Q&A / 

Terrific Workbenches

DEAR TIM: I’m sure you know about workbenches. My New Year’s resolution was to build a home workbench. I’ve seen workbenches for sale, but they seem too small for me. I’m up for the task of building a custom workbench, but am worried about the best way to do it. The surface needs to be durable, but affordable. Do you have any secrets you’d like to share about building a workshop workbench? Andy M., Enola, PA

DEAR ANDY: I have many secrets to share, and will try to give you as many as I can in this limited space. Tool workbenches are my favorite, and over the years I’ve built many for clients as well as one for each house I’ve owned. As you might imagine, each time I’ve constructed one, I’ve made an improvement on the design. I’m sure others have great ideas, but here’s what’s worked for me.

This workbench was made using scrap oak parquet flooring. It's an amazing workbench that's been abused by my son. PHOTO CREDIT:  Tim Carter

This workbench was made using scrap oak parquet flooring. It's an amazing workbench that's been abused by my son. PHOTO CREDIT: Tim Carter

I prefer a wood workbench, because wood is easier to work with and it’s very affordable. I have a good friend that has a steel workbench, but he does lots of welding, so wood would be impractical for him. Constructing a steel workbench from scratch is indeed a challenge if you don’t have the right tools. Wood may be your best friend if you have traditional carpentry tools.

You might consider a maple workbench if you’re looking for durability. I’ve built quite a few oak workbenches that really take an enormous amount of abuse showing little wear. Only the top has to be made from the maple or the oak, and you can sometimes get great deals on scrap hardwood or maple flooring that you can nail to a plywood panel that serves just like a subfloor underneath a regular hardwood floor.

The legs of the workbench need to be stout. I suggest wood 4x4 posts. The frame or undercarriage of the workbench can be 2x4s that are secured to the posts. I suggest not making the workbench any deeper than 24 inches. If you go deeper, it will be very difficult to reach across the bench to get tools that might be on pegboard above the work surface.

If you need a wider tabletop to assemble things, you’ll be better off making a roll-away table for the middle of the workshop. These stand-alone tables should always be lower in height than a normal workbench.

The finished height of your workbench is really critical. Too low and you’re bending over to do many tasks. Too high and you’ll stand on your tip toes doing things on the workbench when you place a larger object on the bench.

This is one reason people often look to construct an adjustable-height workbench. There are challenges in doing this, not the least of which is the weight of the workbench top. I’ve found that a 34-inch finished height is very practical. But I’m shorter than average, being just under 5-feet 8 inches tall. Keep this in mind if you’re tall.

The height is so critical, I really recommend that you construct a sample small workbench to see what works for you. If this is too much effort, place some cardboard on your kitchen countertops and see if the tools you work with are comfortable at that height. The time you spend perfecting the height for your own body stature will be well worth it.

As you assemble the posts, the 2x4 undercarriage and the plywood that covers the frame, I suggest using screws. Nails can come loose over time and your workbench may begin to wobble. If you use oak or maple flooring for the top surface, that gets nailed to the plywood with standard flooring nails that are driven through the tongues of the flooring.

I suggest that the finished top of the workbench overhang the 2x4 undercarriage by at least 2.5 inches all the way around. The finished edge you see ends up 1.5-inches thick, and this makes for a firm base to attach a squeeze clamp. I find myself constantly clamping things to my workbench, and this design works great for me.

It’s a great idea to create a shelf below the workbench. This shelf helps stabilize the legs of the workbench. You want the workbench to be rock solid and never sway back and forth. A bench loaded with tools can weigh hundreds of pounds and cause serious injury if it collapses.

You might consider coating the oak or maple with clear urethane to protect the wood from any moisture. Be aware that you’ll surely scratch this urethane if you use your workbench like I do. But if you’re a perfectionist, you can recoat the surface with water-based urethane that dries in an hour.

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