Woodworker’s workbench


Ever since I attended a woodworking course where I created my own stool, I wanted to take up woodworking for a hobby. In the meantime we have moved from an apartment to a house with a garden and an annex. The latter, I figured, could be made into a nice and small workshop. I already found out from experience that for chiseling the steel Black & Decker Workmate I always used for DIY’ing was just too flimsy. So, as my first woodworking project, I decided to build a woodworker’s workbench. This page describes the process of the build.

#1 Getting inspiration

Wooden workbench for furniture makers (www.houten-werkbank.nl)

Wooden workbench for furniture makers (www.houten-werkbank.nl)

I browse Pinterest a lot for inspiration, so I’ve collected the workbenches that inspired me on this board. It appears that there are two type of woodworkers each having a slightly different workbench. Furniture makers have workbenches with a tray in the worktop in which they can put their hand tools. Their workbenches also have an L-shaped vice. Workbenches for carpenters don’t have that and are therefore a bit more simple to make.

#2 Making a design

The workbench I intent to make will be placed in between 3 walls in an annex that is also used for other purposes. I therefore choose to make a carpenters workbench with a single wooden vice, and a worktop without tray that rests on three supports.

This is where the workbench will be placed

This is where the workbench will be placed

In order to keep my curious little children away from my woodworking tools I need to store them (the tools) somewhere locked in drawers or behind doors. Since IKEA provides such cabinets against a fair price I will just buy and use two IKEA IVAR cabinets for this purpose. I need to leave enough room between each two supports and enough height below the worktop and bottom beam to fit them in later.

Below is a sketch of the initial idea:

This sketch provides an idea of the assembly and sizes of the workbench.

This sketch provides an idea of the assembly and sizes of the workbench.

To reduce costs I choose to not use wood of the beach tree, but instead use bigger beams of pine to hopefully still get a sturdy workbench. The worktop will be made from an array of beams glued together and a layer of plywood glued on top of that.

As said, there will be walls to either side of the workbench. This means that there’s no point in placing a vice close to them. I think it is best placed in the center, but for now I’ll focus on the workbench and leave the vice for later.

I prefer to not sit on a chair or stool while woodworking. Therefore, the height of the workbench is chosen such that it is comfortable when standing behind it. I took our kitchen’s counter top as a reference, which has a height of 95 cm. For the workbench I aim at a height between 95 and 100 cm.

The worktop will be fixed to the three supports in a separable way. This makes it possible to disassemble the workbench and assemble it again if needed in the future.

#3 Getting the materials

The dimensions given in the design sketch above and the list of materials below are based on the sizes of pine beams available in my local wood market (Pontmeijer):

  • 44 x 70 (mm)
  • 58 x 156 (mm)
The design sketch transformed into a list of needed materials.

The design sketch transformed into a list of needed materials.

I ordered the vice – at least its mechanics – for € 50,- from www.houten-werkbank.nl. It included the steel pins required for fixing a workpiece between the workbench and the vice.

Unboxing the vice

Unboxing the vice

The wood was bought from Pontmeijer and was stored in horizontal position in a dry place:

Storing the wood

Storing the wood

I expect to work on this project intermittently and hope the wood doesn’t morph too much over time. Fingers crossed!

#4 Creating the supports

This part of the build turned out to be quite laborious. I started with making two rectangular holes in what would become the base of each support. To cheat a bit I used a speed drill to drill some holes prior to start cutting out the rectangles with a chisel.

Cutting out rectangular holes made a bit easier by first drilling.

Cutting out rectangular holes made a bit easier by first drilling.

OK, with all holes in place it’s time to develop my chiseling skills. I did this on a warm and sunny day – I specially took the day off for it. Bad timing! – and came up with a next project: how to insulate our annex :).

Chiseling the holes.

Chiseling the holes.

Finally, after hours of hard work, the chiseling marathon had finished! While making the design – with all my enthusiasm – I didn’t realize that making those nice-and-crafty mortise-and-tenon joints would turn out to be so laborious if you’re not an experienced craftsman. I do score high on stamina though 😉

Finally all holes have been cut-out.

Finally all holes have been cut-out.

So, after the mortise-marathon came the tenon-marathon. The first two tenons I made using Japanese saws. To speed the process up I continued with the other four using the newly bought miter saw – it has an adjustable height. Obviously this only worked for the cross-grained cuts. The rest needed to be manually cut away still.

Drawing the pins on the vertical beams of the stand.

Drawing the tenons on the vertical beams of the support.

With the help of that circular friend the job was easily done. I decided to use the chisel for remaining manual cuts. This was not the best choice though. Since I had to cut along the grain and used pine, my chisel just followed that grain. Next time, I’d better use the Japanese saw again! The picture below nicely reflects this – for the top two tenons I used the saw, obviously.

All vertical beams and carrier beams are ready.

All vertical beams and carrier beams are ready.

With the vertical beams of the supports being ready, it’s time to glue them to the horizontal bottom beam.

Glueing the vertical beams (with pins) to the bottom beam (with holes).

Gluing the vertical beams (with tenons) to the bottom beam (with mortises).

At some point during the build process I decided that the design of the horizontal top beam could be simplified. Instead of having cut-outs in the vertical beams for the top beam to horizontally fit in, I choose to have half cut-outs in both the vertical beams and the top beam, such that they lock into place. This way, there’s no need to have slots in the worktop for the vertical beams to fit in.

Three finished stands (upside-down)

Three finished supports (upside-down)

The finished supports are shown in the picture above – oin upside-down position, since the glue of the mortise-and-tenon joints needed to harden a bit still. As a last step I screwed a 20 cm screw through the top beam into each vertical beam, so that they were fixed too (no gluing there).

#5 Creating the worktop

In order to create the workbench’s worktop, I needed some space to maneuver around the setup. Since the annex is too small for this, I decided to do this in our living room. I placed the layer of plywood on some saw horses and applied glue to its surface. I then glued together 11 beams of 7 cm width on this plywood, creating a worktop of 77 x 215 cm.

It will be a lengthy workbench.

It will be a lengthy workbench.

Although I had bought two large bar clamps for this project, in hindsight I think I should have used two more for the middle section of the worktop. If I would have had a few more smaller clamps I would also have placed and clamp a beam in halfway the worktop.

The top is left to dry in our living room.

The worktop is left to dry in our living room.

The glue dries out quite quickly, roughly within an hour, but takes almost a day to fully harden. The setup couldn’t stay in our living room for a full day and had to be moved back to the annex.

Several beams and a sheet of plywood glued together form the top.

Several beams and a sheet of plywood glued together form the worktop.

I could feel that the worktop was seriously heavy by just lifting one end of it slightly. There was no way I could get it back in the annex on my own without ruining my back. Luckily my girlfriend could give me a hand. Together we were able to get it off of the saw horses and onto a rug, after which we could move it towards the annex without it getting damaged – and without damaging the floor.

Moving the heavy top back to the annex turned out to be a struggle.

Moving the heavy worktop back to the annex.

I removed the clamps from the worktop after a couple of days. It will be finished by surrounding it with a hardwood frame later in the process.

#6 Assembling the parts

A first impression

I’ve placed the worktop on its three supports just to see how it looks and to see if the chosen height (just below 100 cm) suffices. Luckily, it looks and feels right so far. I’ll evaluate again once I’ve used it for a while.

Trying out if all fits well before the final assembly.

Trying out if all fits well before the final assembly.

Fixing the worktop

Next up is attaching the worktop to its supports. My idea is to (ab)use worktop joining bolts for this.

Worktop Joining Bolts

Worktop Joining Bolts

I’m replacing the top ‘wing’ by a regular ring which I intend to chamfer into the worktop together with the bolt-head. Making holes in the supports for the join required a 35 mm drill, which I didn’t have. I did have a 30 mm speed which I used instead after having drilled two 8 mm holes to either side – resulting in a lemon-shaped hole. I then drilled 6 mm holes from the top of the support and through the worktop for the M6 bolts.

Aesthetics aside, this way the wing fits nicely:

Front-side join

Front-side join

On the top-side of the worktop both bolt and ring are chamfered, such that workpieces and sheets of wood can nicely slide over it without the risk of getting damaged. Note that I used hexagonal bolts instead of the original joining bolts since those had a flat heads, which don’t allow for tightening unless you use the wing on that end as well.

Front-side chamfered bolt

Front-side chamfered bolt

The center support is finished now, the outer two supports are next.

The worktop secured to the center support

The worktop secured to the center support

Straight edges

As can be seen in the above picture, the two parts of the worktop (pine and plywood) don’t overlap nicely everywhere. In order for the hardwooden frame to fit around the worktop properly, I need straight edges. I could have done this using my jig saw, but thought it was a good reason to buy myself a circular saw.

Made all four sides straight with a circular saw

Made all four sides straight with a circular saw

The three supports also needed some adjustments in order for the frame to fit:

Supports need a cut-out for the worktop's frame to fit

Supports need a cut-out for the worktop’s frame to fit

Attaching the frame

I noticed that over time, the worktop itself had warped a bit. This was to be expected of course, since it had been lying in a room for months and was exposed to changing air conditions (dry, moist, warm, cold). So, in order to get the worktop as straight as possible, I added a third fixing point to each support before fitting the frame.

Morphing worktop needs a third fixing point

Morphing worktop needs a third fixing point

I then glued the four parts of the frame to the worktop using dowels. Because of the morphed worktop, I had to make sure that the top-side of the frame was at the same level (or above, but never below) as the worktop. This way I will be able to remove the parts of the frame that stick out above the worktop using a planer.

Finishing the worktop

After having planed the frame, I shortened the dowels. Since some of the dowels ended up too far in the wood I had to apply wood filler. When the filler had dried out I used a sander to remove its residue and pencil marks from the frame and worktop. I then applied the first layer of varnish (turpentine/alkyd based) with a roller.

Worktop gets its 1st layer of varnish

Worktop gets its 1st layer of varnish

After a couple of layers of varnish, the workbench was ready to be put in place. Once that was done I could finally start organizing my tools around it:

Workbench ready to be used

Workbench ready to be used

And start using it! As you can see, I am currently working to get my father-in-law’s solar panel to work. I’ll create a separate page on my website for that project. Here are some close-ups of the shelves and wall-mounted tool racks.

Shelves

Shelves

Organizing my tools

Organizing my tools

#7 Post-install

The workbench is only really ready once the vice is installed and the two planned IKEA cabinets are placed.

(to be continued…)

Lessons learned

  • When marking out the place to cut the slat in a 45 degree angle, I forgot that the slat should become a bit longer than the length of the plywood sheet of the worktop. So, I ended up with a too short slat for the frame. I didn’t anticipate on this, so I didn’t have a spare slat. I also didn’t want to go to the wood shop to get another slat. Now the (white!) wood filler that repairs the gap is a reminder to always measure (and think!) twice.
  • Maybe next time consider sandwiching the pine beams of the worktop between two sheets of plywood, in order to reduce the morphing.
  • It generally helps if you’re able to more or less continuously work on a woodworking project, instead of only some days spread over half a year.
  • If you want to apply wood filler: use a filler that matches the color of your wood. I used a white filler that I had laying around. I didn’t want to interrupt one of my scarce woodworking days just to go to a DIY store and buy wood filler. After all, this is ‘just a workbench’ not some piece of furniture.
  • I really would like to have a planing machine (some day)!

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