Introduction: Small Portable Workbench

About: Woodworker and maker in Central Illinois.

I made the folding workbench project from Roy Underhill's The Woodwright's Apprentice, but I scaled down the size to fit my teeny tiny apartment. Unfortunately I didn't take a ton of pictures, but I wanted to go through the step by step since Roy glosses some of the details, or assumes some skills, plus I did a few things differently, or maybe you never heard of Roy Underhill, in which case, let this be my call to you to go buy or check out his books from your local library and start your woodworking journey.

Step 1: Planning

Knowing I meant to scale it down, I decided to plan it out in sketchup. That way I could also decide how much lumber I needed by virutally rough cutting my pieces. Roy claims you can get most of what you need for his bench with a 2"x10"x12' board. I figured up mine could be done with a minimum 89", according to my sketchup. I ended up only being able to find 8/4 12" stock, which gave me some extra (8/4 in rough cut lumber is 2" nominal, and usually works out to something like 1 15/16", unless you have a generous mill/lumber dealer). Which is good because in the process, I changed the dimensions and had to cut some new pieces (I don't recommend doing this, btw, it gave me several big headaches).

I also planned in my sketchup to have feet on the bench to give it stability in width, but after I had the bench assembled, I left them off for two reasons: 1) I ended up liking the height without the feet. It's lower than my shop bench, but one advantage to that is if I plane on it, more of my body weight will be pressing down, which should lower the stress left to right on the bench. 2) I think it would have prevented the bench from folding up as nicely as it does now. Note that this bench is no modern engineering marvel. It doesn't fold perfectly flat, but it does fold up well enough to make it way easier to handle. The size I made I could easily carry by myself.

I also needed a 6" wide 4/4 (1" nominal, usually around 15/16"), of roughly 69", and a 3" wide 4/4 board of 70 1/2". I ended up finding a 10" wide 4/4 board of southern yellow pine and claimed 72" to get enough material for all of it. The 3" wide board could easily be some whitewood from the hardware store, as it will form the back and sides of the tray skirt, but if you decide to make your bench a little wider than you planned, be sure to account for that extra width in the length of the sides of your skirt, as I DID NOT.

Also, note that my sketchup design of my board cuts was just to figure out the minimum amount of material I could get away with, it's not how I ended up actually cutting the pieces, partly because the actual board I got was 2" wider, so I could get another leg size piece from the edge.

Step 2: Lumber and Material Selection

I opted, as Roy suggests, to use Southern Yellow Pine for this project. I went to my local wood shop to pick out some rough cut lumber. If you don't have such a resource, you can use 2-by material from the hardware store, but note that that stuff is 1.5" thick if you're lucky, and I've not seen lumber as nice at HD then what I turned out finding.

Since I decided on a smaller bench, I could get by with less material. I planned my benchtop to be 11" wide in total, 6" on the thicker slab with a 5" tool tray. Because I ended up with 90" of 12" wide 8/4 timber, I decided I had enough material to go ahead and round up my dimensions to 12" wide (adding an extra inch to the tool tray). If you change your dimensions on the fly, please remember to recalculate the lengths of your pieces that span this width or you will regret it.

I selected a 12' long board (my lumber store had about 6 of these monstrosities). With a hunk of wood that big, you can't do a ton of comparison shopping, especially if, like my store, they keep it upright. So I looked for the one that had the fewest knots, laid it out and made sure it wasn't cupping to bad (warping radially). That's about as much as I could do. I recommend you wear gloves when you do this, especially with rough cut SYP. I got several huge splinters thrust into my hands while picking out my piece. My lumber store will cut a piece off of a larger piece so long as you leave them at least 4' to sell. with a 12' board, I asked for around 7.5' of it (90"). BTW, I like to do stuff in metric measurements when I can, but lumber stores in the US and Canada still default to feet and inches.

The 4/4 wood is a little easier to comparison shop. Look for a board that isn't too cupped and clear of knots, though knots are less critical for the tool tray than for the skirt. The only reason being if you get a board for your skirt with a knot, invariably the knot will end up being right where you want to cut your dovetails. I found a 10" wide board sufficiently long to get all my pieces (about 72") and went for it. Finally, I found a nice, clear, narrow board for the front skirt at least 46 1/2" long and 6" wide.

And that's it! Everything from 3 boards! I even had enough material to redo the skirt when I messed it up. I also decided to do the front of the bench in 4/4 rather than 8/4 as in Roy's book, because it was smaller overall.

To attach the battons to the top, I used 2 3 inch #14 screws and 2 2" #12 screws. For the skirt pieces I used the same 2" #12 screws. To attach the anchor point of the braces to the top, it was the 3" screws (2 of them). To attach the braces to the anchor I used a length of 3/8" threaded rod I had lying around with a nut on one end and a wing nut on the other, but 5 1/2" long bolt would work too. The braces attach to the legs with 4" bolts with wingnuts. For the hinges, I used T hinges. Note that the measurement of a T-hinge is just the length of the triangular part. I almost bought hinges that were too long because I thought the measurement was total length. I ended up getting 4" T-hinges that came with screws, which looked to be 3/4" #6s. You'll also need some dowels for the lower stretchers (3/8" or thereabouts -- I used those groove joinery dowels you can pick up at the hardware store, but a solid hardwood dowel would probably be a little better), and some 1 1/4" screws for the upper stretchers (I hand some 1 1/4" #6s on hand).

Step 3: Rough Cutting

I started by crosscutting the boards.

I cut 45" off the 8/4 board, the length of my main top piece. Then I cut 46 1/2" off the 4/4 board, the length of both my tool tray back, and plenty long for the tool tray bottom (45"). I cut my pieces slightly long, but if you're doing this 100% hand tools, don't go too long, especially on the 8/4 piece or you'll be spending all day trying to square up 8/4 end grain with your hand plane and you'll come to hate your life. So get as close as you can the first try and take your time cutting (if you use a hand saw like I do) to get as square a cut as you can manage.

I'd had the front skirt cut to the length I needed at the lumber store, but spoiler alert, I messed up the skirt sides when I decided to round up the width to 12" so I had to redo those and ended up with a 4" front skirt instead of a 6" front skirt. My sides, as you'll note in the picture, also ended up being about 2 1/2" wide instead of the full 3" like I'd planned, but they were still plenty wide.

To get prepare for your rip cuts you need a square edge. So, I happen to also have a 12" surface planer. It's the cheapest one I could find, and snipes like crazy, but does great for bulk material removal, which I can finish up with my hand planes. What a careful woodworker would have done is plane a face smooth, run the board through the planer, then finish with hand planes. What I did was pick the flattest side, run my board through the planer with that side down, then plane the machined side flat and called that my reference face. Next I squared one edge to that face with my jointer plane (a Stanley #7). Jointing with a hand plane on rough cut wood is a matter of removing the rough material until you get something smooth, then checking for square with a good square along the length, then checking for flat with a straight edge. There's no real magic to it. With some practice you'll get better at it. My best advice is to do what I did and read a ton of books and watch a ton of videos and just keep trying until you get good.

At this point I had to do some rip cuts. I'm lucky enough to have picked up an old bandsaw for $50 from a dude on craigslist. It's not the smoothest machine, but it can handle hardwood and cuts straight enough for my needs. I also own a hand ripsaw. I left myself 1/4" gap in between pieces and planned on making the legs, battons, and stretchers about 1 3/4" x 1 3/4". You can see in my sketchup I planned at one section to be able to get 2 legs, 2 braces, and 2 stretchers. That's optimistic if you have exactly 10" and are shooting for 1 3/4" clear, but to be honest, 1 3/4" is fine on paper, but if you end up a little thinner than that, it doesn't matter. When you are cleaning them up just get the thickest you can get and be done with it. If you have rough cut boards, you'll do better than 1 1/2" in thickness or width and you'll be fine.

I used a pencil gauge (a sliding square set to 6" and a pencil pressed to the end works just as well) and set my bandsaw fence (i.e., a board with a straight edge held in place by two clamps) to just past that penciled in line, and squared that to the front of my bandsaw table. Take some time to get this right so you don't waste material or cut to close. If you are hand cutting these, make your pencil mark down both the surfaced and rough face and flip your board as you cut to keep your rip saw as square as possible. 1/4" should be plenty of room to make that rip.

I ripped out the bench top. Then planed the edge square again with my jointer plane. I reset my bandsaw fence to 1 3/4" (just beyond really) and managed to get three pieces wide enough for lets from that 12" top. That takes some careful cutting. Be sure your reference face is down on the bandsaw table and keep your reference edge firmly pressed up against your fence. Take some time to set your fence so you don't waste material, but also, don't beat yourself up if the legs are a little narrower than 1 3/4". There's nothing magical about that number, it's just a reference point.

I went through and ripped out the rest of my 8/4 wood to that same width, with my fence remaining where it was, so that I ended up with consistently sized pieces. Even with a bandsaw, take your time though. Please don't cut of your fingers.

With those done, I ripped out the 3" wide skirt from the 4/4 wood and the 4" wide stretchers, and the other things I needed.

Step 4: Planing

At this point your goal is to get the legs to be the same dimensions. Your battons should also be of those same thickness and width dimensions. You can cross cut out the individual pieces, or leave them the length they are then cross cut. I like to cross cut first so I'm not trying to hand plane super long pieces. Definitely try to remove as much waste as you can. No point squaring up 70" worth of wood if you are only using 62".

Here's my procedure: Every piece you ripped out should have 2 reference faces that you planed to make the rip cuts off of. I set a gauge to 1 3/4". Keep that setting because you'll be using it a lot.

First, I gauge off the face, then run it through the surface planer to get it close and finish with my jointer and jack (Stanley #5) plane to set the final thickness (try to make it square to your reference edge, but in the neighborhood is fine). Then I gauge off the squared edge, planer and plane to get it to final width (again, in the neighborhood of square to the reference face). I had no trouble clearing 1 3/4" square from all the pieces I had ripped off. Your 4 best pieces in this regard should become your legs. If you have 2 pieces that ended up a little thin, declare those your braces (the diagonal pieces). Then I cross cut these square pieces to length for legs and stretchers -- you'll need 4 of each. Legs for me were 26 1/2" long, stretchers were 12". Make your bench taller or shorter to fit your body. When you stand upright your knuckles will just graze the surface on a traditionally sized workbench. But make it taller or shorter as you see fit.

The most critical thing is that your legs and stretchers be uniform in width and thickness, all 4 stretchers are the same length, and all 4 legs are the same length (planing end grain on a 2x2 is not easy, I used my bandsaw and a backsaw to crosscut to final length). If you look at my sketchup, where you have play, looking at the stretchers, is in the top to bottom, width or thickness depending on how you orient the wood. You want to make sure at least one of width or thickness of those stretchers matches the legs, but the other is less critical.

For the 4/4 wood, you plane the same way to get it to the right dimensions. The tray you can leave a little thick or thin. It's not critical that it be 3/4" thick or anything. Thinner will give you more tray depth, thicker less. The tray back and skirt sides should be close to 3/4" final thickness, because the 46 1/2" length of the front skirt and tray back are dependent on that. You could leave those pieces long for now and cut them based on the actual thickness of your your pieces, as an alternative. Old school woodworkers didn't do a lot of measuring. They used what they had and based lengths and widths off the material rather than trying to machine everything to precise measurements.

Label your parts as you go, so you know what is what, and what is scrap

Step 5: Leg Joinery

The top joint will be a half lap. For any given leg, you want the a reference face and edge oriented to the inside of the table. One trick to make sure you have this right is take two legs and lay them next to each ether, arrange them so that the reference edge or face of each is on the inside, touching each other, and the corresponding reference is up. Then lay the other two legs on top with reference faces/edges inside. Every touching surface should be one of the squared, flattened faces. Now mark a big triangle on the ends of the legs that spans all four legs. Looking at the top of the legs, you should be able to use the triangle to quickly orient all four legs in the proper direction using that triangle.

Lay all four legs on your bench, so that the inside face of each is up (take your time). Square them up with a framing square so the ends are all lined up squared to a reference edge. Lay one of your top stretchers across the top of the legs, top edge square with the ends and clamp the board down with your hand and body weight. Check to make sure it is all square and score a line across all four legs with your marking knife. Remove the top stretcher, measure down 18" from the top of the legs. Lay one of the lower stretchers across the legs squaring everything up. Mark the top and bottom edge of the stretcher with your knife. With a square, carry those knife marks around to all 4 sides of each leg, making sure to use your reference face and edge to square the lines.

For the top joint, set your gauge to the thickness of the top stretcher (mine were a bit over 3/4"). Now gauge from the inside along the edge, top and other edge down to your score line. This is a big half-lap so it's kind of tricky. One method is to saw the shoulder (the crosscut), then split out the waste, but with a half-lap that big, if your grain runs away at all, you're going to take off too much. So if you do try to split with a chisel, start with a very small split and light taps so you can see which way the split will go. I tried a split, saw it running away from me and opted to saw the cheek. I'm lucky enough to have a nice big back saw for this. A careful cut with the bandsaw would work just as well.

I clean up the faces of the half-lap with a router plane. Set it to your final depth and use another leg to give your plane two surfaces to reference off of and pare away the material until its uniform. You can also use a chisel to pare away material down to your score lie. Get them as clean as you can. Do this on all four legs.

Next comes the mortise and tenon. In Roy's book he gives advice on determining tenon size. Long story short, for this 3/4" works well. I don't have a nice 3/4" mortising chisel, so I used my crappier 3/4" chisel that I can beat up. Start with the tenons. Your stretchers should be right at 12" or a hair under. Lay the leg that will receive the tenon across the end of the stretcher and mark the depth your tenon will go with a knife. Do this on both ends of each stretcher using the actual leg that it will go into. If you're like me, you mark the leg where the mortise will go and the tenon with some letters to keep everything matched up.

Using a mortising gauge, set the inner pin at 1/2" (assuming you have 1 3/4" square stock, adjust as needed to center the tenon as well as you can), and the outer to 3/4" beyond that (just use your chisel to determine the width). Lock this in because whatever that inner pin measurement is you want it to be consistent. Mark the tenons down to the knife lines on the stretchers, referencing off the same face for each end (what will be your inner face). Now, referencing off the same inner face on each leg mark the entry and exit of the mortise. If you kept the reference surfaces consistent, this should end up giving you a stretcher that is flush to the inner face of the legs when everything is done.

For the tenons, I carefully sawed the shoulders, split the cheeks, and cleaned up with a chisel (8 times for a total of 4 tenons). For the mortise, I just did an old fashioned mortise by hammering away with a chisel.

There are two methods for that: stepping the chisel from one end to the other and back a few times, or starting in the middle and working your way out. With either method, go about halfway, flip the leg, and do it again. Be sure before you start that you marked the mortises on the right surfaces. The lower stretcher needs to be parallel to the upper one. The half-laps go on the inside face. Think how it should look before you start chopping. Physically lay it out and double check yourself.

One trick I've read for mortising is to clamp a board into your vise, then put the leg to be chopped up against the face of the board, then another board on the other side and comp them together with a handscrew or other clamp, this does two things: 1) gives the outer faces of the mortise more support so they don't accidentally bust out and 2) it places the piece to be mortised right over the joint of the top and the leg, which is the most stable position on your entire bench. All the downward force of your chisel will go into the piece. Mortising in the middle of the bench would cause the force to bounce upward, and simply clamping it in the vise would mean there is not downward support for the mallet and chisel.

Now comes the fun part. Fit the stretchers into the legs, paring the tenons as needed so they fit snugly in the mortises. To secure these, we are going to drawbore. It's simple and fun.

The basic procedure is: First remove the tenon, put a piece of scrap into the mortise and drill a 3/8" hole right at about the center of the mortise through to the other side (work to keep your drill going straight. A square laid with the blade up next to your work can help. Check both front to back and side to side). The scrap keeps the inner face of the mortise from blowing out. Repeat for all four mortises. Insert the tenons into their mortises, and using the same drill bit, mark the tenon. Now remove the tenon and move the tip of the bit in toward the shoulder about 1/16" and bore through the tenon. Now re-insert into the mortise. You should see a slightly offset hole in the tenon. Shave a 3/8" dowel on one end like a pencil point, apply some glue, and drive it through the hole. The dowel will pull the tenon as tightly into the mortise as possibly and lock in there in place. A flush cut saw and block plane remove the excess dowel. Repeat for all four mortises and tenons.

I lay out the holes on one stretcher the do both draw bores, then switch to the other leg set. Check the orientation of your legs before drawboring!

Now you can lay the top stretcher across the halflap, square up your legs, and mark the final length. Trim to size, drill and countersink four holes in the stretcher and use glue and screws to attach it to the legs. It's a very good idea to drill pilot holes in the legs for the screws to keep the wood from splitting.

Now you have two leg assemblies.

Step 6: Attaching Legs to Top and Braces

What we'll be doing is attaching the two boards that form the top and tray bottom to battons, then attaching the battons to the legs.

Lay the battons on the bench some distance apart. Lay the top and tray bottom across tho battons (make sure the reference face of the long boards is down, and the reference edges touch) and use a square to square them up, then a sliding square to adjust the battons so they are about the same distance in from each end, and a framing square to square up the ends of the tray and top. I made them about 3" in. Mark the locations on the bottom of the tray and top with a pencil. Now you can tray and top over, line the battons back up your pencil marks, square everything up again, and mark the locations more confidently, and also mark on the battons where the top stops.

Drill and countersink two holes well within the top side of each batton. Those screws will need to be inset just so, to keep them from interfering with the legs. Drill two holes into the tray bottom using your pencil marks as guides from what will be the bottom of the tray, then flip it and countersink the holes.

Two 2 1/2" screws attach the batton to the top from the bottom. Two shorter screws (1 1/4" - 1 1/2" or so) attach the tray to the battons from the top. Be sure to use a square to keep the battons squared to the front edge of the top in this stage.

Now you'll want to attach the flaps of the T-hinges to the upper stretchers of each leg. I attached them so that the cylinder of the hinge just cleared the top of the stretcher. To do that, I folded the T part down so it was laying on top of the stretcher. This should be 90 degrees to the face of the stretcher. Then I attached the flap with screws. Each leg gets two hinges. Space them as far apart as you can, but don't place them where the screws will go into the screws that attach stretcher to leg.

Next I flipped my top assembly over and attached the T portion of each hinge to the inside face of each batton. If everything went well, one leg should fold down and be flush with the front edge of the bench, and the other should lay pretty well on top of it.

I had trouble getting these to stay put, so I used my braces just propped up to the legs to keep them from falling and whacking me on the head.

The braces use the almighty power of triangles to make a surprisingly stable bench. To do these you'll need a short piece of 1 3/4" square scrap from your legs and such. Line it up so that it's center is halfway in between each leg (it may help to draw this line on the bottom of the benchtop and on the anchor. Its ends should point to each leg. Position one brace so that it is within the leg, butting against the inside surface. Now position the anchor so that it is centered on the bottom of the benchtop and butts against the inside face of the brace. Eyeball to make sure the brace is straight, parallel to the front of the top. Mark that location on the top. Drill and countersink holes to attach the anchor to the top from the bottom, and bore a hole through to accept the 3/8" threaded rod. Attach the anchor with screws to the bottom of the benchtop.

Pick one end of each brace and bore through for the 3/8" rod as well, centered. In order to fit the pieces, I had to cut off a bit of each brace with a chisel. Just do what you have to do to fit them, so you can run the threaded rod through each brace and the anchor point, so that there is a brace on either side of the anchor point running out to the legs.

To fit the braces, with the bench upright the brace should rest on top of the lower stretcher, then attach to the anchor. Eyeball that the brace is straight, then mark on the stretcher where it contacts. Flatten that part of the stretcher by sawing on either side of where the brace contacts and paring with a chisel. You want the brace to rest on a flat surface. Ensure the leg is as far out as it can go and nice stable and then bore a 3/8" hole through brace and stretcher. At this point I had to chisel out a flat portion on the edge of the stretcher opposite where the brace rests in order to fit my bolt (I bought 3.5" bolts not thinking about the fact that they were going through the wood diagonally).

A bolt, washers and wingnut attaches the braces to the legs. I had to use a mallet to get the bolts in the first few times. Mark the back brace (looking at the bench from the front), so when you take it apart you know which is which.

Now you can detach the braces completely and trim them to within about 1/2" - 3/4" of the holes to make sure you don't have a lot of overhang. You could even get fancy with a bevel gauge so the ends match the angle of the legs when it is assembled.

Step 7: Skirt and Finishing

The final step is the skirt that goes around the perimeter of the benchtop. It adds rigidty and gives your tray a back. I'm not going to go in depth into how to dovetail. Roy gives pretty good instructions on this part in The Woodwright's Apprentice, or check out any of the billions of instruction videos and books on dovetailing.

First set up your bench top down on your main workbench and check the lengths of everything. The tray back and sides are joined with dovetails. Cut the pins first in the sides. My best advice here is to cut one joint, then check the final length of the back of the tool tray place the thickness of the other side and mark that as the final length of the back piece. Trim that before cutting the second dovetail.

This is an instance where you want to cut pins first on the dovetails, because the tray back is too long to get an accurate transferal of the locations onto the sides. Cut pins for one side, then lay the tray back inside up on your bench and transfer the locations of the pins onto the back. Cut the dovetails. Pare to fit. Fit the back and side to the actual bench to make sure everything lines up, then cut pins in the other side and corresponding tails. To attach the skirt to the bench drill and countersink holes in the sides to go into the bench and tray bottom ends. Best to do that with the skirt assembled so you drill the holes in the right places (you can see I messed up a couple of my holes in the picture). The skirt should be flush with the thicker top. attach the sides, then attach the back using screws. Mark where the tray butts against the tray back with a pencil with the back installed, so you get the holes in the right place. I used a drill press so I could get the holes just right. But really 2-3 screws to hold on the back of the tray should be plenty and you can manage that with a hand brace or electric drill.

The front skirt is just a board long enough to be flush with the skirt sides and wide enough to give you some room to drill holes for pegs if you want. 4" ended up being a good width for me. This gives me leeway to use the bench as a small desk for my laptop when I don't have projects on it. Also, I had to cut a couple extra sides from my original 6" skirt. No harm no foul. The skirt just gets screwed on flush with the top or just proud.

As a last step, I planed the skirt flush with the top, planed things flush all around. I broke any sharp edges with a block plane, and planed off any stray pencil marks that I could with a block plane. Honestly, I didn't worry too much about a pencil mark here and there. This is a workbench, not fine furniture.

Step 8: Thoughts

I was surprised by how stable this bench is in the direction of planing. Triangles really are magic!

It is a little narrow, and wouldn't gave much stability front to back without additional work, such as the feet in my original design. Even that might not help much, but it might give you a place to put your foot so you could use your body weight to stabilize it further. You can see i placed my bench in the corner, so that I can take advantage of the wall for added stability.

In Roy's version, he added a crochet (or a frog, as he calls it) on the front and holes for pegs. This allows him to do some edge planing. He also added a 1x1 planing stop to the top. I won't need these features, but they are cheap ways to work without having to invest in vises. It would be easy to add a steel vice to this bench, as well as some round dog holes.

My plan is easier than these ideas: when I get a project I can work on at home I will use screws as planing stops. Two screws into the top make a great planing stop (the Japanese have done this forever). I also have a Veritas surface vice I can add holes for if I need some more clamping power. I also have a small raised surface I can clamp to this top to use as carving surface, and a simple bench hook for carving or sawing as needed. I also have a twin screw vise I made that clamps to a bench top and can be used for dovetails. These items will give me a lot of flexibility for using this workbench.

This isn't going to be quite as versatile as Roy Underhill's original design, but will be a great way for me to get some cold weather woodworking in on small projects or days when I have my son over and want to do some carving or something while he plays video games. It'll be great for small boxes, as a carving station, or to do some cleanup work on a project. The design is easy to adapt, I discovered, to different sizes and I'm very pleased with the stability and versatility of this simple design.