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Few things embody casual summer entertaining like the picnic table. And in our opinion, the table should be as fuss-free as the food. Thus the classic Americana design, with its X-shaped legs and its separate benches, roomy enough for six adults. We built our edition from rough-sawn cedar, which is a bit thicker and more rustic than less-expensive pressure-treated pine. This DIY picnic table will last for years, long after it weathers to a silvery gray; the crossed legs are notched with half-lap joints for strength and braced diagonally to prevent the table from racking. As for the various angle cuts, they only look complicated—we used a jig to find them. Follow along as This Old House senior technical editor Mark Powers walks you through the steps for building this backyard beauty.

Shown: Grill; Weber Original Kettle, about $149; homedepot.com

Overview for How to Build a Classic Picnic Table

Illustration by Gregory Nemec

Timeline:

  • Day 1: Build the table (Steps 2–11).
  • Day 2: Build the benches (Step 12-13).

Picnic Table Cut List

  • 2x8 tabletop boards: five @ 72 inches
  • 2x6 bench-seat boards: four @ 72 inches
  • 2x6 table legs: Mark the angles and cut four to fit using the jig.
  • 2x4 table cleats: three @ 31⅞ inches, with ends beveled at 45-degrees
  • 2x4 bench cleats: six @ 11½ inches, with ends beveled at 30-degrees
  • 2x4 table braces: Mark the angles and cut to fit two of them.
  • 2x4 bench braces: Mark the angles and cut to fit four of them.
  • 2x4 bench legs: Mark the angles and cut eight to fit using the jig.

Or download the cut-list for How to Build a Classic Picnic Table.

Step 1: Attach the Cleats for the Top

Photo by Sonya Revell

Cut five 2x8s to length on the miter saw. Arrange them on the work surface with their best sides facing down, using 16d nails as spacers between the boards. Then cut three 2x4 cleats to length with a 45-degree angle on each end. Mark positions for two cleats, inset 12 inches from either end and centered across the width of the tabletop. Add construction adhesive to the cleats and fasten them across the boards by driving 2½-inch deck screws in a zigzag pattern, so as not to split the boards.

Step 2: Use the Tabletop as a Jig

Photo by Sonya Revell

Measure 30 inches (minus the thickness of the top) from the inside edge of one cleat, and make several marks across the width of the tabletop, as shown. Use two screws to temporarily attach the third cleat at these marks; now you have a jig for laying out the legs.

Step 3: Cut the Angled Feet to Lay Out the Table Legs

Photo by Sonya Revell

Rest a 2x6 diagonally across your jig, with the outside edge overlapping the cleat where the bevel begins and the opposite edge overlapping the bevel on the temporary cleat. Mark each edge of the board where it crosses the cleats, as shown. Remove the board, connect the marks, and use one of the lines to set the angle of the miter-saw blade. Cut the leg and drop it into the jig to check the fit; if it's accurate, use it as a template to mark the other three legs. Now remove the temporary cleat, center it between the other two, and fasten it with construction adhesive and 2½-inch screws.

Step 4: Mark the Half-Lap Joint

Photo by Sonya Revell

Hold a pair of legs in an X pattern standing up so that the mitered ends resting on the table are flush with the cleat's bevels. Clamp the legs together where they cross, then use a piece of scrap to fill the gap between the cleat and the one leg, and clamp the assembly against the cleat. Mark where each edge of each leg board overlaps the other, as shown.

Tip: To mark the half-lap joint, be sure to run the pencil lead so that it's touching the overlapping board; otherwise, the joint will end up too loose.

Step 5: Cut the Half-Lap Joint and Build the Legs

Photo by Sonya Revell

Separate the legs and clamp them to the work surface with the marks lined up. Set the blade depth on the circular saw to half the width of the material (⅞ inch for our 1¾-inch rough-sawn cedar). Make a series of crosscuts between the marks, as shown.

Step 6: Clean Out the Cut

Photo by Sonya Revell

Use a hammer to knock the wood slivers free. Pare the bottom of the joint smooth on each leg with a chisel, using the flat side against the wood.

Test the joint: it should be snug but not tight enough to prevent seasonal movement of the wood. Use the two parts as a template to mark the other leg assembly. Then add construction adhesive to half the joint, press the other half in place, and screw the legs together with 1¼-inch deck screws—one in each corner of the joint.

Step 7: Attach the Legs

Photo by Sonya Revell

Position a leg assembly on the outside of one cleat and fasten it with 4-inch deck screws, as shown, two in each leg. Repeat for the other pair of legs.

Step 8: Find the Angle to Brace the Legs

Photo by Sonya Revell

Place a 2x4 brace against the center cleat with one end touching both the cleat and the tabletop. Rest the other end alongside the intersection of the legs, and have a helper hold it there. Back at the first end, use the rafter square to mark a cut line 90-degrees to the table, as shown.

Step 9: Mark the Brace

Photo by Sonya Revell

Mark where the brace crosses the leg assembly, as shown. Now, with the brace's length and angles marked, use the lines to adjust the miter saw and cut both ends. Test the fit and nibble away the end against the legs until it lands roughly in the center of the half-lap joint. Repeat the process for the second brace.

Step 10: Attach the Brace

Photo by Sonya Revell

Place the brace between the center cleat and the leg assembly, then attach it to the legs using 2½-inch screws, as shown. Attach the brace to the cleat by driving 2½-inch screws through the sides of the brace and into the cleat. Repeat this step for the other brace.

Step 11: Make the Seats and Legs for the Benches

Photo by Sonya Revell

Repeat Steps 1 through 3, using two 2x6s for the seats and a 2x4 for the legs. The only difference here is that you'll want to cut the cleats to the full width of the seat and bevel their ends at 30-degrees. After that, as with the table, you'll use the third cleat to make a jig to lay out the legs, half-lap them, then clamp the assembly to the cleat and attach it with 4-inch screws, as shown.

Step 12: Make the Seats and Legs for the Benches

Photo by Sonya Revell

Follow Step 4 to find the angles and length of the 2x4 braces. Mark, cut, and attach each brace, fastening it first to the leg assembly and then to the center cleat, as shown. Flip it over, have a seat, and admire your work.


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