Sapele Garden Bench
This exercise in design is over the top!

SHOP OWNER: Jay St. Peter
Leonardtown, MD

    My latest project is this garden bench, a Christmas gift for my mother. Unlike many of my projects, this was less about the construction than the design. My wife likes country style furniture and I lean toward modern. We tend to compromise on styles and the result resembles Pottery Barn, which I find boring from a design perspective. When my mother started talking about what she wanted, I was surprised and excited by what she had in mind. I literally drew some sketches on an envelope in her kitchen during a summer visit and knew what my yearly Christmas project was going to be.
    She wanted an oriental style garden bench. So, I drew some flared legs and a top with the upward curved ends and she was excited by this idea. Originally I had intended to use through mortises to attach the legs to the top and had drawn in some visible joinery.
    While I was excited about the project, life kept me from starting until early November. With just an idea of a design and some dimensions, I went to a local lumber supplier and came home with a truckload of Sapele. Usually, I come home from the sawmill and start cranking on a project, but I really had nothing more than some quick concept sketches. I spent part of the weekend working on drawings and scouring the Internet and some books for inspiration. In my mind I had also been considering a floating top and most of my sketches reflected that direction instead of the original through tenon idea. As I was sitting in the “reading room” flipping through The Custom Furniture Sourcebook, I found the idea for the “trusses” that hold up the top.
Sapele Garden Bench
    Usually that would be enough and I’d be off to the shop. But, some of my previous projects that looked good in my 2-D drawings, looked a little out of proportion in 3-D. Plus, I wanted to look at some different ideas I had without having to erase and redraw. I spent the next weekend learning SketchUp and drawing the bench, including joinery. I wound up with a half dozen slightly different versions and picked the one I liked the best. At this point, time was running short. Other than some shop cabinets and other utility projects, I can’t think of a project that I actually finished in six weeks. So I did a little simplification of my favorite design and headed for the shop.
Sapele Garden Bench
    The construction was straightforward. The only new technique I used was making mortises with my PM701 mortiser instead of a router. The frame came together in record time. The simple lines and, strangely enough, perfect lumber selection for the parts made it come together nice and easy. Plus, I had already done all the joinery in SketchUp, so I disassembled and marked dimensions on the parts. I’m guessing this is what it’s like to build a project from plans instead of sketches on a napkin. I did have to make a new tapering jig, as the legs were cut from some 12/4 and were too thick for the sled I use for tapering.
Sapele Garden Bench
    The top took a little more thought. If this were going to be an indoor bench I would have used breadboard ends and greatly simplified the construction. I didn’t want to have that joint line on an outdoor bench residing in a beach community in MD. My fear was that the finish would split and allow water to get in and freeze when the bench was covered in snow or ice. So, I glued up the top a little long. When I cross cut it to length, I cut two-inch strips off the end and face glued them onto the ends.
    Then came the task of shaping the blocks to a curve. I drew a curve on a piece of paper and used it as a template. I made a jig for my Festool MFT that guides the router over the piece. It will also be a variable width dado jig in the future. I glued the template to the edge and pushed the piece against a stop on the MFT. I set the router height using the template, ran the router across, and then flipped end-for-end and did the same to the other side. After 15 or 20 readjustments and passes, I had a stepped version of the curve on the top. I did the same for the bottom and then went to work with rasps, hand planes, and sanders to fair the final shape.
    With two weeks left until Christmas, I still had sanding and finishing to go. I got the project sanded by the next weekend and started on the finish. Usually, I do a bunch of finish testing on scraps but time wasn’t on my side. Since I was concerned about weathering, I had decided to use a coat of West System Epoxy “wood finish” followed by Sikkens marine varnish. I applied the epoxy as directed and it was a disaster. It had bubbles in it and had gone on way too thick. I have trouble calling this a finish, as it is really just epoxy with some amber tint and UV additives. Oh boy, I was in for a lot of sanding. Good thing I had a few extra days, or so I thought! We got a call right as I was cursing the epoxy and lamenting the extra five to ten hours of sanding I had cost myself. We would now be getting together to exchange gifts with my mother on the 22nd. So, I spent until two in the morning the next two nights and had the thing ready for the first coat of Sikkens.
Sapele Garden Bench
    The Sikkens went about as well as the epoxy. That stuff is difficult to use and really muddied the nice grain I had chosen. It ran and blobbed in corners and really caused me headaches. Once “dried” it would just roll and pill and gunk the paper when I tried to sand it. I had to repair the drips using razor blades as scrapers and probably used 30-40 sheets of sandpaper to do my flattening before the final coat. It’s not one of my better finishes, but I wound up making it decent. Overall, I have no desire to use either of the finishes again.
    I didn’t make the deadline on 22nd. But, the good news is I did deliver it (ever so slightly tacky) on Christmas day. This is the second of eight Christmas projects I’ve delivered before New Years. All in all, I’m pretty happy with it. I hope the finish lasts in the tough beach environment to make all the hassle worthwhile. To me, this one is more about the design than many of my other projects. I hope to have more opportunities in the future to exercise my own design ideas and improve at that aspect of the craft. But, I have a feeling the near term will be a couple more Pottery Barn knockoffs!
. . . Jay St. Peter


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