Learning Something: Workbench #1: The Planning

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Blog entry by John Steffen posted 01-14-2010 11:31 PM 5188 reads 0 times favorited 3 comments Add to Favorites Watch
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Planning a project is often my favorite part (aside the finished product). Thus there will probably be many many more plans/drawings on here than work updates.

However, this project is going to be seen through to completion as I need a workbench in my shop for future projects I probably won’t finish.

I’ve scoured books, magazines, and the internet to come up with a good vision of what I think I need in my bench.

  • My current shop is 10’x20’ so space is at a premium. I feel that somewhere between 6’x2’ and 6’x3’ is the ideal size.
  • I’m rammy, and can usually find a way to mess anything up so I would like an easily replaceable hardboard top.
  • I want my bench to be rigid and heavy.
  • I would like to have two perpendicular clamp vises.
  • I would like to learn/practice some techniques such as mortise and tenon joinery, and get some time in on my new power tools.
  • I want to make most of it with cheap lumber since it’s my first bench.

I’ve done some work in SketchUp (which I’m still learning) and came up with a design that seems to meet my needs. This is a rough version as not everything is to size.

Here we see the bench I’ve started designing. There should be a good bit of support with the 3.5×3.5 legs and large and plentiful stretchers mortised through. As you’ll notice I didn’t put any hardware on the vises.

No Top
In this picture I’ve removed the top layers to show the cross supports that would run through the inside sort of like a torsion box, though not complete. I’ve also put in support for the dogs. If you notice, they aren’t all evenly spaced, though I hope for them to be in the final version.

This picture I had a little fun with some textures. I would like to build most everything out of standard lumber from the box store including a top and bottom made of MDF and a sacrificial surface made of hardboard.

I’ve learned, in the process of trying to figure out workbenches, that there are a lot of styles out there. Nobody wants to show you how they’ve attached the legs to the table. I now know what the rows of holes are for.

Any thoughts on how I could improve on this design to better meet my needs.

-- Big John's Woodshed - Farmington, IL

3 comments so far

View mstenner's profile


57 posts in 3149 days

#1 posted 01-15-2010 03:07 AM

That looks pretty good to me. Is there some reason for the torsion-boxy interior rather than solid (as in several layers) something? I’m thinking 3 inches of MDF sounds right. Another thought (I’ve been pondering my own next workbench lately): I’ve recently become extremely fond of hacking up fixtures atop my current crappy workbench using a sacrificial 1/2” mdf top and simply tacking down bits of 1/2” mdf with my 1” pin nailer. I find this extremely fast and convenient, in some cases much better than vises would be (if I had them). The pins do very little damage and are easy to remove so I don’t destroy either the top or the blocks.

My point is, if you’re gonna have a sacrificial top, you might just go all the way with 1/2” or 3/4” mdf and then nail/pin things into it freely. Speaking for myself, I can’t decide if I want to do that as a bench top, or go the traditional route with a solid wood top and a piece of MDF that I clamp or use dogs to secure.

I’d be interested in your (and anyone else’s) thoughts for my own purposes.

-- -Michael

View John Steffen's profile

John Steffen

218 posts in 3050 days

#2 posted 01-15-2010 05:19 PM

Michael, I’ve slept on your ideas, and I like them quite a bit. I’ve actually rethought my design and will probably work up another sketch today to see what it looks like.

The only thing I would worry about (and I’ve not experience even using MDF) is sag over time. While I don’t think it would be drooping down to the ground, even 1/16” or 1/32” of sag away from the legs would start to cause problems (and annoy me to no end). Four pieces of 3/4” laminated MDF probably wouldn’t have that problem, but I would want to know for sure before I started. Maybe someone else has some insight on that.

The other reason is that I’m very new to woodworking and still always in a framing mindset. When I think about building something I always think about framing it, to the point of absurdity.

The reason I want to top it with hardboard is for completely aesthetic reasons. I like the way it looks and feels as a work surface.

Will be uploading a new table in the next couple of days with some rethinking based on your ideas.

-- Big John's Woodshed - Farmington, IL

View Derek Lyons's profile

Derek Lyons

584 posts in 3563 days

#3 posted 01-15-2010 06:20 PM

The reason for selecting a torsion box over solid wood is mainly weight – a torsion box is going to be far lighter.

Properly built, I.E. built flat in the first place, a torsion box is going to stay flat.

-- Derek, Bremerton WA --

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