Build the Perfect Workbench
Give your workshop a workout by building the perfect workbench.
By Rob Robillard
Okay, that was misleading. There is no such thing as a perfect workbench. I can say this because I’ve built and rebuilt my workbench at least five times in twenty years and I’m now considering a new design. I’m not alone in this quest for the perfect bench.
A workbench can be the most essential part of your workshop or garage, but know that there is no “holy grail” of workbenches.
The fact is that all workbench designs end up as a compromise.
Essentially, a workbench is a platform to get stuff done. It can be a simple table with a machinist’s vise bolted to its top or built to accommodate a number of different work-holding mechanisms.
A good bench should be heavy enough that it doesn’t move while you’re working, and stiff enough that it doesn’t rack to pieces under the forces that will be placed upon it.
Most DIY’ers would agree a good bench needs these key features: For starters, the base must be sturdy—no wobbling allowed. It must have a large, flat work surface that’s rugged enough to stand up to years of hard use. It must be a comfortable height, and the bench should suit the type of work you spend the most time doing. Tool or parts storage is nice, but not critical.
There are many methods to build a workbench. You’ll find a number of plans for sell online, all with varying degrees of cost and sophistication, but most of them are really just tables. The key is finding the one that works best for you.
Woodworking benches tend to include elaborate work-holding systems with items such as bench dogs, planing stops, hold-fasts, board jacks, and will usually have one or more woodworking vises integrated into its structure.
If you’re like me, however, you’ll build your own solid, versatile work-surface for assembling all types or projects, including home repair issues like repairing a wobbly stool or re-sharpening lawnmower blades. It’s nice to keep the cost down, too.
Designing Your Own Workbench
If you’re considering making your own, take a moment to examine how you will use the workbench. Analyze your needs based on the type of things you do in your workshop, the types of tools you use and your workshop or garage’s limitations.
I use a principle of simple observations in almost all aspects of my work, designing a workbench included. It’s called the Pareto’s Principle or the 80/20 Rule. I’ve used the 80/20 observation to determine how to build a workbench, size, height, accessories and other factors. The 80/20 refers to the “vital few and trivial many”. The principle states that 20 percent of work is always responsible for 80 percent of the results. That means I need to focus my design on the 20 percent of my work that really matters. Don’t just “work smart”, work smart on the right things.
So how do I apply this to my work bench? It means building a bench that optimizes your specific tasks. For starters, figure out the specific tasks for which you will most often be using the bench.
To me, there are three basic workbench use applications: General work/construction; sanding, cutting and hand-plane applications; assembly and repairs.
Here are some important design considerations you should consider. Ask yourself the following questions:
• Is your bench going against a wall?
• Do you need 360 degree access to your bench?
• Will you be placing heavy objects on the bench?
• If yes, should you install casters for mobility and storage?
• Will casters affect your working applications, such as hand-planing?
• Will you be mounting a vise, saws or other bench-top tools permanently?