Since I inherited a Stanley No. 7c hand plane from my grandfather (by way of my parents), I figured I'd need to put it to work. However, I quickly learned that planing a board clamped to a pair of plastic saw horses is no fun, so I decided to build a workbench.
I found a number of resources on-line and in the library:
Books (ranked in order of usefulness):
The Workbench Book by Scott Landis
The Workbench : A Complete Guide to Creating Your Perfect Bench by Lon Schleining
Making Workbenches: Planning, Building Outfitting by Sam Allen
Best web sites for my needs:
BugBear's Workbench Links
Bob Key's "Bob and Dave’s Good, Fast, and Cheap Bench" Page (original pages appear to have been removed)
Jeff Youngstom's Bench Page (a Good, Fast, Cheap variant) - I've stolen his webpage layout, btw
I bought a Wilton 4" x 10" woodworking vise on eBay. It appears to have been recovered from an industrial or high school shop (I found a wad of gum on the bottom of the rear jaw). The vise does not have a quick-action nut, so I have to crank the thing open slowly, but I don't find it to be much of a hassle. The handle is an aluminum pipe, which I'll eventually change out to either steel pipe or wood.
I followed the instructions on Bob Key's website, along with suggestions posted by Jeff Youngstom and others on their web sites and on rec.woodworking. Unlike Bob Key's son, I did use power tools to make the bench (table saw, router, cordless drill).
Here are the results (click the pictures below for larger view):
I constructed the bench out of 2x4 and 2x6 (kiln-dried) framing lumber, which I either purchased at Home Depot (or Lowe's), or already had laying about the garage. There are two shelves, the lower made from 3/8" plywood, the upper from melamine-coated MDF (both of these were scraps in the garage prior to use). Outside of the shelves, the only part of the bench not made from Douglas fir is the bench vise jaws, which I made from a piece of 1x6 hard maple plank I bought at HD on a splurge (the scrap piece of maple I had planned to use was badly twisted). The vise jaws are 4" x 16", so that I have 1" extra to the left and 5" extra to the right of the steel jaw faces. I did this in hopes of having some extra real estate to clamp a wide board vertically. The vise wracks quite a bit if I've got something out near the far right of the jaw, unless I use a scrap piece about the same thickness on the left.
A cabinet left over from our kitchen remodel is above the bench, providing storage for hardware and wood finishing supplies. I've also screwed a 2x4 to it's side to mount some clamps. That's a recycle bin on the floor to the left.
I've got various hand planes on the top shelf. You can see a machinist's swivel base vise and a miter saw on the bottom saw, waiting to be mounted to boards so that they can be clamped to the benchtop when needed.
Base construction was an ugly attempt at mortise-and-tenon joints (my first), wedged for the stretchers (the long board across the bottom) and pinned with 3/8" oak dowels for the 3 rails that connect the legs on each side. I had wanted to build the base without metal fasteners (i.e. screws), but ended up screwing diagonal braces on the left side and back of the base to give the keep the bench from rocking when I use it. It seems to work well.
The top was made from glued-up 2x4s, which were first ripped 1/4" on each edge to give a 1.5" x 3" plank. I glued them up 3 at a time - first 3 together, then adding 2 more each step. That turned out to be a big mistake, as I developed quite a bow in the top by the time I was done. I actually noticed the bow about half way through, but attempts to correct probably made things worse. I had wanted to plane each board before glue-up, but got extremely frustrated at the process since I only had plastic saw horses for support (see comment above). I think things would have gone better if I had gone slower, adding only 1 board at a time. The top ended up as 60" x 26.5"
I flattened the top with several hand planes (Stanley #5c, #7c and #4, in that order), starting perpendicular to the boards, then diagonal, then parallel. It took several hours, but I was able to get the bench flat to within 1/64" (okay, maybe 1/32"). Once flat, I finished it with two coats of Watco Natural Danish Oil, let the top sit for 3 days, then finished with two applications of Johnson Paste Wax.
Right now the bench is attached to the base with 4 lag screws. I'm a bit concerned that I could run into some problems as the top expands and shrinks over the course of the year, so I may have to some up with an alternative. I may just simply remove 2 of the screws (diagonals) and see if the top remains solidly attached. Once I come up with a successful solution, I hope to fill the holes in the benchtop with dowel stock.
There is a row of dog slots (3/4" x 3/4") matched to the dog in the front vise, and a row along the front of the top, about 3" from the front. I'll explain the second row further on. I cut the slots using a 3/4" straight bit and a router. I made copies of the bench dogs shown on Jeff Youngstom's page, the only difference being that I extended the clamping face so that it acts as a stop to prevent the dog from pushing all the way into the slots. The clamping faces are about 1/2" tall, so I'm not likely to bang into them with a plane as long as my stock is at least 1/2" thick. The dogs are made from cherry with red oak springs.
For the bench design, I really just followed the instructions found on Bob Key's website. However, I decided I wanted to have a end vise, so that I could hold a long plank to the top for flattening with a hand plane. Because of limited space, I couldn't attach a vise to either end of the bench - one side is blocked by shelves in the garage, the other side would block the door into the house.
So, I got a little creative.
I cut a dovetail groove into the back maple jaw of the front vise. Then I glued up 3 pieces of 1x6 white pine to give a 2 1/4" thick chunk of wood, and finger-jointed two of these together to get an "L" shaped piece that is fairly strong. I drilled out a 3/4" hole (using a Forstner bit) in the short end so I could install a Veritas Wonder Dog. I then glued a dovetail spline to the long, inside face of the piece, so that I can slide my "tail vise" into the groove of the front vise.
Because of the dovetail shape of the slot / spline, the tail vise stays in place with the front vise open, and easily slides in or out depending upon the length of board I'm working on.
Once I've decided how far out to extend the tail vise, I just close the front vise to lock it in position. Then I pin the board between the Wonder Dog and a bench dog in one of the slots along the front of the bench. I've only just started using this set-up, but it seems to be holding up so far. I would expect that I could run into problems if I extend the tail vise more than halfway out of the slot in the front vise jaw, but accepting that limitation gives me about 68" of clamping length across the front. If it does work out, I will probably rebuild the tail vise out of maple, since I expect the hole to elongate in the relatively soft white pine. Who knows, I may have learned how to hand-cut a dovetail by then . . . . or not.
Additional note If you decide to build a similar tail vise, be sure that there is enough wood between the dog hole on the tail and the face towards the bench to support a board on the tail. The picture of the tail vise in use (lowest right photo) shows a 2x4 unsupported. I had to glue an additional piece of pine on the vise after the pictures were taken to ensure that a board was supported from below. Otherwise, you can get "tip-dive" of the board during planing, leading to an uneven surface.
Clamping up more than two boards at a time As discussed above, this led to some bowing of the top.
Using clamping pressure to correct for twisted/bowed boards This allowed open seams to be exposed on the top. There is nothing structurally wrong with the top, and I was able to plane it flat, but aesthetically it leaves a lot to be desired. I really should have built some sort of jig so that I could have planed the boards flat. But, as they say, you need a workbench to build a workbench.
Drilling holes poorly I bought a "Precision Drill Guide" (made by General Tools) from Home Depot. I didn't immediately appreciate how well this thing needs to be clamped and tightened to prevent slippage. A few extra Forstner bits in other sizes would have also helped.
Narrow stretchers and rails While I laminated up two 2x4s to make the legs 3" square, I only used 1.5" width pieces for the rails and stretchers of the base. Now, I did put three rails on each pair of legs, but I suspect that I could have avoided the diagonal braces if I had bothered to go with 3" widths (as recommended by Bob Key).
Vise installation From the pictures above, you can see the rear metal face of the vise sitting flush with, and inside, the bench top. In actuality, it wasn't flush, since the jaw top was slightly convex (higher in the center). I couldn't get a board to lay perfectly flat because of this. I ended up having to re-install the vise after the pictures were taken, shimming it down about 1/8" of an inch. I should have left the groove for the rear vise face about 1" from the top of the benchtop. This would have done 3 things:
Made the benchtop better looking
Made it a lot easier to flatten the top
Made the vise jaws bigger (since the maple vice jaws could have been cut to 5" x 16", so that they'd still mount flush with the top).
Well, that's it for now. It took about 4 weekends (and several weeknights) to build the bench, from mid-Feb. to mid-March 2005. We had a ridiculously mild end-of-winter in Colorado, so throughout I was able to work either in the garage or the driveway. I hope this can help anyone who's interested in building a Good, Fast and Cheap bench of their own.
Feel free to e-mail corrections, comments or questions.
Last edited July 15, 2007