This is the first of a series of blog entries describing a mobile torsion box workbench I recently completed. I posted a project summary a few days ago (Mobile Torsion Box Workbench). The overall series will cover construction plans and details, material costs, and odds and ends. In this entry, I’ll describe some of the factors and thought processes that led me to build this bench the way I did.
Some Background about Me
I’m an occasional woodworker. I probably average three or four projects a year. Like many of you, my “shop” is my garage, and my wife and I actually park our cars in it. That means that my tools have to be relatively compact, and that they must be mobile. For example, my table saw is a Ridgid R4510 which, when folded, takes up little space.
I’m mostly a power tool woodworker. I have an old block plane, but I’ve never sharpened or learned how to use it. In addition to the table saw I mentioned, I have miter, circular, and jig saws, a router, a drill press, and some hand drills. I don’t own a jointer or planer; that (and the lack of hand planing tools and skills) means that I have to depend on buying relatively straight and flat lumber—no buying rough lumber and milling it into perfectly flat, square boards for me. For some silly reason, I’ve never bought a power sander, so I still do that by hand.
My joinery usually consists of rabbets, dadoes, dowels, or, increasingly, pocket holes. (I get a lot of use out
of my Kreg jig.) I learned how to make half-lap joints for the doors on an TV console I built. Until this project,
I had never cut a mortise or tenon. I often build things from MDF, usually veneered. I may never plane the edge of a board, but chances are good that I’ll veneer, then flush trim the edge of one. I want a sturdy bench, but I probably won’t do any really heavy-duty bashing on it.
Until now, my primary work surface was a five-foot cafeteria table with folding legs, supplemented by a 25-year
old Black and Decker Workmate (which is a very useful tool, even though it’s a bit small and low). I’ve been
thinking about building a real workbench for years. The problem was always deciding what to build; there are so many intriguing designs out there. Several times, I thought I had settled on a particular design (more about some specific ones later), only to reconsider and then end up doing nothing. Paralysis by analysis.
A few months ago, my wife suggested that we clear some space along the front wall of our garage to accommodate a reasonable bench (say six feet long, two feet deep, and three feet high). Once we did that, I had no excuse for not building a bench. (Buying one was never really an option. Like you, I’m a lumberjock and would rather build than buy, hopefully learning some things and saving some money in the process.)
Here’s a photo of my bench-to-be’s home. Note that that’s a good place to store the bench, but not a good place to use it. The lighting in that spot is really poor, and there’s no free space on either side. Plus, I guarantee I’d step in that litter box multiple times per work session.
Another key point about that storage location is that I wanted to keep the bench narrow (so it wouldn’t stick out from the wall any more than the freezer or drill press), and I didn’t want any face vice handles jutting out that we might bump into. Finally, I needed to make sure I could still open those breaker box doors without moving the bench (not a big deal, because the bottom of those doors is a hair over 39” from the floor.)
Bench Designs I Considered
As I mentioned, I looked at a lot of workbench designs. Here are links to, and comments about, some of the more interesting ones.
- Dave Munkittrick’s Ultimate Tool Stand is aimed at power tool woodworkers like me. I’m not sure why I decided against it. Maybe I questioned how well something made entirely of MDF would have lasted, and I didn’t want to paint every last square inch of it so a stray drop of water wouldn’t have caused it to swell. Still, it looks very versatile. If I had room for two benches, I might still consider this one.
- Blum Tool’s Bench Horse is a torsion box with folding legs, and uses pipe clamps as vises. I searched the U.S. Patent office web site and found some drawings of its internals that would have allowed me to replicate it. I don’t really need full portability, though—just mobility within my garage.
- John White’s New-Fangled Workbench (and New-Fangled Workbench Revisited) looked interesting too. It also uses pipe clamps for vises, and I really like that sliding planing beam. On the other hand, I was worried about how flat I could make the top, and that it might be too fussy. Plus, I’d probably lose a lot of those little panels on the top.
- Ron Paulk’s Ultimate Workbench is just plain cool. Watch the video, and I bet you’ll agree. It uses a grid of dog holes, and I bet those storage areas along its perimeter would be very useful. I don’t really need the full portability this bench provides, and I didn’t want to have to set it up using its saw horses.
- Tom Caspar’s Torsion Box Workbench is aimed at people like me who don’t have jointers and planers. It looks like it would be very solid.
- Most of the benches documented in Christopher Schwarz’s second workbench book were interesting, particularly the 24-hour Workbench and $175 (now $280) Workbench. The former has a top built from four sheets of plywood, while the latter has a laminated solid-wood type. I didn’t think I could pull off the laminated top, and thought I could do something cheaper than four layers of plywood.
In the end, I decided I needed these features (copied from those designs):
- Legs flush with the front of the bench top. (Schwarz’s book absolutely convinced me this was a good idea.)
- Fold-up casters (also from Schwarz’s book).
- No protruding handles, as I mentioned above. In fact no vises—I wanted to use the Veritas Surface Vise and Surface Clamp, along with my collection of F-clamps.
- Height-adjustable planing beam.
- Numerous space dog holes (for the surface vise).
- Provision for pipe clamp “face vises”.
- A sturdy shelf (for storage or holding tools and supplies while I work).
In addition, I thought of some features that would be nice to have:
- The ability to use the bench as an outfeed table for my table saw.
- A removable top. I wondered if I could hold the top in place with “bullets” and swap in a router table top as needed.
- A “tall mode”. If I could use locking casters, maybe I could use the bench wheels-down for routing, where a taller bench might be nice.
In the next entry, I’ll describe my completed bench and include more photos of it.
-- Ron Stewart