How To Build the Ultimate Workbench – Part I
This is not a project that I would recommend for the novice do-it-yourselfer. To complete this project you will need some tools that are usually only owned by the more experienced do-it-yourselfer, and a place to construct your ultimate workbench. Of course, if you're a do-it-yourselfer who is ready to go to the intermediate level, and perhaps you're thinking of increasing your stock of tools, this may be the perfect project for you. I do include a couple of alternative ways to the end that would lessen the need for some tools.
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I have three workbenches in my shop. (Try explaining that one to your wife.) Two of them are excellent quality workbenches purchased from two highly reputable manufacturers. The third is like the one we'll be building. Here are some details about those two manufactured benches:
• Workbench #1 has a formidable steel base, a full bottom shelf and a 1" thick top that's roughly 24" x 50". It also has a few drawers. Its weight capacity is just over 1,000 pounds. It cost me about $350.00 ten years ago. This workbench weighs 125 pounds.
• The second manufactured, steel-based workbench is larger than the first, with a top that's 1¼" thick and measures 25" x 72". It has two full length under-shelves and can hold up to about 8,000 pounds. This workbench, which was purchased solely to support two very heavy pieces of equipment, cost me just over $700.00 two years ago and weighs 200 pounds.
Both of the above workbenches are excellent. They look really good and allow me to perform certain tasks and functions with greater ease. And of course the shelving and drawers, well, a do-it-yourselfer can never have too many shelves or drawers! But when it comes to some tasks, these store-bought units fall a tad short of the mark. Most specifically, when the tasks call for impact or torque such as tightening pipes, bending steel bars, hammering heavy pieces of wood together or using the small (3 pound) sledge, these fine workbenches 'yield' and cause problems. When you nail, you need a really solid surface so that the energy of your hammer blows actually push the nails in, and don't just shake the nailing surface. When you clamp something down to bend it, you want the energy applied to go towards creating that just right bend, not partially lifting or sliding the workbench. The ultimate workbench fills the need for a heavy, solid, stable workbench – able to hold or handle literally any tool, project or task you put to it.
In this part of this 3-part series, we are going to be constructing the top of the ultimate workbench. Let's begin with the parts and supplies you'll need:
22 – 2" x 4" x 6'
5 – 3/8" x 48" dowel rods
1 – quart of quality wood glue
Step #1 – you're going to want the ends of all your 2" lumber to be perfectly squared. 20 pieces of the 2" x 4" x 6' must be exactly the same length. You may end up getting a full 6' out of these, but if you must cut short, say 5' 11¾", that's fine. It depends on your lumber; how square it was to begin with and if it was slightly long when you purchased it. For ease of writing these instructions, we'll assume that you were able to end up with all 21 pieces of lumber cut to exactly 6'.
Step #2 – trim 1/8" off ONE long edge of each of the 20 - 2" x 4" x 6' lumber. This will make the actual measurements of this lumber 1½" x 3-3/8" x 6'. Lay all the freshly cut lumber on the floor with the freshly cut edge facing up. The purpose of this step is to square off the edges of the lumber. The factory edges are slightly rounded, and when we're done, we don't want all those gaps in our working surface. ( OPTION: This step is best accomplished with a table saw, but it can also be done adequately with a circular saw and a rip fence attached.)
Step #3 – Take two pieces of the 2" x 4" x 6' and place them on two saw horse, with the freshly sawed, long narrow edge up. (See diagram A) Make sure the ends are perfectly even. Use a hard plastic hammer to tap the ends to get that perfect flush. Then, using three pipe clamps, clamp them snugly together and once again check the ends for a perfect flush, using the hard plastic hammer as required. When they are perfectly flush, tighten the clamps a bit more. Now check the top of the two pieces of lumber. We want as flat a surface as possible, so using your hammer, the clamps and your hands when necessary bring the tops of the boards to flush. When the tops and ends are flush just right, tighten the clamps securely.
Step #4 – Mark the center of the outside edge of the 2" x 4" x 6' from one end as follows: 3"; 19"; 36"; 55"; and 69". (See diagram B) Now drill a 3/8" hole at each marked location. Drill all the way through both pieces of lumber. Blow the dust and wood chips and curls out of each hole. Put some old newspaper or plastic underneath your work now, to protect the floor from the soon-to-come dripping glue.
Step #5 – Take three of the 36" dowel rods and cut them into 3" lengths. As always, when cutting dowels, make the ends as square as possible. A miter saw is excellent for this task – manual or power. The remaining 2 dowel rods you'll cut as needed until the workbench is complete.
Step #6 – Glue one of the 3" dowel rods and hammer it into one of the holes you've just drilled and cleaned out. Wipe off any excess glue that drips immediately from the hole. Repeat this process until all the holes have glued dowel rods in them. Now it's time to take a break, and allow the glue to fully dry. I use Elmer's Wood Glue, which dries in 30-minutes. When I use it for dowels, I allow 90-minutes – just to be sure.
Step #7 – Clean up the wood around the 3/8" holes you drilled. Remove any excess glue that's dried, as well as any dowel that might be protruding from either side. This is done quickly with a finishing sander and 100-grit sandpaper. Don't overdo it – you just want the surface to be flat, without anything protruding from it.
Step #8 – Layout two more of the 2" x 4" x 6's – one on either side of the 2-2" x 4" x 6's that you've already doweled together. Make sure you have the sawed edge facing upwards. As before, flush the ends and the tops and then tighten the three pipe clamps.
Step #9 – Measuring from the same end as you measured from the first time, mark the centers of BOTH of the new 2" x 4" x 6's as follows: 1½"; 24"; 48" 70½". Now drill all 8 of the marked holes (4 in each 2" x 4") with a 3/8" drill bit to a depth of 3". Clean any debris from the holes.
Step #10 – Glue and install 8 of your 3" dowels into the 8 new holes. Allow the work to dry, and then repeat steps 7 – 10 until all 20 of the 2" x 4" x 6's are doweled together. BE SURE to alternate your measurements from the end. Do one set measured at: 3"; 19"; 36"; 55"; and 69" and then the next set measured at 1½"; 24"; 48" 70½". When you're done, you'll have one solid top measuring about 30" x 72". Be sure to clean up around the final holes with your sander after the glue dries.
Step #11 – Out of your 2 remaining 2" x 4" x 6's, cut four pieces 30" long. Now have someone assist you in turning your top over on the saw horses. The bottom of the workbench top is now facing up.
Step #12 – Now we're going to glue and dowel these 30" pieces to the bottom of the workbench top. These will be final cross supports. Measure in 2" from each end of the workbench top and make straight lines the width of the top: 30". Now measure in 24" from each end of the workbench top and make straight lines the width of the top: 30". These lines will be the guides to show where to lineup the outside edge lines of the 30" x 2" x 4"s. (See Diagram C for reference.)
Step #13 – Drizzle some wood glue on the bottom of the workbench top, just inside of one of the outermost lines. Working swiftly now, clamp one of the 30" x 2" x 4"s (standing on its edge: 3½" tall) along that glued line so that the ends are flush with the front and back of the workbench top. Drill four 3/8" holes down through the cross support. Each hole should be 5" deep. Space the holes as follows: one hole in 2" from each end and one hole in 12" from each end. Immediately install glued dowel rods into the holes. Repeat this process for each of the four cross supports.
Step #14 – Using your sander, cleanup all of the cross supports from their installations. Blow off or wipe off your work. Next we'll seal the wood, so let's allow it 12-hours to ensure that all of the glue is dry – even inside the dowel holes.
Step #15 – Using a throw-away brush, lavish an oil-based wood preservative onto the bottom of the workbench and the cross supports. Be sure to keep applying the preservative to all the ends of the wood. When the wood stops absorbing the preservative quickly, you're done with that area. No need to let this dry right now. Have someone assist you in turning the workbench top over, so the top of the workbench faces up. Now allow this to dry for about 1-hour. (I like Thompson's Wood Preservative, but any quality product will do. Do NOT use waterproofing!)
Step #16 – Use your sander and 80-grit to knock down any high spots or roughs on the workbench top. Finish up with 120-grit or 150-grit. Sand the top to your satisfaction. Blow the top off, or wipe it off completely. Now apply a liberal coat of wood preservative, again hitting the exposed ends until they no longer quickly absorb the liquid.
The top of your ultimate workbench is now complete. In Building the Ultimate Workbench – Part II we'll construct and attach the legs.