The top drives every thing else about a workbench. And I gave it a lot of thought. The new bench would occupy the I-Beam work surface area. So, in theory, it could be up to the 8’ length of that system. But, it’s a tight 8’. I frequently have to slide it up or down as the space between the old bench and my drill press setup is about 11’. Also, looking at my usage pattern, I seemed to use about 2’-4’ of space as a work surface and the rest as a place to pile tools and parts. So, really, I could get by with a much shorter bench proper.
Then there is the wood. I get most of my work stock from building material auctions. I have been able to get rough and 2S2 4/4 red oak for between $1.00 and $1.25/bf in 150ish bf lots. The last auction also yielded a pallet of what I guess were intended to be turning blanks. For $50 I got half the pallet (about 150 pieces). Each piece is 2 3/4” square and between 56” and 38” long. They are all laminated from 3/4 and 4/4 material and clearly commercially produced, all were straight and square. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with them, but at $50, firewood was more expensive, so I was sure something would come up. Well, I have made 7 Stickley-style side tables, a blanket chest and a few smaller items out of them so far. Then I got to thinking that instead of buying wood (not in the budget) or creating some complex glue-up scheme, I would make a top from the longest pieces and see how it felt as a working surface. I was sure I could move to top to a friend or client if it proved too small and start again.
Gluing up square wood like this felt almost like cheating. I set my son to sorting the pallet of wood by sizes and selected the 10 best 56 inchers for this project. These were going to have to be glued in sub-assemblies as there was no way to really handle the full top in my small shop. So I glued them up in batches of 2×3 and 1×4 and then glued the resulting parts together. Unfortunately, I had some trouble lining things up and the resulting top was close to flat, but not quite. This project convinced me to get a rolling glue bottle, I just need to move faster on these larger project than I can without some applicator. I was right at the edge of the Titebond II’s open time when I finished clamping it up so I ended up with some small 1/64 ish variations that I think I could have avoided.
Well there is no machine that can help me flatten this mother. I fact it’s nearly out of the question to pick it up at all w/o a strong helper. So, we turn to the Luddite side of the force and pull out our trusty hand planes. I have a nice, newish Veritas 4 1/2, and some eBay Stanleys in 4, 5 1/4 and 7. Looking over the sorry state of the eBay plane blades I decided to pull the trigger and order a Hock replacement blade for the 7. Those crazy guys at Tools for Working Wood got it to me the next day even with standard shipping. Following the procedure described in several places by Chris Schwarz (like his blog and in his Workbenches book) I started in on the top. I didn’t have much time the first day, but the initial progress was good.
I came back a week later and decided that the pre-power tool project would be flattening the top (I don’t fire up power tools before 10am on the weekends because the shop is right until the master bedroom and that would be a Problem). The procedure was dead on and in less than 45 min I had my morning workout complete and the top was as close to dead flat as I will even need or achieve. Checking with the straight edge, I couldn’t find any hills or valleys. Then, switching back to the dark side, I fired up the random orbital sander with some 80 grit to clear off the random plane marks taking care to use even coverage and not ruin the flatness.
Even with the glue up issues, I feel like the top was quick and painless and it’s nice to have a surface that’s flat and not my table saw.
-- --- Wayne.