The Small-Shop Workbench

Salish Sea Woodworks Workbench

By Jack A. Cerchiara (@SalishSeaWoodworks)
Salish Sea Woodworks

Download the Sketchup file

In a small shop, efficiency is key. Tools on casters, rolling carts, and French cleat walls help the cause – but what about a workbench? Ideally, it should be sturdy, durable, and for hand tool work, heavy. Traditional benches, whether a full or split-top Roubo or joiners bench, are to me, the perfect bench for a mix of hand and power tool woodworking. These benches, however, are traditionally quite long to allow for supporting long boards for jointing with a No 7 or 8 plane – and therefore not ideal for a smaller shop. I ran into this issue with my current shop. I run a full-time, small production, fine furniture business out of about 300sqft (a two-car tandem garage). I experimented with rolling benches on casters, which were terrible for any kind of joinery or planing (too light and not sturdy).  I wanted a Roubo style bench, and while it is still my goal to build a custom, full size bench when I move to a bigger space, I needed a sturdy workbench to fit my needs and my shop. With the space, this bench would also have to work as an outfeed and assembly table, so a typical 24” deep bench would be a bit narrow. Knowing I planned to make a ‘forever bench’ someday (out of sapele and maple), I didn’t want this bench to break the bank.  I took some of the features of classic benches and modified the dimensions to fit my shop. I also chose to go with vertical grain douglas fir for both the economics and the fact that the softer wood wouldn’t damage finished pieces. 

With most woodworkers working out of smaller shops, I thought this might be useful as a starting point for others. This modified tool-well Roubo sits at 60” long, just about the size of a table saw with 36” wing, so it can double as an outfeed table. At 30” deep it provides a bit more depth as an assembly table. I constructed mine out of vertical grain fir with walnut ends and maple and walnut dowels to pin the joinery. Some other features I added were:

  • 3/4” Dog holes set at 5” intervals
  • 2” wide x 1” deep tool well
  • Rabbeted inner stretchers for adding a below-bench drawer set
  • HNT Gordon Front Vice
  • HNT Gordon Tail Vice
Workbench Overview

In the rest of this article, I’ll share notes on the construction of the major components. I have also shared a SketchUp Model of the workbench to help build or customize your own to fit your space. Caveat: I will say that, from when I made the Sketchup to building the workbench I adjusted some of the measurements from the render. I will note these below in each section as well. 

The Top

Workbench Top View

Constructions of Main Top

The top is constructed from clear, vertical grain, 3×6 douglas fir that was ripped down to 3x4s (4” was the target thickness). After milling square and cutting to the final length, I created staged glue-ups, where the edge grain of each board faced ‘up’ toward the top of the workbench. I did this for a few reasons: (1) the edge grain had a higher likelihood of being free of any knots or voids and (2) it meant that I could retain the thickness of the bench at 4”. Each of these staged glue-ups was 10” wide so that I could run them through my planer after glue up.   I then glued the three sub-assemblies together for the final top. Once the final glue up was complete, I flattened the entire top with my No8 and No5 Planes.

Planing Workbench

Tool Well

The tool well is 2.5” wide and 1” deep. I kerfed the edges of the well with my track saw and cleared all material with a router. I added a ½” chamfer to the edges of the well. The well is great when working on projects to hold chisels, pencils, and other small hardware, and prevent them from rolling or falling on to the ground.

Work Bench Tool Well

Walnut End Caps

I milled up some 8/4 walnut for the decorative end caps, and to seal the end of the tool well. These were joined to the top using 5” Spax Pan-head lag screws. The holes were recessed with a ¾” forstner bit and then pre-drilled with a ¼” brad point and capped with maple dowels. I did this for quicker assembly but could easily have also done dowels only or mortise and tenon. After about a month, the fir boards shrunk as they dried to meet the air-dried walnut caps, and I recut the end caps flush with the sides of the bench.

(Note: While screwing the caps in this manner does not account for wood movement, I did not have any issues with cracking, likely due to the softer fir. Of course, your mileage may vary).

The Base and Top Joinery

The base is a combination of four 4×6 legs (same as the ones used for the top), two 4×6 lower stretchers and two 2×6’s for the upper stretchers. This was different than the 4x4s used in the render. 

Work Bench Base and Top Joinery

Leg Tenons

After cutting the legs to the final height of the bench (33” in my case, so it sits just below the height of the table saw miter slots), I began by cutting the tenons in the tops of each leg, cutting the short 4” depth so that I ended with a ~2” half-lapped tenon. I removed the waste material using a dado stack on the table saw. I did the same for the tenons for both the upper and lower stretchers on the respective legs. Finally, I cut two kerfs in the top of each tenon to accept walnut wedges to lock the tenons into the top.

Top Mortises

I needed to cut through-mortises in the top to accept the half-lap tenons I cut in the tops of each leg. (Note: You can use standard stop-mortises but will need to adjust the length of your tenon accordingly). To measure for exact layout of each mortise, you can simply flip the leg upside-down so that the cheek of the tenon rests on the outside of the benchtop. Scribing a line on the edge of the leg that overlaps the top will give you an exact measure of the tenon’s outer edge (layout shown below). Test fit each leg before assembling the base.

Work Bench Top Mortise
Example leg tenon cheek being placed against the outside of the benchtop for easy measuring.

Long Stretchers

Using the same technique as the leg tenons, I cut similar  tenons in the ends of each of the lower stretchers. Additionally, I also cut out a 3/4” x 3/4” rabbet (notch) in the upper inner edge of each stretcher. This creates a lip that will support the plywood drawer set that I later built to increase the storage under the bench (pictured).

Work Bench Long Stretchers

Short Stretchers

For ease of assembly, these are simply 2×6 fir boards that were cut to length.

Assembly

The legs are attached to the base with wood glue as well as ¾” walnut dowels for aesthetics. You can also support the joints with 2” wood screws, but I did not. 

Once the base is assembled, the top can be lifted onto the base tenons and locked with walnut wedges. Any exposed tenons can be planed flat.

The Vices and Dog Holes

Work Bench Vices

I chose to go with HNT Gordon vices for this project. They are expensive but extremely well made, and precision machined. They are machined from aluminum with brass treads. They use no lubricant and lock extremely tight with little effort. They are made in Australia and distributed only through Heartwood Tools in the US (I am not affiliated with Heartwood or HNT Gordon).  The tail vice has the added benefit of installing it on any bench at least 3” thick without any special construction. A simple routing instruction is included with the tail vice. For the front vice installation, the underside of the bench may need to be routed so the vice lays in line with the top of the bench, but this will depend on your final top thickness. I had to route a 1” mortise into the underside of the bench. NOTE: Depending on your vice location, the dog holes that align with the under-bench vice support should only be drilled about halfway through the bench to not interfere with the vice plate.

I began each dog hole with a ¾” forstner bit to be sure I got clean edges and then finished with a ¾” auger bit.  I cut dog holes into the top of the bench at 5” intervals (as recommended by the tail vice). I later drilled an additional line of holes on the back of the bench to act as plane stops.

Work Bench Dimensions

Finishing

After installing the vices and making the tail-vice cover out of walnut, I sanded the top up to 120g as I wanted there still to be friction for work holding. I finished with 100% Tung Oil. Once per season, I re-flatten the top with a No5 plane and then sand and re-oil.  Due to the uneven floor in my shop, I also used hardwood shims to get the benchtop level.

This bench has been a perfect addition to my shop and is incredibly useful as a hand-tool bench, assembly, and outfeed table.  I hope you’ll find this helpful if you’re looking for a sturdy bench for your small shop.

Work Bench Complete

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