Build this super-sturdy, efficient workbench for your small shop and you’ll never regret it. It’s big on functionality, but small on space.
Early last year, I downsized to a small shop that is less than half the size of my former shop. In order to accommodate a basic set of machinery, and to have sufficient space for bench work, assembly, and storage, I opted to replace my full-size work bench with a much smaller version, and integrate my hand tool storage into the bottom of the bench.
I designed the bench so that it could be built over a two-and-a-half-day weekend, and set a budget of $300 for materials and hardware. This excluded the purchase of plywood for the bottom cabinet, as I had ample cut-offs on hand. Rather than traditional square dogs, I chose to incorporate 3/4″ round dogholes. They are much quicker to install and would enable me to use the wide range of Veritas workbench accessories. To speed up the build, I chose to make as much of the bench with 2″ rough (1-3/4″ dressed) stock as possible, and to use dowel and bolt joinery rather than dovetails or mortise and tenon.
Once ash is acclimatized, I find that there is very little latent shrinkage. Anyone who has used ash will know that it’s a pleasure to mill and work with hand tools. Best of all, though, it’s probably the least expensive domestic hardwood. On the West Coast 8/4 ash is priced at $4.50 a board foot.
It’s best to purchase all your hardware before you build the bench. I chose a front and tail vise from Lee Valley, as I’ve used both before, and they’re easy to install. You’ll also need a 3/4″ Forstner bit to drill the dog holes. To avoid chipping the edges of the dog holes when inserting or extracting the dogs, it’s worth chamfering the holes. I use a Lee Valley 82° countersink (#44J21.01). By the way, most screws have an 82° head angle, so this countersink is also ideal for ensuring your screws seat perfectly.
This bench called for 40 bf of lumber, excluding the base cabinet. Once in the shop, I milled the lumber slightly oversized, and let it rest for the better part of two weeks before milling the stock to finished dimensions. Keeping all main parts the same thickness (1-3/4″) proved to be a real time-saver.
Duguay routed a 1/4" wide groove in the back of the front rail and installed a 1/2" wide runner to fix one half of the movable portion of the wagon jaw. On the other side, he machined a wider runner and fixed it, and the spacer it’s attached to, to the underside of the top. Both of the runners ensure the jaw moves parallel with the upper surface of the top.
With the top, aprons and rails in place, Duguay positions the front vise and drills the necessary holes before screwing it in place.
Dog holes in the front of the leg allow a surface clamp to be used so that large panels can be fixed in place.
To keep tools nearby, Duguay built a simple box, outfitted it with drawers, and secured it under the workbench top.
Lots of Storage
The tool cabinet keeps tools at arm’s reach. Ensure the handles on the drawers don’t protrude past the face of the top, or they will interfere with larger panels that are clamped to the face of the bench.
A simple tool tote attached to the back of the top with screws keeps the work surface as free as possible from tools.
Wagon vise screw is bolted to a rebate cut in the wagon
Arrangement of end bolts
The main vise
Base before cabinet was installed
Easily handles long boards
Begin at the top
I began by orienting the boards for the top so the grain ran in the same direction, and then marking out the location for the dog holes. While I chose to drill the holes 6″ apart, you can vary the distance.
My goal when gluing the top was to align the boards so that I wouldn’t be faced with a lot of extra work hand-planing or power sanding the surfaces after glue-up, particularly as it couldn’t be run through my planer. Edge dowelling the boards together resulted in a smoothly aligned top that required minimal hand-plane work. I used the DowelMax, though you could also use a biscuit joiner or the Festool Domino. I also used cauls to sandwich the boards together, which further helps to keep them flush, particularly at the ends.
The board at the front of the bench top, in which you’ll drill a row of dog holes, should be milled the same width as the block of wood you’ll use for the wagon vise jaw, which in my case was 3″ wide. The jaw width isn’t crucial, but it has to be wide enough that you can bolt the end guide onto the jaw. You’ll also want to trim the end of this board flush before gluing up the top. Once the glue dried, I trimmed the top to length.
Assemble the base
The front legs are assembled from two pieces of 1-3/4″ stock, aligned with dowels. I made the back legs narrower, but if you like the look of beefy legs all around, double them up the same as the front legs (Note: If you do, add an additional 4 bf of 8/4 ash to your lumber order).
I chose to use 3/8″ dowels to join the top and bottom braces and rails to the legs, using four 3″ long dowels per joint. Of course, if you’re concerned about the strength of dowels, you could use floating tenons or mortise and tenon joinery. I’ve used dowel joinery quite a bit, and have never had any joint failure.
Once the base was glued together, I drilled 5/8″ holes in the top side braces, through which I would later bolt the base to the bench top. To prevent the end grain on the bottom of the legs from splitting if the bench is ever manhandled across the shop floor, I glued 3/4″ feet to the legs. While a finish isn’t absolutely necessary, I happened to have some polyurethane on hand, so I applied a few coats.
Finish the top
With the top laid upside down on the base, I measured out the location of the bolt holes for attaching the aprons, then drilled 1″ holes about 1-1/4″ deep that the nut and washer could fit into. You’ll also need to chop a flat on one side of the hole to accommodate the nut and washer.
Then locate and drill the holes in the front rail for mounting the front vise. There is also a 1/4″ by 9″ slot you’ll need to rout into the front rail to accommodate a 1/4″ by 1/2″ runner for the wagon vise jaw. There is a similar runner on the opposite side of the jaw, which is screwed to the underside of the bench top. Attach this second runner now, but only glue it in place after the top is mounted to the base. You’ll also need to insert a spacer to correctly position the runner in the groove on the wagon vise jaw.
Finally, determine the location of the hole in the right side apron for the wagon vise screw. Drill the hole, and then chop a mortise for the collar on the inside of the apron.
At this point, I turn the bench top right side up, and dry clamp the front and rear rails and aprons in place. I also check to ensure that the vises mount properly. Best to check that everything goes where it should, and make any necessary corrections before you glue things in place. Once you’re satisfied with the fit, glue and screw the back and front rails in place, and then screw and bolt – but don’t glue – the aprons in place.
Install the vises
To make it easier to install the vises, I flipped the workbench on its back. There may be some tendency over time for some slight top to bottom racking when the front jaw is tightened. To account for this, you can plane a 2° bevel on the inside of the front jaw or glue on a leather face, which will compress somewhat to accommodate any racking. I chose to bevel the jaw.
I glued up two pieces of scrap ash to make the wagon vise jaw, creating a pocket into which the end guide is bolted to the jaw. Drop the jaw into the opening from above the bench; one side of the jaw will land on the runner you glued into the inside of the front rail. Then, from underneath the bench top, attach the second runner and spacer to support the other side of the wagon vise jaw. Screwing the end guide into the vise jaw is a bit awkward – a ratcheting screwdriver helps.
To ensure the top of the front jaw and wagon vise jaw are level with the top of the workbench, install them so that the jaws are about 1/16″ above the bench top, and then hand-plane them flush.
I drilled dog holes into the right front leg to accommodate a Veritas Surface Clamp. This makes it easy to clamp wide boards and panels vertically against the workbench.
Build the cabinet
I used whatever leftover plywood I had on hand to make the bottom cabinet, trimming the edges with ash. As the top and bottom aren’t visible, I simply screwed them together. The cabinet rests on the lower rails, and a couple of screws through the bottom of the cabinet into the lower rails keep it from shifting. I sized the drawers to accommodate what I wanted to store, and installed them on fully extending side mount sliders. The cabinet is set back 1/2″ and the drawer handles are recessed somewhat to keep them flush with the front of the bench.
While I thought I might miss a large work surface, this was not the case. I can easily clamp 30″ wide panels on the bench top and can hold 60″ boards in the front vise, supported by a surface clamp inserted in the front leg.
The bench has held up beautifully over the past year. There hasn’t been any noticeable movement in the top, probably because there is very little temperature and humidity fluctuation in my shop, and the dowel joints are as tight as the day they were made. I don’t know what the bench weighs, but it’s heavy enough that, even with aggressive planing, it remains rock steady.
I recently added a tool tote to the back of the bench: a simple plywood box that provides a catch-all for hand tools and bits of wood that would otherwise clutter up the small work surface on the bench. It hangs off of two screws and can be easily removed.
If you’ve recently built a workbench for a small shop, I’d love to hear what you did. You can email me directly or share your comments on the digital version of the article on our website.
Janka hardness is a general measure of how effective a particular wood is at withstanding surface denting. The number is derived by measuring the amount of pounds-force (lbf) that it takes to drive a .444″ steel ball into the wood’s surface to half the ball’s diameter. White ash is a very strong wood (1,320 pounds of force on the Janka hardness scale) and is one of the more shock resistant woods, making it perfect for workbenches. For contrast, Hard Maple rates at 1,450 lbf, Douglas Fir is 660 lbf, and Red Oak is 1,290 lbf.
Carl Duguay - [email protected]
Carl is a Victoria-based furniture maker and the web editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.
this is just what I have looking for to build. I just tore down big workbench because it was
wasted space because i just put bits and pieces on it and could not find them a week later.