Converting a workbench

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Forum topic by upriver posted 05-16-2011 05:46 AM 1975 views 0 times favorited 10 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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22 posts in 3346 days

05-16-2011 05:46 AM

Topic tags/keywords: question


First post though longtime lurker. Love this place. I will do a proper intro and post some projects at some point but for now I need some guidance.

I would like to set up a woodworking bench so that I may learn more handtool and fine woodworking skills. I’ve been focusing on rough outdoor and home-improvement projects—lots of mitersaw and tablesaw use but not much fine joinery or anything like that. I am very eager to learn to work with dogs and vises, and especially hand planes.

I might have the space for a dedicated woodworking bench at some point, and I am attracted to the idea of building one. You kindof need one to make one, though! At the same time, I would like to start to dabble before I build or buy a dedicated bench.

I am not opposed to some hard work and some expenses (such as a vise or two).

To that end, I am considering converting an existing area of bench towards this purpose, but have some questions.

I am not sure what the existing bench is made of, though it seems likely it is douglas fir as that is a common wood around here. The beams it is made of are a bit rough, though very solid. They are 3” thick. I am thinking of convering this with something like ApplePly. MDF was my first thought but I was told that it will not hold up to the abuse dogholes receive, they will erode and become mishapen. The bench is perfectly level according to my 48” level, but not smooth.


1) Is it a bad idea to “convert” a bench like this rather than making a new one for some reason?

2) If converting is wise, what is the best surface material? I do not believe strength is important as the existing wood is incredibly solid. It just needs a smooth top layer, which can stand up to have the dogholes bored and used.

3) As the existing bench is wall-mounted and continues beyond the “woodworking” area, I only have access to 2 sides, the 6’ long front” and the 3’ deep end. Initially I was considering starting with a vise like the Veritas twin-screw on the end. This would allow boards up to 6’ long to be easily worked. However, the more I think and learn, it seems that a front vise is a better choice. Perhaps the same one, although I wonder if it is in the way when mounted on the front. Any guidance here? I know it depends on what type of work one does, but I can’t answer that yet, because I don’t do much hand tooling yet, because I don’t have a bench! Aye the nested rubs…

Here are some pics to help show the situation. I want to “convert” the area the mitersaw is presently occupying, up to the vertical post, which is 6’ in from the edge. The bench grinder on the other side of the post will also be moved.

I sincerely appreciate any input and would be glad to elaborate if my descriptions and intentions do not make sense. Thanks!

10 replies so far

View Greedo's profile


473 posts in 3728 days

#1 posted 05-16-2011 01:09 PM

what i suggest is to add an mdf top, and make a solid wood edge around the table to protect the edges. if you make the front edge thick enough, then you can add benchdog holes to them and vises. sort of like my assembly table in my project page.

View upriver's profile


22 posts in 3346 days

#2 posted 05-16-2011 10:32 PM

If I go with MDF, should it be screwed to the top, or glued? And you don’t agree that the dog holes deteriorate after some use?

Does anything need to be done to prepare the existing surface for the new top? Should the new layer be glued to avoid screw holes, or are screws needed for strength?

View upriver's profile


22 posts in 3346 days

#3 posted 05-18-2011 04:28 AM

Today I was looking at options at a boxy store. They had some interesting maple plywood. I am still not sure MDF is appropriate for this task. The people there don’t know much about traditional woodworking.

View dmoney's profile


191 posts in 3846 days

#4 posted 05-18-2011 06:00 AM

i’m not sure about MDF either but it’s been done before. it’s probably ok.
they did it on woodsmith

-- Derek, Iowa

View Bernie's profile


422 posts in 3604 days

#5 posted 05-19-2011 08:21 PM

My workbench is a solid door. It’s perfectly flat and works for me. But as I was looking at your pictures, I couldn’t help but notice the thickness of the existing bench. If you add another 3/4” on top of thst massive bench, what kind of bench dogs are you going to use?

Since you wnat to use hand tools, and want to practice using them… why don’t you get a jack plane and smooth out your bench? I was involved in an earlier discussion on this site about planing wide boards, and jack planes came to my attention. I’m traveling and don’t have access to my computer so I’m not sure where the info is, but maybe someone can help you out here. There is a video on the use of jack planes and they are quick and effective. Might be a good solution for you.

-- Bernie: It never gets hot or cold in New Hampshire, just seasonal!

View upriver's profile


22 posts in 3346 days

#6 posted 05-19-2011 10:32 PM

Yes the existing beams are 3” thick. Planing them will not help that they are somewhat chamfered and have gaps between them. I believe they are solid enough as a foundation but a better work surface is needed. Adding 3/4” of plywod etc would give me a 3.75” thick bench, which near as I can tell is not wholly abnormal. I can make dogs from dowels if need be.

View derosa's profile


1597 posts in 3603 days

#7 posted 05-19-2011 11:05 PM

I would still make sure the surface as a whole is relatively flat to prevent warping the plywood if you screw it down, if you are just gluing it on then it probably won’t matter much since you won’t put a lot of constant heavy pressure on the top causing it to sink into low spots. You can also flatten it with a router and a jig that I’ve seen people on here make.

-- A posse ad esse

View crank49's profile


4032 posts in 3738 days

#8 posted 05-19-2011 11:37 PM

1/4” MDF (actually hardboard) works on my bench top. I dropped a roundover bit in my router and rounded the dog hole tops. The dogs hold in the solid wood below the hardboard top.

I also use a little trick taught me by a master patternmaker to level an irregular surface to a laminated cover material. It’s called Bondo.

View upriver's profile


22 posts in 3346 days

#9 posted 05-21-2011 11:34 PM

Thanks for the thoughts everyone!

I am shifting gears as I plan this out. I believe this bench is too tall to ever be great for me and so I am not going to put lots of energy into converting it. However, I do still want a place to do simple working with handtools until I can acquire or build a more specific woodworking bench. So… now I just want to resurface this “good enough” and perhaps add a simple but useful vise. I am fine with drilling makeshift dogholes as I need them. It also seems that a bench hook will allow lots of work without a vise or dogs.

So the remaining question… MDF or hardwood/apple ply? How thick? And should it be glue, screwed, or both?

Considering something like an Anant Vise… is that “good enough” or a waste of money I will regret in a couple years?

Can’t wait for the Anarchist’s Toolchest book to show up… I am ready and eager to get my woodworking studio set up but want to avoid buying as much as possible.

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22 posts in 3346 days

#10 posted 07-15-2011 11:02 PM

Well, I went ahead and added 3/4 maple ply to the top, and a skirt made of fir 2×6. It hangs low enough that I can glue a little backer board on it and drill some dogholes in the skirt. I plan to also add a crochet, and of course dogholes to the top. Its “disposable” enough that I am not afraid to just screw down battens for planestops wherever I need. This is the bench upon which I will make my new bench!

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