Planning & preparation
- We are going to show you how to build a garden table system from timber sleepers, step by step.
- Building your own sleeper furniture is an inventive, unique and cost-effective way to make bespoke garden furniture to suit your space. Sleepers are sturdy and durable by nature and when treated with suitable finishes will weather well for many years whatever the weather.
- Ideal for those who have a compact outdoor area or would prefer a traditional solution with a modular twist; this compact table system is designed so the stools slot neatly under the table and around the supporting legs for a minimal footprint. The stools also feature an integrated leg style handle to aid the removal of the stools from under the table.
- We designed our sleeper table to maximise four 2.4m sleeper lengths for minimal waste. Our cutting list details the cuts for four stools and one table with four supporting legs.
- Our step by step instructions and cutting list have been designed as a guideline. If you choose to follow our guide, the sleeper table will measure approximately 750 X 750 X 375mm.
- If you choose to follow our cutting list, the timber for this project will cost under £185 and is available from Wickes.
- We used softwood treated pine sleepers that we protected with an exterior furniture oil, however, you can experiment with hardwood sleepers and a number of finishes for a different look.
- This project will take a DIYer with moderate experience approximately six hours to build. To ensure you have sufficient time to finish the table and allow it dry, we recommend setting aside a day for this project.
Doing it right
- This build can be customised to your space and the materials you have to work with. If you choose to customise the project, we recommend drawing up the design and working out the measurements before you begin cutting.
- To follow the design set out in the video, we have created this cutting list to help with your measurements.
- There are many ways to cut sleepers, but we recommend using a circular saw for accuracy, precision and speed. If you don’t have access to power tools, this softwood project may also be completed with a universal saw.
- Consider the tolerance, runout and alignment of your power saw blades when making cuts. Depending on your tools, you may find that the dimensions are adjusted by between 2-3mm. For consistency, ensure that you cut on the same side of the scribed line each time.
- There are also many ways to join sleepers depending on your material and project. We chose to work with softwood sleepers and would recommend hex drive timber screws for fixing, however, if you use hardwood sleepers you will need to use stainless steel wood screws as the natural tannins can corrode ferrous metals.
- If you are joining full-length sleepers without cutting them, it’s a good idea to check the sawn ends before you begin, as you may find that they are not quite square and need to be planed or sanded for accuracy.
- Working with sleepers can be very messy. Brush down your sleepers at regular intervals to remove any sawdust and thoroughly sweep or vacuum your working area before applying any finishes to the timber.
- For more sleeper inspiration, our working with sleepers video has advice on cutting, joining and finishing techniques to help you choose the right methods for your project.
- Inspect the cables and blades of your power tools before they are plugged in to ensure they are in good condition. If any of the elements need to be replaced, make sure this is done before construction begins.
- Cutting and sanding sleepers in very messy work so adequate ventilation and protective wear are essential. Ensure that you are wearing protective clothing including goggles, a dust mask, ear defenders and gloves.
- Sawdust lingers in the air, spreading and settling on every surface. As breathing in particles from treated wood can be dangerous, it’s important that you work in a well-ventilated space. If you can’t work outdoors, consider using an air filtration or dust extracting system, alongside a vacuum and power tool dust collector bags.
- When working with large timber, it can be a good idea to pile the timber close to your working area, so it can be gently rolled off and into position as you work.
- It’s a good idea to have another pair of hands around during this project to help with moving and lifting, as the sleepers and constructed table will be very heavy. If you choose to work alone, it can be useful to have a sack barrow to hand to make manoeuvring easier.
- Always check the manufacturer’s label before applying any preservatives, paints, stains or treatments.
Deciding on the design
This sleeper system is designed to house four stools that slot in and around four hidden supporting legs. If you choose to tweak the build, we recommend drawing your design to ensure you have enough timber, and as a guide for arranging the stools and legs for fixing later on.
Gathering materials and prepping your space
When working with large timber or lumber, it can be helpful to pile your materials close to your cutting or working area.
Once you have your timber close by, gather your power tools, hand tools, drill bits and fixings.
We chose to join our sleepers with hex drive timber screws and dowel pegs for improved strength. For a flush finish, you may choose to use flat head timber screws instead. For other ways to join timber sleepers, watch our video guide to working with timber sleepers.
The cutting and sanding of this project is very messy. We recommend wearing old clothing and having a dust mask, goggles, ear defenders and gloves to hand.
Consider the space you’re working in. Sawdust will spread and settle everywhere, so if you can’t work outside, you may wish to use a tarpaulin sheet, air filtration system or dust extractor.
Cutting the stools, tabletop and legs
Before you begin, it’s worth checking that the cut ends of your timber are square and level for the snuggest joints. If you’re cutting your sleepers this can be corrected, however, if you’re using full lengths you may need to plane or sand the ends to tidy them up.
Remove any staples from the ends, then place your first sleeper on your workbench.
If you choose to follow our cutting list, you’ll be able to cut the stools, table legs and tabletop from four sleeper lengths with a small amount of waste.
We recommend starting with the tabletop, table legs and stool legs, leaving the seats until last. These are cut to the bespoke width of the leg measurements to allow for any variance in the depth of the timber.
We used a circular saw to cut through our timber, however, our blade depth didn’t quite reach the centre of the sleeper, so it had to be cut in several stages. To aid the accuracy of our cuts, we decided to use a perfectly straight edge as a cutting fence.
To find the correct placement for your saw fence, adjust the depth of your circular saw so it’s at its maximum depth but will still clear the saw fence, then take your tape measure and measure from the blade to the outer edge of the shoe and make a note.
Referring to the cutting list add the circular saw measurement to the first cut, then measure from the end of your first sleeper length and mark with a crow’s foot.
Butt your quick square up against the length, align with the crow’s foot then scribe across the length.
Rotate the length onto the next side and repeat, scribing the measurement with your pencil and square, until each of the four sides are marked.
Now take your straight edge of timber and align it with your first scribed line, using your square to ensure the length is perfectly straight. If you don’t have any offcut timber to hand, you can hold your square firmly in place to act as a saw fence.
Holding the offcut firmly in place, secure it to your sleeper with a couple of screws.
Ensure that you have your protective equipment on, then take your circular saw and working slowly, cut through the sleeper with the saw shoe firmly butted up again the offcut fence. Remember to turn on your blade before it touches the timber to prevent snagging.
Once you’ve cut through the first line, set your circular saw aside and unscrew the offcut saw fence. Rotate your sleeper to the next side then working in the same way, secure the offcut to the scribed line.
Repeat until each of the four sides are cut.
There will be a small amount of timber that now needs to be manually cut through to complete the first section. Using your handsaw and working slowly, cut through the central section.
Set the first cut length aside, then refer back to the cutting list. Repeat until each of the lengths are cut apart from the seats. It can be helpful to pile your cut timber by size to make assembly easier.
Measuring the stools
The stools are constructed from three stools legs and one seat. Begin by dry laying the three stool legs on your workbench so one edge of the timber is flush.
Using your tape measure, measure across the width of the three legs and take a note of the measurement. While the sleepers are sawn cut for regularity you may find that there is up to a 2-3mm variance in the depth of the timber sleepers. This may prevent the stool from sliding under the table once constructed, so it’s important to check these measurements.
Returning to your workbench, cut the sleeper using the bespoke seat measurement, ensuring you add the circular saw measurement to allow for the saw fence.
Once the seat is cut, place it to one side with the corresponding stool legs, then repeat for the remaining three stools.
Assembling the stools
When it comes to assembling the stools, we recommend working on the floor to allow you to put some weight behind driving the fixings into the sleepers.
Begin by laying the two smaller stool legs on top of each other so the sides are perfectly flush, and the ends are as square as possible. These will be secured to one another first.
To mark the placement of the fixings, we butted up a sanding block to one of the corners, scribing a line along its side. We then rotated the block and scribed another line to form an X. You can of course measure and mark these placements or gauge them by eye, but they tend to look best when they’re consistent.
Secure your multipurpose drill bit into your drill then apply some pressure to the legs to hold them secure. Pilot down through the X so the drill bit partway enters the leg below.
Replace the drill bit with a countersink then bevel the surface of the pilot hole to create a space for the hex drive screw head to sit in.
Now take your impact driver and hex shank and drive a hex screw down through the pilot hole, so the fixing secures the two pieces of timber and the head is sitting below the surface of the countersunk hole.
Repeat on the diagonal corner of the legs, piloting, countersinking and fixing the second hole with a hex screw.
Now take the third larger stool leg and place in on top of two secured legs.
Using your fingers or quick square, ensure that the sides and one end of the third leg is flush with the two secured legs.
Ensuring that you are working in opposite corners to the layer below, apply pressure to hold the leg securely then work in the same way to mark, pilot, countersink and fix the first hole.
Repeat for the diagonal corner. It can be useful to use your quick square to align the sanding block to make the fixing markings on the longer side.
Now turn the stool onto its side, so each of the legs are lying flat on the workbench. Refer to the cutting list to ensure that the longer leg is on the left land side of the stool before you fix the seat in place. Flip the stool over if necessary.
Place the seat on top of the legs ensuring it’s flush, then in the same way, mark, pilot, countersink and fix in opposite corners.
Repeat these steps to build the remaining three stools in the same way.
Sanding the stools, tabletop lengths and table legs
Now that the stools are assembled, this is the ideal time to sand back the rough surfaces and cut ends for a smooth finish.
Make sure you are working in a ventilated space and are wearing full protective equipment for sanding, as this is very dusty work.
Starting with a coarse grit sandpaper, run the belt sander over the first surface, rotating the stool as you go and working slowly to cover each of the surfaces well.
Once each surface is sanded back, replace the sandpaper with a finer grit to help expose the grain of the timber for beautiful detail.
Once you have sanded each of the stools, you will need to sand each surface of the legs. It’s really important that the legs are level and the same height, so the table is stable.
Using your belt sander and working in the same way, sand each of the legs and tabletop lengths down until smooth.
If you choose to chamfer the edges of the sleepers, this is the best time to do so. Using your belt sander at an angle, run the sandpaper along each edge to remove the high tops for a slightly sloped profile.
Dust back each surface with a brush or use a damp cloth to remove the sawdust.
Assembling the table
To assemble the table you will need to arrange each stool in your working space and slot the legs into position. The successful assembly of this project will depend on the structure being snug, flush and assembled on a flat and level surface for the best results.
The constructed stools can be heavy, so we recommend having another pair of hands around to help with lifting or using a sack barrow to aid manoeuvre in your working space.
Begin by positioning the first two stools so they are snuggly butted up to one another then slot the first two legs into position. Now place the other two stools and legs so they are a mirror opposite.
Use your fingers to make sure everything is tight, flush and as square as possible.
When you’re happy with the assembly, dry lay the first timber tabletop length across the centre of your stools and legs.
Use your tape measure to measure out from the tabletop to the stools to ensure the length is central.
Now gently place the second and third tabletop lengths, being careful not to move any of the other pieces. Again, use your fingers to ensure everything feels snug, flush and square.
Securing the table
To fix the tabletop to the legs, you will need to mark, countersink and secure each positioned leg. We fixed two screws through each leg, then drove a dowel peg through the centre for added strength. We also chose to fill the screw heads with dowel plugs for a flush and tidy finish but the choice is yours.
To mark the position of the legs, take your tape measure and a perfectly straight long surface such as a spirit level or metal ruler. Ensuring that each of the tabletop pieces are tight to one another, mark the location of each of the legs below on the surface.
You can gauge the positions by eye but we recommend drawing a grid on your tabletop as a visual guide to ensure the fixings are correctly placed. To do this, work around the table to find the first leg, then use a tape measure and your straight length to scribe across the table to mark the outline below. As the table is square, when you have marked each leg you will have a grid-like system.
It can be useful to crosshatch the leg placements on the grid and a as clear guide to which areas are to be fixed.
When you have marked the tabletop, take a spade bit that matches the diameter of your dowel. This is to create a small countersunk hole that will be filled with dowel plugs to conceal the heads of the screws for a flush finish.
Working on the first leg, gauge the position of the first fixing at one end of the leg, then drill down to create the first hole. Repeat at the other end of the leg, then replace the spade bit with your wood bit.
As with the stools, drive down through each countersunk hole so the bit pilots into the leg.
Now with your impact driver and hex shank, use some pressure to drive a fixing into each hole so the head of the hex screw is sitting in the countersunk hole.
Use your fingers to make sure everything still feels square and flush, then working in the same way repeat for each of the remaining legs.
Give the tabletop a really good brush down to remove any sawdust then secure your auger bit into the head of your drill.
Using the same principles as before and starting with the first leg, drill down as close to the centre of each leg as you can, with your auger bit to pilot the hole. Make sure the auger bit drives down deep enough to sufficiently enter the leg, as this will be secured with wooden dowel.
Repeat for the remaining legs then clear the table down, carefully brushing the sawdust away from the piloted holes.
Driving in dowel and plugging the screw heads
Next, you will need to prepare your dowel by cutting the length into sections that are approximately a quarter of the length longer than your auger bit. This is so you can gauge how much of the dowel has driven into the leg below, before removing the excess.
Hold the dowel firmly so it is overhanging your workbench, then use a handsaw to cut the length into sections.
It’s also a good idea to cut off sections from your smaller dowel, in preparation for plugging the hex screw heads.
Now use your palm sander to gently taper one end of each dowel peg sections. This will help the dowel easily enter the piloted hole in the leg below.
When working with your timber, you should always use a wooden mallet for manipulating wood into place and hammering dowel. If you do not have a wooden mallet to hand, you can use a metal hammer and an offcut to strike against, to prevent marring your wood and ruining the surface.
Taking your first dowel peg, place it in the first leg then bang into place using your offcut length as a striking board.
Bang the peg in as far as it will go, until it won’t go any further. If you’re not sure if the length has reached its fullest, mark the side of the dowel with a small pencil line then strike against the section again to see if there is any more movement.
When you’re happy that the dowel is snug and in place, repeat for the remaining 3 legs. You may find that some lengths drive in a little further than others depending on how much weight you put behind your drill as your piloted with the auger bit, but generally, there should be a similar amount of dowel protruding from each hole.
Now take your handsaw and holding it flush to the tabletop, saw through each protruding peg length to remove the excess.
Working in the same way, use the smaller dowel sections to fill each of the screw head holes.
Once the surface of the tabletop has been filled, take your belt sander and a fine grit paper and work over the surface paying extra attention to the filled areas. Sand back until the surface is smooth and the dowel is undetectable to touch.
Before applying any finishes, we recommend giving your working area and clean down and vacuum to prevent any sawdust from sticking to the surface of your finishes.
We chose to oil our table using an exterior furniture oil for a protective and durable coating against the weather, however, the choice is yours.
There are many ways to finish wood and you can find a range of techniques including staining, painting and dying in our working with sleepers guide.
Using a cloth and working in circular motions, apply a couple of generous coats or two to each surface of the table and stools before allowing to dry.
And that’s it, your sleeper system table is complete!
If you find that the surface of your table becomes worn or weathered over time, you may choose to apply a further finishing coat.
Sand the surfaces back really well, then re-apply several protective coats for a new lease of life.
Try adding castors to the stools for easy manoeuvrability. Just remember to adjust the height of the table legs to account for the additional height of the castor wheels.
Add pull or rope handles to the stools for easy removal. Try screwing a handle to the larger stool leg so the stool can be pulled towards you or use your auger bit and add a length of knotted rope to make a rustic handle.
Experiment with different designs. We positioned our legs in a mirrored design for additional stability and support, but you could try different positions for alternative stool configurations.
Go large for more seating. Double the design and make a longer rectangular table system to seat up to 8 stools or double the height and make a bar-style table with high stools.
Get creative with finishes. The choice is entirely yours; paint, stain, dye or oil to protect your wood and add your own taste and personality to your project.
For even more strength, you may wish to drive further dowel pegs through the tabletop and into the legs. You could also plug the screw heads on each stool for a super tidy finish.
And don’t forget the offcuts! Perfect for a recycling project, use as a base for potted plants, to border your flower beds or convert into handy end tables for indoor use.
Perfect for compact gardens, place in a sunny area of your patio to enjoy coffee over your paper in the morning sun.
Position in a shingled courtyard to enjoy an aperitif and nibbles. Add candles and cushions for cosy evening relaxation.
Place under a tree at the end of the garden for the perfect picnic spot. Add a blanket, party games and food for a fun afternoon in the garden.
Host a tea party with cakes, nibbles and afternoon tea. Fun for any age in any size and shaped outdoor area.
Pop next to the Wendy house for an outdoor kid’s play and games station. Add castor wheels for easy manoeuvrability and cover with oilcloth for arts and crafts.
Use as a coffee table in your living room. Great as a rustic feature, pull out the stools for additional seating when you have guests, or whip out the board games for the ideal games night table.