Colourful Kid’s Bench
Photos by David Bedrosian; Illustration by Len Churchill
|INFO: ||DIFFICULTY – 2/5, LENGTH/TIME – 2/5, COST – 2/5|
I chose to build the bench from Baltic birch plywood, since it is free of voids and finishes well, but there are many other options. Standard plywood or solid wood would work fine too. The bench consists of a seat and back, which are held in place by two shaped sides. The seat and back are both edged with maple for added rigidity and to provide a smooth surface. I finished the bench with bright yellow milk paint followed by a clear topcoat, but it could be stained or even left unfinished.
You’ll notice a small gap between the seat and the back. This makes the bench easier to clean and I also liked the look slightly better. It makes the bench a little bit weaker, though I’ve checked it closely with an adult sitting on the bench and there is very little deflection. If you want to eliminate this gap, and make the bench even stronger, it’s easy to do. Attach a solid wood cleat along the lower, back face of the bench’s back, increase the width of the seat by 3/4", and screw upwards through the seat, into the back cleat. You will also have to make the back slightly wider.
I recommend making a template for the sides using 1/4" Masonite or MDF. It doesn’t take long and it will allow you to make more benches in the future. It also ensures your two sides are the exact same shape and size. Transfer the scale drawing to the template material, knowing that the exact shape of the curves is not critical. Using a bandsaw or jigsaw, cut the template as close to the line as possible. Follow up by sanding all of the curves with 120-grit paper. The template material sands easily so it should not take long to smooth the curves. Run your fingers along the template to find any imperfections and remove them now so they do not get transferred to the plywood sides.
Make the sides
With the template complete, use it to mark out the two sides on the plywood and cut them slightly oversize using a jigsaw or a bandsaw. Each side is then routed to the final size using a router and a bearing-guided bit. To do this, I clamped the template and the side at one corner of my outfeed table so that I could guide the router with a template bit around the template. Sand the routed surface smooth before rounding over the edges with a 1/4" roundover bit. The feet and the inside back edge are not rounded over but should be sanded with a slight chamfer to prevent chipping.
Template for the sides – To create the template, start with a 1/4" thick piece that’s cut to the finished width. Once the shape is drawn out, and cut to size, fair the curves with a sanding block or other hand tools.
Flush-trim the sides – Clamp the template and workpiece to a stationary object then rout each side to final size with a bearing-guided router bit riding against the template.
Two types of cleats
The seat and back are fastened to the sides using wooden cleats that are glued and screwed in place. I made the seat cleats from 1-1/4" thick maple and tapered the ends to about 3/4" so the cleats are hidden by the edging on the seat. The cleat length should be just less than the width of the seat before the edging is applied. Counter-bore and pre-drill the four screw holes in each cleat, ensuring the screws will not go all the way through the plywood.
The back cleats are made from 3/4" thick maple and do not need tapered ends. Cut these cleats to be just less than the width of the back without the edging and then counter-bore and pre-drill the four screw holes in both pieces. The exact location of the cleats is shown on the seat drawing and should be followed carefully so the seat does not interfere with the back.
Hardwood cleats – Counter-bore and pre-drill the screw holes in the cleats before they are glued and screwed to the sides.
Seat and back
Rip the plywood for the seat and back to finished width, but leave them an inch or two longer than needed. They will be cut to length once the front and back edging has been applied. This edging is machined from 3/4" thick maple and is also cut an inch or two longer than needed. To protect little fingers from sharp corners, a 1/4" roundover is applied to the edging. The two bottom edges can be rounded over before the edging is applied; the top edge cannot be rounded over until the edging has been attached and trimmed flush with the plywood.
The long grain of the plywood veneers will provide enough glue surface for a secure bond to the edging, but I like to use some form of mechanical fastener to help with the alignment of the pieces while I apply clamping pressure. Biscuits, dominos, dowels or splines could be used, but for simplicity, I used my pin nailer and stayed clear of the top edge so I would not hit the pins when rounding over that edge. Since the edging and the plywood are both oversize in length, you don’t have to worry about the end alignment.
To apply even clamping pressure along the length of the edge, I recommend gluing one edge at a time and clamping the back and the seat back-to-back to act as a long clamping caul. Apply clamps above and below the boards to keep the maple flat against the edge of the plywood. I aim for an even bead of glue squeeze-out along the entire length of the edging to know that I have sufficient glue and pressure. Once the four edge pieces are glued, cut the back and the side to final length and plane or sand the edging flush with the top of the plywood before rounding over the edge.
Round over the maple edging – Rout a 1/4" roundover on two edges of each piece of edging before it is fastened to the plywood.
Glue the edging – Bedrosian uses a few pin nails to keep the maple edging from shifting when clamps are applied.
Back-to-back clamping – The back acts as a clamping caul when gluing the edging to the seat. Just be sure the long edges of the plywood are straight or you will not have even clamping pressure.
I’m set up for spraying, but the finish on this bench could be applied with a brush, roller or pad. Everyone has their favourite finish, and as long as it’s durable you can use it on this project. I chose to finish this bench with easily applied bright yellow milk paint. Milk paint is very easy to work with, and it comes in some great colours. It can be brushed on, but I sprayed two coats onto this project. The polyurethane on top of the milk paint offers a lot of protection, and is also relatively easy to apply.
When possible, I prefer to finish my projects before assembly since it allows me to keep the surfaces horizontal, which helps to prevent runs. It also allows me to reduce overspray. If you’re brushing the finish on, applying a finish before assembly will allow you to get into corners far easier. For these reasons, I finished the sides, back and seat before assembly. The first step in a painted surface is surface preparation. The uniformity of the paint means any defects in the wood will stand out more than if a natural finish is used. Fortunately, these dents, scratches, chips and pin-nail holes are easily filled with glazing or spot putty, which is available anywhere that sells automotive supplies. Thin scratches and chips can be filled with a single coat, but larger chips may need several coats. Pay particular attention to the plywood edging on the sides and fill any imperfections. The putty dries quickly so you should be able to sand away any excess in less than an hour.
Mask off the glue surfaces of the cleats and apply the first coat of primer to all pieces. I used Zinsser 1-2-3 primer, but there are many different types that will work well. The primed surfaces will be quite rough because of the raised grain, so sand them smooth with 180-grit paper. You’ll likely discover more chips and other defects in the wood at this stage. They should be filled with the spot putty if you want a top-quality finish. Apply a second coat of primer, followed by two coats of the milk paint and two or three coats of polyurethane, sanding lightly between each coat to remove any dust nibs.
The final step is to secure the seat and the back to the cleats on the sides. For maximum strength, I apply glue to the surfaces of the cleats before driving in the screws. If the bench will need to be disassembled, you can skip the glue.
Cut to length – Use a cross-cut sled to cut the back and the seat to the same length. It’s imperative these two parts are identical in length.
Touch up any defects – Automotive spot putty is used to fill chips and dents in the plywood before applying a finish. A painted finish will highlight any cracks, dents or lack of smoothness in the finished surface.
Final Assembly – Use screws and glue to secure the seat and back to the cleats. If you think you might need to disassemble the bench for storage or moving you can skip the glue, but that creates a weaker bench.
David is an avid woodworking hobbyist who enjoys using his engineering background in the design and construction of his work. He has an ever-expanding basement workshop in Waterloo, ON and is a competitive triathlete.