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:

Divide and conquer

The shelves are now to thickness and cut to width. Some sanding of the end to ensure they fit and they are almost ready to go. I used a router to cut the dadoes in the case and because the bit is round, so is the end of the cut. I could attempt to square off the dado, but that would be difficult. My smallest chisel is 10 mm. I decided to try a different route and round over the edge. I did try to use a router to do the rounder over with a 1/8″ round over bit, but the shelves are too small to do it by hand. The router table wasn’t very effective as I couldn’t reliably get the depth right and anyway the shelves aren’t exactly 1/4″ thick. Then I remembered a video done by Matthias Wandel:

After a little trial and error I found that 3 45º strokes with my block plane, followed by a 22.5º either side of that created a very close round over, which is completed with a little light sanding.

Once the shelves are ready, I positioned them in the cabinet for a dry fit. I drew where the dadoes meet the shelves which give me a start line to mark out where the dividers go. To make sure I get the dadoes in the right places, I used the layout marks from the dadoes and a compass to find the center of the board. I think this must be one of the first times I’ve used a compass for something other than drawing a circle. The layout lines were then used as a reference point to make sure my router was in the right place to cut the dadoes. A 1/4″ v-groove bit has a sharp point and can help position the router on the line so the fence can be zeroed in.

1/4" V Groove bit

Swap the v-groove bit for the 1/4″ straight bit to make the cut and the dadoes are perfectly down the middle of the board. The depth of cut can be determined by dropping the router bit onto the workpiece whilst the motor is off, then placing an appropriate diameter drill bit in the depth stop. I did a couple of test cuts and worked out the best depth. After doing a couple of cuts things when a little wrong. I didn’t realise and cut one of the shelves in half. I didn’t realise until after I’d finished the second cut because of all the dust in the channel. Luckily I had enough stock prepared and was pleasantly surprised at how fast I was able to get a new shelf ready.

As I was finishing up, I managed to get one divider cut and placed in the dry assembly.




Andrew’s _IMG_0891 Andrew’s _IMG_0890 Andrew’s _IMG_0892

Magnetic personality

At some point I managed to knock my tray of 200 odd drill bits on the floor. With all the dust and the incredibly small diameter bits, it was quite difficult to get them all. Until I remembered I had a super strong magnet from inside a dead hard drive, and used it to sweep the debris to pick up the drill bits.

A little more work

I had the opportunity to get into the shop for a few hours this afternoon. I finished laying out the dadoes for the shelving. It’s during this process I noticed a discrepancy in my layout. The bottom two draws are supposed to be 2″ deep, but the bottom draw will be 2 1/4″ deep. It doesn’t really matter and might make gaining access to the secret compartment easier. Still, too late now!

My plan calls for 1/4″ dadoes for the shelves to sit in. I mounted my 1/4″ router bit in my small hand held router, and set up the fence to make the dadoes. I slipped a little at once point and the router bit took a little chunk out of the panel. Thankfully it’s going to be on the inside so I don’t think I’ll need to do anything about it.

With the dadoes cut, I thought I’d just double check the width of the dadoes with my calipers. Lucky I did. The very cheap router bit set I’ve got aren’t exactly milled to the most accurate degree. Turns out my .25″ is closer to .235″ so it’s lucky I don’t need to actually route a dado exactly 1/4″ wide. Once the dadoes were cut, I put the 3/8″ rabbet in the back of the box to accept the back piece when the time comes.

I’ve dry fit the case to double check the fit and to see how it’s all coming together.

Andrew’s _IMG_0887 Andrew’s _IMG_0885 Andrew’s _IMG_0884 Andrew’s _IMG_0889 Andrew’s _IMG_0888

The wood panels I have aren’t quite wide enough to fill the dadoes all the way back, so once I’ve finished fitting the top and bottom I’ll need to shaved down the width of the shelves and shape some small pieces to fit in the back of the dadoes. Not a terrible solution as they won’t be seen and won’t affect the performance of the draws that’ll be resting on them and the 1/4″ shelves will more than strong enough to hold the weight of the drawers and their contents, especially once the dividers are installed.

Next I need to finish cleaning up the epoxy and scrape the insides of the panels to smooth them ready for finish. I also need to resaw some more 1/4″ stock for the remaining shelf and the dividers. Then I need to cut the dadoes in the shelves for the dividers and route the round overs for the fronts of the shelves.

Somehow the top and bottom aren’t quite square which is a little odd because the were cut in one pass on my mitre saw, so I need to square those edges up to make a nice tight fit. This might require building another tool – a shooting (or chuting depending on your heritage) board. I don’t think my hand plane sides are quite square and anyway it needs a lot more work before it’s going to be usable as a plane. It’s fine if the stock is thin, but much more than 1/2″ and it’s very hard to push though, let alone be used to smooth anything big and flat.

So I might end up building a sanding block system and see how that works out.

A pox on epoxy

So the glue up of the side panels didn’t go quite as planned, most because one of the panels twisted. The cawls helped a lot, but there is still a minor twist in it. I had considered building a new side panel, but I think I’m going to persevere with it for now. I see a lot of clamping my future!

I also had a minor blow with some epoxy. I don’t use a lot of epoxy, so I’ve been buying the 5 minute stuff that comes in the twin syringe so you get equal doses of resin and hardener. Except I don’t think the batch I mixed to seal and stabilize the knots on one of the panels had enough hardener in it or I didn’t mix it enough. I mixed and poured it yesterday evening in preparation for today’s day in the shop, and came down this morning to a goey mess. The hole I sealed on the other panel was fine so I know the epoxy itself was good, but I had mixed the batches separately. I’ve managed to clean off the resin from the panel and I’ll have another go at sealing the holes. I’ve sanded the side panels with some 80 grit as it’s easier to do that whilst it’s flat. This has removed the majority of the epoxy mess, but my sander is too big to fit in the flat panel so I’m going to have to have another go by hand. I’ll probably sand all the way up to 220 in preparation of finishing as it’ll be easier to do before the glue up.

With the rabbets in the side panel done (very easy on my new router table :), I’ve glued up some panels for the top and bottom of the carcass to the desired width.

I finished today laying out the dadoes for the shelves. Next week, I’ll route the dadoes and resaw the stock for the shelves and dividers. If I have time, I’ll glue up the main carcass.


So my re-working of the epoxy has improved the situation for the long dark streak but the two holes that had already been filled by epoxy, I wasn’t so lucky. They were rather deep and I didn’t take the old epoxy which it turns out was a mistake. Overnight the old epoxy half hardened and had gone white. So I spent an hour digging out the old epoxy and cleaning out the holes ready to be refilled. I’ll try again to fill the holes again tonight.

The long dark streak through the middle of the board caused by a branch coming out from the trunk which I’d stabilized with epoxy. Epoxy is gap filling meaning as you apply it, it will flow into gaps. I pasted a layer of epoxy on the dark streak which set good and hard. Ordinarily I’d use my random orbit sander to remove the excess, but the panel is too narrow to get the sander in and anyway the round disc won’t go into the corners. So I’ve resorted to using a utility knife blade to remove the excess and whilst I’m at it used it as a cabinet scraper to smooth the surface. This is very effective and can get wood smoother than 220 grit sand paper. If I had a proper cabinet scraper it would be quicker and more efficient.

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.

Project: End Table – Update 1

I’ve been playing with Sketchup and learning some new skills thanks to Sketchup For Woodworkers I’ve been learning how to put round overs and bevels on edges. This small change in my understanding has made a huge difference to what I can achieve on Sketchup.

Having discussed the design with some friends at Woodtalk Online I’ve made a few design modifications and I’ve come up with this:

EndTable.Final.Design.1 EndTable.Final.Design.2

A mortise is a (usually) a square slot, although with modern routers it’s more common to see round ends to the hole. A tenon fits snugly into the slot. This is a very strong joint for two main reasons:

  1. When you use glue, you’re gluing long grain to long grain, which is the strongest way for glue to work. When glue is applied to end grain it tends to suck the glue out of the joint.
  2. The tenon has a ‘shoulder’ which should butt up against the mortise, so when pressure is applied to the edge

I’m going to be using mortise and tenon (M&T) joinery for most of the project. So the next question: To drawbored M&T or not?

Drawboreding is a method for strengthening mortise and tenon joinery, by putting a dowel through the mortise and tenon at 90 degrees to the tenon. Not only that, but the hole in the tenon is off center to the mortise by 1/8″, so the dowel is bent inside the M&T in such a way as to pull the tenon into the joint.

There are several advantages to this:

  • I’ll learn a new technique which shouldn’t take too long to master thanks to Marc’s (and others) videos.
  • It will improve the strength of my mortise and tenon joinery, when I’m in no doubt the joints will be a little sloppy due to my inexperience
  • It’ll add a little detail as the end of the dowel is typically exposed.

I don’t have to make the decision until I’m ready to glue the whole thing together.