One of my fondest memories is from 1983 when my four year old son and I spent a Saturday building his workbench. We started in the morning when we went out to buy lumber and came home to build it. This gave him his own place to work and store tools as he collected them.
I feel fortunate that I went to school when woodshop was still taught, so I had the skills to tackle such a project. That may not be the same for today's parents. Here is a plan to build a stout bench that your kid will love to use. I have designed it so that all it takes is a saw (hand saw is fine) and an electric drill/screwdriver. All the materials can be purchased at you local home center. Two of you should be able to built it in a weekend. Also included is a spreadsheet so you both can design the bench to the ideal size and it will produce a cut list of materials.
The cutting instructions will either say to "cut to dimension" or "cut to measure". If it says cut to dimension then do just that. It will say cut to measure when a piece has to be made to fit. The wood thickness is not perfect and sometimes slop must be accounted for. (This is a good point to bring up with your kid that sometimes things have to be adjusted to make the whole thing fit.)
Let your kid do the measuring and math as much as they can. You will be surprised how much better they do in math later at school when they help you solve problems.
Woodworking is just figuring out how to cope with your mistakes. It should be fun. Besides making a workbench you are also making memories. Those will be perfect. Let's get started.
Step 1: Procure a Bench Top
A good size children's workbench is maybe 30" long, 15" wide, and 22" tall. It is nice if the top is at least 2" thick. These rules are not steadfast. A big determiner of size is the bench top you find. (If you find a short piece of wood beam that is 40" by 14-1/2" by 3-1/2" then that is the size of you bench). I will post plans to easily make inexpensive bench tops from different materials. (See Instructable, Child's Workbench Bench Top #1 Solid Core Door, for this bench top.)
For this example I had a 37-1/4" piece of a solid core door that I had left over from a different project. I got the door free from Craigslist. I cut it in half then glued and screwed it together to make a bench top; 37-1/4" long, 15-3/4" wide and 3-1/2" thick.
Step 2: Design Your Bench
This is the fun part as you both can determine just how tall to make it. Stack boxes, books, or whatever to get the size you both determine is ideal. As for growth factor, make the bench a good size for now and you can always place it on 2x4s or 4x4s as they grow. You need to design the base it sits on. This means figuring out just how much the top overhangs the base. Again this is an active process for you both to determine the ideal overhang. (Side overhangs of about 1/6 of the length and 1" front back overhangs makes for a pleasant looking bench)
This bench top is 37.25" long, 15.75" and 3.50" thick. This bench is to be 22" tall with 6" side overhangs and 1" front back overhangs. This means the base needs to be 25.25" (37.25 - 6 - 6 - 8) long, 13.75" (15.75 - 1 - 1)wide, and 18.50" (22 -3.50) tall.
I have included a spreadsheet that allows you to enter these three values and it will generate a cut list. It even has a large cell to add notes about your specific design. Your kid will love helping to fill it in. Print this up and you are ready to buy lumber.
Step 3: Buying Lumber
The spreadsheet will tell you how much lumber you will need. You will need 1 by 4s (1x4) and 1x2s. The spreadsheet calculates that this particular bench will need 16.50 ft of 1x4 and 9.75 ft of 1x2 lumber.
This bench is built with common #2 pine boards. I bought 3, 6ft 1x4s and 2, 8ft 1x2s.
The wood was less than $10. This is the fun part where you both get to pick through the wood pile and look for the perfect boards and load them on the lumber cart. Let your kid push the cart. (You may discretely help steer.)
Note that 1x4s are 3/4" by 3-1/2" inch while 1x2s are 3/4" by 1-1/2". Mention this to the kid and you are now the wood expert. Bring a tape measure and go measure all types of lumber.
Step 4: Cutting Pieces A,B, C, and D
Before cutting the wood, sit down with your kid and determine how best to cut the pieces from the available wood. This is not only a good math exercise but also practical one because you may want to skip a bad part of the wood. Tell your kid that the old saying is; "measure twice cut once" but you are adding; "think twice, buy wood once."
Using the cut list, cut to dimension pieces A, B, C, and D (12 pieces in all). Let the kid help with the measuring. Also note that I cut a 2" piece to help assemble the leg assembles.
You are going to need a saw to make square cuts. It you have tools, either hand or power, then fine. If not, here is a miter box saw that is cheap (less than $10) and safe for the kid to use with your direct assistance. Just remember to cut on the waste side.
Step 5: Assemble B, C and D
Two side assemblies are to be built, each with two leg pieces (B), and upper rail (C), and a lower rail (D).
The legs are glued and screwed to the rails with each leg receiving a screw for the top rail and two screws for the bottom rail. The bottom rail is positioned 2" from the bottom. Any wood glue will work. A link to the screws I prefer is given below along with a long bit to screw them in.
These screws are amazing as they really do not need a pilot hole. Install these screws half way through the leg pieces so enough of the screw grabs and holds the rails.
Step 6: Add Outer Legs (A) to Assemblies
To each side of each assembly, glue and screw the leg (A). Use four screws making sure to avoid a screw in the area over the over lower rail. Use the same type of screw as used in the previous step.
Step 7: Add Inner Upper Rail (F) to Assemblies
For each side assembly cut to measure the inner upper rail (F). Glue and screw into place using four screws. I recommend the following.
There are 35 in a package and you will need 30 to complete the workbench.
Step 8: Drill Holes
Each side assembly is going the need four holes. 7/32" in diameter. If you do not have that size bit, a ¼ " drill bit will do. The first two holes are drilled into the B leg. They are 3-3/4" from the bottom and 3/8" over from where the A and B pieces connect. This is where the long rails will be bolt into the side assemblies. The other two holes are drilled into the upper rails of the assemblies. Drill from below as close to the legs as possible. This is where the base will bolt to the bench top. The lag screws will allow the bench to be disassembled for easy moving and storage.
Step 9: Bolt Inner Long Rails (H) to Assemblies
Cut to dimension the inner long rails (H) and bolt to the side assemblies at the newly drilled holes. I recommend using the following screws. They are 3" long, have a wide head, do not require a pilot hole in the rails, and fit into the drilled holes. They even come with the drill bit needed to screw them in.
Put the rails into place and attach with screws.
Step 10: Add Inner Rail (G) to Assemblies
For each side assembly cut to measure the inner rail (G) and glue and screw to the lower rail (D) making sure not to get glue on any of the other pieces. Use four of the same type of screw used in step 7.
Step 11: Attach Outer Long Rails (E)
Cut to measure the outer long rails (E) and glue and screw to the inner long rails H making sure not to get glue on any of the other pieces. For each side use six of the same type as used in the previous step.
Step 12: Attach Base to Bench Top
Turn your bench top upside down and mark than side and front overhangs. Screw to the bench top through the hole in the upper rail, using the same 3" screw used in step 9. Flip the bench over and it is ready to use.
Step 13: Showing Love by Showing How
I have noticed that when fathers help their children they do it from behind. I believe when a mother helps she does it from the front is if to say, "I am always here for you". I believe a father is saying "Let me show you the way." I call this a father hug.
I remember my dad helping me with a pinewood derby car. He showed how to spray paint without getting runs and of course doing it from behind. My car won a trophy. I no longer have the trophy, the car, or my father, but I have the memory of a very patient man showing me how. I still spray paint very very well. This is for everyone that shows love by showing how!
A Father's Hug
When I use a handsaw, my father's still behind me, his hand over mine on the handle, his other holding the board, his mouth to my ear, a father's hug. Quietly commanding,
"Steady the blade with your knuckle, pull twice to set, cut on the waste side, long clean strokes won't bind the blade."
I feel the sandpaper roughness of his unshaved Saturday face as it is pressed against my cheek, the warmth of morning sun as we work outside, the pressure on my hand as he helps me to keep a square line. I smell a combination of pine, aftershave, coffee and his pipe. Our project was bookends. I now realize we were really making memories.
When I drill a hole, my father 's still there. My hands on the brace. His over mine. A father's hug.
"Square the bit from two sides. Clockwise to drill. Back it up to clear the bit."
A friend commented, at the birth of his child, that he would show his child the affection his father never could. I told him his father showed him lots of affection. Hugs, all from behind. Each given with love. Each meant to teach. And through all the differences of opinion, arguments and difficult times my father and I have had, I still pull twice to set a blade, still square a bit from two sides.
Now my son uses a saw, I am behind him, my hand over his on the handle. A father's hug.
Now go make some memories!