How to Build or Make Your Own Custom Picnic Table

End View

Classic end frame.
Classic end frame. | Source

Building a picnic table for your family can be a relatively inexpensive way for a weekend builder to exercise and showcase their amateur carpentry skills. I resisted the urge to build one for a long time, but finally someone asked me to make one.

I shopped around for the costs of kits, alternative materials and lumber and decided to make mine from scratch, from traditional lumber. Total costs were under $40, and the project took me less than six hours. The planning, preparation, shopping, a lunch break and even the time spent waiting for each coat of polyurethane to dry was included in that six hours.

Standard plan.
Standard plan.

First I looked at standard plans and was about to go with those, but I wanted to customize the picnic table to better suit the person who would use it. I took measurements of that person’s lower leg to set the scale for the table’s seat and table heights. I measured from the crease in the back of the knee to the ground and came up with fifteen inches for the height of the seat. Then I took two thirds of that amount to determine that the table’s top needed to be ten inches above the seat. From there I was able to adjust the dimensions of standard picnic table plans to better suit the person who would be using it.


Revised Plans.
Revised Plans.

I then revised the sketch of the plan I would use. The most noticeable change from a standard plan was to make the table eight feet long instead of six, partly because the price of eight foot lumber was actually cheaper than six foot lumber, and partly because the lower height added stability, which meant a longer table would still be sturdy.

Tools and materials.
Tools and materials.

Next I used my carefully drawn sketch to make templates for the angles of the braces and the frame, extending the lines from the sketch onto cereal box cardboard, cut them out, and wrote the measurements right on the templates. Next I brought out the wood and the tools and set up a boom box so I could listen to the radio while I worked. I measured and marked all the lines I wanted to cut, prudently trying to minimize the amount of scrap. After careful consideration I realized I’d have two pieces of 2”x4”x8’ lumber left over. Oh well, something for the next project…

Measure and screw.
Measure and screw.

I used a circular saw to cut all the pieces for the frames and braces and laid them one on top the other to make sure the ones that had to be the same, were the same. Then I measured and laid out the frames and re-measured to make sure they were right before screwing them together. I used 3” decking screws, ignoring the standard plan’s requirement for carriage bolts. Attaching the braces to the frames and the frame’s ends to their center support was a challenge, one I met by pre-drilling the holes for the 3” decking screws with an 1/8” drill bit. This ensured the screws would go in straight. For this step, an assistant or a set of clamps would have been helpful, but I had neither and made do without.


Standing frame and braces.
Standing frame and braces.

Finally, the frames and braces stood on their own. I re-measured everything to ensure it was right, and it was, so I proceeded with attaching the benches. I attached them using 3” deck screws, sinking their heads just below the surface. At the center of the bench seats I added a block underneath to keep the gap between the bench boards constant, to prevent the boards from pinching someone’s behind when they stood up. I chose to do this based on a story I heard about an unfortunate picnic table accident. During a summer barbeque at a lake, a person’s swimsuit bottom was pulled down when they stood up.

Stubborn board.
Stubborn board.

I used drywall screws to attach the table’s top, because I could drive them in just below the surface to make the later job of sanding easier. Attaching the table’s top was confounded by one board that wasn’t straight or flat. I put that board toward the center, and attached it last, using guile and strength to wedge it into its proper place. With the screws holding it down and the other boards pressing its sides, the board should gradually conform. I’ll wait a week and if it’s still not cooperating I’ll replace it.

Iced Tea.
Iced Tea.

The final step was sanding and sealing. I started with 80 grit paper wrapped around a block of wood, going over every top and side surface of the benches and table tops twice, then again with 80 grit sandpaper. For the final sanding with 120 grit sandpaper I didn't use the wood block, choosing to press the paper with my hand, to get into the low spots, corners, nooks and crannies. Then I brushed away the dust and wiped all the sanded surfaces with a cloth that was lightly dampened with mineral spirits. Finally I used a full spray can of polyurethane to put on three coats, waiting thirty minutes between each coat.

The last thing I did was sit at the table and drink a glass of iced tea.


Materials:

Eight, 8 foot long 2"x4" boards

Four, 8 foot long 1"x6" boards

3" decking screws

1&1/4" drywall screws.

Done.
Done.
Artist at work.
Artist at work.

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Comments 10 comments

wilderness profile image

wilderness 6 years ago from Boise, Idaho

Well written and informative. I keep thinking I need to make a picnic table, but just haven't gotten around to it. Perhaps a winter project this year.


SognoPiccolo profile image

SognoPiccolo 6 years ago from Wilmington, Ohio

this is awesome... I think I want to go make one now. =)


Les Trois Chenes profile image

Les Trois Chenes 6 years ago from Videix, Limousin, South West France

This is just what we need next at Les Trois Chenes. Will save and pass onto my Husband, hoping for some great action. We are lucky enough to be in an oak forest area so would hope to turn out a chunky version. Many thanks.


Jed Fisher profile image

Jed Fisher 6 years ago from Oklahoma Author

I hope you all enjoy your tables, I encourage building one as soon as possible. I'm really enjoying the table, more than I thought I ever would. Even on those days I don't use it, just seeing it cheers me up.


De Greek profile image

De Greek 6 years ago from UK

Good stuff, thanks :-)


L a d y f a c e profile image

L a d y f a c e 6 years ago from Canada

This was great. I just recently made a very nice bookcase and am so proud of it, I'm working on a bed frame. I actually just watched a re-run of The New This Old House where he built a picnic table, and I like some of the things you did better. Awesome idea, measuring the customer's legs. Most people wouldn't think of it. And 6 hours start to finish, shopping and all?? I bow to you, fellow carpenter. Amazing.

I have to ask.. won't drywall screws rust? I was under the impression that galvanized was the way to go.

Is that pine you used? And the 'under $40' has me, along with jealous, wondering if you used dimensional lumber, or bought stock and used a planer.

Sorry for all the questions, I love this stuff.


Jed Fisher profile image

Jed Fisher 6 years ago from Oklahoma Author

Ladyface, glad you enjoyed the article. I Just used dimensional lumber. Wood prices fluctuate, almost as much as gas prices. The drywall screws I used on my privacy fence 10 years ago haven't rusted yet, but I suppose galvanized screws would not be much more expensive. I do know, nails tend to work themselves out over time, that's why I like screws.


L a d y f a c e profile image

L a d y f a c e 6 years ago from Canada

Indeed. I never go with nails, only screws. The only nails I ever use are brads in my nail gun. Get this - the house we just bought has a deck on the back, no bolts, and they used a whole bunch on nails. It's coming down.

Wood prices here are usually the same. Depending on what you're using it can get really pricey. I usually stick to pine for most things.

Glad to hear the drywall screws haven't rusted. That's very good to know :)


lyjo profile image

lyjo 6 years ago

My husband only uses screws, great hub, nice table...take care!


next day hamper delivery uk 5 years ago

Great table, you make it looks easy. I am going to give it a go although will probably end up at ikea.

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