Introduction: Low Waste, Simple, Rock Solid Workbench
First order of business when I moved into my house was to build a work bench. Okay the wife made me paint first, but the bench was pretty high up there.
After I built mine, my family came out to see the house, and my dad was so taken by it he wanted to recreate it in his garage. I drew up some plans for the bench, gave him a parts list, and came out to help him build it over a weekend. This is the documentation for that build.
First some rational for what I wanted to make and the goals that drove it:
• This will be an “Assembly Bench” as opposed to a woodworking or other specialized bench
• Low waste and only uses materials from the big box stores.
• Should stand up to abuse and needs to be rock solid (read: heavy).
• No fancy joints or tools required, simple construction with screws and bolts
• Lots of storage and surface space.
I spent a while researching what kind of bench I wanted to make and eventually settled on a dimensional lumber with MDF top. The online community is split on MDF, purist wood workers refuse to touch it, others say it doesn't stand up well to abuse. I've done a few things to this bench to try and increase it’s longevity and have had no regrets thus far.
Step 1: Plan, Think, Replan, Think Again, Then Sleep on It
- Height is recommended to be about the crease in your wrist with the arms relaxed. Countertops are normally 36" inches, but I found this to be too tall for extensive work. I'm about 5'8" and have found 34" to be perfect so far. (it also uses an 8’ 4x4 almost exactly) Adjust accordingly for your own taste.
- More lighting, especially natural light, is always better.
- Making the bench too deep is another problem since it limits what you can reach comfortably. With a pegboard on the wall behind my bench I can reach the top of the 2' board, but couldn't go much higher. There are enough sheet goods to make it deeper, but I do feel it's on the upper limit of how deep it should be.
- There are no hobby-specific vices mounted in this design (though you could add it per your preference), but there is a healthy overhang to allow clamping onto the benchtop.
- I decided against drawers, they add cost and most of the stuff I want to store has its own box anyway. Your own mileage may vary.
Before helping my dad out I drew the plans in CATIA and made a dimensioned drawing with a bill of materials. I've provided the cutlist for the 2x4s, for the sheet goods and 4x4, use the "Finished Dimension BOM" (Bill of Materials) off the drawing. My intention is to be able to build the bench almost entirely from the 11x17 pdf plan below.
How to read F/N's:
For this Instructable, I've labeled the parts used in each step with a Find Number (F/N column on the drawing) that matches a part in the BOM. For example if you read "Pick up a #5", after referencing the drawing you'll see that I want you to hold in your hand one of the 52" 2x4s.
A few notes on buying lumber
The piles are there for you to pick through! Inspect the boards for any cupping, twisting, cracks, excessive knots, cracks, but remember to stack the boards nicely when you’re done picking through them.
Inspect the MDF sheets for crushed edges, MDF is dense (why I used it) but has edges that can be easily damaged. Later we’ll band the edges with hardwood which will help protect it.
Room is left on one of the 2x4’s for some incompetence cuts, but if you’re worried, grab an extra one.
Now, print out the plans, buy the supplies, and let's begin!
Step 2: Attaching Wall Supports
My dad's garage had unfinished walls, so we cut a strip of sheetrock to the height of the window. This may not be necessary for you.
To begin we’re going to attach a #1 where the floor meets the wall, centered where you want the bench. The benchtop will overhang 3.5” beyond each edge so keep that in mind. For this bench we lined the right edge up with a wall stud. The right edge of this board will be the frame of reference for the rest of this project.
Next line the right edge of a #5 board to the lower support and screw it to the wall with the top edge half an inch below where you want your middle shelf to lay (account for the plywood's thickness)
In a later step, we're going to attach another #1 to the wall, but it will be part of the bench's frame. However, if your bench wall is block or concrete you’ll want align this #1 board in its final position (per the drawing 31.75" high) and predrill anchor holes. This way when the frame is complete, you’re just screwing the bolts into the already located anchors.
Step 3: Benchtop Frame
We’re going to build the main frame upside down to make sure what will eventually support the MDF top is flat. (The cut MDF sheets will work nicely as a true flat surface)
Lay 2 #1 boards on a flat surface and lay the 5 #3 stretchers in between. It helps to label one board with a “FRONT” and place it upside down and facing out to remind yourself of the final orientation.
Using clamps pull two #1stogether till all the stretchers are touching and in their correct place. This may require some shaving on the chop saw to get a tight fit. With the clamps in place, measure between both corners of the frame to make sure the whole structure is square, then screw it all together, making sure the heads are countersunk. Since pine is soft, it shouldn’t be a problem to just drive the 2.5” screws deep.
I have unequal spacing between the last two stretchers, because I mount my metal vice on the left corner and wanted the extra support when hammering in that area. However you won’t hurt my feelings if you space them evenly.
Now that the stretchers are screwed, attach 2 #4 boards on either end making sure to keep the back edge flush so you can mount it on the wall.
Step 4: Adding Legs
With the #4 boards attached, place a #6 into each corner. Place a #1 board against the #6s and between the #4s forming a rectangular outer edge. Clamp the everything securely together and using a 5/16” spade bit drill a hole through the center of each #6 (and two #1s) and attach them with the carriage bolts.
Step 5: Attach to the Wall and Add Shelves
Get a friend or bribe your children to help you place the bench frame into position. Lift and flip the frame upright, taking care to watch that you don't break your overhead lights. Not that I speak from experience or anything. Now line up the right side of the frame with the boards already attached to the wall, and screw the #1 board into the wall studs. Don’t skimp on screws here.
Take the last #1 board and place it against the back edge of the #6’s. Line the edges of the two outer #6’s and clamp them securely. Drill and insert the 5/16” carriage bolts. Use a level to make sure they're vertical.
To attach the remaining #6, measure 52" from the right edge and and attach to the #1's with bolts.
Using the remaining #5 (matching the height and position of the #5 on the wall) and attach it to the back of the legs with screws. Now take the 4 #2s and screw them to the legs and wall boards mounted in step 1.There should be 23” between the wall and the #3’s so place the two plywood boards (#7 & #8) on the shelves and countersink the 1” screws. Countersinking the screws is a nice touch to make sure boxes slide easily on your new awesome shelves.
Now the frame is done! If you have any leftover cut boards, you might want to read directions more carefully from now on. Should probably double check that car seat….
Step 6: Benchtop
First using a roller or brush apply a liberal coating of shellac onto one side of a #9 panel. This will help prevent “thirsty” MDF from absorbing moisture which will swell and bring your tabletop out of flat. When the coating is dryish, center it onto the tabletop with the coated side down.
Mark the panel with the centers of the frame boards (offsetting it from the wall just a little bit helps locate them, then extend the line with a straight edge). Drill through holes with a 3/16” bit, and countersink the holes. We’ll be stacking other flat sheets onto of this one so it’s important that the screw head is completely countersunk.
Spread some glue onto the wood frame and attach the #9 panel onto the benchtop frame with the 1.5” screws. Sand any raised bits caused by drilling into MDF so the next panels will lay flat.
Prep #10 & #11 panel by drilling and countersinking holes in the same manner
With a silicone brush (or your finger) spread a liberal amount of wood glue over the entire surface, with an emphasis on the edges. Place the #10 panel against the wall, lining up the edge, and butt up the #11 panel against that. Don’t worry too much about the front edge, but make sure the sides are lined up as close as possible. Also don’t lick your fingers, that isn’t cake batter making your hands sticky.
Screw the two panels down with the 1” screws, again taking care make sure the heads are countersunk and the MDF isn’t locally raised.
Spread a good amount of glue in the same manner as before and place the final #9 panel on top (no screws this time) Again alignment with the sides is important. With the panel in place, stack anything heavy you can find on top, focusing on the edges. I find the children you bribed back in step 5 do not work well as ballast. Too squirmy. Gym weights, toolboxes, and paint buckets complain much less.
Step 7: Hardwood Banding
Remember how I said the front MDF edge isn’t super critical? Now we’re going to square up that edge with a circular saw. Clamp down a long straight edge (probably #12 board) to shave just enough off and leave a nice flat surface.
As I mentioned earlier, MDF has somewhat weak edges so we’re going to install hardwood edging to shore up the corners. Cut a 45° miter onto ONE end of both #13 hardwood boards. Go slowly and fit each individually, shaving off just a little bit each time till the obtuse angle lines up perfectly with the MDF corner. Predrill and countersink holes in the hardwood, apply glue liberally and attach with the 1.5” screws. If you have any ratcheting straps, use them across the long edge of the bench to give some extra clamping power.
Repeat the process for the front edge of the bench, again taking care to shave it down to a perfect fit.
To protect the surface of your bench from moisture, spread an even coat of shellac onto the top. MDF drinks this stuff up so it will take a few coats to really get it covered.
Step 8: Finishing Touches
Now it's time to mount your vice, put up your pegboards, cleverly hang your sledge, and stop using the "I don't have a bench" excuse for a messy garage!