Making A Woodworker’s Workbench Workshop Projects
A new workbench has been on my to-do list for a number of years. I started seriously thinking about it in 2015 and drew up one that was a fairly elaborate traditional design. And as it turned out, that’s the one I ended up building and will cover in this article.
But back then I wasn’t sure I needed a “fancy” bench. So I put that one aside and explored a couple of more utilitarian designs. One in particular was inspired by a steel welding table I’d seen. You can see the unusual top and hefty bass that’s completely flush with the top, and a large toolbox / drawer unit that fits underneath:
It would have a full width pull out tray just below the top for the tools you use most, and the toolbox beneath would be on straight casters to easily pull it out. The top opens up to access a large, deep tray inside. The six drawers below would hold a variety of things.
I still like this design, but I think it would be a tough sell to the typical woodworker and I need to keep that in mind if I want to sell plans. Perhaps I’ll build this one after I get bored of the new one…
Speaking of the new one, I decided early on that it would have some walnut. Every fancy workbench requires at least some walnut and who am I to disagree? And fairly recently I came into a good amount of red oak and thought that would be perfect for the rest of the solid wood parts. Here’s enough for the new bench piled up on my old bench:
Not a lot, really. The bulk of the top of the bench will be made from a core of plywood and MDF, so this is just used for the trestles and the perimeter of the top. Oh and the vise parts – this bench has two and they are built in.
The advantages of a top that’s made mainly from sheet stock are dimensional stability and flatness that lasts. It’s also easy to build and given the cost of solid hardwood these days, relatively cheap. Cheap as in low cost, not crappy. I mention that because there’s that still lingering misconception that real quality doesn’t include plywood or MDF.
After a few minutes of careful layout I have the parts cut to rough size and ready for further processing:
And that processing is jointing one face, planing the other side flat and parallel, and cutting the stock closer to the final width and length:
There are three parts (four actually) that need to be made from stock that’s thicker than I have, so I’m going to laminate thinner pieces to get that thickness:
I like to do that early in the build so that they will be ready when I need them.
Assembling The Trestles
There are basically two ways to assemble the trestles: mortise and tenon or bolts. I chose to use bolts and made a simple drilling guide from a piece of oak to drill the pilot holes in the ends of the legs. That black on the sides is tape to improve the grip when clamped on:
While I certainly approve using mortise and tenon for these joints, I prefer to save the impressive joinery for places where it shows. After these are assembled, no one will be able to see and fawn over the lovely job you did, because they will be hidden. Bolts are just as strong and faster.
I deliberately eschewed ornamentation on this workbench – no routed details or rounded ends – just plain and simple square edged parts. That’s me today, though, and not me of 20 years ago. I would have added more detail back then to “dress it up” a bit. I’ve since learned to appreciate simplicity where it’s appropriate.
The third leg on this trestle supports the shoulder vise. It’s not as wide as the other four.
The foot pads are fastened with screws to the bottom of the feet. The idea is that these can be removed and planed thinner to make up for an uneven floor:
It might look like a mistake, but the offset on the feet was intentional. They support the toolbox that’ll be the heart of this workbench:
Assembling and Leveling The Base
I’m not a workbench on wheels type of woodworker. I like my bench in one place and level. I also like my bench to not move when I’m working at it, so it needs to be heavy.
On its own the workbench is fairly heavy, but I designed this so that my large toolbox would fit neatly inside. That’s a feature from that weird looking workbench shown at the beginning of this article that I carried forward to this one.
So I removed my old bench and cleared the floor and set the new trestles in place:
I also removed the top five drawers in the toolbox to make it lighter and possible for me to move:
And fit it in between the trestles. It’s fastened to the trestles with 1-1/2″ screws through the sides from the inside of the cabinet:
I could then get this base perfectly level. And that’s important moving forward – the base needs to be level. I have a spirit level, but it’s too beat up to trust so I used a tilt block instead:
These are normally used on a table saw to tilt the blade to a precise angle. The trick is to find a truly level surface to zero it and I used the side wing on my miter saw station.
Leveling the base now means that the top that’s built on it will also be level. And flat and free of twist. So it’s critical that you get this right at this stage.
My floor isn’t great at all, so I had a lot of shimming to do to make the base level. These ones are temporary, just to get the base lifted up enough to get custom shims underneath:
You can just barely see one of those custom shims here, that sliver of paler wood under the foot pad:
I mentioned removing the foot pads and making those thinner to level the bench, but that really wasn’t practical here with the weight of the toolbox. Also my floor is out of level nearly the thickness of the foot pad, so I’d have to plane most of it away on one end of the bench. The main thing is that the base is level and stays that way.
With the toolbox inside, mine doesn’t need the stretchers that are shown in the plans. But I took the time to make a mockup of how the keyed through-tenon is cut on this joints as an example:
And made a short video showing that:
I go into a lot more detail on every aspect of this project in the six video build series that you have access to (along with the plans for this project) by becoming a member. If you are serious about becoming a better woodworker, or if you just like a level of detail you don’t get anywhere else, you should check it out.
Joinery for the Top
This is where I put the majority of my time and effort, cutting the joinery for the top of the workbench. The top is what you see and, in my opinion, where you should try to do your best. I hand cut all of the joints, mainly because it’s the most practical for me. I don’t have specialized jigs and equipment to make dovetails this big with machines.
One very helpful tip I can pass on is to use a guide block whenever possible to keep your saw cutting 90 degrees to the stock:
I show a lot of this work in video 3 of the build series:
Using a guide block to keep the chisel straight is also something I’d recommend:
While I think it’s worth doing, these joints are mostly decorative and not really necessary. Screwed and glued butt joints will work just as good and take a lot less time.
The Dog Holes
The bench will have a row of dog holes that work with the built in wagon vise to hold stock of various lengths. The easiest way to make them is by just drilling holes through the bench for round dogs that you can buy. I went with a more traditional approach for dogs I’ll make myself. It starts with cutting the spacers:
These are oak, but have some walnut on top for looks. They are “L” shaped to provide a stop for the bench dog to keep it from going below the surface.
Glue will be used to fasten these, but to keep them from moving around, I used 1/4″ dowels to “nail” the spacers in place before gluing. The spacing on these is important so that the dogs will fit properly in each one. The spacing is also important for locating the top on the base – the trestle fits between the holes.
I must say that it is strangely satisfying driving in the dowels like this. Feels like real woodworking!
When it was all ready I got the glue put on and put it together and clamped up:
While the glue was drying I could do some more hand cut dovetails:
Very important to label these as you cut them so that they can be assembled the correct way. Also important to pay attention to the orientation of the parts when laying them out. I already mentioned that hardwood is expensive; it’s doubly so when you turn it into firewood.
This big one connects the shoulder to the long end:
That divot is where I dropped it immediately after cutting the pins. Lucky I didn’t break it off.
And here’s a dry fit of the shoulder vice corner, including the now dry dog hole assembly:
The Wagon Vise
I designed this to be as simple as possible and to use a minimum of commonly available parts. The jaw is one of these extra thickness parts I glued up in the beginning and it needs a recess on one side for the guide bar, a hole for the lead screw and a cutout that the nut fits into:
It also needs a rectangular hole for the dog and the video above shows details on that, including the neat lifter I added.
The nut is glued in with epoxy and I really should have put some tape around the hole to keep it clean. Next time:
The nut rubs against this big washer that I took the time to flush mount:
I should point out that I had an alignment problem. Either the hole in the jaw was slightly off (likely) or the one in the short end was (possible). I had to re-drill the hole in the short end to move it over slightly and I show details on that in the build series.
Another dry fit with all of the joinery cut:
Important to do this and then measure to see how everything looks and make adjustment before the big glue up.
The Shoulder Vise
The trickiest part of this vise is the plate that screws to the moving jaw. It needs a 1″ hole drilled through. You can use a really big step drill if you have one, a hole saw or the way I did it was to drill a series of smaller holes:
The holes are then connected by carefully tilting the drill bit and reaming out the metal. It don’t have to be pretty, it just has to work.
Then that plate is put between the two nuts on the end. The nuts are pinned to the lead screw and you need to make sure there’s enough space for the plate to move freely:
You might ask why only two screws in that plate? And I’d answer that’s all it needs.
This time I used tape to protect the wood when gluing the nut into the recess I cut in the shoulder:
After the epoxy set I could fasten the plate to the jaw pad and thread the lead screw into the shoulder. See how easy that is?
And doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. My hardware is a bit tarnished, but if you buy new stuff it’ll be just as bright and shiny as a new penny. If they still make pennies where you are. Shiny doesn’t impress me, performance does.
Main Assembly Starts
Back to that wagon vise and here’s that guide cleat I mentioned earlier. It needs to be a nice fit in the recess to allow the jaw to move back and forth freely”
That gets glued to the part I call the “inside edge” and I used the jaw itself to help line it up before clamping it:
Coming up with names for the parts is half the battle.
Then I glued that inside edge to the rest of the dog hole assembly and deployed a troupe of my homemade clamps to squeeze it together:
I also glued the first dovetail, the one at the corner where the wagon vise is. The white block is plastic to keep the glue squeeze-out from sticking to the clamp.
These dowels are optional and pin the short end to the inside edge. I did this mostly for the appearance – it looks cool:
Screws with plugs would also work, or just leaving it as is. When the core is put in, it will solidly fasten to both parts.
The shoulder supports have the threaded rods for the shoulder going thought them, and the easiest way to make that happen is to cut grooves in each part for those rods:
Gluing the shoulder vise corner and I used the filler cleats as spacers to accurately position the shoulder supports:
When the glue set, I could glue in the filler cleats:
Keeping busy while glue dries, I made the bench dogs:
I made a video showing how I did these:
Are made from more of the glued up stock and are easy to make, no lathe required. After cutting it to size I drilled the three holes needed for each one:
Then tilted my saw blade to 45 degrees and clipped off the corners:
I actually think this looks better than one that’s turn round.
It’s a good idea to get a couple of coats of finish on the area where the spindle for the wagon vise is before installing it:
I used an old CD as a spacer to provide a small gap between the spindle and the short end, so that it will turn freely. The CD will be pulled out after the glue sets:
I made the handle from oak dowel and the end caps are 3/4″ Baltic birch plywood:
I also did the one for the shoulder vise:
The entire perimeter or frame for the top glued up and ready for the core:
It’s important to be doing all of this directly on the level base so that you won’t be “building in” a twist.
The first step is to glue the core cleats to the bottom layer of plywood and let that dry:
The core adds thickness and mass to the bench and doesn’t need to be made to fit precisely. In fact I deliberately made mine a sloppy fit to demonstrate the method for fastening it to the perimeter.
After the glue dries it should just drop in and sit on top of the trestles:
Note the notch cut in the core cleat around the nuts on the threaded rod for the shoulder. The bottom plywood layer was also notched.
Here you can see the gap between the core cleats and the perimeter. I used a bunch of 1/4″ dowels and glue to pin the cleats to the solid wood frame of the bench top:
One every 8-10 inches is fine. What you need to pay attention to is that the bottom of the plywood is flush with the bottom of the bench top.
With that done I could start adding the layers of MDF one at a time. I used very little glue on these – they don’t need much – and drove screws in as clamps. I’ll take those screws out after the glue sets:
Second and third layer in the same way, but I used progressively more glue and screws for each layer to ensure they were held down flat. Still not a huge amount of glue – I need to stress that. Guys go wild and crazy with the glue, dumping it directly from the bottle and rolling it on. You don’t need that here, just a few lines and dabs:
My MDF was very slightly swollen along the uncut edges and the mistake I made was not cutting 3-4 inches off to get rid of that swelling. I’ve since decided that raw particle board is probably a better core material. Not as heavy, but just as flat and less prone to swelling.
I should say here that the swelling was just a few thousandths of an inch and nothing you’d even notice if using this for anything else. But stacking three layers adds that up and you wind up with something that’s a bit more significant.
To solve this, I used my trim router with a 3/4″ straight bit and leveled the surface of the MDF:
I used two very stiff and very straight aluminum rails and just glided the router back and forth taking of a very, very small amount:
You can easily see that it’s higher on the left side than the right, but MDF cuts without any effort and this operation took just 10 minutes.
Okay, now we can use a lot of glue. To fasten the top layer of plywood, I ran a bead of polyurethane construction adhesive around the perimeter (you can see this in the build video at the bottom of this page) and pumped out a mile of evenly spaced lines across:
This plywood must be solidly fastened to the core and the perimeter and that glue will get that done. It bridges those gaps between the core cleats and perimeter and locks that top layer in place.
Once again I used screws as clamps that I took out after a full night of dry time. And for good measure I did the router leveling again on the plywood layer:
I want to plane the strips that I’ll use for the veneer layer perfectly and not have to do any further leveling with the top after they are glued down. So I’m spending another 10 minutes to make sure this is perfectly flat as well, again taking off just a few thousandths of an inch.
My top will be a 1/4″ layer of quarter sawn white oak laid in a sequence and book-matched. Say that to some random gal on the street and observe the look of confusion.
The beauty of this bench is that you can use whatever you want for the top layer. Your favourite hardwood, plain replicable hardboard or plywood, pine or even fancy exotic wood like bubinga or cocobolo. Heck, you can even do a trendy epoxy pour with glitter if that’s your thing.
The key if using solid wood is that it can’t be any thicker than 1/4″ or expansion / contraction will be come a problem.
I started with the first strip, carefully fitting it to the dog hole assembly. I used a reliable straightedge to push it tight, marked the places where it needed to be planed, then planed those areas:
No mater what you use for the top you’ll have to do some work to make it fit properly. However, since this is a workbench, using some wood filler is acceptable and gets the job done quickly.
I then laid in the first half of the strips and cut thin props to hold them tightly in place:
Then I got ready to glue those down. Cauls, cardboard and a piece of MDF to spread the clamp pressure evenly:
Using PL glue and spreading that out super thin. It doesn’t need to be thick! And let me point out here that this adhesive is not regular construction adhesive or “Liquid Nails” – it’s polyurethane based and the brand is “PL Premium”. Don’t just buy any old thing in a tube and expect it’ll work – it won’t. You need this or regular woodworking glue for a strong enough bond:
The benefits of this glue are a very long open time and it works at lower temperatures.
I added these thin shims to make sure the cauls were putting pressure at the middle:
And perfectly flat, according to my reliable straightedge.
Prepped and ready to glue the other half:
I let the glue set overnight and then sanded to top with 80 grit and 100 grit to get it ready for finish. To do the underside I carefully stood it up on edge:
And put on two coats of water based polyurethane.
I gave the top and edges three coats and called that good enough for now. Oak has an open grain, so I’ll sand and add more coats over the summer to fill those and then renew the finish every year or so.
After the bench was finished, I made a “deadman” support for long stock that’s a bit different. It uses the dog holes in the bench to hold it upright and the height is adjustable using a wedge system similar to the one on my clamps:
Here are the parts:
The tongue on the top that fits in the dog holes:
And the assembled support:
You slide it up and the wedge locks it at that height. I show it in action in the build video below.
The glamour shots:
I left the filler area undone for now. I want to make an inlay of my logo and that’ll take some time:
Can’t see me getting bored with this one anytime soon. And having all of the tools and fasteners I’ll use at this workbench in convenient drawers underneath is the icing on the cake.
If you’d like to build one of your own, you can get the plans here (click the image):
Also, the build series (plus the plans) is in the members area right now and you can join that to get access.
Finally, here’s the full build video:
I made a short follow-up video a few days later talking specifically about using hardwood for the top: