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Another project

Posted by joeabbott on June 18, 2011

imageI was tired last night; slept the sleep of the dead. Or those who have packed a lot of work into relatively few hours. But it was a good tired … the sort of feeling you get when you do good work, a lot of it, and things ultimately turned out OK.

It is now “Week of Suz” and I took a few days off to celebrate that fact and be handy about the house. One such task was to build her a bench.

Now, I’d built a bench earlier and thought I could just knock out another; this one I’d just build into the retaining wall by the gate. The area we were going to use looked a bit like the image to the right prior to all the new construction.

Before I started, I was going to build out a little something that would look like this:


I’d bought three 8-foot lengths of pressure-treated lumber to go with the two lengths I already had. Altogether, the five timbers should have allowed me to build the above pretty reasonably. Along with some screws and nails I had, it would work.

But, I was having a problem figuring out how to create the joints where the two seat parts met. It was a simple 45 degree angle, but the question of the joinery and the support were eluding me. I was thinking I’d create a half-lap and pin them, but that still left the question of support. So, as in the past, I turned to the woodworking forum at my work place.

In that discussion, someone suggested that I avoid the joint altogether and put a planter or small table between the two bench sections. Brilliance! So, this is what I decided to build:image

Now, to be honest, that’s not what I started out wanting to build. But, after I was done, I went back to my SketchUp model and updated it to what I ended up building.

As I got into the construction, I figured I could tie things into the gate post and create a back support that would double as a small retention wall. As I’d mentioned elsewhere, our yard is awfully steep here and I was certain the bench would be covered in debris sooner or later without a small shield. The wall just made for a nice barrier.

So this is what I set out to build.

Building stuff

It takes three things to build stuff: a modicum of skill (or, in my case, substitute a lot of tools!), a bit of time, and some money. On the last issue, I had bought the lumber and a few bits of hardware and flinched at the price tag; little did I realize that was just one of three trips I’d end up making to our local big box store, and it wasn’t the most expensive trip, either. So much for knocking something out on the cheap!

In addition to those three things, you need some planning, too. I like to plan but I also know that little things will insert themselves and you need to be flexible. In my case, the hard part here was scabbing on a design (the bench) to a previously existing structure (the retaining wall).

As you’ll see, I created two “bridges” from the old structure to the new design and they were immeasurable in helping tie everything together, but on the way to getting this to work, I had a lot of hiccups. So let’s take a look at how I tackled this beast!

Starting with the planter

Here’s where I started. The first picture is me being a goofball, but you can get a feel for the area “before”. In that picture I’d just tagged down the first beam that leveled the two parts of the retaining wall so it was a flat top.





In the next picture, I have dug away from the back of the retaining wall and made space for the planter. The third picture is the sort of help you get around my place; or yet another attempt for cats to take over the Internet. The final picture shows the first base layer for the planter.

P1020670The project is coming togetherThings I like about the base is that it’s deep enough to provide rock-solid support; the things I don’t like it that it wasn’t dead level with the rest of the retaining wall timbers. If you have a keen eye, in the picture to the left, you can see (or tell yourself that you see) how it’s not level with the other parts of the retaining wall.

By this time I’d already sunk in something like six 2-foot rebar stakes to tag things into place; it’s not going anywhere but it was listing. Sigh.

In the later parts of the bench/planter, you won’t be able to see it, but this slight falling off created nearly a 3/4” gap that caused me to use shims of all sorts at the higher parts, where the bench and planter structure became one.

But, once I had the planter level built up, from an angle (like the one to the right) , it looked just fine.

Building the bench

The next part was to tie everything together.

I started by creating a “riser” beam that would make the bench a more comfortable height to sit at. This riser would also form a “cross” or “tee” that would be joined together and make the bench, retaining wall, and planter all one structure. Here’s how it looked before I nailed it down:


This is the first “bridge” that I mentioned in the introduction: this was the first solid tie that would hold it all together.

The two parts are joined with a type of half-lap: at the correct distance from the end, I just cut away half the width of the board and then did the same to the other board. Then I nested the two together. In the able picture, the two beams aren’t connected with any sort of glue or fastener … it’s just a super-tight joint that holds them together.

From here I positioned it just so, added the necessary shims, cursed a bit that things were more square, and nailed it down.

After I put this in place, there’s a bit of a time warp. Suzy and I went to lunch and I took the camera in, so the next picture is when I’d already built the bench sections and was getting ready to add the leg!

The long bench section was built in the garage.

I cut the first slat so that it would ride along the top of the retaining wall, butting up against the post (the first picture, below), and overlapping the planter (the second picture, below). The other slats ended at the planter edge in the same spot, but I made them longer so they’d start next to the post … this allowed the back support/new retaining wall to join into the side of the post.

Tying the bench sections to the planter formed the second “bridge” and assured that everything was pulled together.













I knew the long bench section would be sitting on the ground so I tagged a bit of landscaping fabric to the bottom and also added a couple of “runners” that would sit on the ground. In the end, when I installed it, I found the runners were too thin and added thicker runners to level up the sitting area.

But, before going on with the construction, let me just say that carrying this raft of wood I’m calling the “long bench” from the garage to the installation site just about killed me! That was heavy. As in, move a bit, drop on end, pant some, and hope to get it moved while I still had breath. Bulky, hard to grab, and just plain old heavy. Wow.

But, it was a marvel of engineering. I went from having a retaining wall with a little box tagged onto the end to having a bench! Yay!

I whipped up the shorter bench in a jiff (no landscaping fabric here), and tagged that down.

P1020681In the last picture of the series above, you can see a couple things: some rounded corners on the wood (love the trim router), the recesses on the back where I screwed the bench together (to hide how it’s held together), and the leg that I’d use to hold up the free end.

I then dug out a flat spot for the leg, marked off the height, cut it off and screwed it into the bench. That oughta hold a while!

From there it was pretty simple to build out the back support/retaining walls. I cut the boards and screwed them together in the shop, then moved them out to the bench and nailed them down. On the second tier, I cut off a short section of rebar and “nailed” the back support to the gate post. It was a bit ugly and not a clean hole, so I didn’t repeat this for the final tier.


P1020684And that left the planter!

I created two tiers for the planter in the shop and then attached them with super-long nails out on the bench.

I created them in the shop to get square corners and parts that joined without a lot of gaps. On the far corner, behind the bench, you’d see a bunch of shims and leveling work. But, at least the part above the bench looked good.

From there I got 5/4 cedar boards and made a nice top frame for the planter.

And I was done.

Finishing touches

But, it wasn’t done until Suzy had a chance to turn this from a bunch of lumber into a really nice sitting area.

She dropped by the local plant nursery and picked up a bunch of stuff that really made it look wonderful. Here’s where we ended up:






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