Reply by brtech

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Posted on Work Bench

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1029 posts in 2919 days

#1 posted 03-01-2012 08:51 PM

Choice of top has a whole lot of variables, and therefore a lot of tradeoffs. No one can say “do it this way”.
MDF has been mentioned a couple times. It’s probably the cheapest and easiest way to get a flat, heavy top. The drawbacks are that dog holes dont last and it soaks up water. You can get around the former by putting in an insert for the dog holes. You can get around the latter by using waterproof MDF, or by sealing it real well. You want at least two layers of 3/4 and more wouldn’t be a bad idea. You will have to work around how to build a wagon vise if you want the kind that has a single screw and a moveable dog hole inside the top. Using an external vise, either a regular or a twin screw, with a built in dog hole, you trade off problems of cost, complexity, mounting, work support, size, etc.

An MDF top can’t really be resurfaced. You have to replace the top layer.

A couple folks have used MDF and then put down a layer of flooring on top of that. You get a hardwood, which can have some minor resurfacing, and at least part of the dog hole problem is solved. It may look better than MDF, and takes things like hammer blows better. You will need to flatten your top if you do this, because the flooring doesn’t come out dead flat. Pretty much limits you to doing it by hand, or use a router sled.

Then there is the pine on edge crowd. You use 2×4s or cut up 2×6s and laminate them. You end up with a 2.5 or 3” thick top. Pine comes in lots of flavors. If you can get Southern Yellow Pine, you can make a pretty strong, beefy top without a whole lot of cost. The problem is flattening the laminations. You can do it with a hand plane, a router sled or you can make it in 12 or 13” widths and run it through your planer. With a little work, a “split top” bench can be made using that technique and only require either some minor shimming or some small planing work to get flat. Dog holes are simple, and reasonably long lasting. Also simpler to build in the wagon vise.

Then there is the hardwood crowd. Buy a whole boatload of 12/4 hard maple and go to town. Actually, lots of folks us other hardwoods, and soft maple is pretty reasonable as is beech, birch or others. Has all the lamination issues of the pine top.

For vises, it’s mostly budget tradeoffs. If you can afford it, the Benchcrafted stuff is really, really nice.

There are also the wooden vise crowd who make leg vises and sliding deadmen using Erie wooden screws.

I’m partial to getting the guts from Lee Valley and building in a wagon vise and a surface vise. Cheap, effective, strong.

Lots and lots of other choices. Record external vises, Harbor Freight external vises, the list goes on.

If you have not got hand plane experience and you do have a lunch box planer, and your budget is a lot closer to $300 then $600 or $1000 or more, then let me suggest you do a split top pine, you put in a LV tail vise and side vise, wrap it with maple if you wish (I wouldn’t bother), and then think about the base. About the only other big decision is whether you want a sliding deadman, or the dog hole on the side plank to hold up boards on edge for handwork.

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