Gingham tablecloths, good food, laughter, and family and friends are among the things we think of when picnic season rolls around. These gatherings can be set for afternoon lunch or an evening dinner, nestled under the trees where minutes turn into hours.
Picnic tables have been around since the 1800s and can be used for all types of outdoor or indoor gatherings: birthday parties, garden harvesting, canning preparation, craft making, school work, and enjoying quiet time. This traditional table is a simple design where a group of six to eight can gather and appreciate each other’s company any time of day.
I have clear memories gathering at the beach with family and friends, sharing a picnic dinner while watching the sunset. The menu consisted of fried chicken and potato salad; several tables were gathered for eating and serving. What I remember most is that those tables were made from thin wood, and many times the boards were warped. There was always a curiosity if the table would hold our entire family or not.
Those were the days, weren’t they?!
It didn’t seem to really matter if the table would hold us or not, as long as we had a tablecloth to keep germs away and good food to occupy our time.
Fast forward several years, and the picnic table has changed quite a bit; yet hasn’t changed at all in its purpose. Designs can now be found using different materials like plastic, metal, and stone. They can be quite nice and add a wonderful attraction in any outdoor space. But isn’t it interesting how the beauty of a simple, solid wooden picnic table continues to hold the grace and beauty of a natural gathering?
Imagine an outdoor table that’s sturdy and easy to build for under $100. With access to a few power tools and basic carpenter skills, anyone can build their own picnic table right where they live. Get the family involved in this project because learning new skills and enjoying time together is a great way to establish memories.
All of the tools and supplies can be purchased at any home improvement store. Choose your wood carefully and make sure each board is dry and straight. I found the table saw to be sufficient for this project. A circular saw or even a hand saw would also be acceptable. The approximate building time is under two hours, and we’re going to cut our wood as we assemble.
Step One: Measure and cut tabletop and benches.
1. Take four 2-by-8s, lay on a flat surface with any flawed side facing up.
2. Measure and cut three 2-by-4s at 30 inches each — line at the table ends and center (see top photo at right).
3. Lay two 2-by-8s on a flat surface with any flawed side facing up.
4. Cut 3 inches off of two 8-foot 2-by-4s, and double-check this with two blocks of 2-by-4 (see photo of final bench construction on Page 74).
Prior to connecting the table and bench with table supports and bench supports with screws, drill pilot holes. A pilot hole will keep the wood from splitting during assembly. Pilot holes should be drilled first before every screw is inserted into the wood. The drill bit should be slightly smaller than the width of the screws.
Step Two: Connect the table and benches.
1. Connect the three 30-inch 2-by-4s to the tabletop using six screws per board — two screws at each end and two in the center. Repeat this with each board for a secure tabletop (see top photo below).
2. Connect the bench seats to supports by centering the support board and inserting five screws at 31⁄2 inches apart. To center that bottom 2-by-4, use a small 2-by-4 block at each end and mark the distance from the edge for correct placement.
At this point, the tabletop and benches are completed. When we move onto step three, we’ll connect these three pieces with legs and crossbars. The project will be heavy, so it would be ideal to have more than one person working on the project from here on out.
Step Three: Cut and connect table legs and cross boards.
1. Cut four legs at 31 inches from 2-by-4s, and make a 1-inch angle cut at the top only.
2. Connect each angled leg end from the corners underneath the table. Insert two screws from the outside – this will secure the legs to the tabletop.
3. When the legs are connected, measure 15 inches from the bottom of each leg of the table. Mark this spot, and this is where the support crossbars will be drilled in place for the bench installation. This measurement is adjustable and should be based on what is comfortable and the average height of the people who will be sitting at the table regularly.
4. Cut two 60-inch 2-by-4 boards for crossbars, these pieces will define and connect your table and bench. Use two screws connecting from the outside of each leg and repeat at the other end of the table.
Your legs are not flat at the bottom because you will want the table to dig in a little to keep it from moving around. However, if you are planning to place the picnic table on cement or really hard ground, you might want to cut these at an angle so they are level.
Step Four: Add the benches.
1. Connect each bench from the ends first using 2 screws. The bench will fit directly on top of each crossbar support making it easy to attach with screws from the top. Repeat to the other side.
2. Flip the entire table upside down so that it lays flat on its top.
At this point the project looks nearly finished, but there are still a couple additional pieces that need to be included, which will add even more support so the table will last for years without warping. With just a couple of simple angle cuts and installs, you’ll be able to sit and enjoy this beautiful project.
Step Five: Add additional underneath support beams.
1. Take two 2-by-4s and measure the distance from the center support beam to the center of the leg crossbar. Cut each end at an angle and attach with screws to those connecting boards.
Do not skip Step Five because these support beams will secure the longevity of this picnic table. Once the table is built, run a sander over the rough edges, prepping the wood for a stain finish or paint of any color based on preference.
For a nice protective finish with a shine, add a couple coats of polyurethane over the entire table. Remember the better you care for the table, the longer it will last.
The great thing about this picnic table design is it’s easy to customize, so if you’re seeking something smaller or even a little larger, make the appropriate adjustments. Choosing larger boards, like 2-by-10s, could offer you a larger table and seat base. And you can obviously adjust the bench placement in case you prefer sitting lower. You might even measure the height of a favorite chair or sitting surface, and implement those measurements as you build.
The beauty of a picnic table is about getting outdoors and enjoying life beyond the home. Slowing down and appreciating the company of one another is something that could be an added blessing to most anyone. And, these tables are easier to build than you may have previously thought!
• Drill and bit
• Table or circular saw
• Electric sander and sandpaper
• Measuring tape
Picnic Table Supplies
• Six 8-foot-long 2-by-8 boards
• Eight 8-foot-long 2-by-4 boards
• Deck screws or similar
• Stain or paint to finish
Carole West lives the country life in north Texas with her husband. She is a freelance writer, author of Quail Getting Started, Startle Garden, and Sponges on a Vine. She shares advice about gardening, DIY pro-jects, raising quail, and tiny-house living on her blog at GardenUpGreen.com.