Workbench Construction #2: Building the benchtops

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Blog entry by Richard B posted 11-13-2011 08:51 PM 7363 reads 2 times favorited 4 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 1: Joinery for the legs/base Part 2 of Workbench Construction series no next part
In this post today I wanted to go over the materials and methods I used for constructing my benchtops for the new workbench.

Each benchtop is an identical lamination of 4 layers. In my original design, the top was 3 layers thick (each about 3/4 inch thick). However once I completed that part of it I realized that the bench wasn’t going to be heavy enough. The material I was using at that point was all aspen and pine, with red oak trim. I noticed that the density of SYP (southern yellow pine) was considerably greater than the white pine I had been using, so I bought a board at home depot to add a fourth layer (underneath the other layers, and obscured by the oak trim.

Fortunately, the thickness of the four layers was essentially identical to the depth of the trim that would be hiding the lamination, so I only had to plane a few millimeters off the bottom to make it flat.

So I picked up 3 boards from Lowes that were 6’ x 18” & 3/4 inches thick. Two were “paint grade” and one was “stain grade.” All were some variant or another of a soft whitewood.
Here is an example:

I used the stain grade panel on top, with the uglier paint grade panels beneath it. Each was too wide (I was going for 2 benchtops, each 6 feet in length and ~9 inches in width. So I ripped the boards to width & laminated them.

The picture above just goes to show that the common wisdom is true: you can never have too many clamps.
Next I needed to joint the long sides, so I bought a straightedge (10 – 20$) at the home store, and then used it to rout a rabbet along one side.

The board was then flipped upside down and the rabbet became a guide for a very large flush trim router bit.

This produced a nicely jointed edge. Definitely not as perfect as if I had a real jointer with a long bed, but good enough to do the trick & with small enough imperfections that the seam jointed well to the trim piece.

I then repeated this for the other side of the board and for the other 2 sides of the 2nd benchtop.
Next I carefully selected four very straight red oak boards at the home store, to act as trim & to hide the lamination. Neither the benchtops nor the trim boards were perfectly straight, so I matched each face as best I could and then marked which parts of the the lamination and the trim piece needed planing. Most of the benchtop flattening that was needed was done at this stage in the game. And to be honest, there wasn’t a whole lot of this (thankfully). At the end of construction, I needed to do almost zero benchtop flattening. I used a Buck brothers (home depot, 30 – 40$) jack plane with a blade that I put a heavy camber on to hog out the higher spots. A finer blade, with a minuscule camber was used after this to do final flattening before attaching the trim.

(As a side note, I couldn’t afford “nice” planes, but I carefully tuned my buck bros plane and got acceptable results. Later on, as a treat to myself I bought an aftermarket Hock plane blade, and it made SUCH a difference. I can’t wait to buy a real (i.e., veritas or lie-nielsen) plane this Christmas.) After replacing the 2$ blade that came with the buck bros plane, I was able to get reliable shavings like this:

To attach the trim I used my router with a slot cutting bit to make biscuit holes, and used these to help guide my trim pieces into place.

For the sake of ease (laziness?) I went with the thickness of the trim boards as my benchtop thickness, since it simplified the design even further. (No need to rip the trim pieces to final width).

It was at this point that I realized the bench would probably not be heavy enough, so I did two things to correct this:

  1. I added a large box of sand to the design of the base (see post #1 about this).
  2. I added a fourth layer (this time of 1 1/2 inch thick SYP (southern yellow pine) to the lamination. (see picture below).

    So I added the SYP & cut the tops to length using a guide & my circular saw, then added the end pieces of trim. Cutting these to length was one of the most nerve-wracking parts of this whole process, because the top was about 4 inches in thickness, and I had no way to cut a clean line through that much wood. So I came up with a method of using a guide and paying VERY CAREFUL attention to the fence and my circular saw cutting edge (less for safety sake—though important—and more for not screwing up the length). This worked – but only because I test-cut a couple times beyond the final edge to figure out the process.
    The end pieces of trim were cut slightly longer than final length, also the cut made with the circular saw needed a little work, so I finessed the final fit and length using chisels & a handplane, then attached the trim piece. When attaching the end trim pieces, I found that I didn’t have a clamp that could work in this situation, so I drilled six holes (three on a side) and used screws and glue to attach the pieces. The screws acted as clamps, and I removed them after the glue set, then filled in the holes with complementary wood dowels. Here is a picture of the final result:

    Next I:
    • built my face vise (this allowed me to begin holding workpieces for the more complex tail vise construction).
    • drilled dog holes
    • built the tail vise (OMG, this would deserve its own blog post, and I didn’t take enough pictures to do it justice.) then
    • attached the bench top

      The face vise chop is a lamination of two pieces of 4/4 quartersawn red oak obtained from Woodcraft.

      The dog holes were drilled with a hand drill and a jig that I made to keep the holes spaced correctly and to keep the holes straight. The jig was a piece of 2×4 with a fence glued to one edge, so that I could abut the jig to the bench and clamp it to the benchtop. Two holes, each 4 inches apart (how far I wanted my dog holes) were drilled through the jig. To use the jig you find the spot you want your first hole, clamp it in, drill two holes (one for each hole in the jig), then move the jig 4 inches, reference one hole in the jig off the most distal dog hole in the bench, clamp & drill, move & repeat all the way down the bench.

      The tail vise was tricky to install, but is my favorite of the two vises – now that it is installed. SUPER useful. (However, if I wanted an easier build, I would try a different style of tail vise, like one of the “drop in” styles). I got mine for 40 bucks, (on clearance at woodcraft) and it is German made, so I couldn’t pass that up; also, I like the traditional look of the old school tail vises. The short version of how I did the tail vise is by lots of careful planning of each step & face-face laminations of 4/4 red oak. Lots of finessing of fit by chisel & planes.

      Here I am about to make the wooden cover to hide the top of the vise:

      To attach the benchtops I needed to
      # cut dadoes in the tops of the base to accommodate the rails/runners that would hold the shelf in the middle, and allow for tool trays later on.
      # affix the runners to the benchtops
      # bolt the tops to the base somehow
      The dadoes I located by placing my tops on the bench, aligning them perfectly & checking for squareness/flushness, then marking the locations on the feet tops with a knife. After I cut the dadoes (handsaw and chisel), I laid the rails in the dadoes, put glue on one edge & moved the tops back into place & clamped carefully.

      After the glue dried I had tops that pretty much didn’t want to budge with front to back motion, but were removable. To stop lateral motion and vertical motion, I cut some blocks, screwed them with enormous screws & glue into the top of the feet, just under the table top, and then put one screw upward into the benchtop from below.
      Now 90% done, I moved the bench into place, & made four cork feet to place under each of the four corners of the bench, (which eliminated rocking movement) and slid the sandbox into the base & covered the sandbox with the shiplapped shelves discussed in the last post. Everything received a coat of BLO except the jaws of the vises. I left these untreated because I plan to line the jaws with leather.

-- Richard B, Birmingham Alabama

4 comments so far

View BenR's profile


341 posts in 3635 days

#1 posted 11-20-2011 04:56 AM

Richard B,
Throughly enjoyed your workbench building blog. It might even give me the confidence to build my own. Congradulations on your ingenuity in building it w/o all of Norm’s tools. Have to love the butt crack fix. Enjoy!

-- Ben in Va

View therookie's profile


887 posts in 3834 days

#2 posted 11-20-2011 05:10 AM

You are going to have one he!! of abench


View Richard B's profile

Richard B

30 posts in 3510 days

#3 posted 11-22-2011 12:07 AM

Good luck on your bench Nikki! You can do it.
My greatest regret is not taking the plunge and building my bench 2 years earlier.

-- Richard B, Birmingham Alabama

View benchbuilder's profile


285 posts in 3457 days

#4 posted 12-04-2011 05:29 PM

I like your bench tops, the split top bench is a great idea. I do have a question about the four flat grain board lamination. Will you get much expantion/contraction across the width of the tops and if so how does that effect the end trim boards, would they pull away from the side trim boards? This movment may not be enough to effect anything as the tops are not very wide, have you seen any problems so far? You have done a nice job on your workbench, it would be nice to see pics of the completed bench.

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