I’ve hauled my grandfather’s workbench across snow-covered Appalachian mountains, down narrow stairwells and into a dirt-floored garage that should have been torn down during the Eisenhower administration. I’ve built a lot of good stuff on that bench, but now it’s time to retire the old horse. For starters, the bench is too low for the way I work. And the top is pockmarked with three different shapes and sizes of dog holes. And during the last few years I’ve become fed up with the tool tray. The only thing it seems designed to hold is enough sawdust for a family of gerbils. So I need a new bench, but there’s no way I’m going to spend $1,200 to $1,400 for a high-quality bench from Hoffman & Hammer or Ulmia.
Enter Bob Key from Georgia. He and his son have been building benches using off-the-rack pine for a few years and have even built a website showing how quick and easy this is to do. I was impressed with their idea. So I spent a week reading every book on benches I could find. I pored over the woodworking catalogs. And after a lot of figuring I came up with a simple plan: Build a bench for less than $175.
Believe it or not, I came in 92 cents under budget and ended up with a bench that is tough, sturdy and darn versatile. I made a few compromises when choosing the hardware to keep the cost down, but I designed the bench so that it can later be upgraded with a nice tail vise. However, I made no compromises in the construction of the top or base. You can dance on this bench.
Let’s Go Shopping
OK friends, it’s time to make your shopping list. First a word about the wood. I priced my lumber from a local Lowe’s. It was tagged as Southern yellow pine, appearance-grade. Unlike a lot of dimensional stock, this stuff is pretty dry and knot-free. Even so, take your time and pick through the store’s pile of 12-foot-long 2 x 8s with care to get the best ones possible. You can hide a few tight knots in the top, but with luck you won’t have to.
Here’s the story on the hardware. The bolts, nuts and washers are used to connect the front rails to the two ends of the bench. Using this hardware, we’ll borrow a technique used by bed makers to build a joint that is stronger than any mortise and tenon. The Bench Dog and Wonder Dog will keep you from having to buy an expensive tail vise. Using these two simple pieces of hardware, you can clamp almost anything to your bench for planing, sanding and chopping. The traditional face vise goes on the front of your bench and is useful for joinery and opening cans of peanut butter.
Preparing Your Lumber
Cut your lumber to length. You’ve probably noticed that your wood has rounded corners and the faces are probably less than glass-smooth. Your first task is to use your jointer and planer to remove those rounded edges and get all your lumber down to 1-3/8″ thick.
Once your lumber is thicknessed, start working on the top. If this is your first bench, you can make the top, then throw it up on sawhorses to build the base. The top is made from 1-3/8″ x 3-3/8″ x 70″ boards turned on edge and glued face-to-face. It will take five of your 2 x 8s to make the top. Build the top in stages to make the task more manageable. Glue up a few boards, then run the assembly through the jointer and planer to get them flat. Make a few more assemblies like this, then glue all the assemblies together into one big top.
When you finally glue up the whole top, you want to make sure you keep all the boards in line. This will save you hours of flattening the top later with a hand plane. See the photo above for a life-saving tip when you get to this point. After the glue is dry, square the ends of your assembled top. If you don’t have a huge sliding table on your table saw, try cutting the ends square using a circular saw (the top is so thick you’ll have to make a cut from both sides). Or you can use a hand saw and a piece of scrap wood clamped across the end as a guide.
Build the Base
The base is constructed using mortise-and-tenon joinery. Essentially, the base has two end assemblies that are joined by two rails. The end assemblies are built using big 1″-thick, 2″-long tenons. The front rails are attached to the ends using 1″ x 1″ mortise-and-tenon joints and the 6″-long bolts. Begin working on the base by cutting all your pieces to size. The 2-3/4″-square legs are made from two pieces of pine laminated together. Glue and clamp the legs and set them aside. Now turn your attention to cutting the tenons on the rails. It’s a good idea to first make a “test” mortise in a piece of scrap so you can fit your tenons as they are made. I like to make my tenons on the table saw using a dado stack. Place your rails face down on your table saw and use a miter gauge to nibble away at the rails until the tenons are the right size. Because pine is soft, be sure to make the shoulders on the edges 1″ wide on the upper side rails. This precaution will prevent your tenons from blowing out the top of your legs.