As bonsai practitioners add more and more trees to their collections, they inevitably need a bonsai display bench. This article provides details on building an attractive bench from wood and concrete blocks, as well as a more basic version requiring less work.
It seems that once you have your first bonsai, you acquire another, then another, and yet another . . . until you run out of places to put them! At some point, it becomes necessary to find a spot in the backyard to house and display your trees.
Faced with this issue a few years ago, I built a functional and attractive bonsai display bench. My bench used inexpensive materials available at any home improvement center. At its essence, my “dressed-up” simple bench consists of wooden boards placed on top of stacked concrete blocks.
The low cost and versatility of concrete blocks makes them popular with backyard gardeners. Blocks can be used to construct everything from planters to seating.
Bonsai enthusiasts have also embraced concrete blocks as a convenient material for constructing displays for their trees. They have come up with a variety of building approaches and bench styles. This brings me to an important point regarding the type of bench construction covered in this article.
Important Note and Disclaimer
The bench that I built and describe in this post was constructed by simply stacking concrete blocks and lumber. My goal was not to build a permanent structure. I wanted to be able to take the bench apart in the fall and rearrange the blocks around my trees for winter shelter.
With blocks stacked only two and three layers high, the bench support structures have proven to be quite stable. The bench seems solid and well-grounded each time I rebuild it in the spring. It works beautifully in my quiet, fenced-in yard, where there is no danger of disturbance from curious young children, rough-housing teens or anyone randomly walking through.
However, your backyard environment may be quite different than mine. If your personal situation poses any risk that the bench might be disturbed and fall, do not build the unsecured bench as described. An accident could result in serious injury to people and pets.
While outside the scope of this article, there are additional steps you can research and implement to create a permanent, anchored and secured concrete block structure. You might also consider alternative types of bonsai display benches.
You must do your own due diligence to ensure that any structure you place on your property is safe for anyone who might come in contact with it. Bonsai Made Simple is not responsible for any mishaps or injuries resulting from a structure built exactly as or similar to those described in this article.
Planning Your Bench
With that important point made, let’s move on to planning a bonsai display bench. Before embarking on any bench-building project, ask yourself the following questions:
- Where will the bench go and how big is the space?
- How long and how high does the bench need to be?
- Will there be multiple tiers?
- How much “construction” work am I able and willing to do?
- Will painting and/or staining building materials be involved?
- Is there a spending limit for materials, tools and supplies?
For my bonsai display bench, I used a graveled alcove in my landscaping that had previously housed a garden swing. I wanted a two-tiered bench to house many trees, I opted to construct shelves, and I was willing to spend time painting and staining. In addition, I invested time into researching how to achieve the type of bench I wanted as economically as possible.
It’s probably obvious by now that my bench, while simple to build, could be classified as a bit beyond “basic”. Before delving deeper into my specific project, let’s look at how to make a similar but simplified version of the one I built.
A Super-Simple, Super-Cheap Bonsai Display Bench
You can build an even simpler version of my bench quite economically. The plan outlined below should cost around $24 – $44, depending on which of the two styles you choose. Also, you may need to spend about $25 more to cover the cost of a basic prep for the area under the bench. The only tools you should need are a level and a shovel.
Make Your Plan
This simplified version involves no painting or shelf construction and the purchase of just two items – concrete blocks and lumber. You can opt for either a 6’ wide by 24” high single-tiered bench or a two-tiered bench with 24”and 16” high shelves. At the time of this writing, the single tier bench will cost around $24, and the two-tiered bench about $44.
No matter what type of bench you choose, you need to consider the area underneath. It’s important that the concrete blocks sit on level ground. You may find it necessary to work the ground a bit to achieve a level space for the blocks.
Also, think about the ground directly under the bench. Grass underneath poses a maintenance challenge and may die from lack of light. This is especially likely if you are building a two-tiered bench. Prepping the area with landscape fabric and mulch will add around $25 to the cost of the project. Spend a bit more, and you can use gravel instead of mulch or put down concrete pavers as a base.
To build a single-tiered bench, purchase six, 8” x 8” x 16” concrete blocks and one 2” x 8” x 12’ board. Pine, fur, spruce or most other woods available work fine. Whatever wood you use, check to make sure the board you purchase is not warped. Buy materials from a retailer willing to cut the board to your specifications. Have them cut it evenly in half to yield two 6’ pieces.
For a two-tiered bench, add four more concrete blocks to your list, for a total of 10. You’ll also need a second board cut into two 6’ pieces.
If the area needs prepping, purchase landscape fabric, along with mulch or another ground cover. Four cubic feet of mulch should cover the 6’ x 3’ area underneath a two-tier bench nicely.
Prepping and Assembly
Now that you’ve gathered all the materials, it’s time for the real work! In addition to assembling the bonsai display bench, you’ll need to prepare the area where it will reside. In order to properly level the ground under the blocks, figure out exactly where they need to go. Here’s how to do that:
- You will be laying two sets of concrete blocks as vertical supports for the horizontal wooden shelves. A single-tier bench will have three stacked blocks on each side. Each of the two finished block stacks will measure 8” wide x 24” high x 16” deep.
- A two-tier bench adds a second set of two stacked blocks directly in front of the higher stacks. The height of the second tier is 16”, and the finished depth of the entire structure is 32”.
- I recommend that you space the two support stacks with 4.25’, or 51”, between them. Since each of the support stacks is 8” wide, this makes the total span of the structure 67” wide. The shelves measure 72”and, when placed on top of the supports, will overhang 2.5” on each end. If you want more overhang on the ends, you can place the supports closer together.
Now that you know exactly where the blocks need to go, place the first row and check the level. If the blocks aren’t level, work the ground below them and keep re-checking until they are level. You should also level the blocks across the supports. The photo below of painted blocks from my project shows how to do that.
Once the foundational blocks are level, place and secure the landscape fabric in the area under the bench. Spread the mulch or gravel to cover it. Build the second and third rows by placing blocks directly on top of the first row.
Which Side Out?
You might like the look created by turning some of the hollow sides of the block to be visible. I built my bench with the solid side out on the bottom and hollow side out for the other layers, as shown in the photo below. In addition to aesthetics, placing the hollow side out prevents insects from climbing up through the hollows to the shelf. This helps avert insect infestations in the bonsai on the shelf.
Next, place two 8’ boards to span each support tier to form a shelf. Make sure they have an even amount of overhang on the sides, and pull them apart a bit front to back so they cover the blocks. The weight of the 2” x 8” boards should keep them in place, especially when the trees are added.
Congratulations – your bonsai display bench is now ready for your trees! If you have extra space on your new shelves, check out our suggestions for tree species that make good bonsai.
My Slightly Souped-Up Bonsai Display Bench
The bench I built is very close in spec to the one I just described. The main difference is the additional work and expense involved in constructing shelves, painting blocks and staining wood.
If you prefer to replicate my shelves, the wood and screws needed for both shelves will increase the cost about $25. A half-gallon each of most paint and wood stains would more than cover the two-coats needed for the shelves and blocks in this small project. If you can’t find half-gallons, buying a gallon of paint and a gallon of stain would total around $70. It would also leave you with a lot of left-over product to use for another project.
Along with the materials mentioned, you’ll need extra equipment and supplies, including an electric drill and paint brushes, rollers and trays. I found sawhorses helpful for staining and assembling the shelves. Sawhorses can always be improvised if you don’t have them.
Now, let’s delve a bit deeper into the various facets of my bonsai display bench project to see how they go a bit beyond the basics.
I had the good fortune of starting with a level area, 7.5’ wide by 35” deep that already had landscape fabric and a layer of gravel in place from its previous use. This allowed me to skip the ground prep work. The blocks required only slight adjustments to the amount of gravel underneath to make them level.
My two-tier, 10-block support was constructed in the size and manner as the basic version described above with one exception. My block supports have 40″ of space between them and measure 56″ across the span. The supports need to be closer together so that they don’t interfere with the cross pieces installed on each end of the shelves.
I wanted my support to have color, so I painted the concrete blocks. After first cleaning the blocks, I applied two coats of a quality, self-priming masonry paint. I had the paint tinted a red-leaning terra cotta color because it reminded me of a bonsai pot!
I wanted shelves that measured a bit deeper than the support blocks. This would allow them to fully cover and extend slightly past the front and back of the blocks as opposed to sitting flush. I also wanted the increased stability that attaching the boards together would provide.
I decided to go with three 2” x 6” x 6’ boards for each shelf. Three, six-inch boards add roughly two inches more of shelf depth than the two eight-inch boards specified for the simpler version. In order to save money, I bought the boards in 12’ lengths and had the store cut them to 6’.
To assemble the boards into shelves, I needed shorter wood pieces to place and secure across the three-board span. I bought one 2” x 4” x 8’ board and had the store cut it into six, 16-inch pieces.
The plan for the shelves was to stain the wood, both to add color and provide some protection against the elements. After giving all the boards and cross pieces a light sanding, I applied two coats of stain. I selected an exterior transparent penetrating oil stain that offered water repellency as well as resistance to UV damage, mold, mildew and algae. The dark mahogany color worked well because it coordinated nicely with the painted blocks, and the transparency of the stain showed off all the nuances of the wood grain.
Assembling the Shelves
Once the stain had dried, it was time to assemble the shelves. After selecting the most attractive side of each board to face up, I then laid out both sets of three boards face-down. I was careful to make sure the ends aligned and the space between the boards was even. The next step was to position one cross piece in the middle and one piece three inches from each end.
To secure the boards, my husband first drilled pilot holes and then inserted screws through the cross pieces into the shelf boards. We used 2.5” exterior wood screws that were coated to resist rust.
After installing the cross pieces, we carried the sturdy, weighty shelves to the backyard and placed them over the supports. The photo below shows my beautiful bonsai display bench moments after completion!
Postscript and Care
I built my bench five years ago, and I’m more than pleased with how it has held up over time. The paint on the blocks is still intact and the shelves are still sturdy with only a small amount of fading and wear.
I am able to fit up to two rows of trees on each of the 18-inch-wide shelves. The height of both shelves works nicely for daily care. I can easily look down into the pots as I inspect and water, and I don’t have to bend down to pick up a tree.
Each year in late November, I disassemble my bench. I rearrange the concrete blocks to form a short sheltering wall to help protect my outdoor bonsai during winter weather. The shelves stay in the garage until early March, when I rebuild the bench and bring my trees out to welcome spring.
In terms of maintenance, an annual light power wash of the blocks and shelves keeps them looking fresh. When I bring out the shelves in the spring, I give them a cleansing scrub along with the power wash. I use a dish soap and water solution to which a splash of bleach has been added. This helps get rid of algae and fungal spores that might be lingering in the wood.
This article offered instructions for building both a very basic and dressed-up version of a stacked concrete block and wood bonsai display bench. The basic version calls for minimal building materials and one tool, while the second version involves painting blocks, staining wood and constructing shelves.