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Thread: Work bench discussion

  1. #1
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    Work bench discussion

    Off and on over the years I've thought about building a new workbench. In HS we had the large 6' x 6' or so butcher block topped lockers that had a vice on each corner. In my dad's shop, they were ususally steel bases with a double layer of either ply or particle board with formica on top. currently I've got mostly ones that are either just old kitchen cabinets with formica tops or 2x4 frames with a double layer of ply. I'm just trying to get some thoughts/questions out and am open to feedback as to what others have tried and used and what they like and don't like...

    What would be the advantage of a butcher block top?

    Would you use hard or soft woods and why?

    Would a plywood or other substrate be more suitable for expansion/contraction given I don't have a climate controlled shop?

    Torsion box top?

    Long and narrow, or equally wide in each direction?

    Metal or wood base?

    Movable or stationary?
    Darren

    To a small child, the perfect granddad is unafraid of big dogs and fierce storms but absolutely terrified of the word “boo.” – Robert Brault

  2. #2
    Join Date
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    I'll bite.

    Much depends on you and what you want to do.

    Some things to think about. The bench serves two critical functions besides being the catchall for all displaced items. It provides a reliably flat top which serves as a reference surface and it provides secure work piece holding capability, all the while providing a comfortable place to do your work.

    Translation. The size depends on the projects you expect to do on it. The height depends on your height and at what is comfortable for your back. The top depends on how much you have decided flatness is important to you. This last one is the least recognized as valuable but oh so much appreciated when one comes to realizes how much easier things became when the reference surface is reliable. Solid wood allows you to plane the surface flat from time to time. Ply not so much. Hard wood face laminated exposing edge grain is the most stable in variable environmental conditions. The weight of the bench is important because you don't want to follow it around the shop while you are working on it. It must successfully opposes the forces applied to it. Equally important is how will you hold your work on it. Vises and their placement will make a huge difference.

    High school shop environments meant benches had to accommodate 4 students a place to work safely within the space allowed. Had the same ones in school at which I taught. Probably not terribly practical for the home shop.

    Some thoughts from days of old. Workers were much shorter than today's humans and the work surface heights reflected that. Building a bench based on someone else's comfort range is more than silly. It is painful. Ply was not available, so solid wood it was. Harder wood was preferred because it is dimensionally more stable. Flatness was essential because working the wood with hand tools is tedious and one wanted to keep unintended mishaps at the very minimum as opposed to having to do them over or spending an inordinate time 'fixing' things. The surface area was directly dependent on the size of the work pieces being worked.

    Today, we often get hung up on what others have done without considering what it is we want to accomplish and making the necessary adjustments. We allow the space available and the money we want to spend have an inordinate influence on our decisions. Not that those two things are unimportant, but functionality should always win the day. Those workers of yesteryear didn't want to spend any more than they had to either.

    Hope that helps. BTW, I have a formula for determining your perfect workbench height, if you are interested.
    ++++++

    Some say the land of milk and honey; others say the land of fruits and nuts. All together my sort of heaven.

    Power is not taken. It is given. Who have you given yours to? Hmmmm?

    Carol Reed

  3. #3
    Join Date
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    Okay, I'll start with sacrilege - I use my bench for everything! - Woodworking, Carving, metal work, mechanical repair - everything!

    It has a 2¼" thick plywood top, edged with oak, with two vises, some dog holes, a couple of planning stops, and about a dozen 5/16-18 threaded inserts in it.

    The top has been on it for nearly twenty years, and it shows a lot of wear and tear.

    The threaded inserts are spaced to hold everything from hold-down clamps to a pipe anvil for shaker box riveting, to mounting my Kreg jig base. They're useful for various spur-of-the-moment jigs and fixtures, too.

    Some of the dog holes (the originals) are ¾", and some are 20mm to accommodate the dogs and other accessories from my Festool MFT.

    The base has three shallow drawers for knives, pencils, squares, dental tools, etc. just under the top, and five larger drawers for drills, drivers, nailers, sanders, etc. below that.

    It's usually totally cluttered with whatever the current projects are and occasionally, I clean it off. When it gets excess glue, finish, or whatever on it, I take a Stanley #80 scraper to it, and then wipe on some shellac to re-seal it. It generally looks nasty, but it's totally functional.

    Click image for larger version. 

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    Jim D.
    Adapt, Improvise, Overcome!

  4. #4
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    I have always loved looking at traditional woodworking workbenches. On several occasions I have been to Hancock Shaker village and I always admire the workbenches. I love the work Chris Schwartz does on his beautiful workbench and same for Frank

    I have thought about it - but

    I like hand tools and I do use hand tools - but

    I do have a laminated wood top bench - but

    BUT- I don't do a LOT of hand tooled work and I don't have a lot of desire to go there.

    A workbench needs to be tailored to the need.

    My shop is more CNC than traditional hand tool.

    I like a strong bench top, and I have my own design that is similar to a torsion box top. I like a formica top because my tiny cutters are easy to see and there are no cracks. I like a 2" or so overhang all around so I can clamp stuff down. I like a high bench because I will often have a stool to sit on to so some fine intricate sanding. I will put a tarp on top and do some painting.

    I have an assembly table with a plywood top. That is just utilitarian.

    I do have a woodworking workbench - laminated wood top, but is pretty low end. Here again, I don't do a lot of traditional hand tool stuff.

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Nov 2006
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    Austin, Texas
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    I have a 30 inch high bench on casters, with blocks of wood that I can put under the bench near the casters to lift them off the ground - more stable than the usual brakes. No vice, but an edge that allows me to use clamps. The top is two layers - ply for strength, MDF for smoothness - I finally decided to have the MDF on the top. The mixed media top was a mistake. Since MDF and plywood are different, the expansion is different, and the bench becomes convex or concave depending on the weather. Not a lot, but just enough to irritate me.

    On top of the 30 inch bench I have clamped another bench, 16 inches high. It could be a little shorter, but not enough that I have done anything about it. The top bench is 14 inches wide and has an end vice, dog holes, and a couple hold fasts. Since I am tall, this 45 or so inch high work surface has become a favorite, for dovetails, hand planing, and other work that is now at a convenient height without bending over. The thickness for the top recommended by the vice is 2 1/2 inches, so I used 4 layers of MDF, 3/4, 1/2, 1/2, 3/4, laminated together. Boy is it strong, and works well with the dogs and hold fasts.

    The long slider of the table saw fits under the upper bench. See the second and third pictures in my shop tour at www.solowoodworker.com/info/tour.html

    Charlie Plesums, Austin Texas
    (Retired early to become a custom furnituremaker)
    Lots of my free advice at www.solowoodworker.com

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Jul 2011
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    The Gorge Area, Oregon
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    What would be the advantage of a butcher block top?

    I guess it depends on what you mean by butcher block.... I glued mine up out of 2x3 stock on edge for a couple of reasons
    • Heavy, more weight is more stable. I think I could have gone even further here.
    • More stable than larger pieces of wood (alternated grain orientation to try to help)
    • Cheaper than larger pieces of wood


    Would you use hard or soft woods and why?
    This is heavily debated. I opted for softer and think it was an "ok" decision. The reason is that the bench top takes the punishment instead of the workpiece. So my bench top looks a bit like someone beat it with a hammer in some places.. because that's true. If your workbench is a show piece or you were more delicate with it, I guess I could see going the other way.

    My only real complaint (and the reason I might go harder on the next one.. someday) is that it has had some problems with compression around the vice area... I have the LV twin screw end vice on one end and its held on with cross dowel bolts into the top and they've been annoying with compression problems.. I used really cheap wood though (like $25 worth in the whole bench - not counting the vice) so ymmv.

    Would a plywood or other substrate be more suitable for expansion/contraction given I don't have a climate controlled shop?

    A smidge, I don't think it matters to much... My bench top shrank about 1" in width after I installed it, but because I'd planned for that it was fine. With proper grain alignment its still flat enough for anything I do. Is it laser level flat? no.. but then it never was Its construction level flat though.

    Torsion box top?

    I would argue that torsion boxes are great for assembly tables. Light, flat, stable. I'm not as in love with the idea for a bench top. Personally a heavier top that can take a bit more punishment is nice.

    Long and narrow, or equally wide in each direction?

    Long and narrow. If I can't reach the work on the other side, its annoying. Having to walk all the way around isn't very efficient either. If you really want to go big and wide for assembly a break down assembly table (or if you have the space.. swoon.. a dedicated assembly table).

    Metal or wood base?

    What do you have? I don't think that matters to much as long as its heavy and stable. Wood is the obvious choice because we have it. I don't really see any issues with metal, other than it might be slightly harder to attach things, or if you want bench features (like a sliding deadman) that are inherently more oriented towards a wood build.

    Movable or stationary?

    Stationary. I'm still dealing with issues of my abandoned movable theories (I should really just make a new base I guess). I'm in the heavier is better for benches camp. This is especially true if you do much hand work (planing, etc..). If you do need to go mobile, figure one some way to make the based solid ground to top and the movable part move out of the way.
    Love thy neighbor, yet pull down not thy hedge.

  7. #7
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    What a great thread and i cannot say enough positives about the contributions thus far. Once again i rest my case...you cannot google these contributions. Thanks all that have contributed thus far, i been at this hobby for years now and your words still have huge value, in fact more so after i have had a go at some things that i now need to remedy myself....bench is one of them.

    Darren i built mine from softwood laminated together. Carols words hit home....again. Its 2x4 spf. It sits on floor, i want it like Charlie has his. Movable but fix when i work on it. Trouble is its too light. Light is a relative term. I battle to lift it but...when i am planning it moves. I have pondered that perhaps thats my technique at planning or...feel my plane is not sharp enough...dunno.
    Added a leg vice hoping it would be the answer to my dreams.....may well be if i was to cough up for a benchcraft version that glides. My homemade version put me totally of it, it becomes a pain to use.

    Jim uses his bench way i do mine. But now that i see what Jim has done by way of draws beneath, i am sold on adding draws to mine. To date the space beneath has just been a junk storage place. So much for the "traditional" design .
    4 experienced woodworkers have commented on "functionality" thats something i only believe one finds out when one has had a go at what one thinks will be functional yet turns out is not. Then you read their points after that experience and so many things resonate...well at least they did for me.
    cheers

  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rob Keeble View Post
    Trouble is its too light. Light is a relative term. I battle to lift it but...when i am planning it moves. I have pondered that perhaps thats my technique at planning or...feel my plane is not sharp enough...dunno.
    The whole thing moves or isn't stiff? If its all moving some thin stall mats under it might be the trick to give it a bit of stiction. If its wracking, I feel your pain and think that a slightly better job on the joinery might have helped a bit in places (more haunched tenons).

    Quote Originally Posted by Rob Keeble View Post
    Added a leg vice hoping it would be the answer to my dreams.....may well be if i was to cough up for a benchcraft version that glides. My homemade version put me totally of it, it becomes a pain to use.
    A homemade St. Peters Cross setup looks pretty doable.. although I'm not entirely sold on the idea.. and balk a smidge at the cost of the (admittedly awesome looking) benchcrafted setup.

    I have been eying this idea for a while though:
    http://contrib1.wkfinetools.com/wMye...etGuide-01.asp

    I'll need to redo the legs to do this as mine are currently inset - but that would solve a handful of my other complaints as well (more wideset more stable, the ability to add a sliding deadman which I've wanted several times a year - worked around fine.. but..).

    I'm thinking the next round will be a tail vise and a leg vise. If I could add an oliver/emmert pattern makers vise on the other side.. and a bench on bench with a twin screw.. well.. oooh yeah.

    I don't pretend that I do the same kind of work as most people though and the workholding requirements are a fairly personal choice.

    Quote Originally Posted by Rob Keeble View Post
    But now that i see what Jim has done by way of draws beneath, i am sold on adding draws to mine. To date the space beneath has just been a junk storage place.
    I'm on the fence on those. The advantages are obvious. The downsides are that I really like my holdfasts so there needs to be enough clearance under the top to allow those to fit which cuts down on the usable space and leaves a decent sized gap for shavings and "other stuff" to accumulate. I mostly have that setup on my lathe (essentially acts as a chisel shelf for the 3-4 immediately in use) and it hasn't been to bad so I'm probably over thinking it. The other downside is that I'm super messy.. so would have to make pretty well made drawers to keep the dust and what not out.
    Love thy neighbor, yet pull down not thy hedge.

  9. #9
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    Thank you all for your thoughts and feedback, just the kind of discussion I was hoping for. I realized a lot of it will depend on what I'm looking to do on one and like Jim I tend to use one for just about everything, but would like to get one built that would suit woodworking mostly. The last one I built using 4x4 legs and 2x4 framing and is mostly used for my outfeed table on the table saw. However, as most of you warned, it's become troublesome in that it's always covered with other projects and tools and things have to be shifted and moved in order to actually use it for an outfeed.

    The whole hardwood vs. softwood kinda had me baffled but figured you all would have some insight. Sounds like maybe I need to look somewhere in-between, but am still leaning towards a plywood top after seeing Jim's bench. I'll heed Charlie's advice not to mix media in that regards. I was considering a hardboard top that I could replace over the ply, but sounds like I'm better off just doing all ply.

    I need to do some purging in the shop and get things organized, but since I have the space, I think I may go with a bench and an assembly table as well to make sure each are used for their purposes rather than combining the two.

    Quote Originally Posted by Carol Reed View Post
    BTW, I have a formula for determining your perfect workbench height, if you are interested.
    Thank you, I would love to see it.
    Darren

    To a small child, the perfect granddad is unafraid of big dogs and fierce storms but absolutely terrified of the word “boo.” – Robert Brault

  10. #10
    Join Date
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    Bench height formula.
    Stand straight and tall.
    Bend you elbows 90º.
    Fix your eyes at something eyeball height.
    Have someone measure from the bottom of your elbow to the floor.
    Subtract 4" from that number.
    Round it off and it is your optimum working height.

    To try it out, take an existing table and raise it to that number. Stack whatever under the legs. Now stand up there and pretend to plane or sand or rout something. Check in with your back. If you're comfy, Bob's yer uncle. Adjust accordingly.

    As an example, at 5'4" and a smidge, my back is happiest with a 40" high work surface. Let us know what your magic number is.
    ++++++

    Some say the land of milk and honey; others say the land of fruits and nuts. All together my sort of heaven.

    Power is not taken. It is given. Who have you given yours to? Hmmmm?

    Carol Reed

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