Thursday, September 13, 2012

Building a basic work bench

I know I need to upgrade from my existing plywood-over-sawhorses bench for the simple reason of wanting to attach a vise to a stable work surface. The combination of the vise and dogs is going to enable me to tackle some bigger projects. I have convinced my wife to hold off on buying a small table and chairs for the kid's playroom and allowing me to build them (I'll certainly be sharing this project with you all), but before I start that project I need a better bench.

One of the online resources I mentioned in my previous post is Fine Woodworking's Start Woodworking website. This is FWW's learning center for new and aspiring woodworkers. They've done good job putting together some great videos and articles including a series of three videos in their second season of the Getting Started in Woodworking series about building a simple and sturdy workbench.



After watching these videos and checking out the ridiculous number of other options that can be found online, I decided this is the bench I'd build as my first. I chose this for a few reasons; 1) The simplicity of the build fits my skill level, 2) The cost of materials is relatively cheap, 3) It's not a monster of a bench and will fit well in my garage along the cars, and 4) I already had most of the tools needed to build it. The only tools I had to buy are a set of forstner bits for $20 from Lowes, a set of brad point drill bits from Home Depot for $15 and dowel centers for $5 from Amazon. All three will be put to use on future projects as well so I feel this is $40 well spent.

To begin this project I bought the required lumber but didn't realize just how big a 4'x8' sheet of anything really was. I thought I would be able to take the car seats out of my Ford Edge and slip it in the back. Wrong! The sheet of MDF was so big I didn't even try to bring it to my car. Plan B was to bribe a buddy with a pickup to help me. This isn't the first time he's hauled for me, and it might not be his last. Along with the MDF I also bought a full sheet of plywood to make the circular saw guide mentioned in the video. A half sheet wouldn't cut it since the bench top is 62" long.

Threaded rods are the primary joinery.
Threaded rods are the primary joinery.
Over the course of 2 nights I cut the 2x's and 4x's to length with my miter saw and drilled the holes and grooves that accept the 3/8" threaded rod. The rod, fastened with washers and nuts through each leg is the primary joinery. A note about the threaded rod - the rod I bought had a 3/8" core, but was actually thicker when adding in the threads. I found this out after cutting the grooves in the aprons 3/8" inch wide and deep like the provided drawing says, and then finding the rod did not fit in. I cut those grooves on the table saw, taking multiple passes to clear them out, so one additional pass closer to the center of the 2x's solved that problem. The video recommends doing this with a router, which I have, but with no good way to anchor the aprons safely while trying to route those grooves I opted for the more time consuming table saw method.

Not quite flush.
Just missed.
Assembling the table base by myself was a bit of a challenge, but after wrestling with the gangly rods I was able to thread them through all four legs successfully. Well, sort of. I say successfully, but the finished base is racked a little and the top aprons don't all sit flush with the tops of the legs. I was able to compensate for square by loosing one end of a rod and tightening the other until I was pretty close. The end result is a 1/4" off of square. Had this been real furniture to display in my home I'd be taking more drastic measures to fix it, but for my first piece of shop furniture, I'm going to let it fly as is and see how it goes. The base is level, all four legs rest on the ground without rocking and I think this is more important. Time will tell.

I also added a feature to the base that is not included in FWW's plans, mobility. Living in MA means dealing with snow and ice in the winter and a two car garage was at the top of our list when my wife and I were house hunting. I love the snow. I love the winter. I despise scraping ice off my windshield before going to work. So this means the cars have to live in the garage in the winter and in turn all of my stationary tools need to be mobile.

If you check out Rockler or Woodcraft, you'll find some mobile bases for stationary tools that start at $60. That's about a third of what this bench costs and you won't find one suitable for a work bench at that price. That's just more than I'm willing to spend. I suppose I could drag my bench around the garage, but that's a pain in the back and a recipe for a loose joints. So I took to Youtube to see what I could find and was not disappointed. Check out this video.



How simple is that? I LOVE that the vertical hanging blocks not only support the lowered casters but also hold them up when not in use. Simple, low tech and cheap! Using scraps of 2x4s leftover from building the base, I added the hinges and casters for $30. Suck on that $60 bases!

View from the top
Landing gear extended
Landing gear neatly tucked away


Feeling pretty damn good about myself and my way cool mobile base I set off to tackle the bench top. I laid the beast of a sheet of MDF down on a piece of rigid foam insulation, then using my poor man's track saw I cut the table top according to the plans. Mostly. The plans call for a 48" x 96" piece of MDF, but my piece was 49" wide. Not sure why but that's what it measured and after cutting it in half I ended up with two 24.5" pieces, instead of the required 24". I then laminated the two pieces together to make a 1.5" thick bench top. In the videos Asa mentions drawing a grid on the bottom of the table and driving screws at all of the intersections. At first I thought the grid was a bit anal, but as I thought about more that method makes sense for the simple reason of knowing where there screws are when you go to drill dog holes.

The bench top before routing flush

The bench top pieces weren't a perfect match so I routed them the flush. I could have cut them flush with the circular saw or even the table saw, but I hadn't yet used my router and figured this was a good opportunity. A flush trim router bit purchase later and I was good to go.

The bench top is half an inch wider than what the plan calls for, which is to have the top be the same width as the base. This allows for clamping a board vertically and flat against the legs. In the end I mounted the bench top flush with the front legs and left a half inch over hang off the back. If I find the extra to be too much, I'll trim it off but I am going to wait for this to become problem first. I'm not doing this to be lazy, I want to see if there could be an advantage to having an additional clamping surface.

After securing the bench top to the base I installed the vise. Start Woodworking recommends a mid-range (in price) vise that was still more than I really wanted to pay. Unfortunately, the prices jump from $20 to $100 to $200 and up. I would have gladly spent fifty but I have a hard time justifying an additional $80 for what amounts to a quick release mechanism. My next bench will probably have a couple of higher end vises, but for now the $20 cheap bastard special will have to suffice. If I really find this doesn't fit the bill, then maybe I'll turn it in to an end vise and put something nicer up front.

At this point, the bench is basically complete. I still have to add a bottom shelf, hardwood extenders to the vise, possibly some maple trim, a couple coats of shellac and some spinny rims. Here's a few pics of the functional-but-not-quite-finished bench. I'll post some pics of the finished bench once its fully complete.

The nearly finished bench
The vise mounted with some additional plywood
The grid and table top fasteners


I learned a few things, in this my first real woodworking project. First, measuring and cutting accurately isn't as intimidating as it looks. Sure I made some minor mistakes along the way, but nothing that derailed the project. Second, using a drill press would have greatly increased my accuracy. I thought I had an eye for square but drilling the holes that accept the rods with a hand held drill proved me wrong and in the end I believe this is why the bench isn't dead square. The videos recommend placing a combination square on its short end and pointing up as a reference for when you are drilling, which I did, but a properly tuned drill press would have made a world of difference. I'm keeping my eye out for a decent, used table top drill press. And finally, a project as simple as this one took more time that I thought it would. I'm sure my inexperience can attribute for a hefty amount of inefficiency. I'd say I have eight to nine hours of work in it and I still have another three or so to go.

Start Woodworking's plans and videos have been easy to follow and full of detail. Asa Christiana and Matt Berger do a fine job of explaining the steps in simple to understand terms and methods, with a bit of corny humor mixed in. I'm thrilled to have had this resource available to me.

My next post will be about how I have acquired my existing tools, new and used, and the methods I used for getting the best prices. And be on the look out for updated pics of the workbench.

Thanks for reading!
Jim