Build a useful potting bench for transplanting flowers, starting seeds and storing your gardening supplies.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/CANDYBOX IMAGES
You can't buy a decent potting/planting bench any more. The
garden-goods mail-order catalogs occasionally list
mini-benches stapled of thin mystery wood and dyed to
resemble California redwood. With some reinforcing they
might do for a space-short apartment dweller repotting a
few house plants, but they are too puny for any
half-serious country gardener.
You can buy seed-starting batteries ...if you have money to
spare. A pair of four-foot-high, bobby pin—shaped
metal tubes holding tiers of trays under dual-bulb/4-foot-
long, full-spectrum fluorescent lamps go for prices ranging
from $300 to $1,500 or more. Worth it maybe if you grow
prize-winning African violets, but mighty pricey for giving
the tomatoes a few weeks head start each spring.
Here's a combination potting bench/ starting battery large
enough to handle all your indoor-gardening chores. It is
made from inexpensive 3/4-inch-thick #2 pine shelving and
1/4-inch-thick peg-holed hard-board panels. You can buy the
major components cut to size at most large home-improvement
centers. It's easy to construct with household tools, tough
enough to hold up, and if you stain the wood, will look
great in the back hall or out in the sun room.
The work counter can be as high as your legs dictate, and
it is a robust 4 feet wide by 2 feet deep—though, if
space is limited, you can lower the top and narrow it to
three or even two feet in width. The top has a 3-foot-high
(or two-foot or 1 1/2-foot-high) peg-board back offering
space to hang tools or install shelves or a shallow
cupboard. With the addition of a few plugin light fixtures
and sturdy, easily adjustable shelves, it will hold enough
seed-starting flats to start the tomatoes plus plenty of
broccoli, eggplant, celery, early cabbage, and annual
flower seedlings for most homestead-sized gardens.
Dimensions and specifications needn't be followed exactly.
Boards should be cut to lengths given unless you change
height or width. But, since the actual width and thickness
of lumber is about 1/4" or so less than "nominal" (you pay
for wood removed all around to plane it smooth), all
measurements incorporating width or depth are done on the
If you have a bench saw you can rip (cut lengthwise) any
inch-or-so-thick lumber, new or scrap-the more dirt-and
waterproof the better if you will be using it outdoors. A
good alternative would be nominal 4/5" (actually
1-inch-thick) cedar or pressure-treated pine decking; rip
the 6-inch-wide boards to the widths specified in the plan.
Especially for the bench top, you can use thicker soft wood.
hardwood such as oak or hard maple would be better if you
want to use the bench for heavy work and if you have the
stock, tools, and skill to work it.
Construction Tools & Technique
Construction of the bench is simplicity itself. Rigidity
and squareness are guaranteed by back and side panels of
pegboard that comes with factory-squared edges and parallel
sides. The lumber and peg-board (that I'll call "peg" for
short) are easily fastened with glue, tacks, or staples and
self-tightening drywall screws. I used a cordless
drill/driver to pilot-drill fastener holes and to
countersink and set in self-tapping screws. Lacking power
tools, you can do it with a little hand drill and
Don't try to put in nails or screws without drilling pilot
holes, and don't over-tighten any fasteners or you'll split
the wood, especially where holes are close to the board
ends. And please do not nail the bench together except
where specified. You can split the relatively thin lumber,
and nails in the soft wood will work loose in time so the
bench becomes wobbly. Nails are for hammering up decks and
Costs for all-new materials will range between the $111
that I paid to several times that if you purchase fancy
wood. The optional hardware-store lighting fixtures cost me
an added $35. You can spend several hundred dollars for
fancy Gro-Lites in several configurations, but they won't
start your plants any better.
Decide the width and height that will make the bench fit
your work level and available space in the house. The bench
top should be at a comfortable standing work height. Most
kitchen sinks, counters and benches for standing work are
36 inches high; most desks and tables that you sit at are
about 30 inches. To adjust the height, increase or decrease
length of the leg boards. To make the bench more narrow
(from side-to-side) than the designed 48 inches, subtract
up to 24 inches from the peg-board that forms the back, and
from the bench top boards and other side-to-side horizontal
members. To decrease the front-to-back (depth) measurement,
trim the long sides of the peg-board side panels and the
front-to-back trim, and perhaps use narrower lumber for the
rear legs than the specified 9-inch-wide hoards.
(Six-inch-wide rear legs would go nicer with a bench
trimmed by 6 inches to a depth of 18 inches
Potting Bench Materials
Peg comes in 1/4" and 1/8" thicknesses Choose the 1/4". It
is heavy and half again more expensive, but more rigid than
the thinner grade. If the lumber yard sells pegboard precut
into 4' x 4' and 2' x 4' sire., you piece the parts
together from these easy-to-handle panels. If not, you will
have to cut up a single 4' x 8' sheet. Set peg flat on
sawhorses, or held just off the floor by blocks. Using a
fine-toothed plywood blade on any power saw, cut it slowly.
If you bought peg precut into a 4' x 4' and a pair of 2' x
4's, trim each 2' x 4' panel across the 2' dimension to
give one 2' x 2 1/2' and one 2' x 1 1/2' section. With duct
tape of on both sides, fasten the two 1 1/2' lengths to the
cut end of the large sheet to give a single piece that is
4' wide and 5 1/2' long. (You'll put a wood brace across
the long seam later.
Using a single 4' x 8 'sheet of peg board, bisect the board
across its narrow (4') dimension 5 1/2' feet from one end
to produce one 4' x 5 1/2' sheet to form the back. Then,
split the leftover 4-foot-wide, 2 1/2-foot-deep panel
across the longer (4') axis to form the pair of 2' x 2 1/2'
panels that make up the sides.
Not all lumberyards stock shelving pre-sawn to the sizes
required, but will have standard 8- or 10-footers you can
saw to length. (Look down the long edges of the longer
boards to be sure they are not warped). If they have
4-inch-wide but not 3-inch, 4 is fine. If there is no
8-inch-wide lumber, 6 will do. If they have 3-inch-wide,
but not 2-inch, use the 3s or rip a 4-inch board down the
Here are the main parts you want on hand before you start
—One 4' x 5 1/2', and two 2' x 2 1/2' panels of
—Two rear legs of 8-inch-wide (or 6") lumber, both 6
—Four leg boards, two of them 4 inches wide, the
other two 3 inches wide and all four an even 36 inches long
(or your preferred bench height less the thickness of the
counter top-designed to be 3/4".)
—One 1"x 6" x 46" front brace
—One top shelf of 1" x 8" x 48" pine.
If boards that are open to view have rough, irregular, or
dyed ends, you can trim them by a quarter-inch or so (so
long as the trimming doesn't make them too short). The cut
ends should be a perfect 90 degrees (square) and both rear
legs, all four front leg boards, bench top and shelf boards
must be the same lengths. No need to trim the lower
shelving boards that aren't open to view-indeed, you can
use rough lumber that you'll be able to price down.
For a few dollars more you can have the yard do most of the
cutting for you. Just be sure the yard personnel measure
carefully and cut precisely (which they certainly can)
although they are accustomed to making rough cuts.
You will need a saw and square to cut parts that must be
measured to fit on the job. Anything from a big table saw
to a hand-crosscut saw will do. Also needed: a heavy-duty
staple gun and 5/8" staples (or flat-headed tacks), a
hammer and large and medium-sized screwdrivers, a pint of
good woodworkers glue and a small brush to apply it with,
and the fasteners specified in the Materials list.
The Eight Steps for Building a Potting Bench
1. First, lay your boards.
Lay out the peg back-board, and the pine leg-boards and peg
panels that make up the sides—arranged as though the
sides were hinged to the back so they open up and lie fiat
like an old-fashioned folding vanity mirror. You will glue
and staple the sides together and attach the cleats that
hold shelves to back and sides.
Place the back-board on a really big work table or a floor
you don't mind getting glue on. Face the shiny, finished
surface up, and arrange it so the smooth, even
factory-finished, 4-foot-long edge is located at the top.
At each side-butted tight against the long sides of the
peg-board-lay the longest boards, the 8-inch-wide,
6-foot-long rear legs. Face the best side of each board
down, as that's the side that will be open to view. Tap the
boards so their top edges are 1/4-inch below the top edge
of the peg-board back (giving you a strip of hardboard to
fasten the top shelf board to).
Center a long straight-edge along the bottom of the rear
legs. (An 8-foot-long 2 x 4 is easiest, so long as it is
not warped.) This defines the floor line—where the
bench legs will meet the floor.
Arrange the 3-inch-wide front-leg boards (with their bottom
edges along the floor line) two feet to the outside of and
parallel to the rear legs.
Put one of the two peg-board side-panels on top of each
pair of leg boards, rough side up and longer dimension up
and down. Side edges of panels should be even with outer
margins of legs, upper edges even with the upper ends of
the legs, lower edges about 6"from the floor line and Y"
lower than the bottom of the back panel.
2. Fasten side panels to legs, and install
Scribe lines on the wood legs around the peg-board so you
can remove the panels and replace them precisely.
Remove the peg-board panels, turn downside-up to expose the
shiny side, and brush light coats of woodworkers' glue
where they overlap leg boards. Brush glue on the wood
beneath as well. Place glued surfaces together, lining
adjoining edges and corners precisely, and fasten pegboard
to wood with staples (or with flatheaded tacks)-two rows
down each leg board fasteners 3/4" or 1" in from each edge,
every three inches.
Turn assembled sides over and measure across the peg-board
between inner margins of legs. Cut four 4-inch-wide trim
boards to fit snugly into the (about 13" ) spaces between
inner margins of the leg boards at both top and bottom of
both sides. Measure precisely and use a sharp saw blade to
cut perfectly straight, dean, and square. The cut ends butt
up to factory-straight edges, and wobbly saw cuts will
leave small but telling gaps that betray amateurish work.
Apply glue to peg and to insides of trim boards, align
outer margins of trim boards with edges of peg panels, turn
over and staple. Let dry overnight.
3. Cut and attach benchtop supports and shelf
Fasten "cleats"narrow but stout boards on the sides and the
back to hold the bench-top and shelves.
Decide how many lower shelves, upper shelves and shelf
dividers and supports you want. Traditional would be one
shelf in addition to the permanent bottom under the bench
top and two shelves and a divider on top, but choices are
many. I use the shelves to hold light fixtures and
seed-starting trays that I move up and down as seedlings
grow. You may prefer a single bottom shelf and a shelfless
back; with an assortment of pegboard fixtures you can hang
tools, install small shelves and attach other good things
on the back and both sides.
Lay back and sides out flat in original positions-mugged
together, feet along floor line, the back 3/4" above sides.
Scribe lines or lay tape running from side to side along
the back panel and both sides-one line along the underside
of the benchtop, and a series of parallel lines along back
and side panels and up the rear leg boards to define the
bottoms of shelves/tops of cleats. (One cleat should go
along the seam in your back panel if you pieced it together
from precut panels.)
First, make the doubled cleats that support the rear of the
benchtop. From 1" x 2", cut one 46-inch-long cleat, one 19"
and two 12"s. Double the cleat boards by locating the 19"
cleat in the middle and the two 12"s at the ends of the
46"-inch board, leaving two 3" spaces to hold cross-braces
in the inner edges of the "sandwich:' Fasten with glue and
two nails per section. Center this support against the back
panel, its upper edge at benchtop level. There will be an
equal (1" or so) space at each end. Place top of cleat even
with the bench-board-bottom guideline scribed on the
back-board. Cut two more "sandwiches"of 1" x 2" x 8" and
place at same level to inner faces of rear leg boards, back
ends tight to the peg back.
From 1' x 2' pine, cut rear shelf cleats—one for each
shelf location—to be 3'8" (or the bench-top width
less four inches). Cut upper-shelf side cleats that attach
to the inside of the 8 back legs to be 6 1/2" long (or the
side-board depth less an inch). Lower-shelf side cleats
running across the peg sides should be 20" long. Fasten
cleats along scribe marks. Center back cleats on the back
panel. Place side cleats with inner (back of bench) edges
even with rear of pegboard side panels so their front ends
are inset an inch from the front edge of the rear leg
Glue all cleats; to assure a good glue bond, weight cleats.
I use bricks. Books will do if you glue-proof them. When
glue is set in an hour or two, but not fully hardened
(set-up time depends on the kind of glue), turn panels over
and set 3/8" wood screws through holes pre-drilled through
back of peg-board panels and into cleats (It is easy to see
through holes in pegboard to drill accurately.). Use 1 1/4"
screws to fasten cleats where they face pegboard, and
3/4-inch-thick leg boards. Set two screws an inch from ends
of each short cleat, and place screws six inches apart on
the long cleats. Let glue dry.
4. Build front-leg/brace assembly
Lay out the 4-inch-wide, 36-inch-long front leg boards 4
feet apart on the floor line, with their long dimensions
parallel. Place the 1" x 4" x 46" front brace board atop
the legs with its upper long edge even with tops of the
legs. Adjust legs in or out under the brace board so that
long edges of the legs extend an inch beyond the ends of
the brace (leaving an inch of leg board exposed at each end
of the brace—so front leg will precisely cover the
combined thickness of the nominal 1" side leg and pegboard
side panel). Legs must be square to brace. Apply glue to
the joints and put three 1 1/4" drywall screws in a
triangle shape into the brace/leg junctions. The screws are
going in from the inside, so will not be visible—but
do not set screw heads any deeper than the brace board
surface lest they punch through the outer face of the leg
boards and show.
Cut a 28" benchtop-support cleat of 1" x 2", and center it
3 1/2" down from top edge of the 6-inch-wide front brace
(or as far down as the width of the wood you'll be using
[in Step 8] to make front-to-back supports for the
benchtop). Glue and screw in place.
Turn the leg/brace assembly and—as when you cut trim
for the sides—measure the distance between inner
edges of front leg boards and cut a length of 1" x 4" stock
to fit snugly between. Put this front-trim board aside for
5. Fasten front to sides.
Prop the front and side assemblies up on their legs. Mate
front leg boards on the side panels in "L"-shapes with the
front-leg boards just attached by the a Front brace. Have a
helper hold them, or clamp or prop the three assemblies to
stand perpendicular to the worktable. Apply glue along
edges where front leg boards mate. Set sides square to
front and clamp or tape leg boards together as needed to
keep them from toppling over and spreading glue all over
Drill/countersink 1-inch-deep pilot holes through side leg
boards and into front leg boards and insert 1 1/2,"
self-tapping drywall screws to hold these two parts of the
front legs together—screws one inch from each end and
every six inches along the long edge of the front leg
board. Let dry overnight.
6. Attach top-shelf board to peg
While it is still on the floor in correct relationship to
the artificial floor line, tack (attach temporarily with
easily removed nails or screws) one foot-or-so-long pieces
of scrap wood to the bottom of the pegboard back, one at
each side, so they extend (about 6 3/4") to the floor
line—their bottom edges even with bottoms of front
leg boards. This is so you can set the back up for
Drill 1/16" pilot holes down through the top at each end of
the top-shelf board, holes 3/8" in from and spaced every
Drill holes every six inches down both 5' 6" long edges of
the 4'-wide pegboard back panel—holes 3/8" in from
Apply glue to one long edge of the top shelf board and to
the top inch of the shiny, inner face of the 4-foot top
edge of the peg back board. Lay peg flat on the floor,
shiny (glued) side down—but, prop the (gluey) edge 8"
off the floor. Align the glued surfaces of peg and top
board—corners even, top edge of peg even with upper
long edge of the top board. Be sure alignment is perfect,
and tack or tape in place to start if need be. Then,
starting at the center, pilot drill through back of peg into
edge of top board and nail every six inches. Let that dry.
7. Assemble the frame
Turn the sides/front-brace assembly on its feet. It will be
wobbly. To steady it, set one 46 1/2-inch-long lower shelf
board on lower cleats at rear of cabinet; tack it in place
if necessary. Tack a length of 1 x 2 stock across the front
of the back legs where they intersect the bench-top so
outer edges of rear leg boards are a precise 48" apart.
Apply glue to bottom outer edges of the top-shelf board, to
back edges of the 6'-tall rear legs and in 3/4" strips down
the inside, long edges of the backboard. Lift the assembled
shelf-top/back panel atop the rear legs. Square it up and
fasten with 1 1/2" nails (don't drive any in all the way
till all are started and structure is square (which may
take some finagling). Once fastened, place assembled unit
on its back to dry overnight, propping and tacking on
cross-braces as needed to eliminate any can't—so all
corners are square, all vertical surfaces are plumb.
8. Set in lower shelf.
Frame, cut, and fasten bench-top Set the bench frame
upright. Decide how deep you want your permanent bottom
shelf to be (five 3 3/4"-wide boards along the back of the
24-inch-deep cabinet, leaving about 6 inches of kick-room
in front, is best for me.) Apply glue to ends and bottom of
end-edges of shelf boards, set them square on bottom
cleats, and fasten with pilot-drilled 1 1/2" nails into
their ends through peg and rear legs. Once glue is dry,
fasten the back of the rear shelf to the peg with drywall
screws every 6 inches.
Measuring on the work, cut, and fasten two (about
23-inch-long) dual-board 1" x 4" sandwiches to serve as
front-to-back supports for benchtop boards. Place their
front ends atop the cleat fastened inside the front brace,
and the rear ends into the pair of slots you built into the
rear benchtop support cleats. Cut two short lengths of 1 x
2 to place under the rear ends. Glue and pilot-drill/screw
all to back panel and front brace. Find the 1" x 4" trim
board you made earlier to cover the front brace between
inner edges of front leg boards. Glue and screw-fasten
invisibly through the back of the underlying brace.
Measure on the benchtop and cut bench-top boards to fit
from 5/4-inch-thick top-grade, 4-inch-or- 6-inch-wide
lumber. You can have boards butted tight together or
separated by a fraction of an inch. They can overhang the
frame by 3/4" at front and sides (the rear boards will have
to be trimmed to fit between the back legs). Or, for a more
finished look, eliminate the lip; cut all bench-top board
ends flush with front and side edges, and box the sides
with 1" x 2" or 1" x 3" edging-cutting corners at a
45-degree angle if you have a miter saw. If you need to
split a board to fill the top without excess lip at front,
place the narrower board at the back. Glue, pilot-drill and
nail benchtop boards to rim and center supports with 1 1/2"
finish nails. For best-finished appearance, lightly scribe
nailing guide-lines over underlying support-boards and
insert nails evenly in straight lines along scribe lines
For a finishing touch, you can rim the shelf top with 1" x
2" boards. Or, use cornice or other molding. I just nailed
a length of 1 x 2 across the front as a lip. Then, I added
another strip at the back to keep stuff from lodging down
between the back and the wall. Now, start growing.
Seed-Starting Lights for Your Potting Bench
Time was, the best light source available for starting
seedlings were multi-bulb 48-inch-long commercial
fluorescent fixtures that cost a bundle, weighed a ton and
came with no cord or plug; they had to be hard-wired in
place. You can get lightweight two-bulb models now for
about $20, and four-bulb models for $30, but you still have
to install the cord and plug. If you plan to fill the
entire lower shelf (or two of them) with seedlings, the
investment in large fixtures would be worthwhile; hard-wire
in 48" fluorescent fixtures fitted with new full spectrum
fluorescent Gro-Lites—sold in the mail-order garden
supply catalogs in packs of six for about $120. Hang yours
from small pulleys so you can raise and lower them easily.
I have found over a lot of years' gardening that a
combination of ordinary fluorescent and incandescent lights
approximates sunlight just as well. For the dozen or so
tomato plants I start these days, I use lightsticks and a
single 70-watt GE Gro & Show incandescent floodlight.
Both come with light plastic frames and a wire to plug into
any socket. The fluorescents come in 18", 15-watt and 24"
20-watt models, both with single bulbs, and cost from $10
to $15 apiece. They are lightweight and mount on a couple
of screws, so I keep mine mounted under counters in the
kitchen, shop, or office most of the year—then
transfer them to the planting bench for a few weeks in
Finally, the hanging—storage capacity of the
peg-holed sides and back give your bench an added
dimension. But, buy the chromed—steel fittings that
hook into the peg-board with their hard-wire backsides bent
into little "L's." The plastic ones are cheaper, but they
attach with spring pegs that frazzle the peg-board hole,
and break easily.
Materials You Will Need
One 4' x 8' sheet of 1'4-inch-thick peg-board (or one 4'
x 4' and two 4' x 2' precut panels.)
Three rough 2" x 4" x 8' studs to raise peg-board above
floor or table for cutting
Number Two Pine Shelving
Two 1" x 8" x 6' for rear legs
Four to six 1" x 6" x 4' for front brace and top shelves
Five 1" x 4" x 10's for legs, trim and lower shelving
(four can be rough or cosmetic rejects)—for lower
Two 1" x 3" x 6's for legs and braces 50 ft, of 1" x 2"s
in any length for cleats
Number One Hard Pine (or other durable stock for
Four 4/5" x 4' x 10's or #6 4/5" x 6 x 10s.
1 qt, woodworkers' glue and small brush
Ten 2" drywall screws
100, 1 1/2" drywall screws
40, 3/4" #4 wood screws (fastening peg to wood)
20, 1 1/4" #6 wood screws (1" wood to 1"wood + 1/4"
peg— countersunk 1/4 ")
1 lb. 1 1/2" galvanized #6 finish nails (rustproof to
fasten benchtop that is subject to wetting)
1 lb. 1" common finish nails
1 lb. 1/2" brads