How To: Build a Built-In Bench (on a budget and with no skills of any kind)

Or window seat….or banquette. This thing is my new favorite part of the house and it plays so many roles! Last week I revealed my dining room transformation (you can find it here).

Let’s revisit the “before” of the area. The dining room extension felt awkward and unusable due to the difference in flooring.

To solve the problem of this bump-out addition, I added peel and stick floor tile and built a U-shaped bench seat.

Now a very functional (and dare I say, attractive) space.

I knew I wanted it to serve several functions:

  1. extra seating when hosting a larger group for dinner
  2. extra storage space
  3. house the leaves to our dining room table
  4. add a decorative element to the dining room

Not to toot my own horn, but I achieved them ALL! If you have a room where a built-in bench, window seat or banquette would come in handy then this post is for you.

I’m no expert — this is literally the first thing I’ve ever built all by myself. My dad is a hobbyist woodworker, and I was pretty sure he doubted that I could do it. Since I’m a stubborn little cuss, I then refused to go to him for advice or ask any questions. I kept this project under wraps from everyone until it was closer to completion. Yes, I’m a brat. But I proved him wrong and it feels good. Ha!

My original goal was to complete this in two days, and with a budget of fifty dollars. I hit a few snags, but got pretty close to both goals (if you just look at actual time I spent working on it and not scrolling Instagram or watching Youtube videos).

I started with this super professional and carefully drawn set of plans.

Good thing this chicken scratch made sense to me, if no one else.

I got lucky that the table leaves and their holder would just fit on one side of the bench. I decided that they would go on the left side, and I would have a hinged lid for access (this ended up being the BIGGEST PIA of the whole project, so if you don’t want a hinged lid you’re golden).

The other pre-determined part of this project was the center section of the long wall. See these super pretty builder-grade oak cabinets that were in the kitchen when we moved in? I have dreams where the original cabinets were still here, and then I wake up crying over the dirty tiled countertop of our 1980’s rental kitchen.

I know, I know. You’re jealous, right? There were two of these and they will become the storage part of the bench seat.

My next step was the most crucial for anyone attempting a project for the first time: Google it. I wanted to make sure my dimensions would be appropriate. My best friend, the internet, told me that the standard bench height is 18″ (perfect for dining). If you want to add a seat cushion, you will need to take that height into account, but I knew I wasn’t going to use a cushion (mostly because I’m cheap and large cushions are hella expensive, but also because I knew I wanted a lot of the space for plants). For the depth it’s recommended to do 16-20″ to sit facing forward with feet on the floor. (Thanks to This Old House for the info!)

In terms of my budget, I was counting on pillaging and plundering the scrap wood in our garage. We had 2×4’s, trim pieces, kitchen cabinetry parts and Lord only knows what else. My husband would love to pitch it all, but that goes against the core of my being. I’m a saver — and that saving paid off with this bench. I truly believe you could make a lot of things work, depending on the size and shape of your bench. I knew I would have to buy wood for the bench tops, but hoped that would be the only lumber I would have to purchase.

A treasure trove of wood bits!

I started by getting the cabinets set in place. I had already primed and painted them.

I didn’t have to worry about painting the top or the sides since they would be hidden inside the bench.
I used spray paint to prime them., and sanded between coats. The final coats of paint will go on after they are installed with the rest of the bench.

They were 15″ tall so I needed to build a platform for them to reach 18″ as a final height. The front of the cabinets will support the front of the bench top, and 2×4 cleats support the back. I built the platform out of 2x4s that I screwed directly into the floor. Yes, this was terrifying. Then I used cabinet screws to attach the cabinets to the platform and to each other.

The base to support the cabinets and get them to the correct height.
I made sure they were level in all directions and attached them to each other, as well as the base of 2x4s.

Next, I pulled out some straight 2x4s and attached them to the walls at the appropriate height to support the back of the bench top. I used a laser level to draw a level line at the right height. Because the walls are wood paneled attaching them was a bit more challenging. Normally you could simply use a stud finder, find and mark your studs and screw right into them. Wood paneling means that a stud finder does NOTHING. I ended up using these super long screws and just crossing my fingers.

So now I’ve got the bench top fully supported on the long section, but not the sides. If this was a straight bench and not U-shaped it would have been a breeze! But now I have to create a frame to support not only the front of the bench top, but to also have something to attach the “skin” to. The skin I’m referring to is a thin piece of finished board that was left over from our kitchen project. We used it to cover the sides of our island, and I had almost enough of it leftover for this project.

Here I’ve begun to build the inner framework for the sides. I just really winged it at this point.

It isn’t pretty. It’s not something I can really describe well in terms of process. I literally cobbled together some wood pieces…screwing some into the floor and each other to make the frame. There’s no instruction book for this, there’s no “right way” to do it (OK, there probably is) so I say just go for it until it works. It can be ugly and weird because no one is ever going to see it!

Once the skin is attached it’s like all that gobbledygook doesn’t even exist!

Here is the skin covering the left side. I literally nailed right into the wood of the leaf holder. Like I have said before, I’m never moving out of this house (or the table stays with the house forever and ever).
That “skin” is a lifesaver. It’s starting to look like a real thing!

I used leftover trim from our kitchen to create “baseboard” and a paneled look for the two ends. I did need my dad’s help with part of this because I wanted the ends of the vertical pieces to be routered — and I don’t own a router. I took the cut pieces up to Michigan and got it done. All of these pieces were attached using my Milwaukee nail gun.

Here’s what the pieces look like once the router was used on the ends.

Last part was cutting and attaching the bench tops. I bought pieces of edge glued pine at Menard’s, and this is my one regret. I was trying to do this is inexpensively as possible, and I kind of wish I had just spent the money to get a thick piece of oak.

I used my table saw to cut the boards down on the outside edges, but the wall sides were much trickier. Because we live in an old house with paneled walls they are NOT straight or plumb. Like, at all. So I had to scribe each of the boards on the wall sides and make precise cuts. Scribing isn’t difficult — it takes a pencil and another small piece of wood (I used a paint stir stick) to essentially trace the wall contours onto the board. The trickier part is cutting it exactly on the line you draw! This is where caulk can be your best friend. After the pieces were attached I used caulk to fill in any gaps to make it look seamless.

I love caulk. A lot.

Speaking of attachment, I used screws and a countersink bit to attach the tops on the center and righthand side. Before painting I filled the holes and sanded it smooth. And caulk — lots of caulk.

Tools of the trade. And yes, the bit on my countersink snapped off so I had to get creative.

Those two tops were the easy ones. On the left side, I had to create a hinged lid. I started by making a narrow board that would get screwed directly into the 2×4 cleat on the wall. Unlucky me, again, this piece butted up against some trim work on the wall and had to be scribed and cut with a small saw.

My Rockwell tool with wood blade.
Not perfect, but again…there’s always caulk!

I bought piano hinges at my local Woodcraft store, pre-drilled the holes and attached them to the board. Then all I had to do was attach the lid itself. This was all easier said than done — I had to scribe the wall side without the benefit of caulk (since this opens and isn’t permanently in place), get the spacing just right so that it could open easily without rubbing the wall on the way up or leave too big a gap between it and the other bench top. Let’s just say I HIGHLY recommend you don’t do a hinged lid on your bench.

A last glimpse of the gobbledygook

I used caulk at all the seams of the trim as well, filled the nail holes, sanded and painted. And voila! The best part of my dining room.

I used the same paint as the rest of the trim in the house, which was color matched to our kitchen cabinets.

Are you going to tackle building a bench seat? If you do, I would love to hear about it!

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