Grit Blogs > The Daily Commute

Building A Rustic Bench: Hand Worked Walnut Looks Lovely

By Hank Will, Editor-in-Chief

Tags: woodworking, mudrooms, farms,

GRIT Editor Hank Will at the wheel of his 1964 IH pickup.The new mudroom addition needed a bench to facilitate the putting on and taking off of boots so I decided that building a rustic bench with hand-worked walnut would fit the bill. Actually the idea to build a rustic bench was partly mine and partly my Partner In Culinary Crime’s (PICC). Not quite a year ago, we happened upon a sawyer in Missouri who specialized in supplying the premium gunstock industry with American Black Walnut blanks. And it just so happened that he had several huge slabs of walnut on his trailer that were inferior for the gunstock trade, but my PICC and I saw big potential in the pieces – so we struck a bargain and hoisted three of the 200-pound slabs into our pickup truck, which is where they sat for about 3 months before we unloaded them in the barn.

 This rustic walnut bench is perfect for the mudroom. 

Fast forward about 7 more months and last Saturday I found myself  voluntarily evicted from the house because it was my PICC’s book club day, which explained all the bread baking and cooking that ensued before I headed out to chore the animals that morning. I am actually allowed in the house on book club day, but I don’t really feel comfortable there – it’s not the books that make me nervous, it’s being the only guy near what is so clearly not a guy event that makes me nervous.

So, after feeding the animals and moving the cattle and corralling the donkeys, I was wandering around the barn dreaming of a hot cup of coffee when I spied the heavy walnut slabs all akimbo right where I slid them off the truck. And as I turned to see what kind of bird was fluttering up in the rafters (a dove of some sort) I noticed a nice straight walnut log that was about 10 inches in diameter and 20 inches long. It hit me like a Eureka moment! I would saw down one of the slabs and rive out four legs for it from the walnut log and make a serviceable, if not beautiful mudroom bench. I looked forward to the physical nature of the work, because it was about 16 degrees in the barn.

Rustic Walnut Bench before sanding 

The walnut slab was sawed out from a large crotch using what must be a giant band saw mill – it was pretty uniformly 2.5 inches thick and contained both sapwood and heartwood figuring. Luckily one edge was more or less straight and so I cut the 30-inch wide piece down to about 16-inches wide and trimmed it to about 4-feet in length. I did some definitely-not-UL-approved things with my table saw to make that happen – not recommended. The sweat I worked up cutting the walnut stemmed from the physical nature of horsing 200 pounds of lumber around and the adrenaline rush of keeping one’s digits intact doing it.

I next employed our very nice and very heavy-duty Porter Cable belt sander (I learned to control and love belt sanders in my boat-building days) to knock down the band saw marks created by the sawmill and to round some of the corners that weren’t naturally rounded as part of the tree. One cool thing about that sander is that it has a dust-collection bag. I am not fond of the taste of walnut dust. Blech!The rustic walnut bench has legs that were rived from a log 

Finally, I turned my attention to the short walnut log – it was not green but it was not more than 9 months dry. I had to work a bit to make the first split with the froe and maul, but the subsequent splits were like butter and in short order I had split out 4 lovely leg blanks that tapered from about 3 inches square to 2 inches square. After about an hour with the drawknife, spoke shave and sheath knife, I had four nice rustic legs with a mostly round cross section. I trimmed one end of each to an eleven-degree angle on the table saw, located mounting holes on the bottom of the walnut slab and used a ships augur to bore holes that angled about 11 degrees toward the corners. Oh, I forgot to mention that I found four half-inch by six-inch long lag bolts on my workbench and decided not to mortise the legs into the bench – not recommended, I know, but…

About this time, book club had broken up and my PICC helped install the legs – she held them fast while I applied considerable torque on the lag bolts. I used a mortising chisel to cut reliefs in the top of the bench to countersink the bolt heads – that way the wood-dope filler would look kind of like a tenon. I know this makes the fine woodworkers among you wince, but some days you feel like cutting 11-degree through mortises and some days you don’t. In this case, I wanted the project to be finished by Sunday noon.

Sunday involved sanding, a bit of whittling and a good soaking with very hot linseed oil. I won’t tell you how I got the linseed oil hot because it’s not an approved method (traditional boat builders among you will know what I did). I will tell you that I used an old cotton tube sock to work the oil in and an old cotton t-shirt to wipe the excess off. I’m kind of tickled with how the bench turned out. We’ll see if it serves its purpose starting tomorrow.

Since I finished the bench so early in the day, I started on a key cabinet that doubles as an enclosure for a couple of old faucets that intrude on the mudroom space, but that’s a story for another day. Stay tuned.

Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on .

hank will_2
1/26/2011 9:20:08 AM

Hey KC -- I am pretty good at staying out of trouble, although I can step squarely into it now and then. And even though the temp was low in the barn, the physical nature of the work and lack of wind made it pretty comfortable. I was down to my hooded sweatshirt at one point. I like to joke about the safety stuff, but I am quite safe ... sawing with gloves on isn't recommended though and sawing big slabs without an outfeed table isn't either. But sometimes you do what you have to do while being extra careful. :-)

hank will_2
1/26/2011 9:16:56 AM

Hey Dave -- Winter and woodworking really do go together for me. I just love shop time when it is cold outdoors. Even wehen I was in graduate school in Chicago, I had a shop in the basement of my apartment building. I did some repair work for the landlord. Anyway, they pulled out the coal boiler and had the chimney checked and it checked out OK so they let me hook up a pot belly stove to it -- I chased myself out of there a few times burning my scraps and sawdust. Talk about warm. I'll get some heat in the barn shop one year. When the mudroom and window replacement is finished, I will actually build myself some tool cabinets and a pellet or wood stove. I am careful with the tools ... very careful actually, but sometimes you have to push the limits a little out of necessity.

nebraska dave
1/25/2011 9:58:46 PM

@Hank, glad to see that you put your alone time away from the girls event to good use. It's a mighty fine looking bench. Winter is kind of a wood shop kind of time when nothing's really happening outside. Man you really need to figure out a way to heat up your shop area. Just be careful with those non UL approved things. I know we guys all do them from time to time. Just be sure you keep all your parts in tact when your finished. Have a great Kansas woodworking day.

k.c. compton
1/24/2011 12:32:41 PM

Well, it's good to know you're staying out of trouble and out of the weather. I walked my dog for a mile or so both Saturday and Sunday and thought my face was going to just fall off from the cold. The warmest it got was 14 degrees on Sunday while I was out at the park with El Pup. This is a good-lookin' bench, and I'm not going to inquire about any of those non-UL-approved techniques by which you created it. That's between you and your conscience, as long as you have all digits. :=} --KC