Whenever we leave beginning woodworkers to work alone in the shop, it’s a fair bet that when we return to check up on them, they’re working on the floor.
We’ve got at least five workbenches in our shop – not counting the three assembly tables – but the new people always seem to prefer the wide expanse of our concrete slab more than the benches. Of course, I should talk. When I started woodworking I had my grandfather’s fully outfitted bench, but my first few projects were built on the floor of our back porch, my assemblies propped up on a couple 4 x 4s. I can’t for the life of me remember why I chose the floor instead of the bench.
Since those early years, I’ve built a few workbenches. And I’ve been striving to make each one more versatile, rock solid, inexpensive and quick to build than the last. I think I’ve finally got it. To test my theory, Assistant Editor Kara Gebhart and I built this bench with a $180 budget and just 24 hours of working time in the shop.
That $180 includes everything: the wood, the vise and the hardware. And that 24 hours includes everything, too, including the two hours we spent picking out the wood and sawing it to rough length on a dolly in the parking lot of Home Depot. (Once again, I was working on the floor. Drat.)
The real beauty of this bench (besides getting you off the floor) is that it can be completed using tools you likely already have in your shop. For this project, your must-have tools include a table saw, a drill press, a corded drill and some basic hand tools. If you have a jointer and planer, the project will go faster because you can easily dress your lumber to size and eliminate any bowing or warping. But don’t be afraid to work with the lumber as it comes from the lumberyard. Just make sure you buy the straightest stuff you can.
Start With the Rough Stuff
Time: 0:00 to 5:06
In a nutshell, here’s how the bench goes together: The top is made from four pieces of Baltic birch plywood that are laminated together with a pine “skirt” glued around the edge. On the bench’s pine base, the end rails are joined to the legs using pegged mortise-and-tenon joints. The end assemblies attach to the front and back rails using an unglued mortise-and-tenon joint with big old bench bolts – it’s quite similar to a bed in construction.
When we first went to the lumberyard, it seemed like a good idea to buy 4 x 4 posts for the legs. But when we got there (and later called around to other lumberyards in the city) we discovered that the only 4 x 4s available in yellow pine were #2 common, which has more knots than the #1 pine (also sold as “prime” or “top choice” in some yards). If you can’t get yellow pine where you live, look for vertical-grade fir.
After picking through the mound of knotty 4 x 4s, we decided to instead make the legs by ripping a 2 x 8 and gluing up the legs to the thickness we needed. It took longer to make the legs this way, but now the legs have almost no knots.
Crosscut and rip the parts you need for the base of the bench and the skirt that goes around the top. If you have a planer and jointer, dress your lumber. Now glue up and clamp the parts for the legs and get out your clamp collection and some buckets (yes, buckets) to glue up the top.
Time: 5:06 to 6:29
You know, it’s not often I get to use an anvil in my woodworking projects, but it was the perfect thing for gluing the top. The top is made by sandwiching all the the plywood into a nearly 3″-thick slab. We glued it up one layer at a time to keep things under control and to ensure we could eliminate as many gaps as possible.
You’re probably going to need at least four 8-ounce bottles of yellow glue for this part of the project, plus a scrap of plywood (1/4″ x 4″ x 7″ worked for us) to spread the glue on the plywood evenly. Squirt a sizable amount onto one piece of plywood and spread the adhesive until you’ve got a thin and even film. Place the plywood’s mating piece on top and drive in four nails near the edges to keep everything aligned as you clamp it down. The nails will be cut off when you trim the slab to its finished size.
Now park everything in your shop that’s heavy but movable (motors, anvils, 5-gallon buckets of water) in the middle of the top. Clamp four or so cauls (a clamping aid) across the width of the top to put even more pressure in the middle. The cauls should be about 2″ x 2″ x 32″. Plane or sand a 1/16″ taper toward each end to give each caul a slight bow. When you clamp the bow against the top, this will put pressure in the middle of your slab. Finally, use whatever other clamps you have to clamp the edges (C-clamps work well). Allow the glue to dry for about 45 minutes and then add another layer of plywood.