Spiffing up your Campsite...

Period Seating...

Building a 4-board Bench

(Circa 16th century!)

by Ld. Chas. Oakley, Esquire

This being one of the simplest ways to provide your campsite with period seating in an easily transportable form.


Good Lords and Gentle Ladies of the SCA:

I am pleased to present this project to you as a relatively simple solution to the problem of period seating. The bench on the cover has been described as the "Llandnothal Bench" and as an English or Welsh 16th century boarded oak bench.

These plans also contain one "not-so-period " modification to this design the reason for which shall be told here... "Two years ago, His Grace Edmund had asked me if I would make a number of these benches for use during the pierage meetings at Pennsic... thereby providing something a bit more in keeping with the period flavor of the event and being more pleasing to the eye than rented folding chairs. This sounded like fun, so I and some friends went to work during the first week of Pennsic and made 10 of these... all pretty much exaxtly like the one on the cover...

Now we move forward in time to the moment of discovery... If you look at the cover picture you’ll notice that the legs are positioned vertically under the seat... leaving a "shelf" on the outside of the legs... now... if your bench happens to be about... oh, 4 feet long... and people happen to be sitting two to a bench... and more on the shelf than on seat proper... well, you watch people go flying when one or the other stands up without warning the other.... I would like to thank and apologize to those who experienced this phenomenon that year...

If you incorporate the slanted leg design that is included in this pamphlet you should solve that problem... as we discovered the following year when some were disappointed at the lack of "entertainment value" the improved design offered. Your choice -

As always... feel free to pass these plans along to whoever might find use of them.... Have fun... Make stuff...


The Bench-

A while back while brousing through various tomes at our local library, I happened across a picture of a late 15th or early 16th century oak bench... The design of it was so appealing and, I might add, simple to build... that I took a copy of the picture and headed home to give it a try. The original bench upon which my own product was patterned is located in Llandnothal Court near Monmoth, England....

The appealing thing about the design is that it is possible to make it such a way that the construction is true to the original (or mostly so...) ... AND it can be taken apart easily for transport to and from events.

The Parts

True to its name, the 4-board bench has only 4 parts... (if, of course, you don’t count the dowels/pegs...in which case you would have 8 parts... but more about that later). A 4-board bench consists of two legs, a stretcher and a seat. I chose to use 2"x10" and 2"x8" pine for my bench as it is cheaper than oak and less heavy than oak. The design of the bench is such that the bench could be made 8 feet long and still be stable but I chose to make mine 4 feet long as it fits my pavilion and trunk more easily.

Cutting out the Parts

The first part to cut out is the seat. The seat, for the purposes of these plans is a piece of 2"x10" that is 4 feet long.

Now... take 4 feet of 2"x8" material and cut it to a length of about 3 feet 10 inches. This will be the rail board (see illustration above). Although the photo of the original bench isn’t 100% clear on whether or not the stretcher went all the way to the end of the seat (i.e. seat 5 feet - stretcher 5 feet), I find that having a 1" inset under each end of the seat gives a pleasing appearance.

On the bottom of the rail board in the illustration you will notice 2 slots. These are cut the width of your material and ½ the width of the rail. Try to be as precise as possible in making these slots as the tighter the legs fit the less wobble you’ll have in your bench.... however, make it too tight and when the wood swells with the first rain you’ll need a hammer to knock it appart!

As far as how far from the end of the rail the slots should be... that’s a judgement call and will depend on the design you choose to cut on your stretcher... On the prototype I built, the centerline of the slots were 10.5" from the end of the seat. This means that, unless you sit right on the very end of the bench you should have a bit of the leg under you.... this will make the bench less inclined to tip.

The cut out pattern on the stretcher can be varied.... I kept the thin board at the bottom of the stretcher equal in thickness to the width of the board... this gives more than adequate strength will keeping a certain "visual lightness" to the bench. One thing to remember... your grain will be running the length of the stretcher... this means that the shoulders on either side of the leg slot should be fairly wide (refer to the cover picture). The purpose of this is to keep the board from splitting long the grain if lateral stress is put on the stretcher. While this is perhaps a bit less of a concern if you are using oak... with pine (particularly modern pine...) this should be considered in your layout.

Cutting the Parts (part deux)

Take two pieces of 2"x10" material each 17" long to make the legs. Take one of the boards and cut out a pattern similar to the one in the illustration on the next page.

The curves should be as graceful as possible. Again, the picture of the original bench is not perfectly clear and so some interpretat ion was employed in the design. I don’t consider this a particular problem as regards the "authenticity" of the bench as I doubt that the original builder had any plans to work from and was probably "winging" it a bit himself... in any case, the width of the leg at the bottom should be the same as the wideth of the seat (easily accomplished when you use the same dimension of lumber...) and should gradually taper in over the 17" length to somewhere around 5 ½ inches. These are the dimensions I used on my bench but I encourage you to indulge any creative urges you think you can get away with...)

Anyway, the slot in the top of the leg is a length equal to ½ the width of the stretcher and the width of the stretcher’s thickness. Again... use the same cautions when you cut the slots in the legs that you used when you cut the slots in the stretcher... This is the other half of a "saddle joint" that is key to holding the whole thing together. Make the slot too wide and the bench will seem a bit wobbly... make it too narrow and you could break the thing trying to take it appart. Hand snug is ideal...(after you finish the first leg you can use it as a pattern for making the second...this will help to make the two legs identical. )

Finally, the dowels

After you have both legs out, you should fit the two legs to the rail and then place the seat over the top. Center the seat as much as possible both front to back and side to side. Being very careful not to move the seat... drill holes through the seat board and into the tops of the legs... two holes per leg (see illustration above). The holes should go about 1" into the legs.

When you have the holes drilled, remove the seat and glue dowels into the holes in the legs. Make sure that the dowels will extend above the legs far enough to pass all the way through the seat board. Let the glue dry.

When the glue has dried... place the seat board back over the dowels and then trim the dowels to the height of the seat.

Finishing and Odds and Ends

I left my bench unfinished except for a coat or two of tung oil. A coat or two of polyurathaine would not be period but would be wonderfully practical. You might also want to consider using a dark stain to give the bench the appearance of age.... some well placed "distres sing" could be added to simulate wear and tear..

I have also found that planing the boards to a thickness of 1" to 1 1/8" gives a better "eye appeal" than using the 1 ½" thickness of a "two-by".

If you are really good... measure out where you put your dowels into the legs of the bench and then transfer these locations onto the bottom of the seat board. Instead of drilling all the way through the seat... drill a "blind hole" ½ of the thickness of the seat using a Forsner bit in your drill. The holes will still hold the seat from sliding around and the "peg holes" won’t show on the surface of the seat...

An addendum to the 4-board bench construction plans:

At Pennsic 25, as I noted in the introduction, I made a number of benchs according to these plans. While the benchs were functional (after a fashion....), they did require a bit of ‘specialized knowledge’ to be used properly such as:

  1. DON’T SIT ON THE ENDS.... This has the somewhat predicatable result of dropping you on the floor..
  2. Pick the bench up by the legs... not the top. As the top is not fastened but merely pegged, the top will come off in your hands...

If you are not absolutely bent on have a ‘99.9% period’ bench and have a strong desire for greater stability, I would suggest the following modification to the way the saddle joint is constructed for the 4-board bench:

By cutting the leg slot and the rail slot on angles it will move the base of the leg out further toward the end of the bench. This will increase the stability of the bench and the usable surface area. The angle of the leg is not all that important but I have generally found that 5 to 8 degrees is usually sufficient. If you are careful with your cuts and angles the legs will still be interchangeable.

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