Building A Workbench: A Personal Journey

The design of a woodworker's workbench is a very personal choice. This article is to help show how and why I built mine, and hopefully to help you as you make your own choices. It was hard for me to decide, from all the great options, on the types of workbenches to build, with its vises, hold-downs, and dog-holes. And there are many great workbench styles out there.

As I think about the type of workbench I want, there are several things that I consider important to the design:

  • What type of wood to make the top? 
  • What size top?
  • Do I want a tool tray?
  • What type of vises should I us?
  • Where do I mount the vis?
  • Will the base I have be compatible?

Here is my current thinking on each point, although I reserve the right to change my mind:

The type of wood I'll use for the workbench top is hard maple. It was a simple decision, since that's what I have. For those of you thinking about making a bench, nearly any closed pore, dense hardwood, like maple or beech, will work. Also, white oak works fine, even though it is an open pore hardwood.

Don't use a soft hardwood, like poplar. Soft hardwoods dent and bruise. Surprisingly, real southern yellow pine (a softwood harder than some hardwoods) makes a good alternative if you are on a limited budget -- it's not as dense as maple or white oak, but it will hold up a lot better than some hardwoods.

The size of the workbench top will be about 30 by 96 inches, by three inches thick. I like a lot of work area. However, it will be somewhat dictated by the size lumber I have. All the boards are roughly eight feet long. I don't know how much I will have to trim off each end because of warpage and checking. The warpage will also affect how wide each board will be and, how thick the workbench top will be. I'll have to see what I have when I get the boards milled up.

I don't want a tool tray, the negatives outweigh the positives. Tool trays collect dust, as well as tools. You have to be very disciplined to clean out the tool tray all the time. But more importantly, tool tray can cause problems with furniture legs on the bench top. Invariably, furniture legs slip into the tool tray and wind up tipping or falling over. On the other hand, a lot of woodworkers through the years have successfully used workbenches with tool trays.

The choice of vises is a tough choice - face vise, shoulder vise, end vise, tail vise, twin-screw vise, pattern maker's vise....  My choices at this moment are a twin-screw vise for my face vise and an end vise slide. These are dictated by my desire to do a lot of hand tool work. As for the style of my workbench base, I believe my current base will work for me. I've tried to allow for the vise positions to fit within the base design dimensions.

Preparing The Wood

I chose hard maple because I had about 100 board feet of 8/4 boards given to me by a friend several years ago. As it turned out when I took down the lumber from the rafters of my garage (excuse me, my workshop), a lot of it was unusable. Some of it was heartwood, some of it was warped, and some of it had holes from being eaten by bugs.

Each board was different in terms of thickness (from 6/4 to 10/4) and width (from 5 to 10 inches). The desirable part of the maple tree is the sapwood. The sapwood of maple is the lighter, more attractive looking part. This is counter to other hardwoods, where the heartwood (that is the older, darker, interior part of the tree) is the desirable portion. The useable part of what I had was little more than half of what I needed.

When I finally had all the lumber I needed, I proceeded to prepare the maple. I needed to get multiple three inch wide boards from each wider board I had - I wanted to maximize the sapwood parts of the older boards and, I was going to use a moulding machine to surface all four sides at once of the three inch wide strips I'd rough cut from wider boards on the band saw. The moulder is a big industrial machine that has rotating cutter heads for surfacing each of the four faces of a board in one pass. It is designed primarily for making long runs of mouldings.  It did make this step much quicker than going through the regular preparation steps. To get the three inch wide strips from the various wider boards, I first ran chalk lines along the faces to identify the cuts.

Then I used the band saw to cut the strips to approximate width. I used the band saw because I was not jointing the lumber prior to cutting the strips, so it would have been unsafe to do this on the table saw. I've used the band saw in the past to do my first cuts when the boards I was using had grain patterns I wanted to highlight, but they weren't parallel to the boards edges. I wound up with eighteen strips, a little over three inches wide. They were all at least 8 feet long.

I then made multiple passes through the moulder. Unlike the jointer, we could feed multiple boards through the moulder, one after the other. We did have to stagger the boards by thickness, however, due to the range of thicknesses the raw boards were (the 6/4 to 10/4 thicknesses, mentioned above).

Gluing Up The Boards

I next arranged the boards in the order I wanted them. Each board was arranged with the better of the two edge grain sides oriented up. The face grain sides (the three inch wide sides) were the ones to be glued together, as face grain to face grain lamination provides the strongest bonds. With not all the strips the same width, I had to pay particular attention to the relative position of each board in order to attain an attractive working surface.

Once I had the order I wanted, I numbered each end from 1 to 18. The board marked with the 1 was to be towards the front of the bench and the one marked 18 was to be at the back. I numbered the boards to make sure I kept them in order with the proper face up during glue up. It took five of us to glue up the strips. We had to work fast because of the short set-time of the glue. We used regular yellow PVA (polyvinyl acetate) glue.

One person poured the glue on the face of each strip. Four people spread the glue out with narrow, short-nap rollers. The glue was applied on both faces of each board, except the frmnt of the first and the back of the last boards. We glued the boards in groups - first five, then four, then another four, and finally the last five boards. We poured glue on and rolled it out to two mating faces, then stacked them. Then did two more mating faces and stacked them. We continued until we completed a group.

It took three of us to carry and place the group of boards into a guillotine press used for clamping up the lamination assembly. The other two would set up the next group for gluing. We did this until we finished gluing and placing the final group in the press. A guillotine press is made up of two 2x4 frames separated about five feet apart and supported by 1x6 boards spanning the two frames.

Each frame has three crosspieces with two uprights on each end sandwiching them. The middle crosspiece is where the glued-up strips rest, top-side down. 2x6 boards are run over the boards to provide downward alignment. Downward pressure is applied to the cross-bars by inserting two opposed wedges between the inserted bars and the top crosspieces of the frames. I made sure to put down paper below the frame to collect the squeezed-out glue when the strips were clamped up.

When the strips were all in place we put in the 2x6 cross-bars and lightly tapped the wedges to hold them in place (two sets of two wedges in each frame). We checked for evenness, making sure that the top faces (which were down) were resting on the middle crosspieces to make sure the top would be even. The wedges were then knocked firmly in place. Bar clamps were then placed across the strips to pull the laminations together. The clamps had been prepositioned under the press. Each clamp was alternated above and below the strips to even out the pressure. They were placed about four inches apart. The wedges were again struck to make sure they were firmly in place. Then the clamps were tightened further to make sure the boards were firmly held together.

After the boards were in clamps for about half an hour, I started scraping away the squeezed out glue from between each lamination, both on top and bottom. The squeeze-out was starting to harden which was the best time. It would have been infinitely harder to do after the glue had fully set. The laminations were allowed to cure in the guillotine press for a week. When the bench-top was taken out of the press I inspected it for any irregularities that resulted from the glue up and clamping process. I first scraped away any leftover squeeze-out and then hand planed a few high spots on the top. Next I ran the top through the wide belt sander to get an even top surface. Then I squared up the ends on a sliding panel saw. The result was a bench-top that was now 30 inches wide by 94 inches long by 2.95 inches thick - an excellent interim result. I still had to add the dog rails, mount the vises, and finish the bench top.
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