Using cheap mousepads makes for a low cost, VERY easily repaired, handsome and comfortable workbench!
Step 1: The Problem
Workbench tends to collect damage from soldering iron, gunk from old radio innards, x-acto cuts and so forth.
Step 2: Remove the Crud
Oh no! I've torn my desktop loose!
Note that the surface below this is, on my desktop, just plywood. Well, this whole thing works just great even if you didn't build your desk yourself from scrap iron and use cheap plywood for a top...
Step 3: Removed the Damage
After much tearing, the surface will finally look like this.
Again, this all tore the way it did because I use wood glue on plywood. I do this because this is the primary surface of my bench and I don't care - but believe me, it works just as well using white glue on nicer tops. If you have a formica countertop, white glue with this stuff works great and it wont tear as easily. Mine usually doesn't even tear this badly, but I put off replacing it longer than usual and it was pretty badly cut up.
White glue also cleans up easily with warm water, so the next step wont be needed if you are starting with a nicer subsurface.
Step 4: Clean Up a Little
Scraping the stuff off with a piece of scrap pc board sometimes isnt enough - that's why I used this coarse sanding sponge. Sanding sponges are like the ultimate brillo pad - but don't use them on NICE formica surfaces!
Old formica surfaces, on the other hand...
Step 5: All Cleaned Up, the Magic Begins
Now that we have a fairly ok surface to start with, let's add the magic.
Note that you don't need a GREAT surface to start with. My desk uses a piece of old exterior grade plywood I happened to have lying around the day my dad and I welded it up, and it works great. With the neoprene top you can't feel an unevenness and it looks great. And no slivers!
Step 6: Mouse Pad, Mouse Pad
Here is the source of our magic: CHEAP mouse pads. These particular mousepads came from pcsurplus or something, I can't recall. What I recall is I bought a box of 100 for 35 bucks - and 100 mouse pads will last a LONG time! My whole desk uses 40 mouse pads and it is 6 feet long and 30 inches deep. Usually only one or two pieces are repaired at a time.
Step 7: Cheap Is the Word
This is the key: buy CHEAP pads. You don't want the fancy 10 dollar pads that are made to last! These particular pads I bought because they had this grid on the front and when I saw them I though "cool I can use the grid to cut lines and stuff" but when I got them I saw that front was really just cheap cardboard with a plastic coat.
So, I decided I like the back surface better. What I did for my desk is tear that cheap coating off. You have to be merciless about this or it won't work - get one corner started, then RIP! If you try to tear it apart a little at a time the neoprene is just going to tear and you'll have scrap.
If you have a nicer desktop surface like formica, you may not want to do this part. Again, I tear the backing off because I consider the surface "part of" my desk. If you want something less permanent, don't tear off that plastic-cardboard part and skip ahead, I'll show you another method that works great for protecting "nice" surfaces.
Step 8: Tile Your Desk
Apply glue (white glue for less permanent tops) and lay the prepared squares of neoprene (ie the mouse pads) in place. Mash them around a bit and work the edges together. They may buckle a bit at first but if you roll them down with your palm and squeeze the seams together you will end up with a nice continuous surface with almost invisible seams! All that will let you know this isnt one solid piece is the corners where the mouse pads are rounded... we'll get to that in a bit.
Step 9: Fill in the Corners
On less permanent surfaces this part wont matter because you're not likely to leave it in place so long that junk collects, but on a more permanent desktop you'll want to fill in the corners. This is easily fixed by taking a bit of the scrap that was just removed, cutting it into a strip, then making little squares.
Size isn't critical because hey, it's neoprene - it's compressible, right? Just dab on a bit of glue and mash it down. Rub it around a bit to even things out and you have a perfectly filled gap. These are much more durable than you might thing because there's glue directly on them - sometimes when I take up a couple of pads, I have to scrape these off because they stick so well.
Again, not an issue if your surface is less permanent.
Step 10: For Those Less Committed
Here's where we do the magic on those "nicer" surfaces. Because the surface will be much more even and because we might not want to have to wash up white glue residue from, say, the kitchen counter, here's the cheat.
This stuff is the same glue as used on post-it notes. It looks sorta like white glue stick, but it never dries. It does leave behind a bit of an icky residue, but that washes up with nothing but warm water in a cotton towel. It's a totally temporary solution - and by temporary I mean you can leave this stuff down for months and you may have to push one back down every now and then, but it works quite well and is easily removed and cleaned up.
Step 11: Paste Away
With the glue stick you have to make sure you cover the shinty surface fairly well all the ay to the edges. That's easy enough. It helps if you mash kinda hard and collect visible "flakes" of the glue. These may linger after you have removed the surface, but again they are easily washed away with warm water.
Note how well this thing sticks to the WALL (that's VINTAGE paneling, chief) but it takes almost no effort to remove it when I want to. A warm (warm is important) damp towel wipes away what little residue was left and one would never know I once had a piece of neoprene glued to the wall.
Step 12: Fin
That's it! Thirty five dollars worth of mouse pads has given me a desktop surface that is essentially a consumable. I dont have to worry about x-acto cuts, heat damage, scratches from old equipment or any of that. And the surface is soft and very comfortable to rest my arms on - which is important not just to me and my arms, but the old quipment I often have to work on. I can lay and old radio chassis on my desk and not have to worry about scuffs and scratches. My desktop protects whatever I am working on, and is well protected in turn.
But the best part is not have to take EVERYTHING off my work area in order to repair it. With most desks, you mess up the top and now it's major work to refinish. I can "refinish" only the part that's needed in less than an hour!