A Pattern Language Picnic Table

Our first project in Chimacum was a social one- the farm lacked an outdoor public space.  Beth really wanted a nice central area, so we cleared out storage underneath a cedar grove (the Seven Cedars) and replaced it with a picnic table made from site-harvested cedar.  I’m really happy with this space and with the picnic table we made.


Much thanks to Dan for loaning us Alexander’s A Pattern Language.  We’ve now worked through Notes on the Synthesis of Form, The Production of Houses, and A Pattern Language (we’ll have to read this one a few more times).

Following Alexander, we first identified essential picnic table patterns and then started building.  There’s no drawn plan beyond some scratch paper for numbers, and we were constantly responding to the irregular lumber we had around.   Here are the patterns we identified, some while we worked:
1) Connected Table and Benches
Benches are too narrow to stand alone on uneven ground.  Connecting them to the table makes the table more portable and appropriate for outdoor terrain.  This is a classic picnic table pattern.

2) Unencumbered Leg Space
Many picnic tables have horrible diagonal leg supports that long legged people (me) kick, resulting in unpleasant cursing/bruising/drink spilling.  A good picnic table has none of that.

To solve this we added extra re-enforcement where the legs joined the table.  These also served to ease assembly/disassembly of the finished table (see 7).

3) Standing Entry/Exit
The distance between the bench and the table aught to accommodate human thighs so one may enter and exit the table standing.  Some picnic tables have benches and tables too close.  The result is a seated entry and exit, twisting around on the bench.  This action is disruptive when the table is packed.

We chose a 7″ distance between bench and table.  The result is comfortable but upon completion I think an inch could be shaved off this distance.   A nice unexpected effect of a good distance between table and bench is that when only a few people use the table some may choose to sit straddling the bench and facing inwards, adding to the informality and variable use of the table.

4) Human-Spaced Legs
The legs must be placed at whole-person widths, so the table can be comfortably packed with people without dead space around the legs.

We put 52″ between our legs, which accommodates 3 people comfortably, and 14″ after the legs so someone can sit on the end of the bench.  There is also enough leg space to fairly comfortably add a chair to the edge of the table.  Overall the 7′ table can squeeze ten people plus two in chairs.

5) Human-sized table top
The table top must have enough space between the benches for people to comfortably face each other, fit a spread of food across the middle, and talk across the diagonal of the table.

Our tabletop is roughly 3′ across (see 8) and exactly  7′ long.

6) Comfortable Bench/Table Heights
Thighs and forearms are comfortably kept at roughly 90 degree angles.  26″-31″ is a standard table hight range, and 15-18″ for seating hight.

We went with 30 for the tabletop and 17″ for the benches.  I’m tall and can’t help designing around myself.


7) Easily Moved and Stored

Most furniture will be moved or stored at some point.  Large furniture needs to break down to fit through doors and into sheds and vehicles.  This means a minimum number of connection points easily accessible and with common tools.

Our benches, tabletops, and legs disassemble with only eight 5/16″ bolts.  Coupled with my choice of half-rounded boards for the benches this significantly complicated their construction (see 8).



8) Live Edges
We decided to build with irregular pieces of local wood to provide smooth and beautiful natural edges that fit the aesthetic of the location.

Making a fairly square tabletop out of irregular and completely unsure boards took slightly longer, but aesthetically we decided the result was worth it.  The choice of half-rounded benches caused a significant complication and required coping saw and chisel work that could have been avoided with flat pieces.  Happy as I am with the result I wouldn’t do it again.