After a massive ice storm, this winter, we had quite a bit of fallen limbs littering the yard. Normally I would cut them up and turn them into firewood, but I thought I'd try something a bit different since a few of the limbs were pretty large. Now, initially I wasn't sure it would even work as crafting a bench, out of raw branches, is an experiment in chaos, but as the project progressed, it just seemed to flow.
I took inspiration, for the bench, from Lord of the Rings, of all things, in that I wanted it to resemble some of the Elven art inspired by the movie. The hope being that, as plants began to grow around it, they would envelope the raw bare branches making it a part of the garden itself. It'll probably take a year or two to fully become a part of the scenery, and I'll probably have to plant a few things around to help it along, but in the end, it should become a permanent fixture of the landscape.
I initially wanted this project to be made entirely with hand tools, and in fact 99% of it is, tho I did cheat a bit as turning screws with a screwdriver is both time consuming, and rather tiring. Otherwise, the fabrication of this bench can be accomplished using absolutely zero electricity.
Also a thing to consider is that, as mentioned before, it's an experiment in chaos. If anything I learned, it's that you really can't tell what the branches to do, rather let them pick their angles and work within those confines. It doesn't make for the most symmetrical piece of lawn furniture, but that is the point. Nature is rarely symmetrical.
Step 1: Tools and Supplies
As I mentioned, this entire project is designed to be made without the use of power tools, but it doesn't mean that you can't. The tools I list are all handheld, but you can substitute as you see fit.
- Drawknife and/or spoke shave
- Hand saw
- Sharp carving knife
- Various wood bits (1/2", 5/8". 3/4", 1", 1.25")
- Brace and bit drill
- Shavehorse or vice
- Vernier calipers
- Clamps (strap clamps are exceptionally useful)
- Branch Shears
- Sticks...lots of sticks, preferably greenwood.
- Wood glue
- Outdoor screws
- Dye or Stain (I use Fiebings leather dye)
Step 2: Figuring Out Your Design
With this project, I had a finite amount of thick limbs to work with, so my design had to reflect this shortfall. The first step is to take stock of how much deadfall you have to work with and allowing your design to flow from that. For my design, I had to vertical posts that would act as both the rear legs, and the backrest, with two Y shaped limbs acting as the front legs. The stretchers (the parts that stabilize the legs) are only between the two front ones, and between the front and side legs, with the back open. The backrest would act as a stretcher preventing the rear legs from shifting.
Strength is important, especially if you want your bench to be more than decorative so choosing the right limbs for the seat is very important, especially considering you're working with raw material, and not graded and selected lumber. The frame is made of 2" or greater branches, while the core of the seat utilizes 1" limbs. The smallest I'd recommend would be 1/2" as you need your seat to be as rigid as possible.
Branches are chaotic, and that's part of the charm of this bench. Y shaped limbs, crooked ones, even limbs with smaller branches protruding from them can all add to the character of this project. You'll understand this more when you see the selection of branches I choose for my seat in later steps.
Step 3: Debarking
Debarking starts with the axe, removing knots and smaller branches that won't end up in the final incarnation of the project. Try not to cut too deeply, or even be too thorough. Sometimes a wayward know can add some character to your project.
Once your pieces have been cleared with the axe, it's time to break out the drawknife and shavehorse. This part of the project is time consuming, and when I say that, you can believe you won't ever want to see another tree limb as long as you live. That's why it's a good idea to get it out of the way early.
Part of debarking is that it'll show you the 'true' size of the branch, meaning that with the bark and cambium (the layer directly under the bark) a branch can appear much thicker than it is. Be certain that when you pick a specific limb for a bench part, that you underestimate its thickness. Better to be wrong because it's too thick than too thin.
Step 4: Mortise and Tenon
As I'm not a wheelwright, I'm not certain as to the terminology used for this type of joint, so I'll simply refer to it as a mortise and tenon, which it essentially is. The base idea is to reduce your connections to one of the established bit sizes that I'd recommended in the tools and supplies section of the instructable, without sacrificing the strength of either the tenon end, or the mortise hole. For structural points, such as the frame of the seat, and the legs, it's best to go with a larger joint while the fill branches for the backrest can use much smaller spokes. The idea is to assess your wood, and how much load it will have to support and work from there.
To create tenon, use one of your bits and score out the end of your spoke. This will establish its diameter. Now, starting up roughly 1.5" from the end, begin reducing its diameter evenly until your tenon is created. A slight taper is optimal, just be certain that it's not too dramatic or it won't fit the mortise properly. If done correctly, you should simply be able to drill your hole to 1" to 1.25" deep and almost 'press fit' the spoke end.
Step 5: The Seat
Everything begins and ends with the seat. As branches are rarely straight, the rest of the bench depends on the final form of this part. The overall dimensions of the seat are 40"x19"
Start with your frame, using limbs that are a minimum of 1.5" thick, but don't glue it immediately. I generally prefer to offset the joints having the front bar set into the sides, with the sides set into the back, but it's not mandatory, provided your joints are well fitted.
Now's where you get to exhibit some creativity with our branches. Start selecting branches to fill the seat area and begin cutting them to appropriate lengths, and if you haven't debarked them already, now would be a good time. Also, setting the tenon on the ends of each piece, prior to positioning them will make it easier to estimate their angles in the frame.
Lay out your cut and debarked branches and mark out their position on the frame. I generally label the end of each branch, and their location with a letter or number identifier as it makes it easier to ensure they end up in the position you've chosen.
You're going to want to start along one edge first, drilling each hole independently, ensuring you have the angle of each branch set correctly. Once the first edge is set, you can position the opposite edge to ensure your locations are still correct and begin drilling them. If you're off on some of the branches, don't worry too much. The branches are somewhat flexible and can be 'convinced' to end up in the appropriate socket.
Extra Credit; You can level up your project a bit by adding branches with multiple nodes, some of which attach to the sides of the seat. Judging where they will insert can be a bit difficult and the final glue and clamp can be a bit tricky, but it'll go a long way towards the uniqueness of the piece.
Step 6: The Legs
As mentioned, I used a couple of Y shaped pieces for the front legs, using the same mortise and tenon joint as the seat. Don't glue them in immediately as you're going to want to fit them for their stretchers.
The rear legs have the mortise that fit into the tenons cut into the rear frame of the seat. Set your legs on, temporarily, and mark locations for the stretchers between each leg.
Onceyou've test fit your legs, marked out your stretcher locations and created the tenon on each, you can drill the mortise into each leg and glue them into place. I recommend clamping using a strap clamp to force the mortise and tenon joints into place.
Note: You can add stretchers between all four legs, however since the backrest will be static and part of the back legs, I opted to leave out the rear stretcher. As this bench will be subjected to weathering, I decided to add screws to the mortise and tenon joints as an extra measure of strength. It isn't necessary, but it will add to the longevity of the piece.
Now would be a good time to balance your bench. Due to the chaos of the project, it's pretty unlikely it'll be steady and will be a bit wobbly on its feet. A great saw for this job is a Japanese pull saw which will give you good, smooth and flat ends. You should plan on a height of between 18"-20" from ground to seat.
Step 7: The Back
As I'd left out the rear leg stretcher, I decided to join the top of the rear legs to create a backrest. Honestly, I'd already decided that this piece would be part of the backrest because I truly fell in love with the shape of it. Because the legs were strong and static, I drilled the mortise holes right into the legs while mounted and 'bent' the branch into position.
The Filler Branches:
This part was the most enjoyable part of the project as it comprises much of the leftover pieces of branch you have laying around from your project. In fact, the more nodes on each branch the better, and while the rest of the project relies on them being 1/2" or greater, that rule doesn't apply here.
I didn't designate, ahead of time, which branches went where and used what the material told me that it wanted. Each mortise was only drilled when each branch was debarked, and tenoned, setting its appropriate angle.
I recommend screwing some of the thicker branches to the top stretcher on the backrest using outdoor screws. Because you're dealing with such thin branches, it's a good idea to pre-drill before screwing them in.
Don't worry too much about the top length of your branches. This is where pruning with your branch shears comes into play.
Step 8: Sanding and Staining
You can sand as you go, however it can easily be done after assembly. I didn't want to remove the contour marks left by the drawknife as I liked the 'faceted' look the branches had, so rather I simply focused on removing burrs and snags on each piece. I also rounded the ends of each cut on the branches so that they wouldn't snag the clothing of anyone who sat on it.
For the staining, I didn't want to alter the color of the piece, and so decided on a dye 'wash' instead that would even out the look of all the different types of wood used in the project, while aging it to resemble a piece of furniture that had been used for years. I considered sealing it, but am curious how graying from weather will add to this, and so I may not. Only time will tell.
For the wash, I mixed 1 part Feibings light brown leather dye, to 3 parts water and applied liberally using a piece of lambs wool. You can use a brush, however I find that lambs wool holds a lot of dye and tends to apply more evenly, getting into every nook and cranny much more easily with fewer drips and blemishes.
Once your seat is dyed, set it in the sun to dry.
Step 9: Finished
That's it, you're done.
Sometimes it's fun to create something out of, what most would consider, waste, especially when you get to recycle nature itself. Tho it was one of the most intensively boring (debarking) projects, I truly enjoyed working on it none the less.
As usual, I hope you enjoyed the instructable and thanks for following.