Introduction: Build This Woodworker's Workbench to Learn Mortise & Tenon Joinery
As my interest in woodworking developed and my projects became increasingly complex, I realized it was time to put my makeshift work surface (sawhorses and an old door) aside and build a proper woodworker's workbench. Instructable members have published some great benches (see members jdedge and scotttland), but I wanted to build one that would meet my specific needs while providing the opportunity to develop a new woodworking skill at the same time. I settled on a plan from Fine Woodworking Magazine called the "Not so big Workbench" (plan available on the finewoodworking.com website for around $12 when on sale). This workbench is constructed using mortise and tenon joinery which I decided was a necessary skill to learn since I have a number of future furniture projects in mind. The plan also offers a great deal of tool storage which, while not part of this instructable, I plan to add to my workbench in the near future.
Note: This instructable is not intended to be a substitute for the actual "Not so big Workbench" plan. Instead, the goal is to provide a general overview of how to build any workbench using mortise and tenon joinery. If you decide to build the "Not so big Workbench" it would be wise to purchase the plan at the finewoodworking.com website.
Step 1: Using Basic Tools to Build This Project
If you watch any of the woodworking shows on public television you know the pros have workshops stocked with every sophisticated power tool available today.** Because they have a specific tool for every task their projects seem effortless and always go together flawlessly in a 30 minute show. Unfortunately, most of us (including myself) don't have many of these tools at our disposal. For that reason, the focus of this instructable is to detail the challenges and solutions in building a mortise and tenon style workbench using the limited number of tools many of us own.
** For example: in the fine woodworking step by step video for building the "Not so big Workbench", Ed Pirnik uses a mortising machine to cut near perfect mortises requiring minimal clean up with a chisel. The video is available to online fine woodworking members only. The charge is $4.99 a month for full access to the site but is well worth it, in my opinion.
Here are the tools I used to create this workbench:
Miter Saw - to crosscut workbench lumber to length
Table saw - to mill the lumber to the proper dimensions (4' x 4' x 6' Douglas fir, ripped to size for legs, stretchers and trestles)
Dado blade set for the table saw - to cut the tenons
Power drill - using Forstner bits to drill the mortises and dog holes (spade bits would be acceptable as well)
Wolfcraft drill jig - to control the drill and provide greater precision when drilling - purchased for this project at Amazon.com ($25)
Assorted chisels (1/4", 1/2" and 1") - to remove waste from the mortises and fine tune the tenons
Random orbit Sander - 80 up to 220 sandpaper grits to smooth surfaces for finishing
Hammer - for inserting hardwood pins in the base joints to help prevent racking over time
Rubber Mallet - for base assembly
Block Plane - to fine tune tenons
5' clamps - for assembly of the workbench base
Step 2: Designing Your Workbench (and Figuring Out the Approximate Cost)
You can build this workbench exactly as called for in the plans or customize it to suit your particular needs. In my case I had two specific goals:
(1) I wanted a bench that was somewhat larger than the plan called for (mainly because the top I purchased was 6 feet long).
(2) I wanted a bench that could be moved around my garage as needed and then stored out of the way (garages are for cars, right?). I also wanted to be able to do my woodworking outside on a nice day.
These requirements affected the total cost of my project which was around $375.00. The breakdown is as follows:
Rockler heavy duty caster set $79.99
These casters make moving a very heavy bench quite easy
Rockler quick release vise $103.99
A good vise is essential. This one is nice and reasonably priced.
6' , 1 1/2" thick Birch butcher block counter top $98.00
I opted to purchase a ready made top rather than build one from scratch. Home centers like Lowe's, Home Depot and Menards are three sources. Ikea also sells different types of counter tops suitable for a workbench. I bought my counter top at Menards when on sale.
Lumber for the bench $75.00
I chose 4' x 4' Douglas fir. It is relatively inexpensive and fairly easy to work with.
Watco Oil (natural color) for finishing $15.00
Since there are literally hundreds of plans available online, of which many are free, I recommend doing some research to determine the size and features you want in a workbench. Mortise and tenon joinery can easily be incorporated into any plan you choose.
Step 3: Buying a Ready Made Bench Top & Milling the Lumber for the Base
The Bench Top
The "Not so big Workbench" plan includes a step for building a 5' long 24" wide bench top from eleven 2" wide, 2 3/4" thick wood planks (plus a 2" wide apron) as part of the project. However, that step is particularly laborious and requires tools not used in this instructable. For those reasons I opted to buy a ready made birch counter top at my local home center (6' in length x 36" wide x 1 1/2" thick) and ripped it down to my desired width of 27". Of the two cut-offs shown in the picture, a 4" strip was used for the apron and part of the remaining piece was used for the face of my vise.
The Base - milling the lumber to the proper dimensions
The lumber I chose to use to build this workbench was douglas fir. This wood species is easy to work with and isn't expensive so it seemed like the perfect choice for my first attempt at mortise and tenon joinery. The parts needed for the base required that I purchase 4" x 4" x 6' stock and mill it to the proper dimensions. This was challenge number one since pre-surfaced douglas fir (S4S rated, meaning squared on all four sides) is not typically found in home centers like Lowe's or Home Depot. Also, when S4S lumber in any type of wood is available, it is much more expensive than rough lumber. For this reason, milling my lumber to the correct dimensions (while getting it as square as possible) was a difficult proposition without a jointer and planer. However, since this instructable is for those of us with limited tools and budgets, this is really the only option.
When shopping for rough lumber, expect to sort through a large number of boards to find those that are as straight as possible. Avoid all twisted, bowed or warped boards. To do so, first, sight down a board from one end to the other. Next, lay the best ones side by side to see how they line up to one another. Be prepared to accept some compromises and understand that what looks good after milling may be slightly out of square, but should be acceptable for this type of project.
These are the dimensions from the plan I used:
The 2 feet: 2 1/2" thick by 2 3/4" wide by 23" long (mine: 28" long)
The 2 trestle tops: 2 1/2" thick by 2 3/4" wide by 21 1/2" long (mine: 26 1/2" long)
The 4 legs: 1 3/4" thick by 3" wide by 31" long
The 4 stretchers: 1 3/4" thick by 3" wide by 42 1/8" long (mine: 46 1/8" long due to 6' bench top with a 12" overhang on both ends)
Just remember to adjust the length of your feet, trestle top and stretchers according to the length and width of your bench top.
Milling your lumber to size
Note: Prior to milling the lumber, wait several days for the wood to acclimate to your shop (or garage) environment.
1) Cut all pieces to LENGTH: Cut your 4x4's to the desired dimension for all the base parts using your miter saw (or a hand saw).
2) Cutting pieces to the appropriate THICKNESS: When ripping lumber this thick you will need to make several passes on the table saw to complete the cut. Put the edge that is the most true and flat against the fence and, using a good rip blade, make a pass around an inch and a quarter thick. Raise the blade another inch and repeat. Then flip the board over, lowering the blade just enough to complete the cut. Plan on rough cutting all your pieces larger than the final thickness since you will need to make finish cuts on ALL sides. (The uncut edges of the 4x4 may be slightly rounded and this material will need to be removed as well).
3) Allow the wood to STABILIZE: Stack the rough cut pieces (separated by scrap pieces to allow air circulation) and give the wood a day or two to re-acclimate and stabilize.
4) After the pieces have been rough cut, change to a 60 tooth finish blade. Set the blade so one pass will smooth the entire face on all edges of the board removing just enough material to even out the previous cut marks (about 1/2 the blade thickness). These cuts should take the board down to it's final dimension.
5) Check each board with a square to gauge your results. Without the use of a jointer perfectly square lumber is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. For this reason, the goal is for results that are good enough to be acceptable for the project at hand (remember, a workbench isn't a piece of fine furniture). Ultimately, I was pleased with the way my workbench turned out and believe you will be to - as long as the proper diligence and care is taken when choosing and milling your lumber.
NOTE: Jointing on a Table Saw
I recently discovered a jig you can build to joint a board on the table saw. I wish I would have known about it before starting this project! If I had, I definitely would have used it on my workbench. Google "jointing on a table saw" for more information.
Step 4: First: Create All the Mortises
1) Always create the mortises first. Then, make a "customized" tenon to fit each individual mortise. This is the only way to guarantee a decent fit regardless of how good or bad a particular mortise may be.
2) Mark the location of the mortise on your workpiece and use a forstner bit or a spade bit to remove as much material as possible. The more material you can remove when drilling out the mortise the less chisel work the mortise will require. I used a forstner bit and thought it worked quite well.
Note: The size and location of the mortises for the Not so big Workbench are as follows (all dimensions per the online plan):
Trestle top mortises: 2 1/2" long x 1 1/4" wide x 1 3/4" deep
Leg mortises: 2 1/2" long x 1 1/4" wide x 1 1/4" deep
Base mortises: Front Mortise starts 2" from the front of the base, Rear Mortise starts 2 1/2" from the end of base
Trestle top mortises: Front Mortise starts 1 1/4" from the front of the trestle top, Rear Mortise starts 1 3/4" from the end of the trestle top
Leg mortises: Top Mortise 5" from the end of the leg (before cutting the tenon), Bottom Mortise 3" from the end of the leg (before cutting the tenon)
3) Drill overlapping holes using a drilling jig for more control and to drill to the correct depth. Using a hand held drill isn't really a viable option and, since I don't have a drill press, I opted to buy a Wolfcraft drill jig (Amazon.com, about $25) for more accuracy and control. I will say that, while I wasn't overly impressed with the product, it did serve it's purpose. In addition to creating a series of overlapping holes the jig also had an adjustment to set the proper depth of the mortise. As seen in the pictures for this step, the jig needs to be securely clamped to the work piece or you won't be able to control it.
(What I didn't like about this jig: My jig had a lot of play in the chuck assembly (was it defective?) and as a result the bit tended to wander. This made drilling the overlapping holes of the mortise more of a challenge than I expected.)
4) When cleaning up the mortise with a chisel take out only small amounts of material at a time. Take your time with this step. Tear out is a problem when you work too quickly, especially when removing end grain. This is the hardest and most boring step in the project. My worst mortises were the result of my impatience.
If you like the results using mortise and tenon joinery, realize that there are better and easier ways to create mortises. I plan on eventually buying a router for future projects since that tool is extremely versatile and can be used for so many different woodworking tasks, including mortising.
5) Drill holes to pin each joint for extra strength (last photo). Drill 2, 1/4" holes in each mortise (2 1/4" deep for the feet and trestle top mortises, 2 3/4" deep for the leg mortises) to accept a hardwood dowel. This process, called "pinning" strengthens the joint and reduces the possibility of the base racking over time. At the proper depth the holes will extend though the mortise but end before exiting the other side of the work piece. After assembly the holes will be re-drilled to penetrate the tenon and dowels will be glued in place to complete the joint.
Step 5: Cut the Tenons
Since no two mortises will ever be identical, the key to success when making a tenon is remembering that each tenon must be custom fit to the mortise it will eventually be mated with. For this reason, the initial shaping done on the table saw should leave the resulting tenon a tiny bit larger than the mortise it will fit into. The tenon must then be "fine tuned" using a chisel (and, if helpful, a small block plane) to create a precise fit.
As seen in the accompanying photos a stop block sets the position for the proper length of the tenon. Using a rip blade, create the shoulders for the tenon (rotating the work piece 1/4" turn after each pass of the saw blade) before changing to a dado blade to complete the tenon. This method provides smooth shoulders and guarantees that every tenon is exactly the same length, eliminating the possibility of a measuring error.
TENON SIZES: Leg tenons are 2 1/2" high x 1 1/4" wide x 1 3/4" deep. Stretchers are 2 1/2" long x 1 1/4" wide x 1 1/4" deep.
After switching to a dado blade:
- Carefully set the height of the blade for the correct depth of the tenon cheeks.
- Press the work piece against the stop block and make an initial pass on the table saw.
- Rotate the work piece 1/4 turn and make another cut.
- Keep repeating this process until all four cheeks of the tenon have been cut.
- Reposition the stop block and continue removing material until you have finished rough cutting the tenon.
Next, trim the tenon to fit the mating mortise:
- As needed, use a chisel to evenly trim material from ALL sides of the tenon until it fits in the mortise.
- A very sharp block plane can also be used to remove small amounts of material from the tenon cheeks to improve the fit.
The goal is a snug fitting tenon that goes together with gentle hand pressure or a light tap from a mallet. If you have to pound the tenon into the mortise, the tenon is too tight and needs more trimming. Remember: when glue is applied the wood fibers expand. For this reason, a slightly loose fit is better than an extremely tight fit.
Finally, match each mortise to the mating tenon with identifying numbers or letters as shown in the photos. This will guarantee a proper fit and smooth assembly.
Step 6: Foot and Trestle Detailing & Leg Assembly
The "Not so big Workbench" plan calls for some very nice accent detailing on both the feet and trestle tops. It gives the finished workbench a nice craftsmanship appearance but involves some time and effort to accomplish. The amount of "elbow grease" required depends on the tools at your disposal.
Because of the thickness of these pieces using a jig saw to cut the shape wasn't an option for me. Instead, after tracing the shape of the curves, I set a work piece on its side and used my miter saw to make several angle cuts to remove as much material as possible just outside the cut lines. The resulting cuts were then hand sanded to soften the angles, eventually resulting in the gentle curves seen in the photos. A boring, time consuming task but with a very satisfying result.
(Note: If you are fortunate enough to own a drum sander the job will go a lot faster and be a lot easier.)
Since the rounded details on the trestle tops and feet are merely cosmetic you can skip this step if you prefer. However, be sure to cut out material on the underside of the each base piece to define the front and rear feet. The function of creating individual feet (by removing material from the middle of the work piece) is to improve the stability of the workbench on an uneven surface. This detail is easily accomplished by using a dado blade to cut a notch approximately 1/4" deep and removing enough material to leave a front foot 7" in length and a rear foot 8" in length when using my workbench dimensions (5 3/4" and 6 1/4" if using the plan dimensions).
Finally, before undertaking the leg assembly, drill a countersunk 3/8" mounting hole in the middle of each trestle top. The workbench top will be secured to the base with lag screws (see picture #3) in step #9.
Glue up of the legs to the feet and trestle top is a simple and straightforward process:
1) On your workbench, lay two legs and the corresponding base and trestle top (identified by matching the letters on each mortise and tenon) in position.
2) Apply glue liberally (Titebond III recommended) to each mortise and tenon.
3) Assemble promptly and check to be sure all the joints are square.
4) Tightly clamp the assembly together as shown in the photos allowing sufficient time for the glue to dry.
5) Finally, re-drill the pin holes created in step 4. Glue dowels cut from 1/4" round hardwood stock into each pin hole. The dowels will need to be seated by firmly striking them with a hammer. When the glue has dried the exposed ends of the dowels can be removed using a saw or hand plane. Finish by sanding to a smooth finish.
After both leg assemblies are completed you will be ready to add the stretchers to complete the workbench base.
Step 7: Add Stretchers to Complete the Base Assembly
After the leg assemblies have been completed, the next step in the construction of the workbench base is to add the stretchers. As seen in the second photo, the best way to accomplish this task is to place one leg assembly on the floor protected from damage by a large piece of cardboard. Apply glue to all four mortises and the matching tenons and tap the tenons into place using a rubber mallet*. Working quickly, repeat this process with the remaining leg assembly, again using a rubber mallet to assure the tenons are fully seated in the mortises.
*Place small pieces of scrap wood under the legs to fill the recess created by the offset between the legs and the base and trestle top pieces (see photo 2). This will relieve stresses created when using a rubber mallet during glue up.
Note: When using Titebond III glue the working assembly time, including clamping, will be approximately fifteen minutes.
Next, set the base assembly upright and apply four 5' clamps to the leg assemblies at the height of the stretchers, applying even pressure at all four clamps.
Tips when clamping:
1) Using a large 4 foot level, locate the most level area of your workspace floor do do the clamping.
2) When tightening the clamps start with those closest to the floor.
3) Tighten the clamps in sequence but with just enough pressure to hold their position.
4) Using a level, check the horizontal and vertical alignment of the leg assemblies and stretchers.
5) If necessary, tap with a rubber mallet to attempt small adjustments.
6) Continue tightening the clamps in sequence, rechecking assembly alignment until all clamps are fully tightened. Remove after allowing sufficient time for the glue to dry.
6) As you did when completing the leg assemblies, re-drill the pin holes created in step 4. Glue dowels cut from 1/4" round hardwood stock into each pin hole. The dowels will need to be seated by firmly striking them with a hammer. When the glue has dried the exposed ends of the dowels can be removed using a saw or hand plane. Finish by sanding to a smooth finish.
Step 8: Preparing the Workbench Top: Attaching the Apron & Vise
Even though you may have purchased a ready made top for your workbench there are still several steps that need to be completed before you can fasten it to the base. These steps include: fabricating an apron for the front of the workbench and assembling and attaching a vise. Since there are a number of different vises available, some of the tips in this step may not apply to your particular situation. In any case, the first question you should ask yourself is:
What size top do you want?
The birch counter top I purchased was 6' long, 36" deep and 1 1/2" thick. After ripping it to my desired width I had more than enough material remaining for the workbench apron and front vise jaw. It should be noted that ripping a very long 1 1/2" thick board can be very difficult. I was fortunate to have a friend with a heavy duty table saw who helped me with this task. If using a circular saw to rip the counter top be sure to clamp a straight edge to the top to serve as a guide for the saw. Make the cut slowly, being careful to keep the saw against the straight edge to insure a clean, accurate cut.
A standard depth counter top is another option and, depending on your requirements, may not need to be ripped to a smaller dimension. However, if you opt for a ready made top in a standard depth, remember that you will have to purchase additional material for the workbench apron and vise jaws.
The photos in this step illustrate how I prepared the top and fabricated the apron to properly attach the vise to my workbench.
Please note: The vise you choose for your workbench will influence both the size of the vise jaws and how it mounts to the bench top.The Rockler vise I used required my vise jaws be 5 1/2" tall and 11" wide. Since my bench top was only 1 1/2" thick I also had to add a second layer of wood to give me the necessary 3" thick mounting surface for the vise frame (photo #1).
Preparing the Workbench Top to accept a Vise
Photo #1: After determining the size of the vise jaws, if necessary, glue and screw an additional thickness of wood to the left front underside of the workbench top. Next, using the appropriate size screws, secure the vise frame to the top.
Making the Workbench Apron & Front Vise Jaw
Photo #2: The counter top cut off that I used for my apron was 4" tall. In order for the vise to properly mount to the top I glued an 11" by 1 1/2" piece of wood to the left bottom of the apron (note: if I had cut a taller apron I could have eliminated this step).
Front Vise Jaw: From a piece of leftover counter top (or other stock), make a front vise jaw the same size as the apron vise jaw. Clamp or hold the front vise jaw in position against the vise frame and mark the location of the holes for the vise mechanism.
Photo #3 & 4: Laying the apron on its side, carefully position the front vise jaw above the apron jaw and securely clamp both pieces to your work surface. Secure the drill guide to the apron and drill the holes for the vise mechanism. Be sure to drill them somewhat larger than required to avoid problems should a hole accidentally be drilled slightly off center.*
*Drilling completely through the front vise jaw will score the apron vise jaw, providing accurate hole placement when drilling the apron holes.
Photo #5: Next drill the holes in the workbench apron. As seen in the photo, always remember to place a piece of scrap underneath the apron to avoid damaging your work surface when drilling the holes (especially if you are using the unfastened workbench top).
Attaching the Apron to the Bench Top
In order to attach the apron to the bench top, drill seven equally spaced, countersunk holes along the face of the apron, starting an inch from each end of the apron and about 3/4" from the top (for a 1 1/2" thick bench top) as seen in photo 6. With the bench top placed in position on the base, clamp the apron to the bench top and secure it to the top using 2 1/2" #8 wood screws. The important point here is that any slight irregularity in the apron (or counter top) may keep the apron out of horizontal alignment with the bench top. If this is the case the apron should rise slightly above the top rather than below it. Carefully clamping the apron to the base before screwing it in place will guarantee that this is the case. The apron can then be flattened even to the bench top using a belt sander to level the apron top. This is what happened in my case and was an easy problem to overcome.
Step 9: Completing the Vise Assembly & Attaching the Workbench Top
These photos show how the Rockler vise looks fully assembled. My only advise on this step is to follow the manufacturers directions and make sure the vise works properly before mounting the workbench top to the base.
=> With the bench top turned upside down, complete the vise assembly. Then flip the top over and test the vise to make sure it opens and closes as it should. Take it from me, it's very easy to put the vise together incorrectly. The directions (and photos) for the Rockler vise I purchased were not very helpful and, consequently, I mounted the vise frame backwards when screwing it to the bench top. That meant flipping the very heavy bench top over several times until I finally realized my error. Not fun!
Attaching the Bench Top to the Base
With the vise fully assembled and working properly you are ready to attach the workbench top to the base.
There isn't much to say here other than to use 3/8" lag screws (with washers) to screw the bench top to the base using a socket wrench. One screw per trestle top is sufficient to secure the top to the base. Multiple screws will not prevent the top from cupping if that is what it is determined to do.
Step 10: Installing the Casters
Casters will make moving this very heavy workbench a breeze and are something to consider even if you plan on leaving it in one place (because one day the odds are you will want, or have, to move it). If you decide to add casters to your workbench I recommend the ones I purchased from Rockler. These casters are rated for loads of up to 100 lbs. per caster and, at $79.99 for a set of four, are a great value.
Attaching the casters:
The casters come fully assembled and install easily (two screws per caster) so the only real consideration is adding four wood filler strips to the legs. The filler strips fill the offset between the legs and the base. These pictures illustrate the size and location of these small filler blocks. Simply glue them in place and you will be ready to attach the casters.
Step 11: Adding Dog Holes
Dog holes, when used in conjunction with your vise, allow you to secure various size work pieces firmly to the bench for a variety of tasks (sanding, planing, etc.). A large assortment of specialized hold down devices are also available, each with their own unique function.
Simplify things by creating a template:
An easy way to add accurate, evenly spaced dog holes to your bench top is to create a template. I made my template from a piece of 1/4" hardboard. Five 3/4" holes, spaced 6" apart were drilled in the hardboard using a forstner bit. After drilling dog holes down the side of the bench (as seen in the second photo), a piece of wood was nailed to the underside of the template to position the holes running the length of the bench. While this layout is fairly typical for a workbench, the number of dog holes you decide to use as well as the placement and spacing is totally up to you. Here is an explanation of why I laid out my dog holes in the manner I did.
Laying out dog holes:
1) For dog holes running down the side of the bench, drill the first hole in the center of the vise head. All subsequent dog holes will be drilled using the template. Since my vise was 11" wide, the dog holes in my template are set 5 1/2" from the edge of the bench and spaced 6" apart (except for the hole closest to the vise which is 3" from the front of the bench).
2) As seen in photo #2, my template was sized to the depth of the bench, excluding the front jaw of the vise. This made it easy to clamp it in position along the side of the bench.
3) Photos 3, 4 and 5 show the template guide nailed to the bottom of the template and how it was positioned to drill the holes at the front of the bench. These holes are set 3" from the front of the bench and align with the hole immediately behind the front vise jaw.
Note: A template certainly isn't a necessity; the dog holes can surely be drilled without using one. However, using 1/4" hardboard helps get the forstner bit and drill in position to drill a perfectly straight hole (provided you did a good job making your template). It also helps keep your holes in alignment and eliminates the need to measure and mark the position of each hole individually.
Step 12: Applying a Finish
If you have checked out any of my other instructables you know I am a big fan of using Watco brand oil as a finish on my projects. It is very easy to apply using either a brush or a cloth and, when dry, will give your workbench a hard durable finish. I chose Watco Natural color finish for my workbench and achieved excellent results, as seen in these before and after photos.
Be prepared to use almost an entire quart of finish for this project. Apply a generous coat of oil (especially to the top) allowing 30 minutes to be absorbed by the wood. Then add a second coat and, after 15 minutes, wipe off any excess oil with a cloth. In 24 hours your workbench will be ready for your first project!
I can't begin to tell you how great it is to finally have a real workbench and strongly recommend that anyone serious about woodworking accept the challenge of building one. Because I consider my skill level intermediate at best, I hope this instructable will prove that you don't need a fancy shop and every power tool in the book to have fun, improve your skills and gain a lot of satisfaction with every project you create!
Third Prize in the