers and center top support to attach the angle braces (photo 6). Your new picnic table is now ready for years of backyard birthday parties, neighborhood cookouts and family games.
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