Back in the days when carpenters built the whole house on site from start to finish, they’d start by building a couple saw horses which they’d leave for the new home owners when the house was done. Not many carpenters still do that but you can. A sturdy saw horse or two makes an excellent house-warming gift. People will use them for outdoor wood projects, painting, to throw a plank over for a makeshift picnic table in the back yard, to loan out to friends who have projects…and they’ll think fondly of you.
This design comes from a carpenter friend. It’s a good design because the legs are notched into the rail which makes it very sturdy. With one minor exception, all the angles are 15 degrees. You can set a bevel gauge at 15 degrees and take everything off that. Like baking bread, or a lot of other things in this world, setting up is what takes most of the time so it’s just about as easy to make two as it is to make one. One is good but you’ll be glad to have two.
Caveats: This is fun practice, rough carpentry, and a good use for repurposed wood. It doesn’t have to be pretty. You don’t have to be those guys on YouTube who have laser guide compound power saws and all their cuts fit perfectly on the first try with no adjustments.
Generally I like 2″ x 8″ stock for the rails and 2″ x 6″ for the legs. (these below are re-purposed 2″ x 6″ both rails and legs). As you probably know, height and width dimensions of stock lumber are 1/2 inch less than advertised. That is, a 2 by 4 measures 1 and 1/2 inch by 3 1/2 inches; a 2 by 6 is 1 and 1/2 inches by 5 1/2 inches, and so on.
It’s easiest to make the rails first. That way you can check to make sure the angles on your legs are facing in the right direction before you notch those. This will make sense in a moment when we get to legs.
Set your saw at 15 degrees. Rip the rail such that you leave the full bottom width, angling in towards the top. If you have a table saw use that. Otherwise snap a line down either side of what will be the top, set your circular saw (mine is a skilsaw) at 15 degrees and run it down either side. Next set your bevel gauge at 15 degrees and mark your rails where the legs will go. I mark 4 1/2 inches in from the ends on either side, on the top. That angles back to about 4 inches at the bottom. Make sure your angle going from top to bottom is angling back towards the ends. I know that’s obvious but I reversed it once at the end of a long day. Note: the width of this notch will be slightly wider than the 5 1/2″ width of the leg because the leg is going to be at a 15 degree angle.
Next clamp the rail to something sturdy. If you don’t have a saw horse don’t worry. You soon will. Jorgensen adjustable hand screw clamps are excellent for securing wood at angles. Set your skilsaw blade angle at 90 degrees. (This is the only exception to the 15 degree angles). Make a series of narrow cuts 3/4 inch deep, tap the pieces out with a hammer, then chisel it smooth. A sharp chisel here makes a world of difference.
The carpenter who built the saw horses I model mine after is a really tall. So his saw horses were sized accordingly. I worked with that size saw horse for years until I built a set for my son and daughter in law. She’s good with tools and I knew she’d be using them. She’s petite so I made the legs shorter. Finding that size more comfortable to work with myself I cut the legs of my old saw horses down to match it. The set you see here matches that. This is a long way of saying, you don’t want something too high, especially if you’re using them for hand saw work. And you don’t want something too low. If you’re making a couple sets it’s good to have uniform size. These particular legs are 27 1/2 inches down the edge which gives a 25 1/2 inch height from the deck to the top of the rail.
To make the legs: mark your angles. Set your skilsaw at 15 degrees. Open it deep enough to cut the leg all the way through. Cut four legs for each rail, all angled in the same direction. There. You’ve got four legs.
Now! keeping the same 15 degree angle on the saw, adjust the cut depth to 3/4 inch and notch each leg 1 1/2 inch down from an end with the 15 degree bevel going the same way as the bevel at both ends of leg. This way it fits into the 15 degree angle that runs along the length of the rail. But wait! Look at the rail in the picture below. You can see that notching all the legs exactly the same way won’t work because one on each side would angle towards the center instead of the end. What you do, is turn two of the legs end for end. If that’s hard for you to visualize, as it is for me, relax.
You made the rail first and success will be yours because you can put one leg into a slot, see that it’s going the right way, mark it. As I said, two will fit one way, two will flip around and end for end. Notch the legs as you did the rails. You will probably have to make slight adjustments so they fit flush into the slot. For that reason it’s good to label each leg to its matching rail slot.
Once your legs and rails are matched, pre-drill the legs with 3 holes each screw them into the rails with 2 1/2 inch self tapping deck screws (with self tapping screws you don’t have to drill the rails, you could get away with not pre-drilling the leg notches but it’s less likely to split if you pre-drill). You want to offset the holes slightly so they’re not all in a line which could encourage splitting. Get them maybe half an inch below the top of your rail because you’ll eventually cut into the horse as you’re sawing something and you don’t want to hit metal with your saw. Remembering your legs are at a 15 degree angle, you want to compensate for that so your screws will go straight into the rail-parallel to the ground-rather than at an angle. Again, if that’s hard to visualize, just set a leg into it’s notch, hold the drill up to it and you’ll see what I mean.
It’s a good idea to put just a center screw in each of the four legs to ensure it all fits flush on the deck. Then screw the others down tight.
Once things are all together it’s a good idea to make a set of gussets out of scrap 3/8″ plywood. Since you’ve probably tweaked the legs a bit, the gussets will be slightly different from each other. Just put a piece of plywood against the legs, mark them, cut them. Pre-drill holes. Screw them down with 2 inch self tapping deck screws.
There you have it. In a few hours you’ve built something that will work for decades.
And then, it’s gin and tonic time.