“The Perfect Work Bench”
Okay that was misleading; please don’t make me go sit in the truck for the rest of the day!
There is no such thing as a perfect workbench I can say this because I’ve built and rebuilt my work bench at least five times in twenty years and I’m now considering a new design and I’m not alone in this quest for the perfect bench.
Building Your Own Workbench
Knowing that there is no “workbench panacea or holy grail of workbenches;” trust me in the fact that all workbench designs end up as a compromise.
What is a Workbench?
A workbench is a platform to get stuff done! It can be a simple table with a machinist’s vise bolted to its top or built to accommodate a number of different woodworking work-holding mechanisms.
Woodworking benches are altogether a different animal. they tend to be elaborate work-holding system with items such as; bench dogs, planning stops hold fasts, board jacks, and will usually have one more woodworking vises integrated into its structure.
What Makes a Great Workbench
A workbench needs to be heavy enough that it doesn’t move under you while you’re working, and stiff enough that it doesn’t rack itself to pieces under the forces that will be placed upon it. When thinking about how to build a workbench you should consider key features.
Most of us would agree a good bench has to these key features.
□ For starters, the base must be sturdy — no wobbling allowed.
□ It must have a large, flat work – surface that’s rugged enough to stand up to years of hard use.
□ Tool or part storage is nice, but not necessary.
□ It must accomplish what you do most of the time
□ It must be a comfortable height
A work bench can be the most essential part of your workshop with getting things done. It should match your space and the type of work you do and should be at a comfortable height for you and your work piece.
Should You Buy Bench Plans
There are a number of plans on how to build a workbench all with various degrees of cost and sophistication, but most of them are really just tables. The key is finding the one that works best for you.
If you are a woodworking PRO or enthusiasts you will need features like an integrated vice, hold downs, bench dogs, etc. There are many exceptional woodworking bench plans for accomplishing this type of a workbench. This article is not one of them.
If you’re like me, you’ll build your own solid, versatile work-surface for assembling all types or projects including home repair issues like repairing a wobbly stool to re-sharpening lawn mower blade.
Oh yeah, and let’s keep the cost down too – right?
Designing Your Own Workbench
If you’re considering making your own workbench, you should, take a moment and look at how you will use the bench. Analyze your workbench needs based on the types of things you do in your shop, the types of tools you use and your own limitations.
I use a principle of simple observations in almost all aspects of my work, designing a work bench included. It’s called the Pareto’s Principle or the 80/20 Rule.
I’ve used the 80/20 observation to determine how to build a workbench, size, height, accessories and other factors. The 80/20 refers to the “vital few and trivial many,”
The principle states that 20 percent of work is always responsible for 80 percent of the results. That means I need to focus my design on the 20 percent of my work that really matters.
Don’t just “work smart”, work smart on the right things. So how do I apply this to my work bench?
That means build a bench that optimizes your specific tasks.
For starters figure out and get specific on the tasks you will be using the bench for. To me there are three basic workbench use applications.
3 Basic Workbench Applications
- General work and Construction
- Sanding, cutting and hand-plane applications
- Assembly and Repairs
There are design considerations you should consider, so ask yourself the following questions:
□ Is your bench going against a wall?
□ Do you need 360 degree access to your bench?
□ Will you be placing heavy object on this bench?
□ If yes, should you put it on casters for mobility and storage?
□ Will casters affect your working applications such as planning?
□ Will you be mounting a vise, saws or other bench top tools permanently?
□ Do you need shelf or drawer storage?
□ Do you have space to stretch out long lumber lengths?
□ Have you considered electrical and lighting considerations?
Once you answer these questions you’ll have a good idea of what type of a bench you need, with the least amount of compromises. The goal is to design a workbench that meets your needs for the majority of situations.
What’s the Correct Workbench Height
Custom tailor your workbench to your body height and type of work your going to do, this will be a repeating theme as we talk about workbenches.
Most workbenches range from 28 to 36 inches deep, 48 to 96 inches wide and 28 to 38 inches tall.
The amount of space you have will most likely dictates depth and width. Size your bench so you can move material and equipment past it freely
Workbench Height Rule of Thumb:
- General work: Including joinery, construction. Set top of bench to your belt line
- Sanding, cutting, hand plane work: Set the top of bench 6 inches below belt for better leverage
- Assembly and repairs: Set the table top 6 inches above the belt
- Large item Assembly: Set the table top 12 inches or more below the belt
Build It Strong
The secret to the strength of any workbench is selecting the right materials and building a sturdy base and top.
A simple, cost effective workbench can be built with “two-by” or “four-by” stock, and the top, shelf, and end panels can be sanded plywood or plank stock.
I choose these materials for their sturdiness, low cost, and ready availability.
TIP: Design and build your workbench legs without a horizontal cross brace at the floor. This way if the bench is too high you can later trim it down in height.
Keep fasteners and joinery simple. Use glue, structural screws and timber-lock style fasteners. Build your bench like a house with continual point load and a strong foundation.
Resting the tabletop on the legs is stronger than attaching the tabletop to the legs with fasteners. Again, this all depends on how much weight you plan to put ion the table. Are you building cedar birdhouses or rebuilding a Chevy V-8 engine?
Finally, as good as this bench is, you can make it even more versatile by adding a bolt-on woodworking or mechanic vise.
Shelves, Drawers and Tool Holders
The more shelves, drawers and tool holders one has, the better. All the nooks and crannies adds up to lots of storage space, and makes it easy to organize, and find, needed tools, supplies, fasteners, etc.
I’m a big fan of cabinet doors and shelves to hide my tools and keep them dust free but doors and drawers do and complexity to the design and build process.
Power and Lighting Considerations
Plan for electrical power and lighting. If you’re fortunate enough to be wiring your own shop dedicate 20 amp circuits along the walls of your shop, including one or two for your workbench.
While this article is not about workshop lighting, there are different types of lighting to consider at your workbench.
Proper lighting in your workshop is as important as any tool in your toolbox. Whether it’s to see what you’re doing, illuminate mill marks on wood surface or for photographing of your work having adequate and proper lighting is important!
Make sure you have ample lighting positioned so that shadows do not occur and compromise productivity or safety.
Most of the light in the workshop should come from overhead lighting. I’m a fan of fluorescent bulbs over incandescent bulbs but which ever you choose; the fixtures should be spread out to provide consistent overall lighting throughout the entire shop with out major shadows or dark spots.
Fluorescent lighting is the least expensive way to light a workshop. These fixtures can be installed with screws, and is no more difficult than installing a regular light fixture. The lights are bright and use very little electricity and are easily replaced.
In some spaces, in addition to the overall lighting, it may be advantageous to place recessed flood or spot lights directly over some of your tools and workbenches.
Tool or Task Lights
Many tools now come with on-tool lighting. My drill press is one of them. You can purchase after market lighting with heavy duty magnets or just install a simple clamp light. These task lights are a great supplement to your overhead lighting and should not be a replacement for poor shop lighting.
If you have cabinets over a workbench then under cabinet lighting is a perfect solution and location for task lighting the bench.
Tools Needed to Build Your Own Bench
□ Circular Saw
□ Jig or Hand Saw
□ Drill and accessories
□ Belt Sander
□ Wrench or impact accessories
□ Tape Measure
□ Dust Mask
□ Safety Glasses
□ Hearing Protection
□ 2 x 4 Lumber
□ 4 x 4 Lumber
□ Plywood or other material for shelf and top
□ Carriage Bolts
□ Wood Glue
□ Structural fasteners / Wood Screws
For wall mounted workbenches: try to layout / install the bench on existing wall studs so that the ends of the plywood are even with the studs. Most studs are laid out and installed 16 inches on center, this works well with plywood sheet stock measurements. Additional studs or supports can be added if needed.
How To Build A Rough Sawn Workbench
The workbench shown here was made of materials left over form a project we worked on. Most of the workbench parts came from rough sawn 2 x 10-16’ staging plank material. The planks sell for $34.00 each, were used and not returnable so they became the “perfect” material to allocate to this workbench.
This work bench measures 25″ x 87″ x 48″ high and is made out of rough sawn plans and some 4×4 stock for the legs. The planks make up the top and shelf and the supports are ripped down plank sections.
Building A Rustic Wood Workbench
1. Determine footprint of your workbench which means determining the Width x Length x Height.
2. Check the floor level in the area where the front legs will sit. Are they level or will your legs be different heights? Make a note and put aside for leg cutting sections.
Note – The workbench top and shelf is a full 2-inch thick staging plank cut to length. The bench top planks were ripped so that three boards fit evenly up against the post and beam horizontal beam. The bottom shelf ended up deeper as it extends to the outer wall of the post and beam building.
3. Cut the bench-top planks to length and rip them for even spacing. [On this table the three boards are approx. 8-3/8 inches wide]
4. Rough cut the shelf planks and put aside. [Rough cutting means leave them 3-4 inches longer than you need.]
5. Cut the 4×4 legs and put aside, the legs will sit directly under the bench-top planks. If the legs were not sitting on a level surface keep them longer than the height of the finished bench measurement. Determine how far in your bench top will overhang your frame supports. You may want to consider vise clearances.
6. Rip the remaining plank stock into 2″ x 3″ boards for the workbench top and shelf-top support frame.
7. Cut four long 2″x 3″ boards for the bench-top and shelf support frame [front and rear long supports] and then cut short supports. Cut enough short supports to be able to install them every 16 inches on center for support and strength. [On this table the long supports are 72″ and the short supports are 221/2″]
8. Determine shelf height.
9. Screw together the bench-top and shelf-top support frame using 3″ galvanized decking or other structural screws.
10. Draw a level line on the wall [locate wall studs] and install both frames to the wall with two vertical 3-inch screws every 12 inches. Use temporary scrap wood supports if needed.
If floor is not level:
- If the legs are not level this is the time to cut them down.
- Determine the “high spot” on the floor and cut that leg to the exact height to support your bench height.
- Temporarily clamp the legs to a level frame when doing this.
- Determine the distance that the legs are out of level by using a long level. [6-foot level]
- Measure or scribe the difference
- Cut the leg to length.
11. Clamp the legs to the level frame again and mark for notches. Notch the two outer 4×4 posts to accept the 2″x3″ supports for the bench top and shelf supports. Use a miter saw and handsaw to accomplish this.
12. Dry-fit the 4×4 posts to the outer edge of the support frame. Check for level and plumb, adjust as needed .
13. Drill 5/8″ hole through the 4×4 posts and frames.
14. Insert 1/2″ carriage bolts with washers through the 4×4 bench-top and shelf supports on the two outer legs. Tighten and check for level as you do this.
15. Measure the shelf support and determine how much overhang, if any, you want to see on your shelf.
16. Cut shelf planks and install with two or three 3-inch screws into each 2″ x 3″ supports. Use a hand saw or jigsaw to notch shelf planks around the 4×4 legs. [Install shelf planks before top planks for easier access.]
17. Install the workbench top planks next, in the same manner.
18. Position the bench in your workspace and use it for all your projects.