How To Build A Heavy-Duty Workbench
A great workbench needs to have a couple important qualities. First, it has to be solidly built. You don’t want it sliding or moving around as you work. Second, it has to offer options for clamping a work- piece securely in place. This way, you don’t have to worry about the workpiece shifting as you rout, sand, or cut. The workbench shown here meets all these requirements — and more.
It’s built with red oak and medium-density fiberboard (MDF) for strength and stability. And the knock-down hardware used to assemble the base allows you “tighten” it due to changes in humidity (or disassemble it if you ever need to move it). Vises – But a solid bench isn’t of much use if you can’t hold a workpiece securely. So this bench incorporates a front vise and a unique twin-screw vise. Along with the dog holes in the top, they provide an unlimited number of clamping options. This just might be the last workbench you’ll ever need.
To provide rock-solid support for the top of the workbench and give it stability, I started by building a solid base. The base consists of two end assemblies connected by a pair of stretchers. Joinery – One of the first things you’ll notice in Figure 2 is there isn’t any tricky joinery like large mortise and tenons to deal with. Instead, the end assemblies are formed by cutting a simple groove in each leg and then joining them with a 3/4″ plywood panel. This creates a strong assembly that resists racking and twisting. Then to connect the assemblies to the stretchers, I used a draw-bolt system that consists of a long bench bolt and a large barrel nut. Although it does allow you to take the base apart, the bigger benefit is you can “snug up” the base due to changes in humidity.
Each end assembly starts out as a pair of 3-1/2″- square legs. I formed each leg by gluing up two pieces of 1-3/4″-thick red oak. It’s best to rip these pieces slightly wider than necessary. This way, you don’t have to worry about aligning the edges perfectly while gluing them up. Then after the glue dries, simply square up the legs and cut them to final length.
Now you can turn your attention to the groove in each leg. Since this groove accepts the 3/4″ plywood end panel, you can cut the panel to final size and use it to check the fit of the groove. Although the legs are identical in size, there is one small difference. The top outside edge of the left legs are notched to accept the top.
- Legs (4) 3-1/2 x 32-3/4 – 31/2
- End Panels (2) 18-3/8 x 28-1/4 – 3/4 Ply.
- Filler Strips (4) 1 x 41/2 – 3/4
- Narrow Upr. Rail (1) 4-1/2 x 16-3/8 – 3/4
- Wide Upr. Rail (1) 5-1/4 x 16-3/8 – 3/4
- Lower Rails (2) 7 x 16-3/8 – 3/4
- Stretchers (2) 7 x 57-3/4 – 1-3/4
- Shelf (1) 19-3/8 x 60-1/2 – 3/4 MDF Top
- Top Layers (3) 23-1/2 x 75 – 3/4 MDF
- Front/Back Aprons (2) 3 x 75 – 1-3/4
- End Apron (1) 3 x 27 – 1-3/4
- (30) #8 x 11/4″ Fh Woodscrews
- (16) #8 x 11/2″ Fh Woodscrews
- (10) #8 x 3″ Fh Woodscrews
- (8) 1/2″ x 11/2″ Steel Rods
- (2) 5/16″ x 3″ Lag Screws
- (2) 5/16″ Flat Washers
- (4) Bench Bolts and Barrel Nuts
- (4) 1/2″ Flat Washers
- (1) Woodworking Vise
- (1) Twin-Screw End Vise
- (1) Set of Bench Dogs
- (1) 1/4″ Hdbd. (1″ x 200 Ln. In.)
- (10) 3/8″-Dia. Hardwood Plugs
As I mentioned before, the base is held together by a draw bolt system. To ensure the hole for each bolt is located accurately, it’s best to drill the holes now on the drill press. Then, I routed a small (1/8″) roundover on each edge of each leg (except the top ends). Assemble Ends – At this point, you can glue up each end assembly, making sure the panels are flush with the top of each leg. Then, to fill in the groove just below the end panel in each leg, I glued in a hardwood filler strip. To give the end assemblies a “frame and panel” look, I added “rails” to each assembly. The upper rails are slightly different in width (to account for the notch in the left legs), while the lower rails are identical. After rounding the outside edges, they’re simply glued in place.
At this point, you can set the end assemblies aside and concentrate on the stretchers. Each stretcher starts out as a 13/4″-thick piece of hardwood cut to final length and width. To provide a decorative cutout, I cut a gentle arc on each stretcher that ends in a small “shoulder” near the end, like you see in Figure 4. Note: I used a long strip of 1/8″ hardboard to lay out the arc. Once the arc was complete, I installed a dado blade in my table saw and cut a rabbet along the top inside edge of each stretcher to support the shelf that’s added later. Here again, I eased the upper and lower edges of the stretcher (except the inside edge of the rabbet).
Draw Bolt Holes
Now you’re ready to drill the holes for the draw-bolt system. I started by drilling a deep counterbore near the end of each stretcher on the inside face for the brass barrel nut. Then to ensure the holes for the draw-bolt system mated perfectly with the holes in the legs, I used the drilling guide shown below. Assembly – With the pins installed, you’re ready to assemble.
To ensure the holes for the guide pins and assembly bolt line up perfectly, I made the drilling guide shown below. Guide – The guide is a 1-3/4″-square hardwood block cut to match the width of the stretcher. To make sure the holes were straight and true, I drilled them on the drill press. Then I attached a hardboard clamping plate to the side of the guide.
To complete the holes in the stretcher, just clamp the guide in place and drill. Note: An ‘X’ on the “bottom” of the guide helps orient it identically on the stretchers and the legs. Leg Holes – Since the bolt hole in the leg is already drilled, you can use the guide to locate and drill the two guide pin holes in the leg. Just slip a dowel in the center hole, align the guide parallel to the edge of the leg, clamp it in place, and then drill. the base. Start by inserting the 1/2″-dia. steel rod guide pins into the ends of each stretcher. These pins keep the stretchers aligned during assembly and prevent them from twisting. After slipping the brass nut into the counterbore in each stretcher, mate the stretchers with the end assemblies and then tighten each bench bolt to pull the stretchers firmly against the legs. Shelf – Finally, you can cut a shelf to size so it rests in the rabbets on the top of the stretchers. To fit the shelf around the legs, you’ll need to notch each corner.
The top of a workbench sees pretty hard use, so it needs to be strong and sturdy. But just as important, it needs to be flat. I rely on the top of my workbench as a reference for all sorts of assembly chores. I decided to use MDF (mediumdensity fiberboard) for the top of my workbench. It’s heavy, stable, and very flat. And compared to a top made from solid wood, it’s quite a bit less expensive.
To make the top thick enough for mounting a vise and holding bench dogs and other clamping accessories, the top is built up out of three separate layers. Then later it will be wrapped with hardwood aprons. To make the top, I started by cutting all three top layers to finished size. The problem is gluing all three layers together so all the edges stay perfectly flush. To do this, I used screws to keep everything aligned and act as “clamps” while the glue dried. I started by clamping two of the layers together so the edges were flush. Then I predrilled a few holes for the screws. The only thing that’s important here is to be sure to keep the screws away from where you’ll be drilling the dog holes later. (I penciled in the location of the dog holes just to be sure.) Once that’s complete, you can separate the two layers and spread on some glue. I used a slow-set glue and spread it on the top layer with a 3″ paint roller. Then just “clamp” the two layers together with the screws. Adding the third layer is just a matter of repeating the process.
With the top glued up, you’re ready to add the 3/4″-dia. dog holes. There’s a single row along the front and back edges (for use with a twinscrew vise or other accessories) and a double row at the end (for use with the front vise). For the double row of dog holes at the left end of the bench, I carefully laid out and drilled each one individually. Then to keep the hole spacing consistent on the two long edges (as well as to guide the drill bit straight), I made a simple indexing jig. Finally, to soften the inside edge of each dog hole, I routed a small (3/32″) chamfer.
With the dog holes complete, you can turn your attention to concealing and protecting the edges of the MDF. To do this, I wrapped the top with 1-3/4″-thick hardwood aprons. I started by cutting the front/back aprons to length so they were flush with the ends of the top. Then I cut a single end apron for the left side of the bench. It’s the same width as the other aprons, but it’s cut to length so it’s flush with the outside faces of the front/back aprons. For now I left the right end of the bench open. Later you’ll make a wider apron (and drill a few holes) to accommodate the twin-screw end vise. But if you don’t plan on installing the twin-screw vise, simply make a second end apron.
After cutting the aprons to size, you can turn your attention to the grooves that run around the top of the bench and along the inside face of each apron. These grooves accept hardboard splines that help align the aprons with the top of the bench while they’re glued in place.
No End Vise Option
If you’d rather not add the twin- screw vise, the addition of the aprons is much simpler, as you can see in the photo above. All you’ll need to do is make and install a second apron just like the one at the left end. Even without the twin-screw vise, you can still make use of all the dog holes using the bench dogs and accessories shown above. A router and a slot cutter is all you need to make the grooves in both the top and aprons. But you’ll want to note that the grooves stop short of the exposed ends. Another thing to note is that the front apron has a small “pocket” routed in the back face to accommodate the rear jaw of the front vise. The size of this pocket will depend upon the vise you use. I made mine deep enough for the thickness of the jaw and slightly over sized in width and length (1/16″).
With the grooves and vise pocket complete, you can glue the aprons to the top using splines cut into strips from a sheet of 1/4″ hardboard. Clamping the front and back aprons isn’t a problem. But clamping across the length of the bench is a challenge. To see how I did this, take a look at the margin. After drilling some counterbored holes, I screwed the end apron in place and then plugged the holes with some dowel plugs (Figure 5). One of the most useful features on a workbench is a heavy-duty front vise. But what’s really nice about this vise is installing it is only a three-step process. And since the first step of cutting the pocket is already complete, there are only two steps left: attaching the rear jaw to the bench and then adding a wood face block to the front jaw. But why go to all this trouble when you could simply bolt the vise to the apron and add a couple wood pads to each face of the vise?
I had a couple reasons. First, placing the rear jaw in a pocket creates a large, smooth face the length of the bench for clamping. And adding a thick face block with dog holes allows you to securely clamp a variety of wider workpieces using bench dogs in the holes in the top.
The Vise – To install the vise, you’ll need to take it apart first. But don’t worry. This isn’t as difficult as you might think. After removing a cotter pin from one of the guide rods, I was able to separate the front jaw (along with the guide rods and threaded shaft) from the rear jaw. As I mentioned earlier, you’ve already completed the first step of installing the vise by routing out the pocket in the front apron for the rear jaw. At this point, you’re ready for the second step by adding a couple support pieces for the rear jaw.
Spacer Block – To fill the “gap” between the bottom of the benchtop and the vise mounting plate, I added a spacer block made from 3/4″ MDF. The block is simply glued and screwed in place so it’s flush with the inside edge of the pocket, as illus- to provide easy access.
Backing Plate – The second support piece is a backing plate made from 1-3/4″-thick hardwood that matches the thickness of the front apron. Here again, to allow for the rear jaw of the vise, a wide dado is cut in the plate. After cutting the dado, the next step is to temporarily clamp the backer plate to the bench so it’s flush with the apron all around. Now you can slip the rear jaw of the vise in place as a “template” for locating the holes that the guide rods and threaded shaft pass through. Since it was hard to make an accurate mark using a pencil, I made a couple of marking tools.
Each has a nail ground to a point centered in the end of a dowel. (You may have to sand the dowel to fit smoothly into the holes in the vise.) Marking the center of each hole is just a matter of “poking” the nail against the plate. Once you’ve marked the location of all three holes, remove the backing plate and drill the holes. But don’t worry about being dead-on accurate. The holes are slightly oversized (1/8″) to provide a little clearance. After drilling the holes, you can glue the backing plate to the bottom of the front apron. Just be sure to attach it flush on the face and end.
Face Block – While you wait for the glue to dry, you can work on making and mounting the face block. The block consists of two slabs of 1-3/4″-thick hardwood. But before gluing them together, I softened the outside edge of one block by cutting a radius. If your band saw has the capacity for 6-3/4″-wide stock, you can do this easily. If not, it’s a simple matter to lay out the radius on the ends of the work- piece and remove most of the waste by making a few passes across a table saw with the blade tilted. Then you can smooth out the radius with a rasp and sandpaper.
Dog Holes – After gluing the pieces together, you’ll need to lay out and drill a couple dog holes in the jaw so they align with the holes in the bench. But I didn’t drill completely through the block. That’s because the bench dogs I used are shorter than the width of the face block. So I drilled a pair of counter- bores on the inside face of the block.
Vise Holes – At this point, you’re almost ready to mount the vise. But before you do that, you’ll need to drill a set of holes for the guide rods and threaded shaft. Here again, these holes need to match the ones already drilled in the backing plate. The important thing here is to make sure the face block is flush with the top and end of the bench. Then using the same dowels as before, mark the location of each hole. Once that’s complete, remove the block and drill the holes. As before, they’re slightly oversized so the precise locations aren’t critical.
Mount Block & Vise – After mounting the rear jaw, you’re ready to attach the face block to the front jaw. To do this, I used the vise to “clamp” the block against the apron with the top edges and ends flush. Two screws secure the block to the front jaw. Don’t worry if you notice a small gap between the apron and bottom of the face block. The jaws cant (tilt) in slightly at the top. The reason is that as you clamp a workpiece, it forces the top of the vise apart, and the tilt keeps the jaws parallel. Access holes drilled on the inside face of the vise make it easy to “pop up” a bench dog for easy removal. One of the more interesting features of this work bench — and a feature I’ve wanted to incorporate for awhile — is the Veritas Twin-Screw Vise. This vise has a chain-driven mechanism that keeps the jaws of the vise perfectly parallel during any type of clamping.
End Apron – If you’ve decided to install the twin-screw vise, the first step is adding an end apron to complete the top of the workbench. Like the other aprons, this one is 13/4″ thick. But the end apron is wider to accommodate the twin-screw vise hardware. As you did before, you’ll need to rout a slot near the top to accept the spline used to align the apron with the top of the bench. (Remember to stop the slot short of each end of the apron.)
Vise Holes – Once the slot is cut, you’re ready to add the holes for the shafts of the vise. Because there’s no metal jaw and the two shafts are independent, you can simply lay out the holes and drill them to fit the mounting flanges supplied with the twin-screw vise. The twin-screw vise doesn’t have any guide rods either. So to avoid having to rest your workpiece on the shafts, there are a pair of steel support pins installed in the apron. But don’t install the pins just yet. Apron Braces – To provide extra support for the end apron where it extends below the front/back aprons, I added a pair of brace.. They’re made from 13/4″-thick hardwood. I shaped them like the stretchers on the base. The braces are then simply glued and screwed in place.
Face Block – Like the face vise, the twin-screw vise has a face block also. The twin-screw face block is built identically. It’s simply longer (27″) so it’s flush with both the front and back of the benchtop. Here again, you’ll need to lay out and drill a pair of dog holes in the top of the block, as well as a pair of counterbores on the inside face for “popping” the dogs out of the holes.
Vise Installation – At this point, you’re ready to mount the face block and twin-screw vise hardware. The first step is just like before — locating the shaft holes. So start by clamping the face block to the end apron so it’s flush all around. This time I had a little more room to transfer the location of the holes, so I just slipped a pencil inside and traced the location of the shaft holes to the face block. Once that’s complete, you can remove the face block and drill the holes. Just remember that these holes don’t need to be as large. I measured the shafts (about 1″) and drilled them slightly (1/8″) oversize.
Remember the pins that support the workpiece? Well, the face block needs to have a couple counterbores drilled in it so the pins have a “home” when the vise is completely closed. The process for locating these holes is just like before, but be sure to use the layout hole to locate them, not the smaller hole you just drilled. Now you can tap the pins (supplied with the vise) in place and then reclamp the face block to the apron in preparation for installing the rest of the twin-screw vise hardware. Install Shafts – The shafts of the vise are held in place by a pair of flanges mounted to the back side of the apron. Before you screw them in place, take a look at where the thread starts on each one and orient them identically. (I used a piece of tape for reference.) This ensures that the two handles will be positioned identically (or pretty close). The next step is to thread each shaft into the flange and snug the face block up against the end apron so it’s flush all around. (Note: The shaft with the spring-loaded sprocket pin that allows the vise to be canted is installed on the right side. You’ll also want to “tweak” the shaft mounting plates so they’re positioned vertically. Then you can screw the plates to the front of the face block.
Rub Plates – One thing I noticed about the vise was that it dropped slightly the further out it was extended due to play in the threads of the vise. To minimize this, I took some time to install a couple rub plates underneath the top. I sized mine to provide 1/16″ clearance above the shaft and then screwed them in place.
Final Assembly – Completing the installation of the vises is just a matter of adding the drive chain, covers, and handles. To install the chain, place it over the right sprocket and then pull it over the left sprocket. What you’re looking for here is to have the chain engage the left sprocket so it’s fairly taut across the top. A pair of set screws in the left sprocket allows you to adjust the chain so it’s taut. Then it’s just a matter of joining the chain with the connecting link provided in the kit. One thing you may notice is the lower chain sags more than half a link. If that’s the case you may need to remove a full link and reinstall a half link. This hardware and the instructions for accomplishing this are included with the twin-screw vise kit.
With my vise, after rejoining the chain with a half link, there was still a little minor sag. To “prop” this up a bit, I installed the chain roller supplied with the twin-screw hardware. Finally, screw the covers in place and add the handles. (Note: Additional hardware is included for installing a “speed” knob. Completing the installation of both vises was probably the biggest challenge in building the workbench. All that’s left to do now is put the top in place, complete a couple small details, and then apply a finish.
Install Top – Installing the top doesn’t involve a whole lot more than simply setting it in place on the base. But as you’ve figured out by now, it’s a little too heavy to do that all by yourself. So you’ll want to call a friend to give you a hand in placing the top in position. The top rests on the upper face of the legs. It’s positioned so the apron at the left end “hooks” around the rabbet at the top of the left end assembly.
Cleats – Although the weight of the top will keep it from lifting off, I wanted to make sure the top wouldn’t shift or slide around at all as I worked. So I added a pair of cleats to the underside. These cleats are 3/4″-thick hardwood strips. They’re cut to fit between the front and back legs. The cleats are installed flush against the panel of each end assembly.
For the finish on this workbench, you could simply use a wipe-on varnish. But I wanted to give the red oak an old-time, antique look. To do this, I experimented with some artist’s oil colors I picked up at a local art supply store. They come in toothpaste-style tubes, like the one you see in the margin. I experimented with a few different colors, combining them in small batches until I found a color I liked. Just keep in mind that too much color will make things look muddy. Too little and everything looks washed out.
My final “mix” ended up being quite simple — a few tablespoons of Van Dyke Brown in a quart of linseed oil (see photo at left). (You could also mix the artist’s colors in a wipe-on varnish if you’d like a little more gloss and durability.) With the mix in hand, just wipe the finish on and work it around evenly to avoid streaking. And yes, I even used the finish on the MDF. It made the whole workbench look like it just came out of an old-fashioned workshop.