AW Extra 9/5/13 – Colonial Bench

Colonial Bench

Splayed legs add
stability indoors or out.

By Steven Bunn

I demonstrate Windsor chair-making
at the Common Ground Country
Fair in Unity, Maine, an event that celebrates
traditional crafts of all kinds.
There’s never enough seating, so this
year I resolved to build some benches
to set up around my demonstration
area. I wanted a simple design that
would complement my Windsor chairs
and stand up to hard use.

The bench shown here combines
elements from several historical
benches with a few of my own ideas.
The legs splay, to increase stability,
and the turnings consist of vases
and rings, features commonly found
in 17th and 18th century furniture.
Historically, a clear pine seat would
be typical. But I use poplar, because
it costs less than pine these days, and
wide boards without knots are readily
available. Following tradition, I use
8/4 maple for the legs. Of course, you
can change the length of the bench,
or the width; just adjust the lengths
of the aprons and stretchers to match
your top.


Turn the legs

1. Mill four 1-7/8" x 1-7/8" x 21"
turning blanks for the legs (Part A Fig.
A and Cutting List, below)
and mark the centers on both ends.

2. Make a template of the turned
leg (Fig B), using a piece of 1/4" plywood.

3. Position the bottom end of the
template (the foot) flush with the end
of one of the blanks, and mark the
turning’s two square sections. Carry
the lines around all four sides of the
blank. Transfer these lines to the other
three blanks.

4. Mount a blank on the lathe and
define the shoulders of the leg’s two
square sections by cutting in with a
parting tool on the waste side of each
line (Photo 1). To avoid chipping the
corners, start by making a shallow cut
at the line. Carefully back out the tool
and make a second adjacent cut to
widen the groove. Then go back and
deepen the first cut.

5. Switch to the spindle roughing
gouge and turn the blank to a cylinder
between the square sections and at
the bottom. You may have to reduce
the cylinder’s diameter slightly, if your
blank isn’t perfectly centered—small
variations between the finished legs
won’t be noticeable after the bench is

6. Using the template, mark the center cylinder’s major features
(Photo 2). I mark both ends of the
ring and the two large diameters of
each vase.

7. Use a parting tool to define the
ring’s two shoulders (Photo 3).

8. Switch to the spindle/detail
gouge and cut away most of the
waste at the base of each vase. Ease
the outside edges of the ring to start
forming its rounded profile. Then form
the sweep of the upper portion of
each vase (Photo 4).

9. Cut in with the parting tool to create
the narrow fillets that flank the ring.

10. Use the skew to shape the ring
and fair the curves on the vases.

11. Completing the bottom section
of the leg is a breeze, because it
includes the same elements that comprise
its center section—a ring, a fillet
and a vase-shaped foot.

12. Use the skew to cut in the
transitions between the vases and the
square sections (Photo 5). Then use
the spindle/detail gouge to shape the
rounded pommels on the ends of the
leg’s square sections. Always work
from the large diameter (the square
section) to the small diameter (the
turned section). Complete the job by
making several light cuts, rather than
a single aggressive cut. For each cut,
start with the handle held low and the
flute facing straight up, so the gouge’s
bevel rubs on the area to be cut. Then,
to make the cut, roll the gouge while
lifting the handle and pushing in.
For the complete story, see “Perfect
Pommels,” AW #126, Jan 07.

13. Finish-sand each leg while it’s
still on the lathe.


Cut the mortises

14. Choose the best-looking adjacent
faces on each leg. Then mark the
other two adjacent faces for mortising.

15. Mark the apron's bottom edge
on the appropriate faces of each leg
by drawing a registration line 3/4" up from the start of the square section
(Fig. B). On the lower square sections,
mark the top of each stretcher.

16. Use the registration lines you've
drawn to scribe the 1/2" wide, centered

17. Rough out the mortises on the
drill press. Set the adjustable table to
a 5° angle and clamp on a temporary
fence (Photo 6). To make sure each
mortise slopes in the proper direction,
always orient the leg on the table so it
slopes downward from the top to the
bottom. Set the fence to center a 1/2"
brad point or Forstner bit between the
scribed lines that mark the sides of the
mortise. Adjust the depth stop to drill
about 1-1/16" deep.

18. Rough out each mortise in two
steps (Photo 7). First, drill a series of
adjacent holes. Then go back and drill out the ridges that remain in between.
(The mortises on each leg will meet in
the middle.) Clean the mortise shoulders
by hand, using the scribed lines
and a chisel.


Mill the aprons
and stretchers

19. Mill the 5/4 stock for the
bench’s top (B), aprons (C and D) and
stretchers (E and F) to 1". Set aside
a 13" x 74" piece for the top and cut
blanks for the aprons and stretchers.

20. Rip a 5° bevel on the top edge
of each apron board—because the
legs splay 5°, this cut will level the
tops of the aprons with the legs.
Return the blade to 90° and rip the
aprons to final width (3-1/2", measured
on the outside face).

21. Use a chop saw set at a 95°
miter to cut the aprons to length.
Miter one end, then measure along
the top edge to mark the other end
for cutting, 7-3/4" for the ends and
63-1/4" for the sides. Make sure each
pair of aprons is identical in length.

22. Cut a 95° angle on one end
of each of the four stretcher pieces.
Leave the other end long by an inch or
two for the time being.


Cut the tenons

23. Cut and fit the tenons on both
ends of the aprons and on the angled
end of each stretcher. To assure tightfitting
joints, wait until later to scribe
the uncut shoulder and tenon on the
other end of each stretcher.

24. I use my tablesaw to cut the
tenons on the skirts and stretchers.
Because of their angled ends, the
cheeks on one side of each tenon are
cut with the gauge angled 5° from 90°
in one direction and the cheeks on
the other side are cut with the gauge
angled 5° in the opposite direction.
Set the rip fence 7/8" away from the
blade. Then use the workpiece to set
the miter gauge. Simply rotate the
head of the miter gauge until the
angled edge of the workpiece rests
flush against the rip fence.

25. Raise the blade to 1/4" and
make test cuts on scrap stock to dial in
the correct tenon thickness (Photo 8).
Make a series of crosscuts to remove
the waste; on the last pass, the angled
end butts against the rip fence. (If
you have a dado set, you can cut
each tenon cheek in two passes.) Flip
the workpiece over, reset the miter gauge to make the angled end rest
flush against the rip fence, and cut the
other tenon cheek. Test the tenon’s
fit in one of the mortises—the tenon
should slide in without binding and
fit without wiggling. Adjust the blade
height and cut another test tenon, if

26. Cut all the tenon cheeks. You’ll
need to attach a long fence to the
miter gauge to support the long
aprons and stretchers.
27. Use the bandsaw to cut the
tenons’ top and bottom shoulders.

28. Miter the ends of the tenons,
so they’ll fully seat when you assemble
the joints. Tilt the blade to 45°
and use the same two miter gauge
setups that you used earlier. Make
sure to orient each skirt correctly
before cutting the miter.

29. Rout a bead on the bottom
edge of each apron, using a 3/8" beading
bit (Photo 9).


Assemble the base

30. Clamp the appropriate apron
between each matched pair of legs.
The legs will be too long (they’ll be
cut to fit after the base has been
glued together), so use the registration
lines drawn on the legs to locate
the bottom edge of each apron. Next,
place the appropriate stretcher in
position, with its angled tenon shoulder
butted against the inside face of
one leg’s lower square section. Then
scribe a line across the opposite end
of the stretcher, where it crosses the
inside face of the other square section
(Photo 10). Add 1" to this shoulder
line to allow for the tenon. Cut each
stretcher to final length. Then cut the
remaining tenons.

31. Dry-fit each sub-assembly to
make sure all the joints fit properly
(Photo 11).

32. Glue together the two ends and
allow them to dry overnight.

33. The next day, complete the
base by gluing and clamping the long
aprons and stretchers between the
two ends (Photo 12).

34. After the glue has dried, saw the
ends of each leg flush (Photo 13). I use
a block plane to clean up these cuts.

35. Pin the mortise and tenon
joints. Today, these pins are mostly
decorative. But before reliable wood
glue was available, joints were secured mechanically with long tapered wooden
pins driven through slightly offset
holes that had been drilled through
both the leg and tenon faces. These
offset holes—and the joints—were
pulled tight with an iron tool called a
drawbore. Then the pins were driven
in and cut flush.

Mark out the pin locations on each
leg and drill 1/4" dia. holes about
1-1/2" deep, so that the pins will go
through the tenon and into the body
of the leg.

36. To make the pins (G), bandsaw
a 1/4" x 1/4" length of scrap hardwood
into 2" lengths. Shave the end of each
pin with a chisel to ease the corners.
Apply a bit of glue in each hole and
hammer the pins home. Trim the pins
flush with a saw.


Make the top

37. Cut the 1" thick top blank to
final dimensions.

38. Use a pair of router bits to create
a traditional “thumbnail” edge profile
on the top. Install a 3/4" roundover
bit and set the depth to cut a strong
1/16" step (or “fillet”) in the top’s
edges (Photo 14).

39. To complete the profile, flip
the top over and install a 1/4" roundover
bit to ease the bottom side of
the edge. Blend the two router cuts
by sanding.

40. Finish-sand the top and then
attach the base with screws (Photo
15). First drill shank holes diagonally
through the aprons from the top.
Make sure the shank holes are large
enough to allow for the top’s seasonal
movement. Clamp the top in position
and drill pilot holes through the shank
holes, using a countersink bit. Then
install the 1-1/2" x #8 screws. For an
even more authentic look, fasten the
top with forged iron nails.

41. Stand the bench on a flat surface
to level the feet. Scribe a line
around each foot at the same distance
from the flat surface (approximately
1/4"). Then cut each foot at the line.

42. All that’s left now is to paint the
bench. I use milk paint, for authenticity,
but today’s exterior enamel paints
offer a durable alternative.

Cutting List

Fig. A: Exploded View

Fig. B: Leg Dimensions

Fig. C: Joinery

Click any image to view a larger version.

1. Start by turning the legs. Mount a blank on the lathe and cut in
with a parting tool to establish the two square sections.

2. Turn the center section to a cylinder. Then use a pattern to mark
the transition points between the turned elements.

3. Establish the center ring by cutting in with a parting tool.

4. Rough out the ring and the vase shapes using a spindle/detail
gouge. Shape the vases by eye, using the reference marks you’ve
made. Switch to the skew chisel to finish the job. Use the same
tools and techniques to turn the leg’s bottom section.

5. Use the skew to shape the transition between the vases and the
square sections. Then switch to the spindle/detail gouge to round
the square shoulders.

6. Tilt the drill press table 5° to rough out the mortises. To ensure
that the mortises will slope in the correct direction, orient each
leg with its bottom end on the low side of the table.

7. Create the mortises on the drill press. I drill slightly beyond the
lines that indicate the ends of the tenons. Then I don’t have to
round the tenon shoulders.

8. Use the rip fence and miter gauge to cut tenons on the aprons
and stretchers. The ends of these pieces are cut at 95°, so you
have to angle the miter gauge similarly to cut the tenons.

9. Rout a bead on the bottom edge of each
apron. Gang the aprons together to provide
additional support for the router.

10. To ensure a tight fit, one end of each
stretcher has been left unfinished. Clamp
each apron between its pair of legs. Then
position the stretcher and mark the angled
tenon shoulder on the unfinished end.

11. Dry assemble both ends; if all the joints
fit correctly, disassemble, apply glue, reassemble
and clamp each end overnight.

12. The next day, glue and clamp the long aprons and stretchers.

13. Cut the legs flush with the aprons. Then
install the pins.

14. Rout the top edge to create a “thumbnail” profile. Shape the top
edge with a 3/4” roundover bit, to create a fillet. Then flip the top
over and use a 1/4” roundover bit to ease the bottom edge.

15. Fasten the top with screws after drilling countersunk shank holes
in the aprons.

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker April/May 2010, issue #147.