Walk into any church and one of the defining things that stands out is the pulpit. Normally set in the middle of the altar area, the pulpit is where the preacher expounds from, bringing his lesson on the Bible to the congregation. These pulpits can vary considerably in appearance, showing a bit of the unique personality of that church.
Acrylic pulpits have become popular in more modern churches, providing an uninterrupted view of the preacher. However, most traditional churches still stick with the warmth and beauty of a wood pulpit, even if the pulpit itself is designed in a modern furniture style.
One of the nice things about wood pulpits is that they can be made by a member of the church, if there is a woodworker attending that particular church. While there are plenty of companies around who manufacture pulpits commercially, small churches, especially those just starting out, are normally operating under severe financial constraints. Having a member who is willing to build a pulpit saves the church money, which can then be used for other things.
The same can’t be said for acrylic, metal and other materials that are also used in making pulpits. While it may be possible to work with these materials in a home workshop, there aren’t as many people accustomed to doing that, as there are woodworkers. Typically churches will order pulpits made of those materials form a retail vendor, who is selling pulpits made in a factory somewhere.
Pulpit’s Podiums & Lecterns
Although we use the term “pulpit” to refer to the standing desk that a preacher stands behind in a church, that’s actually a bit of a misnomer. Originally, the term “pulpit” referred to a raised stand for preachers in a church. It was the place where the preacher gave his message or homily from and was often rather ornate. Some churches might also have a smaller, less ornate raised stand for use by others, even lay persons to do a reading from, which was called a “lectern.”
Yet today most churches don’t have these raised stands. Rather, a podium is placed on the altar or in the front of the church in an area referred to as the altar area, even though it isn’t a raised platform. As it is used for the purpose of expounding on the scriptures, it retains the name “pulpit.”
Leaving the church behind, we find the terms podiums and lecterns used in higher education, banquet halls and conferences. In those contexts, the podium is a raised platform that the speaker stands upon. While not raised as high as the pulpit in a church would be and normally not ornate, the modern podium serves the purpose of bringing to primacy the person who is speaking. A lectern is placed upon this podium for the speaker to put their notes on and stand behind. Many times, the lectern is used without a podium, such as in lecture halls.
Designing a Wood Pulpit for a Church
Wood pulpits can vary considerably in both size and style. While they are pretty much all about 48” tall, they can range anywhere from about 16 inches wide to 8 feet wide. Obviously, the larger ones would only be used in larger churches, while small churches would normally limit themselves to something on the smaller end of that scale.
Speaking as an experienced preacher, there are definite advantages over having a slightly larger pulpit. In the past, most preachers went to the pulpit with a Bible and notepad. Fitting both on a 16” wide pulpit meant moving them back and forth to uncover what was needed at the moment. While most preachers use a tablet today, with the Bible verses they are going to use copied into their notes, it is still common to carry a printed Bible into the pulpit anyway. So the need for a wider pulpit hasn’t gone away.
Even in cases where the pastor uses a tablet for their preaching notes and doesn’t bring along a printed Bible, it’s still useful to have a wider pulpit for visiting preachers who still use those older methods. It’s also a good idea to have someplace for a water bottle, as well as some hidden storage space behind the pulpit.
The top of a pulpit is universally sloped to provide an easy-to-use book rest. While different pulpits might be made with a different slope to the book rest, they are mostly 15 to 20 degrees, with a lip on the bottom edge to keep things from sliding off.
Other ways that pulpits might vary is in whether there are sides on the book rest or not. Some pulpits have boxed-in sides, preventing Bibles and notes from falling off the sides. Others have side sections, sort of a small boxed-in shelf on both sides of the pulpit, where things like a water glass might be set. While functional, these are really more decorative than anything else.
Depending on the church, the front of the pulpit might be adorned with the church’s logotype or some Christian symbol, such as a cross. This is not a requirement, but rather something done for decorative purposes. Churches which livestream their services will almost always put the logo on the front of the pulpit, so that it is readily visible to those watching online.
Before deciding on a final design for the pulpit, it’s a good idea to look at pulpits in various churches and see how they are done. Most pastors or preachers will have some very specific ideas of what they want in their pulpit. While they will be appreciative of anything that someone builds for them, they will be more appreciative of something that is built to meet their specifications.
Building a Wood Pulpit
A basic wood pulpit can be built from a single sheet of ¾” hardwood plywood, along a few sticks of matching hardwood for trim and some matching hardwood veneer shelf edging. Some softwood is also needed for supports on the inside of the pulpit. One thing to keep in mind is that pulpits actually receive a lot of rough handling, so it’s necessary to brace the joints, helping ensure that it doesn’t fall apart.
Start by cutting the sheet of plywood as shown below. No allowance has been made for the saw kerf and dimensions are only approximate. Adjust them as needed for the pulpit being made. It can be larger or smaller as desired; the main purpose of the drawing is to show the relationship of the various pieces’ sizes.
Since this is hardwood plywood we’re talking about, care should be taken in cutting, to ensure that the hardwood face veneer isn’t damaged. Keep in mind that the face and reverse veneers are not the same grade. So when it comes to the sides, they need to be cut opposite of each other, so as to maintain the face veneer on the outside of the pulpit.
In many cases, such a piece of furniture would be assembled by either using finish nails or pocket screw, along with glue. While that could be workable in this case as well, it would produce a pulpit that isn’t really all that resilient to breakage when moving it. Therefore, it would be a good idea to use joining cleats to attach the various pieces together. These cleats can be glued and nail to both adjoining parts. In addition, the parts themselves can be glued and nailed to each other, providing something like a double joint, making the pulpit stronger. The diagram below shows how these would be located on the inside of one of the sides. Something similar would be done for the inside of the front, less the corner pieces.
While it is possible to buy a ¾” square strip for making the cleats or to buy square dowel rods for them, it’s considerably cheaper to buy a normal piece of 1” thick dimensional lumber and rip it into ¾” strips on the table saw for this. I do that often enough that I pretty much always have some already ripped strips sitting in the lumber rack of my workshop.
The first thing that should be connected together is attaching the front and sides together. Once they are in place and secured, the top, bottom shelf and any middle shelves can be added. At least one middle shelf should be installed to help hold the pulpit rigid, although extras can be installed if so desired. Avoid nailing through the sides of the pulpit into the shelves, as those hole will be hard to hide. Rather, just attach them to the cleats.
The base of the pulpit is made of four pieces of plywood, formed into a box and then attached to the bottom shelf. Since the inside of the pulpit is accessible, it’s easy to go through the bottom shelf into the edges of this base to attach it. While those nail or screw hole might be visible, they will only be visible to someone standing behind the pulpit, so it’s not all that important. Be sure to add floor leveling feet to the base of the pulpit, as the altar area of a church is not always level and even, especially in an older building. Having a pulpit that rocks back and forth while it is being used can be distracting to both the preacher and the congregation.
Once the basic pulpit is assembled, it’s time to finish it up and adorn it as desired. At this point the edges of the plywood are still visible, something that needs to be taken care of. The simplest way of doing that is by using wood veneer shelf edging. Assuming the same kind of edging is used as the plywood, this iron-on product will give a clean edge, making it look like the plywood is actually solid wood.
Rather than using veneer edging on the front corner of the pulpit, another option is to use wood architectural molding. Something would be needed that is designed to go around a corner; but there are molding styles that do that. This would add to the overall appearance of the pulpit, making it more formal. A similar molding or ripping the same molding can be done to make the stop at the bottom of the book rest, so that books and papers can’t slide off the pulpit.
Adding a logo or other symbol to the front of the pulpit isn’t mandatory, but is still a good idea. This can either be routed into the plywood, laser etched or made separately and then attached. For those cases where it is made separately and then attached, it’s best to apply the stain and varnish to the pulpit, before attaching it. However, the methods which cut or burn into the plywood itself should be done before finishing. In fact, it is often easiest to do those before assembly of the pulpit.