Restoring a Garden Bench 18

We bought this garden bench about 15 years ago from the local Lowes home improvement store.  It held up fairly well for about 10 years but inevitably the oak slats on it started to rot and break apart. The finish also disintegrated over time (yes, I didn’t maintain it) and the bench took on a gray, worn-out look. Miscellaneous bird poop-age also contributed to the effect.

While planning a graduation party for my son, I was assessing the outdoor seating options and decided that the unsightly bench either had to get tossed or renovated.  I opted for a renovation once I determined that the cast iron framework of the bench was in good condition and it really just needed a cleaning and slat replacement. Another factor in giving the bench a new lease on life was that the decorative back had a nice flower pattern that fit in well with the flowers and bushes in the area of the yard where the bench sits. In other words, it felt like part of the family.

The first restoration decision was what kind of material to use for the slats. While I prefer the look and strength of solid wood, I realized: 1) it was unlikely that I would maintain the wood (based on prior experience with the bench) and 2) I didn’t want to replace the wood again. Therefore, we went with 1″ thick composite wood decking material from Trex that had a simulated wood grain on the top surface. I purchased two 8 foot long boards that were 5-1/2″ wide and then ripped them in half. This produced enough slats for the seat and the frame around the back support with a small piece left over. Minimal waste is a wonderful thing. Total materials cost was about $40.

Dilapidated garden bench before restoration

Dilapidated garden bench before restoration

Because the new composite wood slats are about 5/16″ thicker than the original wood slats, I cut a 5/16″ deep by 3/4″ wide rabbet on one edge of each piece that formed the frame for the back support. This allowed the back to lie more or less flush with the frame pieces. I also drilled 5/16″ deep countersinks for the bolts that secure the slats to the cast iron sides. I could have bought longer bolts but liked the look of the old brass bolts. (I also didn’t feel like spending the time and money to buy new bolts). Another task necessitated by the thicker slats was that the corners of the top most back slat had to be trimmed back a bit with a wood chisel to allow the slat to slide all the way up into the support recess in the side frame pieces.

Support cleats for bench seat

Support cleats for bench seat

One of the main drawbacks to using composite wood is that it lacks the rigidity of real wood. Over the 4 foot span of the bench, the slats sagged a couple inches when I sat in the middle of the bench. To remedy this saggy situation, 1-1/2″ wide support cleats were attached lengthwise to the underside of the front, back, and middle slats. In addition, all five slats were tied together using two metal straps that were part of the original bench. This greatly improved the rigidity of the seat to the point where the sagging was barely noticeable, even with two people sitting on the bench.

Restored garden bench about to leave the shop

Restored garden bench about to leave the shop

As far as restoring the cast iron pieces, this was mostly a matter of scrubbing off dirt and bird poop with soapy water followed by a couple coats of Rust-oleum flat black paint. The original paint job had a “faux copper” effect with greenish paint showing along the edges but I didn’t bother trying to recreate the look. I’m not that artsy-fartsy…

Fully restored bench ready for business

Fully restored bench ready for business

With the able-bodied assistance of my father-in-law, the whole restoration job took about 4 hours, including the time shopping for new slat material. The bench performed well during the graduation party and I received several favorable comments from friends about the restoration job. I think the bench is good for at least 20 more years. I’m looking at it right now sitting in a shady part of the backyard under the mulberry tree. I think I better head out there and take a nap on it.

18 thoughts on “Restoring a Garden Bench

  • Gary mathew

    Hi, can I say first what a wonderful job on the bench, the reason for contact is to ask what period the bench is from, i am currently restoring a bench with the same bench ends as yours, will post pics when finished. Thanks

  • Colleen Carrero

    I have the same Bench and would love to restore it same way as yours. You did an amazing job!

    So, do Lowes sell composite wood materials to that exact size or do I need them to cut to the measurements?

  • Brad

    I have a similar bench with composite slats that sag. What size screws did you use to attach the cleats to the slats? How far into the slats do the screws go? I’m worried that the screws will pull out of the slats as the cleats are drawn up to the slats.

    • Bill Kovalick Post author

      I think I used 3/4″ or 1″ screws – basically, as long as possible without protruding through the other end. I haven’t seen evidence of the screws pulling out.

  • Diane

    Hi Bill, Great looking bench! I have to do the same except the slats on mine go all the way up the back and they are thinner since they don’t need to hold as much weight as the bottom slats. My wooden slats are so bad that nobody could sit on it. I should actually remove them so nobody tries it although the look of it should scare them off. Thanks for your hints and your pictures too 🙂

  • Cathy Linn

    I have one question – how did you attach the supports to the underside of the bench? Did you just use screws through the supports up into the bottom of the slats? I would probably add Liquid Nails since I have had good luck with that using Trex in outdoor situations (ie an antique wooden sheep camp). This is exactly what I needed to repair a 150 yr old park bench that I wanted to use Trex on. I can not tell from the picture and it looks perfect – don’t even notice the supports!

  • Bill Okel

    Hi Bill,

    I have what is probably the same bench I just bought it a nursery not at Lowe’s. I also have 2 children’s benches from the same manufacturer that are experiencing the same deterioration. So composite decking is solid? Also how did you attaché the support slats?


    • Bill Kovalick Post author

      Composite decking is very solid. And it doesn’t splinter or require much maintenance. I attached the support slats using long (2″ or 2-1/2″) deck screws that were inserted at the bottom of the slats up into the underside of the boards. Still holding strong after several years…

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