Build A Patio Harvest Table
Photos by Wayne Brown; Illustration by Len Churchill
The first step in building any table is determining its overall dimensions. Height is typically 30", so this is a dimension you do not want to change significantly. If you already have patio chairs you might want to check that they will fit under the aprons. Adding an inch or so to the overall height won’t throw things off too much, but any more might be too much.
|INFO: ||DIFFICULTY – 2/5, LENGTH/TIME – 2/5, COST – 3/5|
The width of the table is determined purely by personal preference. However, for aesthetic reasons, I like to use a width that is a full increment of the 5/4" × 6" deck boards that will be used as the table top. This avoids having to rip boards to meet the width requirement. Another thing to consider when determining the width of the table is whether an umbrella will be incorporated into the design. If this is the case, you may want to choose a width that requires an odd number of deck boards, so the hole for the umbrella pole is cut in the center of a board instead of on the join between two boards.
The length of the table is also a personal preference, but there are of course a few considerations to take into account. You will want to measure the width of each chair to make sure the length of the table will accommodate a full set of chairs. The space to accommodate the chairs will be approximately 12" less than the overall length of the table, due to the legs, skirt and tabletop overhang. Additionally, you may want to avoid building a table longer than the maximum available length of 5/4" deck boards, as you would have a horizontal join in the center. Finally, if the table is over 8' long, I would suggest installing a center leg to prevent the table from sagging in the middle.
This table can be made of standard board dimensions and building materials like spruce, or from more exotic woods like cedar, oak or ipe. I personally like working with cedar as it is a light wood that looks quite rich once sanded. It also holds up very well outside and can be left untreated if you do not want the extra maintenance each year. However, be aware that unprotected cedar will gray over time when exposed to water and sunlight. The materials are 4 × 4s for the legs, 2 × 4s for the aprons and cross-rails and 5/4" × 6" deck boards for the table top. I found carriage bolts give a rustic look to the table (especially when the heads are painted black) and provide excellent strength. Additionally, the carriage bolts provide the flexibility of being able to remove the table legs when moving or storing the table.
First, the Frame – With the four aprons cut to size Brown uses a pneumatic nailer to lightly pin them together. You can use screws for this, but just make sure their locations won’t interfere with carriage bolts, if you choose to use them.
Strengthen the Corners – Brown built this table without carriage bolts, so he added screws to secure the leg/apron corner joints now. If you’re going to use carriage bolts you should drill clearance holes now, then add the bolts, washers and nuts to the four corners.
Paint the bolt heads
If you plan to use 1/2" carriage bolts to fasten the legs, paint the heads with a black outdoor spray paint as your first step as you want the heads to be dry when you are ready to use them. Drilling holes in a scrap piece of wood and dropping the bolts through the holes is a practical way to temporarily mount the bolts while they are being painted. Don’t forget to buy a matching nut and washer for each bolt, and be sure all materials are galvanized. Each bolt should be long enough to accommodate the width of the material being fastened, and provide enough thread length to completely tighten the nut. A 6" bolt will usually work, but be sure to check the thread length before purchasing as some manufacturers use different thread lengths.
Build the apron assembly
The outside length and width of the frame should be 2" less than the overall length and width of the table, to accommodate the 1" overhang on each side of the tabletop. Cut the two long and two short aprons to length. You may also want to cut the cross-rails to length now as they will be the exact same length as the short aprons. I have found at this step that it’s best to air nail the four aprons together with 2" brad nails near the edges of each board. This will prevent problems later when trying to secure the legs, especially if you’ll be using carriage bolts, as these take up a fair amount of real estate – you don’t want to run into a screw when drilling out the holes for the carriage bolts.
An important note about the photos in this article – I’ve built two of these tables; one with carriage bolts, the other without. The process photos in this article are all of the table without carriage bolts, which is why there’s no gap between the inner surface of the legs and the inner cross-rails. When I built the table with the carriage bolts I kept those two cross-rails a few inches away from the inner surface of the leg so I could remove the nuts, washers and legs down the road to better allow me to move and store the table.
Time for legs
Once the outside frame is tacked together, cut the legs to length. Use clamps to temporarily mount the legs to the inside of the frame. If you’re working by yourself you can clamp blocks to the sides of the legs so the aprons can sit on the blocks, with their upper surfaces flush with the tops of the legs. If you’re using carriage bolts, drill three 1/2" holes through the frame and the leg – two on one side and one on the perpendicular face – spaced such that they do not intersect. Use a rubber mallet to tap the bolts through the holes so that you minimize the damage to the paint on the heads. You may need to touch up this paint later once the table is completed.
Attach the cross-rails to the frame to give the table rigidity, and to prevent the top planks from sagging. The first two rails to install will be near each end of the table. The purpose of these rails is to catch the end of the lengthwise planks so they don’t sag when weight is placed on them. If you have installed carriage bolts these rails can be installed about 1" away from the bolt ends, providing there is enough room to remove the bolts and legs if required. If no carriage bolts were used, the two outermost rails can be installed flush with the inside surface of the legs.
Pre-drill and counter-sink the screws. The length of the table will determine the number of extra cross-rails to be installed – one every 24" will be fine, though it’s more important the crossrails are placed evenly, as plugs used to cover the screws are going to be visible.
However, if you plan to add center legs you’ll need a cross-member on each side of the leg. Finally, if you’re planning on putting an umbrella in the center of the table you need to ensure there is no crossrail obstructing the umbrella pole.
First Cross-Rails – The first two cross-rails to install are at either end of the frame, between the long aprons. Brown secured these cross-rails to the legs and the apron with exterior screws. If you’re using carriage bolts ensure these two cross-rails are a few inches away from the ends of the bolts so you can remove the nuts and legs later on.
Now that the frame is completed and the legs are installed, it’s time to attach the tabletop, which is comprised of the 5/4 × 6" deck boards. The first deck board to install is one of the false breadboard ends.
Cut the board to length based on the width of the frame, plus 2" for the total overhang. Lay the first breadboard across the end of the table with a 1" overhang on three sides. Clamp and screw the board to the frame using the counter-sink drill bit.
Once this first false breadboard end is in place, cut the second false breadboard to the same length and place it on the opposite end, also with a 1" overhang. Don’t screw this board down at this time; just clamp it in place. Measure the distance between these two false breadboard ends and cut the longer tabletop pieces to length.
Once all the tabletop pieces are cut, lay them on the table to confirm they align with the outside edges of first breadboard when laid together. If there is a slight offset between the breadboard ends and the edge of the long tabletop board, use a circular saw to trim the edges of the first breadboard piece.
Screw the long tabletop pieces to the frame using the counter-sink bit. Be sure to check the 1" overhang along the full length of the first lengthwise board. Once the first board is attached, lay the second board down and use clamps to pull the second board flush with the first, repeating this until all of the boards are attached to the frame. The final step is to attach the second breadboard end, confirming the width is correct. If the boards you’re using are fairly wet, they can be assembled tight to each other. If they are fairly dry it's safest to leave a small gap between each board.
Even Spacing – Measure for the locations of the remaining cross-rails. They should be spaced evenly, as when the long top planks are screwed and plugged the plug locations will be visible. If they’re spaced evenly, the table looks that much nicer.The Right Length – Now that the first false breadboard has been screwed in place, cut and clamp the second false breadboard end in place, but don’t screw it down yet. Measure and cut all the top boards, then position them in place.
Square Cross-Rails – With the rails in place, and perpendicular to the long aprons, counter-bore for screws through the aprons and drive the screws home.
False Breadboards – With the frame complete, cut the false breadboard end to length so there’s a 1" overhang on both ends, center it over the width of the frame, then ensure there’s also a 1" overhang at the end of the table before screwing it to the frame.
Attach the Top Boards – Brown makes sure the top boards are lightly clamped together, as his boards were slightly wet, and they will shrink slightly. He then drove screws through the top boards, into the cross-rails, then removed the clamps, before installing the second false breadboard end. If the boards you’re using are dry then maintaining a small gap between boards is a good idea.
Carriage Bolt Option – If you use carriage bolts to secure the leg/ apron joints, this is the look you will end up with. Brown went the extra mile to paint the carriage bolt heads before assembling the table.
The next step is to cut enough wooden plugs to fill each hole in the top and frame. Add glue then tap each plug into the holes with a light hammer, then sand them flush when dry. To give the table a finished look, rout the entire perimeter of the table with a round-over bit. Sand the entire table surface, apron, legs and edges with 80-grit then 120-grit sandpaper.
Coat the bottom of the legs with waterproof glue to prevent water from wicking up into the legs and rotting them. You can also install small feet under each leg to keep the wood off the ground. Coat the table with three or more coats of teak oil, or other finishing product. Teak oil is easy to apply, and provides some protection. I also like the look it provides. Test a scrap of the wood you made your table with to ensure you like the look the finish gives you. Another option is to use exterior polyurethane, though film finishes tend to require more maintenance to keep looking new and fresh when they spend lots of time outside. A third option is to not use any finish; however, if left outside in the elements, cedar will eventually turn gray from exposure to moisture and sunlight, but being cedar, the wood will not rot.
Now you’re ready for your first dinner party – enjoy!
Round Over – A medium-sized round-over bit in a router will make quick work of easing some of the outer edges of the top.
Proud to be a Newfoundlander, Wayne comes from a long line of boatbuilders, but after building one boat has switched to building tables.