No shop tool invokes more choices and decisions for a hand-tool woodworker than the workbench itself. The variety of design styles alone – Shaker, Roubo, Scandinavian, etc. – is fascinating but can be overwhelming. You also have to study and decide on lumber material, bench size and height, vise hardware, and bench accessories, all without losing sight of the cost. And, if money is in no short supply, do you build or buy your bench? Is there a simpler approach with fewer decisions to worry about? Yes, there is – the workbench shown below was built with much less effort and time.
Building a hybrid workbench is a great option for those who want a simpler approach.
The Hybrid Solution
Recently, when faced with an opportunity to replace my workbench, I adopted an uncommon approach: build a workbench by outfitting a ready-made bench, the kind available from home centers or businesses that sell industrial storage goods.
You can put together a pre-packaged garage workbench in about half an hour, and then you are ready to build! Outfitting is affordable, and this hybrid approach combines the best of the build-from-scratch and the buy-all-new approaches.
Left: All of the shelves are removable. Here, the vertical shelf support is attached to the steel leg with rare-earth magnets.
Right: A shop-made adjustable spacer prevents vise racking.
The Off-the-Shelf Bench
What makes a good bench for outfitting? I asked these three key questions: how strong, how comfortable and, of course, how much?
Garage benches come in different sizes and prices. Choose the largest bench that your shop space and budget allows. I will cover bench height in the next section, but for now, my advice would be to avoid benches with an adjustable height feature, as they tend to be wobbly.
The tops are usually made of bamboo or maple; either is fine as long as it is flat and thick enough, say 1-1/2" or more. I screwed a 1/8” thick textured hardboard (recycled from my old bench) to the top of the bench to boost its grip, as its UV-protective coating was too smooth.
The typical garage bench has metal legs and braces and is sturdy enough to withstand any diagonal stresses. The mass depends on the size of the workbench chosen. The original weight of my 20” x 66.5” bench was 85 pounds; it ended up being well over 120 pounds after fitting it with vises and other additions. (The bench is rated for a weight capacity of 300 pounds.)
Replaceable hardboard protects the benchtop and adds grip.
The Bench Height
In his article on bench heights, Tom LeRoy classifies hand planing as a power task that is best done at a low height that "spans from your knuckles to just below your elbows . . . [so] you can lean into the work and take advantage of your body's momentum." I cut a few inches off the steel legs to achieve a final bench height of 34".
With a low bench, I can raise the work with, for example, a Moxon's vise for sawing dovetails, or I can lower my body by sitting down to carve.
You can glue a piece of rubber carpet to the bottom of the legs to avoid scratching your shop floor.
A garage bench is not equipped for traditional woodworking. A vise or vises must be added to make it a real workbench. Before you assemble the garage bench, determine where the vises are to be mounted to ensure the legs don't interfere with the vise installations. The first vise – a small metal one – is installed at the right-hand corner.
I relocated the legs before I mounted the small metal vise.
My quick-release front vise (bought secondhand at a third of its original price) is mounted on the left, since I am right-handed. The bench's edge, 1-3/4" thick, is too narrow to be used as the rear jaw for the front vise. Therefore, I added an apron to the front edge, which sits flush with the rear jaw of the metal vise.
Left: The back of the apron is beefed up to provide a sturdy rear jaw for the front vise.
Right: On the apron, I cut a few openings flush with the bench’s underside to make the apron clamp-friendly. Alternatively, you can use a wide slot.
Dog Hole Placement
I placed 3/4"-dia. (as well as a few 20mm-dia.) holes strategically on the bench for use with my holdfasts, bench dogs and parf dogs. With my hardboard-top design, you don't need any fancy jig or guide block to drill the holes. First, lay out their center points on the top and, using a brad-point bit, drill through the hardboard only. The blind holes provide a template for you to use a plunge router with a guide bushing to remove the bulk waste. Using a router bit speeds up the removal of bulk waste and keeps the drill bit staying sharp longer.
Left: Workholding with a doe’s foot – a technique made popular by English teacher Richard Maguire – compensates for the lack of a tail vise in this bench.
Right: Use the largest up-cut spiral bit you have and a guide bushing to drill the waste.
Follow that with a brad-point bit to drill the hole deep down until the drill tip breaks a small hole on the underside. Then, using the small hole as the center point, drill from the underside to complete the hole.
To avoid splintering, drill the holes from both sides.
To add versatility and boost the usefulness of my workbench, I customized the bench with several upgrades, as shown below.
1) Bench-end stop: Install a sliding stop on the left end of the bench (right end if you are a southpaw) made of scrap and simple hardware.
The planing stop has a vertical screw slot so it can be adjusted up or down as well as back and forth on the t-track.
2) Leather protection: Attach a leather liner with double-faced tape to the rear jaw of the metal vise to prevent bite marks. Leather pads are also glued to the holdfasts to protect the workpiece, a feature borrowed from the Veritas fast-action hold-down.
Left: Add a block as the front vise jaw and you can use it as a pop-up dog, too.
Right: Abrade the arm’s end and the leather’s smooth side with sandpaper before gluing.
3) Shelves: Two shelves are mounted under the bench, providing easy-to-access storage space. The floor space below the bottom shelf can be put to use, too.
The tools and jigs kept on the shelves add weight and stability to the bench.
4) Retractable vinyl window shade: A window shade can be mounted and pulled out to protect the bench from stains or glue drips before a small finish or glue-up job.
Two screws are installed on the bench’s back edge, and corresponding slots are cut on the shade’s holder so the shade can be slotted in when in use.
For many woodworkers, the primary obstacles to building their own benches are time, money and space. This hybrid approach has allowed me to outfit a bench with the functional features I need in just a couple of days, and all within a budget of a typical garage workbench of your choice.
Text and photos by Charles Mak
Charles Mak, now in retirement, is an enthusiastic hobby woodworker, teacher, writer and tipster. He formerly worked part-time at his local Lee Valley Tools store.