Workbenches on the cheap

I’ve recently been reminded of why I need a new workbench. I’ve got a couple of workbenches which done ok until now, but they are sub optimal. I’ve been renovating a couple of hand planes which I’ll talk about in a future post, but having completed the work I wanted to try them out. In my summer workshop, the bench consists of some construction 2 x 4s for legs and a worktop I rescued during spring cleanup. It has a vise underneath but it’s not ideal, and at the moment there are no bench dogs to hold the work down. A bench dog is a wooden peg (either square or round and there is a lot of debate about which is better) you put through the bench top to push against in order to hold down work. They are designed so the top of the dog doesn’t stick up higher than the work piece allowing you to run a tool  over the edge of the board without having to adjust the work piece. It’s easily remedied with some 3/4″ holes placed along it’s length, but they’re only any good if they’ve got something to push against. The vise would have to be adapted to have a dog on the top of it so I can clamp work flat on the worktop.

My other workbench which is all I have in my winter workshop is a Black and Decker Workmate, similar to this:

These are great for a job site bench or a kid or perhaps an assembly table. However it is far too low for my back, the work surface isn’t big enough even with an extension, and when you pound on it with a chisel and hammer the entire steel frame vibrates and rings.

So a new bench is in order. The current criteria:

  • Cheap. I don’t have a lot of money to put into it. This is my first workbench so I’m expecting to make some mistakes.
  • Mobile enough I can get it up the hill and into my summer workshop. Depending on how the year goes, and how well it’s made I might leave it up there and build a new one for the summer workshop.
  • Sturdy enough that I can plane or pound away on it without worrying about it collapsing.
  • Tall enough that I can stand at it and plane or assemble parts without hurting my back
  • Have at least one vise to hold down work, potentially two different vises.

Vises can be expensive, so I’m going to try using some pipe clamps to build a tail vise and a face vise.

Bench vises made with pipe clamps: in the sale I can get a pipe clamp for $10. Combined with a few lengths of black pipe, I can probably keep my costs down to the $30 – $40 range for two vises.

Another possibility which would be even cheaper and I could make myself is some cam clamps:

Cam clamps are great, but wouldn’t help me straighten an edge of a board, so I’ll probably need a face vise regardless. A face vice could also help clamp narrow boards edge on, so I could for example hand cut dovetails.

Videos on how to build a workbench:

It’s scary what you can do with sandpaper

We all know what sandpaper is – right? It’s sand stuck on paper like the Chinese did in the 13th Century – right? Well it’s not that simple. Most sandpaper isn’t sand any more or is it paper either. There’s garnet, aluminium oxide in resin, silica carbide and so on. Then there’s different grits. You can get 36 grit for floor sanders used to flatten cupped floor boards, all the way up to 3000 grit designed for the automotive industry to polish sheet metal on cars to make them smooth enough for paint to go on. You might even be able to get higher grits than that, though you’re now getting into the area of polishing.

You can also use it to sharpen chisels and hand planes and is known as the ‘scary sharp’ method. I have a set of three very cheap chisels – 10 mm, 19 mm and 25 mm. Over the years I have not really looked after them but then I’ve not really been using them for much but chiseling out mortises for door hinges and sitting them in the draw some place. Well now I need to use them a little more frequently but they were dull and had a number of chips on the edge which made them even more difficult to use. I already had an oil stone and a honing guide – this one in fact. I had tried to sharpen the chisels with the stone, but the medium grit is just not agressive enough and I ended up with a divet down the middle of the stone. The chisels were better, but not massively so as I’d not managed to get rid of the chips and dings. Then I found out about scary sharp, and invested in some 320, 400 and 600 grit paper. I already had some 1500 grit paper.

Why use different grits?

General finishes

As you can see from the graphic, the first grit is very agressive and takes a lot of material off, leaving deep grooves. As you progress through the grits you can remove the peaks, leaving a progressively smoother surface. I started with the 320 grit papers and used all three sheets I’d bought levelling out the edges of the chisels. I probably ended up removing 0.25 mm doing just that. A felt tipped pen is very useful at this stage as you can mark the bevel and the back, then do your sharpening to make sure you’re going all the way across the blade. Once I was happy that I’d straightened the edges of the chisels I moved onto the higher grits, progressing from one grit to the next once I was happy I’d smoothed the surface.

Whilst using the papers I would periodically blow off the steel filings and then use a magnet to pick off the finer dust. I could have used water as a lubricant, but I’d taped the sand paper to some plywood and I was concerned the water would start to de-laminate the plywood as I worked.

The oil stone came with a honing guide. This allows me to hold the chisel or hand plane blade at a fixed angle, typically 25º. Many experienced (i.e. not me) woodworkers can hold the chisel at that angle by hand but it’s a skill I’ve not practiced.

As you can see below you can now see the reflection of my finger holding my iPhone, in the bevel of the 19 mm chisel.

Reflection in chisel

Now all I need to do is use the fine side of my oil stone, and put a micro bevel (also known as a secondary bevel) in the edge. A micro bevel is typically 5º variation of the main bevel, so in this instance 30º. It only takes a few swipes on the fine grit to establish this edge but adds durability to the edge of the blade.

A new shop tool and a new project

With all the Christmas presents out of the way, it’s time to start work on some projects for myself. I’ve started with a router table. A router is essentially an electric motor with a collet to hold different shaped bits at 90° to a base plate. Typically the shank (or shaft) of the bit is either 1/4″ or 1/2″. I have a couple of routers, one of which can do either sized router bit. It’s an amazingly flexible tool. The router is often used as a hand held tool for example putting a shaped edge on a work piece – known as taking the tool to the work piece. However sometimes you need to take the work piece to the tool. A good example of this using the cope and stick router bits I got from Freud.

The two bits on the left are used to make rails and styles for a raised panel door.

You notice the grain at the top of the door is running horizontally which is a rail, and the style runs down the side of the door. The router can make the cope and stick joinery with ease. You can see in the image below how the two pieces go together:

The bit set can put a really nice profile on the styles. None of this would be possible without a router table. The router is spinning the hunk of metal at around 15,000 rpm so it just isn’t safe.

It’s a good idea to do the end grain on the rails first. Cutting wood across the grain often results in tear out. This occurs where the fibers of the wood aren’t cut cleanly, especially if the tool is dull or hasn’t been cleaned recently. The rails also need the same profile as the styles, and you can remove a lot of the tear out.

The rails are only 4″ long and with that much torque they could easily be whipped out of my hands, possibly injuring me in the process. So I’ve built a coping sled. The table has a mitre slot running parallel to the edge of the table, allowing me to run sleds or a mitre gauge down the slot. The coping sled is just a thin piece of ply wood with a runner on the bottom, and a fence at the back set at 90º to the mitre slot. The plywood is small enough that it keeps away from the router bit. It can also be used to help prevent tear out by putting in a piece of scrap in behind the work piece.

As a test of the new router table, I’ve decided to build a small portable apothecary cabinet.

Sketchup of Apothecary Cabinet

You can find the Sketchup file in the media folder, or here.

The side panels are exposed in the sketchup so you can see the shelves more clearly. Each space inside the cabinet will have a drawer. I’ve not yet decided about the joinery for those just yet, but I am leaning towards machined dovetails (seeing as I have a dovetail jig). I’m going to put a secret bottom into the base. I have some magnets I removed from some failed hard drives which I’ll epoxy in place and the can grab onto some screws placed on glue blocks on the underside of the cabinet. That’ll let me adjust the depth of the panel. The panel will be able to be pushed out by removing the bottom draw and pushing a finger through a 3/4″ hole.

The main carcass will be made from red oak, though I’ve been inspired by The Woodwhisperer’s Fancy Raised panel, so I’m going to attempt that for the doors, using some soft maple for the panels, and red oak overlaying the top. I’ve used the same cope and stick router bits to create the side panels for the carcass, but use flat pieces instead of raised panels. I thought that using raised panels on the side would detract from the overall look. I haven’t yet decided on a finish, though I’m leaning towards either Danish oil, or shellac and poly. I’m more comfortable with shellac and poly, and the cold weather is going to make applying the oil more complicated due to very limited amount of time in a warm shop.

My challenges for this project will include trying to use my table saw or jointer as little as possible as it’s -10c (12F) in my barn workshop which I feel makes it unsafe. I’m limited therefore to portable power tools, my planer, my drill press, mitre saw and bandsaw. I’ve not done much resawing before, so that’s going the fun.

The wood came to me second hard as 12/4 stock, and I’d managed to get some of it milled up before the cold weather set in. I’ve got a new 1/2″ 3 tooth per inch (TPI) blade in my bandsaw which is making resawing pretty easy going, even with my little 1/2HP bandsaw. I’ve been resawing the pieces, then running both pieces of stock through the bench top planer to smooth the surfaces off and bring the work piece sides back to flat and parallel and remove the washboard saw marks

So far I’ve milled and glued up the two side panels for the carcass. As I was finishing gluing the second panel I noticed a problem with it as it was twisting significantly. As the glue was still wet, I put some cauls diagonally across the panel to straighten them out. Time will tell how much of an issue that will be:

Andrew’s _IMG_0875 Andrew’s _IMG_0874 Andrew’s _IMG_0876

The other panel is fine:

Andrew’s _IMG_0878 Andrew’s _IMG_0877
The glue has been drying for a couple of days so they’ll be done by Saturday ready for the next step in the project: routing the slots of the shelving, and the rabbets for the top and bottom panels and re-saw the wood for the top and bottom panels.

The shelves are only 1/4″ thick. I want to do stopped dadoes for the shelves, but I don’t have a 1/4″ chisel. My current plan is to round over the leading edge of the shelves so they fit in the dado left by the router. I’ve already taken the panels out of the clamps and it’s looking pretty good. One of the rails isn’t quite right but I can clean that up with a plane.

The plan for my next session:

  • Clean up the panels I just glued to insure the tops of the panels are square. I noticed one of the rails is not quite in place. Should be able to clean that up with a hand plane and a little sanding. Also some of the rails aren’t quite flush with the styles, so some sanding will be required.
  • Cut the rabbets in the top and bottom of the side panels. This will determine how thick the top and bottom panels will need to be. The plan says 1/2″, but it’s going to be decided by the rabbets. I have a couple of 3/8 rabbeting bits, so that’ll probably do quite nicely. I can cut them on the router table with the coping sled and a backer board to prevent tear out.
  • Re-saw some more stock. I’m going to need some for the top and bottom panels, and the shelves which are 1/4″ thick. It’s all going to need gluing up as I know the stock I have isn’t wide enough.

I don’t know if I’m going to have much more time than that, but if I do then I’ll need to route the slots in the side panels to accept the shelves. I won’t be able to route the slot in the top of the carcus for the divider because the glue up won’t be dry in time. I will also need some more stock for the base and the molded piece at the bottom. I’ve already glued up the the molded piece for the top. I’m not going to cut that down any further until the rest of the cabinet is finished.

French cleats and Firetrucks

I’m getting to the final stages of my son’s Christmas present, a hook and ladder firetruck. Not the most complicated thing in all the wide world but a fun little project. It’s now got two coats of paint and two coats of polyurethane varnish, but it takes time for the coats to dry. So I’ve tackled a few extra things I wanted to do to make my winter workshop more efficient.

Firstly, I’ve cleared the top of the wood stove and put down a piece of plywood to give me some more work bench space:

New workspace

It gives me some space to put projects whilst I’m waiting for the glue or finish to dry. I’ve glued some blocks underneath to stop the plywood moving around when I don’t want it do.

Shop Projects

I need more shelf space. The footprint is very small so I need to make the most of the space I do have. Whilst I’m at it, I need to make the most of the time I have in the workshop, currently only one day a week. So I need to be able to get tools easily and be able to put them away quickly so I don’t clutter the place up. This is going to take a lot of discipline which isn’t really my forte. With that in mind I’m building some shelves that are deliberately only deep enough to take one tool at a time. The main problem with any shelving system is it can be very limiting. So I’ve decided to use french cleats. These consist of taking some strips of wood, in my case 3″ wide, and ripping it down the middle at 45°. I did mine on the band saw as I didn’t want to brave the -10°C just to make the cuts. The strips are a little wavey, but good enough for the purpose. Then you screw one or more of the strips of wood to the wall, with bevel up and the taller side facing outwards. You then screw the other strip of wood onto the back of what ever you want to hang on the wall mirroring the wall support.

The NewWoodworker has a very good diagram:

My Grandfather left me a large shelving systems with a series of “useful boxes for putting things in”. The boxes are old Virginia tobacco tins, which now contain an assortment of screws, random nails, nuts and bolts and other miscellaneous hardware. This was the first thing to get hung on the wall as I’d tripped over the shelving system twice last week.

Andrew’s _IMG_0830 Andrew’s _IMG_0829 Andrew’s _IMG_0828


I’ve also added some smaller shelves to the same french cleat:

Andrew’s _IMG_0834

And here’s where today’s safety lesson comes from. So I didn’t need to use clamps on the blocks, I’d used my nail gun to pin the blocks in place. I’d loaded the gun with nails long enough to go through both the plywood top, and more than half way through the blocks. Then I started on the shelves, which are made from (approximately) 1/2″ pine. I didn’t swap the nails over for shorter nails, the nails went through the pine and plywood and the end of the nail stuck into my finger. Painful but not a complete disaster.

Winter is coming

No, nothing to do with Game of Thrones. Everything to do with temperatures barely reaching double figures in the morning. So it’s time to relocate the workshop to warmer climate. I’m very fortunate that I have a room at the back of my house which until recently was a dumping ground for anything and everything. That’s now clear so I can relocate my workbench and many of my tools into the house.

My table saw is way too big to move and would take up so much space in the 10′ by 10′ room. I don’t use my jointer enough to need it down in the winter shop. So these two will need to be winterized and left in my barn workshop. The tops of both the tools are cast iron, so they will need to be given a protective coating of paste wax, and some oil put on other moving parts to keep moisture out.

I will have to use them occasionally over winter so that will stop them from seizing. This will also be a bit of a test for me. Can I mark up the parts that need cutting, take them out to the other building and make the cuts? Or will I find that I can make all cuts with my miter saw and band saw? Obviously I’m going to resist going up there. Operating dangerous power tools in sub-zero temperatures is less than ideal. I’ve got a small pile of 12/4* red oak which needs jointing on at least two sides so I don’t have to do that during winter. If I can joint two faces flat and square, then I can use my bench top planer to finish the other two sides as and when I need to get them done.

I’ve currently got a large hutch in the room, so I’m probably going to dismantle that I think. I can re-use a lot of the materials and it will clear a 3′ by 6′ space for tools. There’s still a fair amount of junk in/on the hutch so that’ll need to be cleared off. I have a feeling procrastination will set in before that’s done though.

Once my wife’s birthday present is finished (sorry babe – I *know* it’s only 3 months late), then I can get on with putting up some shelves and moving tools.

* Rough lumber is measured out in 1/4″ widths, so 12/4 is approximately 3″. It’s hard to be more accurate that that for several reasons:

  • Rough lumber has a lot of saw marks, which you need to get rid of before you can start making things out of it.
  • Wood swells and shrinks significantly with the moisture content of the air around it. This can be by as much as 1/8″! (just over 3mm)
  • Wood will twist, bow, cup and otherwise distort out of shape. Typically this means when you start with a 4/4 piece, you’ll need to plane it down to 3/4″ to make it flat and square on 4 sides.