Apparently, the first thing one needs to do when they join the Popular Woodworking Magazine staff is build a workbench. I’m OK with that, as I’ve never really had an official woodworking bench of my own. Sure, there was a workbench that I used when I was in school, but that belonged to UMASS and I ended up only using one corner of it. I didn’t feel any ownership towards it and it was passed on to the next student when I graduated.
The “workbench” I had in my shop at home was something different altogether. I called him “ole blue boy” and he was mobile and blue and made of steel. My father-in-law had built the 24″ x 60″ base for his tools when he was a diesel mechanic and ole blue boy served him well for over 30 years. When my father-in-law retired back to Portugal, he put ole blue boy into the back of his truck and hauled him out to Rhode Island for me (I also inherited a bunch of his mechanic tools, but that’s another story. Thanks Pai).
Ole blue boy was originally an office desk that was tossed into the trash. Rather than relegating him to an early grave at the dump, my father-in-law dragged him over to the shop and went to work on him with the torch. He cut him up, altered him, welded him back together, added some casters and painted him bright blue. His top was stainless steel, but my father-in-law placed an old piece of 3/4″ plywood on top of that so that ole blue boy wasn’t so slick and to help absorb striking blows from a ball-peen hammer and the like. The plywood also served as a sponge, absorbing the grease and oil from various truck parts. The stains covering the plywood give away its age and have a patina that is as nice as if he had stained it himself.
Ole blue boy has a ton of character and history, and I was grateful for my father-in-law’s efforts to bring him to me, but he wasn’t ideal for working with wood. His wheels were large and heavy duty, but they didn’t have any locks, so I had to make sure I pinned ole blue boy up against the wall if I needed him to stay put. And there weren’t many options when it came to clamping a board down to him. So because real estate was at a premium in my shop, I decided to have ole blue boy work double duty as a bench/cutoff table.
Ole blue boy was a good four inches shorter than the top of my table saw, so I had to build a mini-platform on top of him in order for him to be flush with the back of the saw. I laminated two sheets of 3/4″ plywood, trimmed it out and added some feet under the platform to raise it the optimal height. The motor on my contractor saw sticks out the back, so I had to incorporate an overhang to cover the extra space. My plywood addition spanned 84″ inches long so in the end, ole blue boy looked like he had wings. I like symmetry in my designs, so because I had that overhang covering the saw’s motor, I incorporated the same overhang on the other side, giving me room to install an old Record vise on that end. The vice was also painted blue so it fit right in.
So while I am always going to keep ole blue boy in my shop, I figured it was best that leave him in storage for the time being and build a real wood workbench. The good thing is that I work with the current guru on workbenches – Editor Christopher Schwarz. I didn’t tell him this when he interviewed me for this job, but I had purchased his first book on workbenches years ago. I thought it was informative, well reasoned and well written, and I’ve got say, I thought about workbenches differently when I was finished. I didn’t rush down to my shop and build one of the designs in the book, mind you, but that was because my shop was so small and I didn’t have the room.
I was resigned to the fact that I would need to continue to be creative with my clamping strategies while using ole blue boy. I accepted his flaws and shortcomings just as I am sure he did mine. But now that I need a workbench at the magazine and I am armed with Chris’ new Workbench Design Book, I am going to try to design my ideal wood workbench and document it in this blog. I’m already thinking about possible colors … Wish me luck.