Saturday, January 18, 2014

The New Mutt Workbench

I'm finally getting around to posting the pictures, but I completed my workbench towards the end of December 2013. In the beginning of 2012 I purchased a Sjoberg hobby workbench since it was on sale at Woodcraft and it lasted for about 2 years or so. But it was a total piece of junk. The top was laminated maple that was barely over an inch thick, the legs were fir that were fastened with cabinet-type Robertson screws, and the rails were fastened to the legs with nuts and bolts. After about a year, the top warped horribly to the point where flattening boards was akin to playing the lottery (chances of getting the board flat are 1 in 650,000) and because of how thin it was, I was seriously concerned that if I completely flattened it, I would have a half inch thick top that would crack and split during mortising. The Robertson screws became bent and eventually stripped the threads to the point where you could lean on the bench and it would sway. And the rails? Since they were connected to the legs with butt joinery, I had to crank down on the nuts and bolts to prevent them from rotating like a prayer wheel whenever I worked.

Even though this all happened within a year, it was obvious I needed a new workbench within the first few months. Fed up with the thin top, lack of workholding capability, and the short length, I began looking for replacements to purchase. The only problem I had with the benches I found is that the tops were too thin (1 3/4" thick) for mortising by hand, they were way too high (36"), and their legs looked like they were made with eastern white pine from the home center. The others were just too damn expensive (ranging from $2000 to $4000).

It took me another year before I finally got around to building it, but I'm already happy with the results. In another year or two I'll update this post with changes I'd like to make to it.


The trestle base is made up of 3x3 leg blanks for the bottom and top, and the legs are 2x2 red oak. The top portion is through mortised, wedged, and drawbored. The rails are southern yellow pine half-lapped and bolted to the legs. The bottom is mortised about a third of the way through and is also drawbored. The shelf was made by simply cutting up a 2x10 and screwing it to the bottom of the rails.
The top is southern yellow pine laminated face to face. This was far cheaper than purchasing so called "workbench tops" (I suspect they're countertop production overruns) from Woodcraft and other specialty stores for close to $200. Those things are pretty thin (1 1/2") and more expensive than countertops sold by Ikea. You could certainly purchase two countertops from Ikea, but all told it'll cost close to $400 for shipping and the weight surcharge. The boards I purchased cost close to $75 and I still had material left over.


The vise I installed is a quick release Jorgensen. I still haven't gotten around to building a chop for it. For the tail vise, I ordered a face vise hardware from Lee Valley and will eventually get around to installing it along with constructing the chops. For the time being, I'm making do with holdfasts and a Veritas wonder pup.

Lessons learned:

  • I used a 700mm E.C. Emmerich frame saw with a 9 tpi web. Cutting tenons and the half-laps was a breeze. 
  • Mortising was horrible. After completing most of the mortises with a 3/4" bit and 8inch brace and cleaning up with a mortising chisel, I'm convinced the right tools for this job are a 1" bit and a 12 or 14 inch brace. There's no need to go out and purchase Jennings auger bits; 1" auger bits with hexagonal shanks are available at Lowe's for about 1/4 the price of the NOS bits. 
  • The shelf is extremely handy. Right now I'm using it for pieces of the sideboard that I'm building. It adds weight to the bench, it keeps things close at hand, and the weight of all the pieces stacked on top of each other keeps them flat.
  • I think the Jorgensen vise is better suited as a tail vise. The quick release feature doesn't offer any appreciable advantage over conventional face vises.
  • If I had the time, I would have constructed the rails with through joinery and then bolted them to the legs. However, I can't get the bench to rack at all, and it only took about two hours of doing the joinery by hand and massaging all the joints to where they fit perfectly. Deep mortising is a completely different beast. I spent hours fiddling around with the walls trying to find out where it was humped in its 3" depth, carefully paring, and then testing the fit. Absolute misery.
  • The overall bench is a little bit short (69"), but it fits my shop. If I had to, I could build a new top, and make new rails using the same base and stretch it out to 7 feet or whatever would fit.
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