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How to Build a Bench Prop for Great Portrait Photos

When I got started with family and child photography, I thought I had all my bases covered. Between my cameras, lenses, locations, and shot lists, I figured I was all set to create some amazing portraits that families would treasure for generations. Then I ran head-first into a practical problem for which I didn’t really have a good solution; where do people sit? All the camera gear in the world won’t help on location with no place for parents, kids, or high school seniors to sit and pose for their pictures. I finally made my own solution, which has performed flawlessly, and it’s something you can make in an afternoon with a few tools you might already have in your garage.

How to Build a Bench Prop for Great Portrait Photos

Before I built benches like this, I tried to use things I had around, such as bar stools, folding chairs, and even our living room coffee table. None of these really worked well or looked very professional. Once I realized I could construct my own bench props, my portraits improved almost immediately.

This tutorial is going to cover a sturdy single-person bench 16 inches high, 16 inches deep, and 18 inches wide. This design is easy to customize if you want something wider, deeper or shorter, but it’s a great place to start if you’re looking for a simple one-person option.

Image: This boy is on a wider version of the bench you’ll build in this tutorial.

This boy is on a wider version of the bench you’ll build in this tutorial.

Materials needed

The wood and hardware you need to construct a photo bench are pretty minimal:

  • Two 2×4’s, 8-feet long
  • 3/4-inch thick wood, 8-feet long and 11-inches wide. I like to use low-grade utility shelving but any similar wood will work just fine.
  • 1.5-inch Deck Screws
  • A saw to cut the wood
Image: The boards on the right, plus some screws, are all you need to build the bench on the left. I...

The boards on the right, plus some screws, are all you need to build the bench on the left. It’s an easy afternoon project and your clients will appreciate having this highly practical prop. I spent about $40 on the four pieces of wood at a local lumber yard.

The following tools will help you with the construction process, but your own situation might be different. These are what I used, but feel free to adapt as necessary. For instance, you could use a circular saw instead of a miter saw. This is a fun project to do with someone else, so if you don’t have any of these tools, you could ask a friend for help.

  • Miter saw
  • Table saw
  • Drill
  • Sandpaper or electric sander
  • Kreg Jig*
  • Kreg Jig screws 2.5-inches in length with coarse threads*
  • If you don’t use a Kreg Jig, you will need additional deck screws 2.5-inches in length.
  • Wood glue (optional)
Image: A table saw is really useful for ripping the utility shelving to a uniform width of 3 inches.

A table saw is really useful for ripping the utility shelving to a uniform width of 3 inches.

*A Kreg Jig is a staple of a lot of DIY projects, but if you don’t have one already you probably don’t need to buy one just for this photo bench. Traditional wood screws will suffice just fine.

Image: A view of the bench from below. You could probably construct it out of thinner, lighter mater...

A view of the bench from below. You could probably construct it out of thinner, lighter materials but it would be far less durable.

Phase 1: Cut the wood

For this photo bench you will need to cut the following pieces of wood in the lengths listed below.

Image: A miter saw makes this project a lot easier, but other cutting tools would suffice just fine...

A miter saw makes this project a lot easier, but other cutting tools would suffice just fine too.

  • 2×4 boards, 7.5-inches long – 5 pieces
  • 2×4 boards, 15-inches long – 4 pieces
  • 2×4 boards, 15.5-inches long – 4 pieces
  • 3/4-inch thick boards, 3-inches wide and 16-inches long – 8 pieces
  • 3/4-inch thick boards, 3-inches wide and 18-inches long – 12 pieces
Image: It’s a lot easier to cut everything first and then assemble the bench all at once.

It’s a lot easier to cut everything first and then assemble the bench all at once.

Phase 2: Build the frame

If you have a Kreg Jig, you can use it here to construct the frame of the bench. But if not, you can just use traditional screws. If you want to have an extra-secure hold, you could use wood glue at the joints as well, but it’s not necessary. I would recommend against using nails though, as they’re going to wiggle loose over time and you want this bench to be as sturdy as possible.

Image: A Kreg Jig is really useful but not necessary.

A Kreg Jig is really useful but not necessary.

If you’re going with this method you’ll need to use your Kreg Jig to drill two pocket holes in each end of the 15-inch, 2×4 boards.

Image: 15-inch boards with two pocket holes in each end.

15-inch boards with two pocket holes in each end.

When you’re done putting pocket holes in the 15-inch boards you’ll repeat the process with the 7-inch boards.

Image: 7-inch boards with two pocket holes in each end.

7-inch boards with two pocket holes in each end.

Once your pocket holes are ready you can start assembling the frame of the bench. Secure a 15.5-inch board to each end of one of the 15-inch boards to make a U-shape.

Image: This shape will form one side of the bench.

This shape will form one side of the bench.

Repeat the process with the other two 15.5-inch board and another 15-inch board. When you’re done you will have two identical U-shapes.

Image: Both sides of the bench, not yet attached to each other.

Both sides of the bench, not yet attached to each other.

If you don’t have a Kreg Jig, or don’t want to go to the trouble of using pocket holes, you can use regular screws to attach the 15.5-inch boards to the 15-inch board. As long as you end up with two U-shaped pieces as shown above, you’ll be just fine.

After you get the U-shapes constructed, attach the other 15-inch board on the open end, but rotate it 90-degrees as shown below.

Image: Attach the second 15-inch board to the open side of each U-shape.

Attach the second 15-inch board to the open side of each U-shape.

Repeat this step with the other U-shape, which will give you two of these square pieces as you can see in the following image.

How to Build a Bench Prop for Great Portrait Photos

These form the sides of the bench, and you’ll need to attach them by first securing all the 7-inch boards to one side.

Image: I find it easiest to attach all five of the 7-inch boards to one side, and then attach that e...

I find it easiest to attach all five of the 7-inch boards to one side, and then attach that entire assembly to the other side.

Again, I like to use a Kreg Jig and pocket holes, but you can just as easily use regular deck screws to do this. Don’t worry too much about appearances either, as if you use deck screws you won’t really see them in the finished product. They will be covered up with the slats you will attach in Phase 3.

Image: The finished frame, upside down on my table saw which doubles as a small workbench.

The finished frame, upside down on my table saw which doubles as a small workbench.

If you do end up using pocket holes, you might find yourself working in some really cramped conditions when you insert the screws. A right-angle attachment for your drill can be a huge lifesaver in this step! Once you’re all done, flip the contraption over, and you’re all set for attaching the slats to the sides.

Image: The brace in the middle gives the bench an extra measure of support. Kids can jump on this th...

The brace in the middle gives the bench an extra measure of support. Kids can jump on this thing all day long and it won’t be harmed.

It’s important to know that this bench is designed to be sturdy as well as aesthetically pleasing, as you can see in the photo above. You might be able to find something similar at a store but it probably won’t be built this solidly. Also, it won’t stand up to years of use and abuse.

Note also the extra 7-inch board on top, which you can see in the above photo. This helps give even more structural support to the bench so it won’t buckle under the weight of people using it over the years.

Phase 3: Attach the slats

Once you have the basic frame built, you can get a little creative in how you want to finish everything off. I like to attach the boards about 1/2-inch apart, but you can space yours closer or farther. I wouldn’t go too far though, especially on the top where people will be sitting.

Attaching the boards is pretty simple: just place them where you want them to go and attach with deck screws. Other types of screws would work too, but I like deck screws because they are self-tapping and hold very firmly. Nails might work for this step, but I prefer deck screws because of their firmer hold.

How to Build a Bench Prop for Great Portrait Photos

I like to use four slats on each side as well as the top and space them about a 1/2-inch apart. But, this is also up to you. You might use fewer boards and make them wider. Or you may use several thin boards, or one giant board covering the entire surface. It’s up to you, and don’t be afraid to get a little creative. In this example, the 18-inch boards get attached to the front, top, and rear while the 16-inch boards go on the sides.

Drilling pilot holes will extend the work time required for this step, but it helps ensure the wood doesn’t crack and split when you insert the screws. When finished, all the basic work is done.

Image: In the background, you can see a bench with some holes I cut out to make it easier to carry.

In the background, you can see a bench with some holes I cut out to make it easier to carry.

I recommend sanding the entire bench to smooth out any rough edges. If you have a jig saw you can cut holes for carrying as you can see in the photo above.

Phase 4: Finishing

Now that you’ve constructed the basic bench, the sky is your only limit in terms of how you want the final product to look. I like to use tea-staining, which is inexpensive, non-toxic, and gives a lovely aged look to the wood. The results are inconsistent though, so you might prefer actual wood stain or even paint.

This is your chance to customize the look of your bench, so have fun and get creative!

How to Build a Bench Prop for Great Portrait Photos

Your clients will appreciate having a nice place to sit, stand, or otherwise pose when you are taking their pictures. And as a bonus, they’ll be doubly impressed when you tell them you made the bench all by yourself!

We’d love to see some pictures of your bench once you build it. Please share with us in the comments below.

 

How to Build a Bench Prop for Great Portrait Photos

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Simon Ringsmuth

Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.