Have you ever tried to find a nice and sturdy picnic table, fit for a large family, plus guests, that will look good, last a long time and won’t break the bank? It ain’t easy! I should know because I’ve been looking for one every summer for the last several years!
Our requirements didn’t seem too difficult. We have a nice patio area with lots of room for a big table, but most outdoor dining sets are crazy expensive. Since my hubby and I pride ourselves on being frugal, we kept our eyes on garage sales, second hand shops, Facebook Marketplace, estate sales and any place that was going out of business. But we couldn’t find anything that would suit our needs and was in our budget.
Hardware stores like Lowes or Home Depot sell picnic tables, but they are the traditional versions – cheap, mass produced and very small. They just didn’t work for what we needed. I was really wanting a contemporary picnic table.
Finally, as 2020 rolled on through, and it became clear that we’d be spending a LOT of time at home this summer, I decided that getting a table sorted was going to be of the highest priority. But with money even tighter than normal, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to afford to buy what I wanted.
So I decided I’d make it.
I had an idea in my head of what I wanted to make, and I knew the measurements of the space I was working with. So I sketched out a couple of rough ideas that I thought might work.
One was a modern version of a traditional picnic table with bench seats that were built in to the table. The other had modern picnic benches that were detached and stood on their own.
While I preferred the detached modern picnic benches, I knew they would be harder to build and store, and I also knew they’d be more dangerous around my kids because they’d be more likely to tip over on them. So after discussing it with my husband, I went with the first option.
I wanted to keep this very simple and inexpensive, so I built it out of 2x4s and 2x6s, attaching everything with 2 1/2 inch and 3 inch deck screws that I already had left from building my kids’ club house last summer.
While my initial plans were for a 6 foot table, I ended up going with an 8 foot table instead. My husband actually wanted a full 12 foot table, which would have been CRAZY. But we had a pretty large space to fill that was kind of unusable for anything else, and he wanted as much table as I could give him.
I figured eight feet was plenty, though. It can comfortably seat 10 people, so it’s perfect for us when we can eventually have guests over. Alone, we have TONS of space.
So onto the build!
Here’s what you’ll need:
2 x 6
9 @ 96 inches
4 @ 56 inches
1 @ 57 inches
2 x 4
2 @ 28 inches
2 @ 63 inches
5 @ 18 inches
2 x 12
4 @ 20 inches
To start, take your 28 inch piece of 2×4 and place it on top of your two 18 inch pieces of 2×4, making sure they are square. Screw them together using your deck screws to secure.
Do the same with the second set of pieces so that you have two sets of U-shaped assemblies. These will be the beginnings of your tabletop assemblies.
Next, place these two pieces on a level surface (I used my garage floor) with the 28 inch piece on bottom and the 2 vertical pieces facing upward.The vertical pieces should be facing inward toward each other, and they should be placed a distance apart.
Now, take your two 63 inch 2×4 stretchers and place them inside the tabletop assembly pieces, using the two vertical uprights to brace them. You will want to secure these two pieces in two ways. First, secure them from the outside of the horizontal piece, going straight into the end from outside using two 3-inch decking screws at the top and bottom.
Then, go inside the brace and add an extra screw going into the side of the vertical support, right in the middle between the other two screws. Do this for all four corners. This way your two table braces are absolutely secure.
Once this is all done, you’ll need to flip the entire thing upside down (or really right side up since it was already upside down). Now it’s time to place the joists for the benches. You’ll need your four 56 inch 4×6 pieces. I was kind of dumb here and screwed in both the inner and outer pieces at the same time, but you need to add the inner pieces first so you can then screw in the stretcher.
To place the joist, set it on the inside of your tabletop assembly, making sure that each end extends 14 inches past the uprights. This will ensure it is centered properly. Screw it into the upright from the inside using 2 1/2 inch deck screws at opposite sides on top and bottom.
Once both inner joists are screwed in, you’ll need to add your stretcher. Take your 57 inch 2×6 and screw it directly into the center of your bench joists to add stability to the table. Be sure to do it on a level surface so that everything is as stable as possible.
Now you can add in your outer bench joists, lining them up with the inner joists and screwing them in from the outside. Make sure you screw them on the alternate sides to the screws you added on the inner joists.
Now it’s time to place your benches. Set two 2×6 pieces across the joists on each side, using the outer edge to line up the first one for square. Use a tape measure to ensure you have the same amount of overhang on each end. This can be slightly off depending on whether your boards are warped or if you have cut them correctly or just left them at the length you bought them. I bought mine at 8 feet, which came about half inch longer than that, so I left mine as is so that I could sand them a bit shorter. As such, I had about 15 1/4 inch overhang on each end. But you may need to push and pull a bit to get it right.
Once you are happy with the centering, use 3 inch deck screws to secure your first board into the joists. You should have four screws at each end, two screws into each joist.
Then, use spare piece of wood, cut into two, to act as a spacer. I had a 3/4 inch piece of furring to act as my spacer, and it worked perfectly. I just butted up the second 2×6 against the spacer, and it gave the perfect amount of space between the two boards. Then I could secure it down and my bench was complete.
Do the same with the other side.
By now the table is looking pretty interesting. But it’s also starting to get pretty heavy. So before adding the table top, you’re going to want to add the legs on. You’ll want to get a second person involved for this part because this table is seriously getting heavy.
Flip the table over once more so that it is upside down. You’ll want to decide how long you want your legs. Most tables would be 18 inches, and this is probably what most people should go for. I decided to go for 20 inches because I have a bad back, and I like things a little bit higher than most. But in all honesty, I kind of wish I’d gone with 19 inches. Do whatever works for you. 18 inches is standard, so decide in advance and do what you like.
I’ll also mention that I used 2×12 legs because I happened to have a couple of pieces of 2×12 in my scrap bin and I figured they would be great for this project and save me money. But you can absolutely use 2×6 legs, and they’d be just fine. In fact, you should have plenty of 2×6 left over for the legs, so you can save yourself money by just using that.
Anyway, attach your legs using 2 1/2 inch deck screws screwed in from the joists under the bench. Make sure to screw in a few screws from both sides for maximum security. The legs should fit in directly between the joists right under the bench seats. If you find the fit sligthly tight, just use a rubber mallet to coax it in. Only one of my legs had that problem. The rest went in with no resistance at all.
Once the legs are all fully secure, you’ll once again have to flip over the whole table, and you’ll be able to make sure it’s sitting totally level. This is kind of the moment of truth. I was really nervous at this part, since it can be pretty scary. What if it started rocking???
Thankfully everything was perfect.
As a last minute addition, I added in an 18 inch joist into the center of the tabletop, just so I’d have somewhere to screw the planks into and offer extra support. I secured it from the outside of the stretchers using 2 1/2 inch deck screws.
Finally, I laid out my five 2×6 planks on top of the table. I made sure to place the center plank first, lining up the center of the plank with the center of the table, and once again I measured the overhang on each side to ensure it was perfectly balanced. Then, I secured using two screws at each end and in the center of the table.
Then, I secured the outer two planks in the same way. Finally, I secured the two planks on either side of center, eyeballing the spacing to try and make sure it looked good.
The table was complete! My youngest and I tested it out to make sure it was comfy, and my oldest declared it would make a very passable pirate ship during outdoor adventure games. Score!
The next day was all about sanding. I started out with 80 grit sandpaper. Some of the lumber was REALLY rough, so I went through a LOT. I went up and up and finished on 120 grit. I didn’t want to make it too smooth, as it this is an outdoor table, and I know it’s going to get a lot of abuse. It didn’t need to be perfect.
We ended up needing a lot of help getting it moved out of the garage and into the back yard. My husband and I managed to move it around the house and to the gate by ourselves, but this thing seriously weighs at least 350 lbs, and my back just couldn’t cope. Luckily our neighbor saw us struggling and sent over her four strong teenaged boys to help. They had it on the patio in less than a minute.
We even had a nice BBQ dinner that first night just to test it out! The kids said it was like eating at a restaurant.
Then it was a case of getting that sucker weatherproofed! I grabbed some Olympic Waterguard Transparent Stain and Sealer in Acorn Brown, and we spent a few hours getting her painted up. I need to invest in one of those spray machines because man that was some WORK. Haha.
But the whole family got involved. It took several days for her to dry, but she’s super purty now.
I’m definitely going to be building a few more things for our outdoor area, and I have some cool projects to share soon, including a final reveal of how this table looks in our new patio area. But for now, I just really wanted to show how easy it was to build this table.
In all, it cost about $90 in materials, and it took about three hours of work (not including the weatherpoofing). I like to think it’ll last a good long time.
I really love the way it turned out, and I couldn’t be happier to finally have a table in our back yard! What do you think of this contemporary picnic table? Will you be giving it a try yourself??
Katie Reed is a passionate writer and mother of four vivacious boys from Salt Lake City, Utah. Drawing from her own journey through TTC, pregnancy, and the joys of raising children, she offers a wealth of insight into the world of motherhood. Beyond her heartfelt tales, Katie delights her readers with family-friendly recipes, engaging crafts, and a curated library of printables for both kids and adults. When she’s not penning her experiences, you’ll find her crafting memories with her husband and sons—Dexter, Daniel, Chester, and Wilder.