Shop Projects: Benches on a Budget

Procrastination isn’t always a bad thing. When we last looked at my pile of 2 x 4s the readings from my moisture meter ranged from 10 percent to 18 percent. My reason for using this stuff was price , a “precut” (almost 8′ long piece) cost $2.38 at our local home center. Good price, but if I tried to work with it in that condition, my finished benches would have twisted as the wood reached equilibrium with our shop environment. Cutting them to rough length and putting stickers in between helped to speed the process. Late last week I was getting consistent readings of 9-10% at the middle and the ends of my boards and decided it was time to proceed.

Without a meter, you’re left to guess about how wet the stuff is. One way to judge is by weight; drier pieces are lighter. Wet material will also feel cold and damp to the touch. Comparing new lumber to some that has been around for a year or so will also help you judge.

The lumber did twist and cup a bit as it dried, so I ran all the parts over the jointer and through the planer. The finished size is 1-1/4″ X 3-1/4″. I came up with this process for building benches and stands for tools about 15 years ago when I was setting up a shop from scratch. Every nickel I could save on shop fixtures was another nickel I could spend on power tools or disposable diapers. Here is the same stack of wood after milling.

It’s not quite perfect, but much better than it was. I’m making a stand for a small drum sander (which would also work well for a lunchbox planer) and one for our hollow-chisel mortiser, which would also be a good size for a drill press. The system is based on two components , legs and frames.

Each leg is two pieces glued and screwed together to form an “L.” This makes each leg much stronger than a single 2 X 4 would be, and the jointed edge of one piece acts against any tendency for the other piece to bow in length. I use 3 #10 x 3″ square-drive screws for each leg.

The frames are simply glued and screwed together. This is the top for the sander stand, and I’ve included a cross-piece in the center. The frames can go either inside the legs or outside the legs.

Here at the top, the frame is outside of the legs. The legs are glued and screwed in both directions with #8 X 1-3/4″ screws. In addition to solidly attaching the leg, the structure of the leg reinforces the corner of the frame.

Here are the two (almost) completed stands. In my next blog entry, I’ll cut the plywood for the tops and shelves, showing how to break down full sheets of plywood without a table saw.

The bottom frame fits within the  legs which makes it easy to attach a plywood shelf. Benches like this are quick and easy to build, and very solid. They are great as a home for a benchtop tool, an assembly table or a workbench.

- Bob Lang

13 thoughts on “Shop Projects: Benches on a Budget

  1. woodworkerkaty

    I would have put the legs on the outside so that the bottom shelf would have been the same as the top in size. I would allow the plywood top to cover the legs.
    and I would have made sides using 1/4″ plywood that would fit into a dado in the side legs or screw it to the legs for a finished look.

    1. DGr

      I agree with woodworkerkaty about putting the legs on the outside of the frames. But, what do you mean in your statement “I would have made sides using 1/4″ plywood that would fit into a dado in the side legs or screw it to the legs for a finished look.” Let us know please.

  2. mtnjak

    I didn’t realize this was an old post. I just clicked on this link from a PW email I received today. My “basic” shop workbenches are pretty close to this design (only 1 vertical 2×4 in each corner) and they are great. 3/4″ ply screwed on top the frame with 1/4″ hardboard glued to the plywood top. A good multipurpose shop bench/table design for about $60 per bench.

  3. Michael Rogen

    Bob,
    I was given a grinder and never having used one before I’m not sure at what height would be best suited for me. I am 5’8" and I plan on building one of the benches to build one of your benches for it. Do you have any idea at what height would work without suffering any more back pain? I’m thinking of making it mobile so casters would factor into the overall height.
    I would like to incorporate my sharpening area into the plan as well but the height for that I think I can handle.

    I thank you again for your help on matters likee these, and for your articles,columns and blog entries which I enjoy very much.

    Michael

  4. Bob Lang

    Hi Michael,

    Yes it definitely helps to cut to rough length. Most of the moisture will leave a board through the end grain, so this shortens the route and opens up the middle of the board.

    We tested moisture meters in the Autumn 2006 issue of Woodworking Magazine. We found the real cheap ones had issues. The Mini-Ligno (about $100)to be a dependable meter and a good value.

    Bob

  5. Michael Rogen

    Bob,
    Two questions. Does it help to first cut the 8′ 2×4′s to a rough length and then sticker them if neccesary, and what is a good not too expensive moisture meter to get?

    Thanks,
    Michael

  6. Bob Lang

    It pays to be a picky shopper, and weight and feel give a good indication of what will be useful stock. The rules for "kiln dried" for softwood dimension lumber are quite different than those for hardwoods. Kiln dried softwoods come out of the kiln at 18-20% moisture content. I waited to use these until they were at 9-10%. For the legs and frames of these benches I needed stuff that was decent, but not great.

    Chris has made a number of benches out of wider and longer dimensional lumber. Next time you’re looking for something, go past the 2 X 4a and look at 12′ and longer 2 X 8s, 10s and 12s. These are generally better, even if you need to rip them to get narrower pieces, but they will cost a bit more.

    Bob

  7. Bob McGonigle

    I recently read that it’s better to buy the 14′ or 16′ lengths of 2×4, as they have less knots and junk compared to the 8′ lengths. Any merrit to that?

  8. Bob Lang

    Beginning with the October, 2006 issue of Popular Woodworking, we have been running a continuing series on "Setting Up Shop", which will conclude in our August issue. Each month, it is 8 pages of information on a different aspect of creating the ideal shop space.

    For space planning, Grizzly has a cool interactive layout tool that let’s you shove around images of tools, benches and machines:

    http://www.grizzly.com/workshopplanner.aspx

    I also tend to look in the backgraound of magazine articles and books to see what others have come up with.

    Bob

  9. Bob Lang

    I don’t think it will be an issue in this case. If I were laminating pieces face to face, or gluing them edge to edge for a bench top I likely wouldn’t use that pithy piece.

    Bob

  10. Wilbur Pan

    I notice that one of the 2×4′s in the photo contains the pith, which I thought was something to be avoided. Are you worried about this piece cracking or splitting later on? Or does it not matter for this application?

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