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Your back will love this project: instead of being a chore, planting is comfortable while you sit on a stool, feet up on the bottom rail of this easy-to-build bench. It's roomy enough for flats of favourite plants, and there's storage below for pots and bags of soil. It's great to have a dedicated space in which to play, away from patio tables, porch steps and general household traffic-and with a quick sweep, the bench is ready for the next session of planting.

Because it's the Maritime way to make multiple use of things, we designed a potting bench that, with the addition of a vise, could be a woodworking bench; with an added awning, it could be a roadside vegetable stand! It is easy for two people to move it and tough enough to withstand many seasons of gardening. We built it out of 2 x 4s and 3/4" tongue-and-groove spruce; for about four times the cost you could go up-market and build it from lighter, rot-proof cedar, but a simple coat of water seal will give our version a nice long working life.

1. Begin by cutting all of the 2 x 4 pieces to length. Next, cut a carrying handle from one end of a stringer and use it as a pattern for the other three ends. The handles are 12" long and 2 1/2" deep; all corners are rounded. Lay the pattern out on one end of a stringer and cut it out using a jigsaw. If you are using a handsaw and making straight cuts, angle your crosscut slightly toward the handle area, and round out corners with a rasp-a 90° inside corner will weaken your handle. Trace the pattern onto the other three ends and cut them out. Clamp each in the vise in turn and using a drawknife or wood rasp, file and sandpaper, round the edges of the handles until they feel comfortable in your hand. Then, measure in 12" from one end of each stringer and strike a line. Put the stringers aside.

2. Lay the rear legs side by side and make sure the bottoms are flush. Measure up 32 1/2" and strike a line across both using a square; mark an X on each leg below this line. Strike a second line 6" up from the bottom and mark an X on each leg above it. Next lay the two front legs side by side and make them flush. Measure up 6" and strike a line across both. Mark an X on each above this line.

3. Lay the two rear legs on the floor parallel to each other and 4' apart (measured from outside to outside). Make sure they are flush at the bottom by using a piece of 2 x 4. Check the spacing at the top and bottom using one of the 4' stringers, then measure across kitty-corner (both ways) and compare the diagonals to "square" them up. Place a 4' stringer across the legs, aligned on the 6" marks. Make the ends flush with the outside of the legs; kneel on the stringer while drilling pilot holes and screwing it down. Two screws per end are enough; placing them diagonally (one closer to the end of the stringer) strengthens the joint.

4. Align one of the handle stringers on the 3 21/2" marks, so that they cover the Xs, and the left end sticks out by 12"-check this with the mark you made on the handle stringer. Hold it down with your knee while you drill and screw the left end in place. Then ensure the distance between legs is the same at the top as at the bottom, and screw the other end of the handle stringer in place. Stand the assembled back section to one side.

5. Lay the front legs on the floor, parallel to each other and 4' apart as before. Attach the lower stringer, then the upper. Align the upper stringer 1 1/2" below the top of the front leg using one of the 2 x 4 stretchers (finished size 1 1/2" x 3 1/2") as a spacer. Again make sure that the left side of the handle stringer sticks out by 12".

6. To join the front and rear leg assemblies, clamp one of the 2'-long 2 x 4 stretchers to the top of the handle stringers so that it butts up to the inside of the front and back legs. Drill two holes through each end into the stringers and screw it on. Repeat this step for the second stretcher. To square up the frame, stand it up and slot two of the 2' stretchers across the lower stringers between the front and rear legs. Clamp, drill and screw them in place.

7. Now build the support framework for the bench top: clamp, drill and screw a stretcher onto the upper stringers at the midpoint between the legs, and two more side by side, 13" from the outside stretcher to the long-overhang end of the handle stringers. This will make a strong support for the boards that hold the soil bin.

8. The rearmost board of the top of the bench can be notched around the rear legs, or butted up to them. To notch it, put the board in place and mark the position of the rear legs using a square. Cut them out to a depth of 3/4". This can be done by hand with a series of saw cuts that are then chiselled out, or with a jigsaw. Arrange the boards for the top so that the tree rings (the end-grain of each board) look like a U, if possible. This is so that when the boards cup they will shed water rather than retain it. Butt them up against each other, slotting the tongues into the grooves, and clamp the two outer boards to hold everything in place. If the boards arch upwards under pressure, weigh them down, drill pilot holes through the centre of each board into each stretcher, and fasten them down (first, read Step 9). Use a carpenter's square and pencil to mark across the board ends and cut them off square, allowing a 1" overhang. You could alternately lay out and cut the ends on a gentle curve by tracing along a flexible batten. 

9. If you don't have a jigsaw for cutting out the hole for the soil bin, go to Step 12 before screwing the boards down, and make the tracing as described. Then number the boards so they go back in the same order; release the clamps, remove the boards one at a time and cut them to length. Cut out the traced shape before replacing, re-clamping and screwing them on. Remember to cut the tongue off the outer board as you lay out the bench top. Either do this by setting the tablesaw fence to the width of the board, or by hand with a block plane and the board clamped in the bench vise. If you have a skillsaw or jigsaw you can saw the boards to length and take the tongue off with the boards fastened in place.

10. To make the frame sturdy, attach two diagonal braces between the front and rear legs, one at each end of the bench. Clamp a length of wood spanning from the top of the front leg to just below the lower spacer on the rear leg. Mark where the brace crosses the legs both front and rear. Remove the clamp and cut the brace along these lines. Re-clamp, drill and screw the diagonals in place.

11. Lay the bottom shelf boards on the lower stretchers and space them equally by using a 3/4" board between them as a guide. Drill a single hole per end and screw them down.

12. Place the empty soil bin upside-down in location between the 2 x 4 stretchers on the right hand side of the bench top. Centre it from front to rear and weigh it down so that it does not move. Trace around the bin lip onto the boards; then mark a cutting line the same shape 1/2" inside that traced line, the depth of the lip. Cutting this smaller hole will allow the bin lip to sit on the edges of your opening. Drill a hole inside the shape you have drawn, large enough for the jigsaw blade to fit through, and saw around the perimeter following the inner line. Test fit the soil bin; adjust fit if necessary and sand the edges smooth. If the soil bin has any strengthening tabs on the underside of the lip, mark and saw those out.

13. For a spot to hang tools, clamp a 5' board across the upper ends of the rear legs. Make it a comfortable working height, and drill and screw it in place. Hooks of various sizes and for various uses can be attached to this, and a wire strung between uprights (below the hook board) for hanging baskets. Finally, chamfer all the edges with a block plane, and sand the bench top smooth. Happy potting!

Cutting list from 2 x 4 stock:

  • 2 rear legs 68" each
  • 2 front legs 34" each
  • 5 bench top stretchers 24" each
  • 2 lower leg stretchers 24" each
  • 2 handle stringers 91" each
  • 2 lower stringers 48" each
  • 9 lower shelf boards 24" each 
  • 1 hook board 55" long (we used rough wood)
  • 2 diagonal braces 37" beginning length (thinner stock can be used)

Cutting list from 3/4" stock:

  • Bench top from 3/4" tongue and groove:
  • 5 boards 1"x 5", 69" long 
  • Additional 3/4" board, approx. 30" long, for spacing the lower shelf pieces

Other materials

  • 2" deck screws
  • 1 1/4" deck screws
  • Hooks (a variety)
  • Plastic dish pan 14 1/2" by 12 1/2" or similar

Tools List:

  • Square
  • Tape measure
  • Pencil
  • Saw
  • Jigsaw (if available)
  • Drawknife (if available)
  • Rasp
  • File
  • Sandpaper
  • Drill
  • Drill bits for pilot holes (selection of sizes)
  • Screwdriver for deck screws
  • Screwdriver for hook screws
  • Clamps: quick-grip clamps and/or screw clamps 
  • Block plane (optional but useful)
  • Bench vise or larger clamps to clamp handle stringers while shaping