Cabin Detail – Steel and Walnut Bench

In any project, there are a handful of design moments that help establish the personality of that entire project. For the cabin project that I have been working on for the past 2+ years, one of those moments came to life during the design process of a pair of benches that sit outside guest bedrooms.

Steel and Wood Bench - Concept Sketch

This was the original concept sketch that I created for a pair benches – you can see from the date on that sketch that I drew this in August of 2015. What these benches represent is the spirit of hospitality that the clients have for their guests. Since this is a lake cabin, the owners have a revolving door of house guests during the summer months – and sometimes there is more than one family visiting at the same time. What we wanted to do was design an entry point to each bedroom that would welcome these visitors to the cabin and give them the things they would need during their stay. These benches, sitting outside of each bedroom, have a role to play. The benches provide a spot for the host to place extra towels and blankets – there are hooks where jackets specific to the occupants can be hung, there is a shelf where books, small games, even spare toiletries can be placed.

CAD Elevation of Benches in Hallway

This is the interior elevation that indicates the benches that sit outside the entrance to each guest bedroom (door #110 and #108). The shaded parts you see above are the steel plate, and the unshaded white band in the lower portion of the gray field is the actual bench – topped with a slab of clear finished walnut that matches the rest of the cabinetry in the house.

Hallway where benches are located

This is the hallway where the guest rooms are placed. I am standing just inside the doorway from the garage and what would likely be the first thing visitors would see when they arrived. The house isn’t quite finished yet, I am up here to work on final punch list items and work out the final turnover details between the client and the contractor so I was able to take a few pictures.

Finished Steel and Walnut Benches

Here is the bench that is my focus today – it is fairly diminutive considering all the roles we are asking it to perform. For the most part, the final executed version matches my original concept sketch pretty closely. Since my punchlist photos are not of the highest quality, I thought it might help to see the construction drawings that we created for fabrication:

CAD Section Details of Benches in Hallway

We don’t detail steel for a living so it was our expectations that we would do our research and prepare what we felt were perfectly reasonable construction drawings that would then get sent to the fabricator … who would then laugh at us and tell us how this should really get built. About the only change that happened was the hooks meant for hanging. Originally I had wanted the hooks to be partially cut out strips of the 3/8″ steel plate and pushed out to form the “hooks”, but our client gave us the direction that these hooks had to be so sturdy as to support whatever manner of foolishness that young children might try … so we made the change to steel dowels that would be puddle welded through the back of the steel plate.

CAD Plan Details of Benches in Hallway 01

We also changed the bench wood from white oak (which is what the flooring material is) to clear finished walnut to match the rest of the cabinetry in the house.

Steel bench back panels in the shop

During one of my winter job site visits, I was able to go by the contractor’s shop where the painters were putting the final touches on the steel work. Once the steel fabricators had completed their scope, the material was delivered to the contractor to sandblast everything and then apply a clear coat protective finish on the steel. The sandblasting process gave the steel the most amazing finish – like gray leather. Even though the material is steel, and there is no visual mistaking the material, it appears warm to the touch. It also has a visual depth to it that is superior to a painted finish.

Steel bench seats in the shop

These are the benches stood up on their ends. The holes you see are the connection point for attaching the wood seat to the metal frame from below (we didn’t want any visible connectors in the finished wood top).

Underside view of the steel benches

A closeup look at the sandblasted steel. You can also get a good look at how the steel was pre-drilled for the countersunk screws used to attach the bench.

Steel Bench Anchor strap

Considering that this is bench is made up of 3/8″ steel plate, you can probably deduce that it is pretty heavy. The next logical conclusion you could draw is that if this bench tipped over it would be extremely bad for me, and even worse for the person who tipped it over. It only made sense to install a cleat on the wall so that the bench would remain in place – despite the best efforts of visiting hooligans.

metal benches - dry fit

This was a dry fit of the steel back panel outside of the bedroom. I actually dragged the bench over in front just so I could take this picture. When I noticed that nobody saw me move the bench, I left it there once I took my picture … but in my defense, it was heavy.

metal benches - dry fit 2

The stairs to the upper floor runs parallel to this hallway, so the shelf that forms the top of the steel back panel is completely visible. I know that the shelf will be in heavy use once the house has occupants.

Finished Benches in place

Fast forward a few months and I’m on-site prepare the closeout punch list, and I was able to take some completed photos of the bench.

Finished Benches closeup of bench

A closeup look at the bench. There are few things that are different about this executed version of the bench versus our drawings. The most notable is that the 1.5″ walnut wood top is only 3/4″.

Hmmmm … I’ll just make a note of that on my list.

Finished Steel and Walnut benches at the cabin

I have been waiting for these benches to be finished and in place for a very long time. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this was one of those details that I think helped define the character of this project. It isn’t particularly complicated or fussy, but it represents a moment where we were able to create something a little different and unusual that will hopefully be memorable to the people who visit and use these benches. Our client could have easily bought a bench from some big-box retailer and pushed it into this space and attached some coat hooks to the wall. Most of the programming requirements would have been met, but this space would not be nearly as special or memorable.

In the few days since I’ve been up here, there have been 5 people walk through the house for the first time. I watched every single one of them walk by these benches and run their hands across the metal and wrap their finger around the hooks and give them a little tug.

Architecure should be full of sensory experiences, and these benches hopefully provide an unexpected moment where people can’t help but stop, look, touch the steel and wood, and hopefully, create a lasting memory that helps flavor their time as guests in this cabin.


Bob signature FAIA


Leave a Reply