A number of years ago I was introduced to a bench for SCA use. It was not a historical design unless you include 20th century americana but it did fill an important roll. It was easy to build, sturdy, had a back, and broke down into a reasonably small package. The bench in question is the leopold bench.
The leopold bench is credited to Aldo Leopold, a wildlife conservationist. The original design was intended for one person and did not break down. The SCA has embraced the design and made a few tweaks to make it suitable for our use.
To build a leopold bench as a break down bench you will need the following tools:
1″ drill bit
For materials you will need
1″ dowel – 30″
Although I am useing dimensional lumber from the box stores I prefer to clean up the wood a bit first. I will rough cut all of my pieces and then run them through my jointer and plainer to get flat and square stock.
My leg is comprised of two parts, first leg is the long leg that comprises the front foot and the back rest, the second is the shorter part making the back leg
The longer leg is 3′-3″ long and has a 30 degree angle cut on the bottom while the top remains square. Aside from the angle on the bottom you will cut two through mortices the will each be 2 1/2″ x 1 1/2″ and will be angled, the top mortice is angled 15 degrees from the shorter side to make a more comfortable angle. The bottom mortice is roughly centered on the leg and is cut at a 30 degree angle to the board so that it is parallels with the foot, and eventually the floor. My plans call for the seat of the bench to be at 18″ off the ground as a fairly standard seat height. You can modify that to accommodate shorter or taller preferences but doing so will change most of the angle on the bench and would best be done with a 2d mock up unless you have drafting availability.
The shorter leg is a parallelogram with an overall length of 1′ – 9 1/8″ inches but an actual side length 1′-6″. The top and bottom will be cut at the 30 degree angle like the back leg was. The back leg will be attached to the front so that the top of the shorter leg is flush or just slightly below the level of the bottom edge of the mortice. This allows the seat to be supported not only but the through mortice and tenon but also by the surface area of the back shorter leg.
IMPORTANT: Make sure when you assemble your legs that they are constructed to mirror each other, with the shorter leg going on the inside when the bench is constructed. If they are identical one side of the seat will not be properly supported. Note that I have never done this myself, especially not twice with 2 different bench’s.
I prefer to use glue as well as screws for this step. The connecting area is a triangular section and I use 3 exterior grade 2 1/2″ screws as well as a good exterior wood glue, titebond 3 in my case.
I round over all of the edges on my bench. While most dimensional lumber is rounded from the store, I end up removing that when I flatten and joint it. While it seems silly to then go put it back on but I find there are a few benefits. Structurally it means there are no sharp edges for things to catch on but also for comfort and also to decrease splitting, especially if you round off all the angles of the feet. The second benefit is that it gives uniform radii to the pieces. Not all boards will have a uniform radius especially after sanding or trimming. For this project it is perfectly acceptable to use the boards exactly as they come from the store. Cut, sand, and assemble, my method of jointed is just for my own aesthetic. I do recommend rounding the feet at least.
While the legs are drying we can turn our attention to the back and seat.
The back is single board with a through tenon and some holes for the dowels.
The back will have a total length of 4′-8″. You will cut the ends to remove a 4″ long by 1 1/2″ high block on each corner, creating tenons that are 4″ long, 2 1/2″ wide and centered on the back. To drill the holes I wait until the legs are assembled and Use the actual thickness of the legs to scribe a line.
The seat, pictured above, is a little trickier. Is is also cut at 4′-8″ and will have 4″x 2 1/2″ tenons on the end, but it also has the corners of the front edge of the seat removed to both cut down on the stress on the seat and also for comfort.
You will lay out your seat blank and mark the tenon by moving 2″ in from the back for your layout. It is important to keep the locations as they are for the tenon on the seat. If you move it back there is not enough support and the seat ends up too far cantilevered in the front and can split when you sit on it. Also something that never happened to me, most definitely not twice, and its inconceivable it was in front of the king at an event. If you move the tenon to far forward you end up with wasted seat hanging off the back and an uncomfortable short seat in the front that will leave you feeling like you are perching.
For the angle on the front, measure down 2 3/4″ and in 2 3/4″ from the finished line after cutting your tenons and knock the corner off.
I strongly recommend rounding over all of the pieces of the seat if you do nothing else. The sharp edge is uncomfortable, can catch fabric, and can splinter over time.
Now that everything is built and the legs have dried do a test fit, make sure everything goes together. If needed trim to get a nice fit without being to tight, snug is good. If its to tight it can get stuck with temperature and humidity change or flat out and crack if its a rapid enough change.
When my dry fit is good I then scribe the outside edge of the legs onto the back and seat and mark the center of the scribed lines. I then draw a line 1/4″ out from the scribed line, closer to the end of the tenon, and mark the center of the line. This will be the center point for my 1″dowel. This method creates a simple version of a tusk tenon so that when you assemble the bench and drive the dowels through you end up pulling the whole thing together adding strength and stability by making the assembly more rigid.
For my dowels I use 6″ lengths of 1″ poplar dowels. I have a tapering jig for my table saw that legs me safely cut an angle on the bottom of the dowel and keep it consistent. If you do not have a tapering jig, or a table saw, there are a number of ways you can achieve the same result. You can convert the round holes and dowels to a square hole and a true tusk tenon for one. It is a bit more work but is also pretty straight forward and can be done safely with just a few tools. You can also use a plane or a grinder to put an angle to the dowel.
I like to cut 5 dowels for each bench, including an extra for a couple reasons. The first reason is dowels get lost and broken, some folks will drill holes and tie the dowels to the bench so its easier to keep track of. I tend to use the same size and taper on my dowels for most projects so I keep a bucket of them on hand if needed. The second reason is to remove the dowels when the bench is set up. The tapered head of the dowel is a small cross section and close to the body of the legs, to avoid mushrooming the base or gouging the leg I put the tip of the spare dowel to the tip of the in use dowel and hit the head of the spare dowel to remove the in use dowel.
I highly recommend finishing these benches. Dimension lumber is soft and will pick up nicks and dents easy, plus it is very susceptible to weather changes. Finishing with paint or polyurethane will both enhance the appearance but also help preserve the wood and protect it.