Intro: Make It: Mid-Century Modern Bench
I saw a picture of this bench in a couple of interior design magazines, fell in love with it, and before I knew it, I'd embarked upon making my own. The internet is full of both very pricey versions of this bench (retailing for stupid prices - $1,000 USD upwards) and cheaper knock offs ($300 or so). I figured I could easily make it myself for about half the price of even the very cheapest online offering, and almost certainly using better quality materials.
All up, the timber came to about $100 Australian dollars and consumables (screws, glue, stain and finish) were already in the shed. Even if you had to buy all the materials from scratch - let's call it maybe $140 at most.And even if you needed to buy some tools (what a great excuse), you'd still potentially come out way ahead.
Just to be super extra double clear, this most definitely is not my design. The platform or slat bench is by George Nelson, c. 1946, and was first produced by Herman Miller.
It is not only functional (working either as a bench seat, display piece or low coffee table), but is considered by some to be one of the 20th century's most iconic modern furniture pieces. Most amazing is that although the design is some 70 years old, it hasn't dated, and will look great in any contemporary home.
Step 1: Design, Layout and Tools/consumables Required
So the bench has two main parts - a) two trapezoidal legs b) a slat top made with interlocking half lap joints. I'd encourage you to look at the attached images to get a strong mental picture of how all the parts are meant to be cut and put together (really it's just a 3d wooden jigsaw in many respects)
A note on measuring
I live in Australia. We've been using metric since before I was born. I know nothing else. That being said, I know many of the potential readers will prefer the Imperial measurement system.
So I've tried to provide measurements and dimensions in both metric and Imperial. Two caveats - I don't "think" in Imperial, so if I've transposed a measurement I probably won't have noticed. If any measurement appears unduly massive or tiny, just assume I got it badly wrong. Also, my dimensions in metric have been converted using an online tool. So there may be some very slight rounding as a result - hopefully nothing serious enough to throw anyone off.
In theory, if you were good with hand tools, this build could all be done with a hand saw, chisel, etc. But...I'm not really a hand tool guy. I used: jobsite table saw (with a crosscut sled to make square and accurate cuts), 19mm (3/4") chisel, hammer, drill, drill bits, countersink bit, clamps, ratchet strap (I know, you're probably wondering why, but more on that later), power sander, hand plane, and basic layout tools (speed square, tape and pencil). That's about it. Please use proper safety gear if using power tools and work safe.
16 wood screws, wood glue, walnut stain, sandpaper, wipe on polyurethane, cabinet makers paste wax (optional)
Step 2: Materials and Measurements
Timber - I used an Australian timber called Victorian Ash (which is actually not an ash but a species of Eucalyptus) to build the top slatted part of the bench. This is a fairly pale wood with slight tones of pink and grey. If I lived in
the US or Europe, I'd probably go for a pale hardwood for the top slats - in my research I saw versions of this bench topped with maple, birch or ash. The leg assemblies are basic clear pine (which I stained, so there's no call to go for a particularly nice wood unless you want to). I purchased the wood fully milled and square on all sides so no further preparation or planing was needed.
- 12 long slats - cut to 122 cm in length, 19mm (3/4") x 42mm (1 5/8")
- 2 end rails - cut to 45.6 cm in length (17 15/16"), 19mm (3/4") x 42mm (1 5/8")
- 1 middle support rail - cut to 45.6 cm in length (17 15/16"), 42mm (1 5/8") x 42mm (1 5/8")
Legs:(note - all these pieces end up have mitred ends, so I'd suggest buying lengths that are all oversized by at least 5cm or around 2 inches, so that you have some wiggle room to play with when making the mitre cuts)
- 2 lengths of pine (bottoms of the trapezoidal leg assembly) - cut to 35.5 cm in length (14"), 19mm (3/4") x 57mm (2 1/4")
- 4 lengths of pine (sides) - cut to 36.5 cm in length (14 3/8"), 19mm (3/4") x 57mm (2 1/4")
- 2 lengths of pine (top of the trapezoidal leg assembly) - cut to 45.6 cm in length (17 15/16"), 19mm (3/4") x 57 mm (2 1/4")
Step 3: Half Lap Joints - Long Slats
This part of the build basically involves making a lot of interlocking rebates so that opposing slatted pieces of timber can fit together perfectly.
I cut the rebates in the long slats first. All of the slats for the top of the bench are lengths of timber 42mm tall (13/16"), meaning I needed to cut each rebate to be exactly half that amount. I set my blade height on the table saw by making cuts on one side of a scrap piece that was also 42mm tall, and then inverting the piece and cutting again. The first photo shows a series of test cuts - what I wanted was for a fairly thin sliver of wood to sit between the two alternate cuts. I was conservative as if you cut the rebates too deeply, the half lap joints will still work from the perspective of alignment, but the timber won't sit flush on the vertical axis. So I left some 'fat', knowing I'd go back after my cuts to adjust and fine tune the fit with a chisel. You always take off more material - buts it's much harder (i.e impossible) to add it back on if you make a mistake.
19mm (3/4") wide rebates need to be made at both ends of the long slat pieces - with another wider rebate placed dead centre that is 42mm wide (1 5/8").
To make things quicker and to ensure alignment, I clamped all 12 top slats into a cross cut sled on the table saw, with my cutting lines marked on the top side. I made a successive series of narrowly spaced cuts to hog out most of the material for the rebates (a dado blade would be great if you had one). The remaining thin slices were easily knocked out with light taps of a hammer, and cleaned up with a chisel.
Step 4: Half Lap Joints - End and Middle Rails
I then repeated a similar process to cut the rebates in the end and middle rails. Again, I clamped these parts together in my crosscut sled (not pictured), and made about a million successive passes to hog out the 12 rebates. Layout is super easy - these rebates are 19mm (3/4"), each evenly spaced apart by 19mm (3/4"). As there are an even number of rebates you can start your layout and cutting from either end.
Step 5: Test Fitting
At this point I tried mating the long rails and the middle and end support pieces together to test the fit. I needed to remove a little more depth in all of the rebates to get the perfect flush fit, but this was easily achieved with a sharp chisel. I also carefully labelled all the parts during the process so as not to mess it up.
Step 6: Mitred Legs
For reasons that now escape me, I figured that I wanted perfectly mitered legs rather than a more basic butt joint. The cuts were made on a table saw with a mitre gauge.
This is by far the hardest step, due to the different parts and angles. Take your time, measure often, check often, and my best tip - carefully mark all the individual parts.
To achieve the desired internal angles of 82 and 98 degrees within the trapezoidal shape of the legs, cut as follows:
- Bottoms of the trapezoidal leg assembly - cut to 35.5 cm in length (14"), 49 degree miters at each end
- Top of the trapezoidal leg assembly - cut to 45.6 cm in length (17 15/16"), 41 degree mitres at each end
- Vertical/side parts of the trapezoid - cut to 36.5 cm in length (14 3/8") - one end with a 49 degree mitre and opposite end with a 41 degree mitre.
Having done a rough layout to test the angles (all good!), I applied glue to the mitred angles of the timber, and used a ratchet strap to hold everything tight and in place. I used a small timber wedge to stop the ratchet biting into the timber, and tightened it super hard to apply clamping force all round. The result was some really fantastic joints with virtually no gaps. My only regret was that I didn't tape the insides of the corners to prevent any glue squeeze out - this later was a problem as I couldn't get a power sander all the way into the acute angles on the inside corners of the legs, and hand sanding to remove some of the glue was also painfully slow.
Step 7: Test Fit No.2
Now seemed like a good time for another dry fit and a rough layout of the components. It was starting to look like real furniture.
Step 8: Spline Jig
To strengthen the mitred joints in the legs, I made some kerf cuts using a basic jig that rode on the fence of my table saw. Essentially this is just a simple cradle that helps to hold a work piece in place to allow short cuts to be made into a corner or joint without undue risk to life, limbs or fingers (I made a quick and dirty version, loosely based on this excellent instructable on how to make a spline jig)
I then glued in thin hardwood strips (splines), which were cut flush with a small saw and a chisel after the glue had dried. I'm not sure if this drastically improved the strength of the joints, but it was a fun little step
Step 9: Staining the Legs
Walnut stain was applied to the legs - around 3 coats followed by a wipe on poly. The aim was to mimic the original ebonised legs of the classic Nelson bench. It's not a compulsory step - you could quite easily use paint (of any colour you wish) or just go with a clear finish
Step 10: Assembly of the Slatted Top
I did this the hard way - clamping and glueing each slat individually. I later figured out that it could have been a lot easier just to predrill and screw all the components together from the underside.
Step 11: Flattening and Sanding
There was some slight and fairly variation in the thickness of some of the slatted pieces, which I fixed with a hand plane. I then used a power sander, going through a series of grits from 80 to 220 to get a nice smooth finish and remove any rough edges or splinters. I finally used a level to check that there weren't any major undulations or twist to the slatted benchtop. If the timber is nicely milled and dry, this shouldn't be a major concern
Step 12: Applying a Finish
The flattened and finished top then received two coats of a matt wipe on polyurethane
Step 13: Fixing the Legs
Each leg was placed at 90 degrees to the long edge of the bench using a speed square and clamped into place. The legs are positioned around 15 cm (6") from each end.
After all the hard work, I was absolutely convinced I'd blow out one of the slats from a misplaced screw.
So I was meticulous in lining up the locations of the screws to hit dead centre of the slats, and pre-drilled and counter sunk for the screw heads. I used 8 screws per leg, which was probably too many, but I wanted the fixing to be super strong to minimise any potential racking when people used it as a bench seat. I was so nervous that I hand screwed the initial couple of screws, until I eventually got up the nerve to drive most of them with a powered drill. No splits or blowouts, and the legs were rock solid.
Step 14: Almost There
I flipped the bench over and mentally celebrated a job well done. I then applied a thin coat of cabinet maker's wax all over and buffed it off.
Step 15: A Job Well Done
My very own piece of mid-century modern furniture, which I'd argue is probably as well made and for less money than a knock off, and now ready to take pride of place in our living area.
This is not in any way intended as a boast (as my woodworking skills are adequate but not spectacular), but I can safely say that this is easily the nicest thing to ever come out of my workshop.
If anyone follows this instructable, I'd love to see how this project turns out for you.