Picnic Table

How to build a foldable picnic table for kids

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This article was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Cottage Life magazine. (Photography by Eugen Sakhnenko, Illustrations by Len Churchill.)

For kids, there’s no such thing as single-purpose furniture.

A picnic table isn’t just for meals, it’s for crafts and games, drawing, reading, and possibly for the occasional time out. And if its proportions and features are child-friendly, as this one is, it can become the very favourite place for those activities.

This kids’ version of the picnic table is designed to be folded for compact storage. We’ve rounded or mitred any corners that could scrape elbows or knees and, unlike some of its adult counterparts, this table won’t tip up when one bench is suddenly vacated. We used cedar lumber, though SPF will work too. Look for straight 2x4s with smooth surfaces that won’t cause splinters. You can build this in a weekend—the biggest challenge is cutting half-lap joints—for under $140 (or about $80 if you use SPF).

Picnic table from above

Tools and Materials:

Materials and Hardware


1. For the tabletop and the benches, you’ll need to cut ten 48″ lengths of 2×4. Since kids will inevitably scrape their elbows on any exposed corner, trim 1″ (at 45°) from the corners of the two outer tabletop boards. 

2. Drill 1″ clearance holes in the tabletop board ends (deck screws don’t usually need holes to get through the wood, but these are close to the ends and may split the board otherwise). Space the tabletop boards evenly across the 22″ end cleats, and secure them with #8 x 3″ deck screws, making sure the tabletop is squared up. I mitred the ends of the cleats to match the tabletop boards.

3. Set your mitre saw to 30° to cut the legs and the crosspieces. The legs are 231/2″ along the sides; the crosspieces are 163/4″ along the long, bottom edge. Cut the half-lap joints that connect these pieces (see “Cutting Half Laps”). Round off the outside corners of the legs; they’ll be less likely to splinter.

Half-lap joints
Finished half-lap joint

4. Glue (using exterior-rated wood glue) and screw the crosspieces to the legs. Use four #8 x 1¼” screws per lap joint. After you get a couple of screws in, double-check that the joint angle is 120° and that the outside-to-outside corner measurement at the bottom of the legs is 36″. 

5. Cut the bench supports (each 39″ long) and secure to the legs so their bottom edges are 71/4″ up from the ground. Use glue and four #8 x 2½” screws at each connection. Flip the tabletop, then centre and clamp the leg assemblies—bench support facing out—to the tabletop end cleats. Attach the leg assemblies to the tabletop (see fig. 1) with four exterior hinges.

6. To secure the support struts in the centre of the table, I found a suitable metal bracket (the kind that’s usually sold with joist hangers and other framing connectors). It needs an easy modification, however: drill two 716” holes as in fig. 4. Centre the bracket on the bottom of the tabletop and screw it in place.

Cut the two 25″ support struts and notch one end of each as in fig. 5. Hinge the struts to the bench supports; the struts sit on either side of the centre point. Tip: end grain doesn’t have much holding power; use #8 x 3″ screws here instead of the ones that came with the hinges. 

7. Position each strut in turn against the metal bracket to mark the hole for the legs-out position. You may need to trim the strut end slightly so the hole sits in the centre of the strut. Unclamp one leg assembly, lower it, and lay the strut against the bracket to mark the hole for the folded position. Mark the 3″ by 13/4″ pocket (see fig. 5); it should be centred on this hole. Repeat with the other leg assembly and strut. 

Bracket-strut connection
Bracket-strut connection

8. Remove the struts by popping their hinge pins. Cut the pockets with a jig saw, or use the same technique as you did to cut the half laps. Knock off the corners of the pockets as in the plans—they’ll be in scraping range of young knees. Drill 716” holes (see fig. 1) where you just marked them for both the folded and legs-out position. Reassemble the struts.

Secure the struts in the legs-out position with the eye bolt, nut, and washer. This is one of those instances in construction, as in life, where theory may collide with reality. I had to fiddle a bit to get a good fit, and ended up reaming the holes slightly so the bolt could go through smoothly. Flip the table right side up.

9. Cut four bench cleats 7½” long. Mitre one end of each at 45° (just for looks) and the other at 30°, so it fits tightly against the leg (see fig. 1). Lay an outer bench board across two benchsupports, so the outside corners of the three pieces align. Clamp two bench cleats to the bench board, so the cleats fit snugly against the bench supports and the 45° mitre faces out. Lift off the bench assembly. Keeping everything square, screw the cleats to the board, with four #8 x 2½” screws at each end. Screw the second bench board in place and then assemble the other bench in the same way.

10. To prevent the benches from slipping off, we added pegs (11/4″ lengths of ¾” dowel) to each support. Mark the position for the dowels on both the benches and the supports—make sure the dowels are centred on the outer bench board. The dowels are probably not a precise 3/4″; I found that a 1116” Forstner bit gave me the best fit, but do your own tests in scrap wood. The hole in the bench board should be 18” larger; you need a little wiggle room to get the bench on and off.

Bottom of picnic table

11. The two 2½” holes in the tabletop will hold plastic tumblers for crayons, paint, dice, or whatever else kids are likely to spill or lose. Use a hole saw—the best choice—or a jig saw. You observant DIY types will be asking yourselves, “How did that knucklehead drill a hole when the hole-saw bit is centred in the gap between the boards?” I drilled a guide hole in a plywood scrap that I clamped in place to get the hole started.

12. For the beach umbrella, I just drilled a hole in the tabletop, about 18” larger than the diameter of the umbrella pole. Make sure you position the umbrella so it won’t interfere with the struts below.

13. Using a roundover bit, rout the perimeter of the tabletop and the inside and outside edges of the benches.

Bottom of picnic table

Cutting half laps 

When you’re joining two boards face to face, a half lap is a strong, streamlined joint that gives you a lot of surface area for glue. To make the joint, you need to remove half the thickness of each board and then attach those two thin sections to each other (fig. 1).

If you have a sliding compound mitre saw, raise the blade (check the owner’s manual for instructions) to cut at exactly half the depth of the 2×4—in theory, that’s 1/4″, but double-check your lumber. Raising the blade, however, means it likely won’t slide back far enough to make a kerf of consistent depth all the way across. You’ll need a sacrificial spacer board, positioned against the fence, to move the 2×4 far enough out. (For safety, use a spacer at least as long as the fence.)

If you don’t have a sliding compound mitre saw, use a circular saw with the blade set to the correct depth.

With either saw, make multiple passes across the joint, then remove most of the waste with a chisel, down to the depth of the kerf. Test-fit the joint and fine-tune with a rasp.

To download a detailed illustration of the project plan, click here

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