I've been using this maple table for something like 25 years now, and never really made full use of it. It turned into a clutter collector with some chisels laying around like decorations. But I recently read a book on the Studley tool chest, and got all inspired to make better tool storage, starting with some hand cut dovetail drawers for storing drill bits. Realizing I didn't have a good way to hold work for using planes and chisels, I postponed the drawers, and got busy converting the table to a traditional woodworking bench.
These tables are currently selling for about $300 USD, so they aren't super expensive. By the time you buy enough 8/4 maple to build a bench top, you could almost buy one of these pre-made. The steel legs don't dampen the vibrations from chopping, like beefy wooden legs would; but bolted to the wall and floor, it makes a pretty stout bench.
This project is heavy on metalworking, but as it progresses there are some neat tricks with glue including hidden wedge tenons and wedged thru tenons.
Step 1: Collect the Parts
The bench upgrade uses a bench screw for the tail vise, and a front vise. The front vise just bolts under the bench, and has a big hunk of wood for the vise face.
The screw is very basic, and requires quite a bit of fabrication to turn into something useful. The idea is to hold the screw in the 'L' shaped vise face so it can spin, but when the screw turns it pushes against the permanently mounted blue piece, and opens/closes the vise face. The blue piece is mounted to the underside of the bench.
The front vise and bench screw both came from Grizzly.
Step 2: Machine Flange for Tail Vise Screw
You need some way to attach the vise screw to the moving wood part of the vise. There is a 1/4" groove machined in the vise screw, this metal piece locks into that and mounts on the outside of the vise face.
Don't do like I did and cut the piece in half before drilling the mounting holes. It is easier to layout, and easier to get in the drill press if you drill the mounting holes first.
In a nutshell, layout the center, punch a starting point for the drill, drill a big hole. Then take a scribe to keep all the holes the same distance, then layout and drill the mounting holes. Cut it in half with a cutoff disk, then clean it all up on the belt sander.
This project is mounts metal brackets to hard maple in multiple places. I used lag screws from Fastenal, which I believe are the best available. I like the lag screws, because the are easier to install and remove with an impact driver than a Phillip's head screw. But be warned. Even with a generously pre-drilled pilot hole, the heads will rip off these screws with very little force. Tighten with a short 1/4" drive socket, use your weak arm to do it, and stop when things are snug.
Step 3: Machine the Brackets to Support the Shafting for the Linear Bearings
I can't separately drill four holes, then lay them on top of each other and have them come out aligned. I tried, I know how I am supposed to do it, and I'm always a little off.
To get around my weak machining skills, I weld both ends together, then drill both holes at once. Problem solved. To keep everything aligned, I use the angle grinder to make some reference marks. Check out the three blazes in the last photo for this step. Try to locate the tack welds where they will be easy to grind off. I normally grind a little off, then throw the piece on the floor to break the welds.
The center hole is to allow clearance for the vise screw, the blue flange will also need mounting holes.
This part is critical: position the holes so that the tubing that holds your linear bearings, plus the small piece that aligns the tubing, plus the 1/2" thick carriage allows for the outermost face of the carriage to extend past the brackets. The brackets are going to mount under your bench, the carriage needs to be flush with the edge of the bench so the vise can slide back and forth.
Step 4: Prep the Linear Shafting
There isn't a step for welding an angle onto the mounts for the shafting, just drill some holes where you can get a screwdriver past the shafts, and weld it in place.
You know how I mentioned I can't drill precisely located holes? Well I can't turn threads on the end of a rod either. I don't have that kind of lathe, and don't see it working out very well if I did. Instead I weld a couple of 3/4" bolts on the end of the shaft, and smooth it on the belt grinder. The before and after shot shows this concept in action. Yes, this wrecks the heat treat on the hardware, but this apparatus is so massively over-designed for the load it is taking, it isn't an issue.
Washers are welded on the other end. One end will be fixed in place. The other end is held by 3/4" bolts in a 1" hole, to allow movement for aligning the shafts. They are aligned so the carriage with the linear bearings can slide freely.
Unless you have lock nuts laying around, use a bolt that is long enough for two nuts, two washers, and a 1/4" mounting plate. The bolt shown in the photo is a little short for that.
Douse the bolts with Forney anti-splatter spray, or put a couple of nuts on the bolt so you don't get weld splatter on the threads.
Make sure the angle on top of the brackets is cut short enough that it doesn't interfere with the legs of the bench. I had to chop the bracket shown, to make it fit my setup.
Step 5: Attach the Carriage to the Linear Bearings
The linear bearings have 'C' clips on either end. Cut a piece of steel tubing that the bearings can fit inside, to a length that allows just enough room for the 'C' clips. Not being a spectacularly good at precise abrasive cutoff operations, I cut these a little long, then squared them up in the lathe. To get the spacing right, try to adjust the bolted end in the center of the 1" hole, then slide both bearings to the un-adjustable side, and tack them in place.
Just tack weld the tubing, the bearings have plastic parts that will melt if you try to weld the full length of the tube.
With a spacer tacked in place, make sure it everything slides freely, then finish welding. Weld the large carriage plate on top of the spacer. Drill holes so you can screw the carriage plate into the back of the vise.
The tubing shown is a little loose around the linear bearings. I threaded places for set screws, but didn't need them.
Step 6: Glue the Tail Vise Side Piece
This is going in the glue contest, so lets talk about glue. You know how I mentioned I'm not all that great at machining? That isn't the case for glue. I'm pretty darned good at using yellow wood glue. I'm still eating supper off a table I glued up 20 years ago. I've been 1/2 mile from shore in a boat I built with epoxy and plywood. I've used PVA, polyurethane, epoxy resin, polyester resin, cyanoacrylate, hot melt, VCT adhesive, contact cement, rubber cement, RTV, silicone, and ate paste when I was a kid. It is all about the application.
For wood, yellow wood glue is the right sauce. To get started, make sure you have a rag that is half damp with water, good fresh glue, a way to spread glue, and clamps.
Get your clamps opened up, and ready to screw tight. I live in a semi-arid climate, and the open work time for glue (how long before it starts to dry) is about five minutes, rather than the 30 minutes reported on the label. This means working fast. Turn off the phone.
For the tail vise, I get my boards arranged where I want them, spread the glue, and clamp. More about this in the next step.
Step 7: Glue the Tail Vise and Backing for the Front Vise
The new bench front edge is glued as one piece, then cut where the tail vise makes contact. It looks good with the continuous grain in the quilted maple. I'm using a silicone mat from Tandy Leather, dry glue falls off easily.
The goal is to completely cover both sides of every surface with a thin layer of glue. Don't get all lazy and try to just squirt a bead of glue, and expect the clamps to spread it for you. Don't just spread it on one board, and assume it will transfer to the other board. Based on personal experience, this doesn't work. I've tried doing it, and when you pull the boards apart, you can see they aren't fully coated. Any discontinuity in the glue bond is the start of a potential fracture, and your work can fall apart.
So squirt a zig-zag bead of glue, then take a craft stick and spread it into a thin layer. Don't try to scrape it clean, or it will dry out before you glue and be really annoying to clean (you can't put more glue over dry glue). Just leave enough glue that it looks wet and milky, not transparent.
If you do it right, you should see just a bit of glue squeeze out when the clamps go on. Don't try to wipe this off the wood, it is easier to pop the glue off the wood with a chisel after it dries. A wet rag makes a thin glue that soaks in, and the wood won't take your finish in that spot. The wet rag is good for cleaning the tip of your glue bottle.
Step 8: Prep for Mounting
This is several small steps.
Plane the front edge of the bench down to clean, flat wood. One of our glued pieces is attached here.
Cut and countersink the end caps of vise faces for the end vise. These are screwed onto the end grain of the glued boards. Don't try to glue this part, gluing end grain to vertical grain will rip itself apart from seasonal wood movement. If you haven't seen it, it is hard to believe. But if you are stubborn like me, go ahead and try, then watch what it looks like in a year.
Cut and drill a piece of angle to mount the glued board that goes behind the front vise. Mount it flush with the edge of the bench.
Mount the carriage under the bench, use a square to make sure the carriage is flush along the full length of travel. To adjust, put one screw in each end, then adjust and clamp in place, and add additional lag screws.
Step 9: Mount the Front Vise
This step uses the vise as a clamp for gluing the new front edge to the existing bench edge.
Drive the pin for the handle sleeve out with a pin punch. This lets the screw pass through the wood vise face.
Cut the vise front from a big hunk of maple. I went for a bat wing design.
Drill the new front edge using the vise parts as a drill guide. Leave the vise front a little tall, then hand plane it down to size after the glue dries.
Mount the vise under the bench with the new front edge clamped to the brackets.
Close the vise, and make sure all of the wood faces that are glued are square and snug. Yellow wood glue doesn't have what they call 'gap filling properties', so anything more than a thin film will be useless. Grind, plane, sand, or chisel what you need to get tight contact.
Cover the metal parts with a rag so you don't have to clean glue out of the threads. Spread the glue on both surfaces, and tighten up the vise until some squeezes out. Install the lag screws in the brackets while the glue is still wet. The idea is for everything to dry in the final position.
Step 10: Cut a Mortise and Tenon for the Tail Vise
I've seen most tail vises have a dovetailed joint, but I like a wedged tenon better. If it falls apart I can put a bigger wedge in place.
It is easier to take a little off the tenon than to make a mortise bigger, so I cut the mortise first.
The mortise is cut with forestner bit holes, and sharp chisels. Use a marking gauge to layout both sides identically, then drill from either side. Keep the chisel vertical when chopping down the sides. Clean it up with a rasp. I used a polyurethane mallet from Tandy leather to lightly strike the chisel.
The tenon is cut using a radial arm saw with a dado stack. The radial arm saw is a really good tool for cutting tenons. Use a stop block to keep the depth consistent. Use the height adjustment to sneak up on the final dimension of the tenon.
You know how you don't see many people using this kind of saw? That is because they are as frigging dangerous as they come. Back in the good ole' days, they didn't have all those fancy safety brakes on the saws. So right after I snapped that photo, I turned off the saw, removed the work piece, and started vacuuming up the scraps. The saw was still at almost full RPMs, and took a couple of chunks out of my knuckle when I brushed against it. It bled, and I can only just now put my hand in my pocket without pain. But it could have been worse. No matter what saw you use, please be careful.
Step 11: Glue the Mortise and Tenon
Cut a slit in the tenon for the wedge. Orient the wedge so that it is pressing against the grain, rather than trying to split the grain.
Since there are some gaps in the joinery, I'm using epoxy. The wedge is covered in glue, both mortise and tenon are covered in glue, then any gaps are filled with glue covered veneer. It looks like a mess, but cleans up nicely. Make sure your bench is square, and your joinery dries square. Mine was a little off, and I had to spend some time grinding, planing, and chiseling to get it tight.
For big jobs, like boat building, the pumps are metered so one pump from each component dispenses the correct ratio of resin and hardener. Since this product is hellaexpensive, I use disposable graduated mixing cups to measure the epoxy. Disposable cups on Amazon
Step 12: Make a Wooden Handle for the Front Vise
This uses a threaded insert and set screw to hold one end cap in place, and a hidden wedge to hold the other end.
I already had some handles turned from white oak, that didn't quite work with a fireplace set I forged. I cut these down, then center drilled them to the diameter of my dowel. If you don't have a lathe, you can buy wooden balls online, or complete handles.
One end is slit and a wedge is hidden under the cap.
The other end is drilled for a threaded insert, then countersunk, and held in place with a screw. This shows a brass threaded insert, which are mostly useless for anything other than plywood. Steel inserts work better, I broke about four inserts getting the threads cut.
A bar clamp holds things together while the glue dries.
Step 13: Measured Sketches and Details Shown From Below
This shows some additional details of the construction, and final measurements.
Step 14: Finish the Top
The 20 year old finish was yellow, and the new vises are bright maple. I used a 50 grit sanding disk in a corded drill to strip the finish, then cleaned it up with the random orbit sander. This is the fastest way I've found for rough sanding wood. There is a layer of shellac, then about four rattle cans of Minwax semi-gloss spray polyurethane.
I've finished a good number of furniture pieces, and tried oils waxes, varnishes, wipe-on poly, and lacquer. I've even done some automotive finishing. But I can't get the pressure, tip settings, and solvent load set as good as what comes out of a rattle can of spray poly. A layer or two of shellac will give the finish some depth, and the poly makes a fairly tough surface. To make a less slippery surface, the insides of the vises aren't finished. Look closely at the photo, and you can see the awesome figure in this maple.
Step 15: Postscript: About Bad Glue
Yellow wood glue has a shelf life. I used to think I was saving money by buying the large jug of glue, but after it separates, it is useless. See how the glue doesn't sheet down the sides of the container? See how there is a dark yellow crust on top of the glue? This is what it looks like when it has exceeded the shelf life. I took this photo right before it went in the trash.