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My Workbench

My diy workbench
Photos courtesy of Photos by Aliesha
  For my first couple of years at the duplex I had no workbench.  Well, that's not entirely true.  The duplex came with a makeshift bench built out of scrap wood in a corner of the garage.  It is mounted directly to the walls on 2 sides and only has one leg.  It is small, has no shelves and is nowhere near a power outlet. It is permanently attached right over the garden hose type water faucet which I would like to use for other things. Since we first bought the place I have been thinking about building myself a nicer bench, tearing this one out and installing a utility tub in it's place.  So... instead of parking my soldering station there and using it I have just covered it up in junk.  For a while I did my soldering at a computer desk which is also my radio shack.  This became too crowded to be a project space and hold radios so I ended up working on the floor.  Last summer I finally got fed up with this.  I could have cleaned up the corner workbench and added a long extension cord but then I might not ever get motivated to build the bench I wanted.

  I started my workbench back in September but wasn't that serious about it at first.  I didn't fully plan it out and partially designed it as I went. I also only bought wood and supplies for a piece at a time each payday.  That's why I didn't get it finished until December and also why I hadn't written about it before now.    In late October I decided to get serious about it and finish it in time to make a Christmas present for Aliesha on it.  I also wanted to make a 3d model of it on Google Sketchup. A guy in Go-Tech did this a while back with some benches he had designed for his church.  He could blow it up and show the individual pieces that went into the bench as well as how it was put together.  Sketchup was already on my list of things to learn some day and I thought it might be nice to do this with my workbench and post the result here. That's a big part of the reason I waited so long to update my blog. I had planned on that being my next blog entry for a while.  Unfortunately I had some problems getting Sketchup to install under Wine.  It turned out I was running the installer under an old Crossover Office install which I still had on my machine and not under the newer version of plain Wine which I thought I was using.

   My first concern for my desk was height.  I wanted it to be at just the right height that it would be comfortable for me to reach my work while I am standing up.  I also wanted to be able to sit down but that was easy as I have a stool which puts me at about the same height as when I am standing up.  I went all around the house trying different surfaces, counters, tables, etc... to see how comfortable they were to work at.  I even sent an email to the QRP-L mailing list to see what height it's members preferred.  I pretty much found that it varies by taste.  Eventually I resorted to stacking boxes until I found a height that seemed comfortable and then measuring it.  I like my workbench at about 3 1/2 feet tall.  I could go with a little taller too but this works well because it is high enough to be comfortable when I lay my work directly on the table but it is still comfortable if I raise it up by placing it in a vice or on top of something too.  I had a spot all picked out in my garage for the bench.  That part of the floor is actually raised up by about 1 1/2"  from the rest of the floor so I subtracted that from my ideal height.  That makes my bench rather short compared to ones I might buy pre-made in a store and is another reason I chose to build my own.  I was a bit concerned because I want this bench to be something I keep for a long time.  If I move to a place with a flat floored garage or even if I decide to move the bench to a different wall it will be short.  I decided this is ok because if that happens I can just add some large heavy duty casters to the bottom.  That will raise my bench back up to the level I want it at and make it mobile as well.  I'll have to get ones that lock though so that is stays in place when I lean on it.

WorkBench Shelf Frames   If I did this again I would build from the ground up however this time I started with the shelves. I knew I wanted 3 shelves on my desk.  The middle shelf is the largest as it is the work area.  Below it I have a shelf for storing tools and/or parts.  This shelf isn't as deep so that I have room under the bench for my knees.  The top shelf is a place to set tools and even larger test equipment like my variable power supply and oscilloscope while I am using them.  That shelf is the least deep of all so that I can lean over my work.  Most of the designs I found on the internet make the shelves using 2x4s positioned on edge as support.  I built my top and bottom shelves this way but I did not want this for the main work shelf.  The problem was that I wanted a surface that I could easily clamp things to. I have a vice that clamps on but the clamp isn't wide enough to go around the 4 inch width of a 2x4.  I also have various c-clamps I sometimes use to hold things in place that I am working on.  What I decided to do was to use 2x4s for the back and edge just like normal but for the front I used a 1x4 laid flat.  I made 1"x4" notches in the front of the 2x4s that made up the sides so that I could lay the 1x4 across them.  I also had another 2x4 on edge in the middle for support.  I notched this one too.  I imagined myself using the bench and thought I might gouge my knee on the bottom of the center 2x4 so I also cut the end on an angle to prevent that.  My work shelf isn't quite as strong as the other two because of this but it is plenty strong enough to use.  It also accepts my vice and clamps quite well.

   Because of the way I built the shelf I decided my bench would be perfect for electronics and other light work which I intended to use it for.  It probably wouldn't be that great for heavy pounding such as hammering nails into things on it.  I will probably build a second bench later for that kind of use.  Also, Aliesha asked me what color I was going to paint it.  Until then I hadn't considered any kind of finishing.  I knew right away that if I was going to finish it at all I wasn't going to just paint it I was going to really make it look nice. (or at least nice for my skill level)  This meant I was going to use stain and polyurethane.  About that time I came across the Ikea Hackers Blog. There I saw an entry about a lady who had used a propane torch to bring out the natural grain of a wooden desk.  I knew I had to try this.  I didn't want to spend the money on a nice desk surface like she used but I found some plywood at the hardware store which had a layer of vernier across one side to make it look like whole wood.  I propped the pieces up on boxes in the garage of our now empty rental and ran the flame of a propane torch across them sideways.  I had to go pretty slow to get the wood hot enough to change colors so it took a while but it worked.  It's actually the lighter parts of the wood that darken but they get much darker then what had been the darker parts so it brings out the contrast in the grain of the wood.  It looked pretty nice.  You probably shouldn't do this with plywood like I did though as it creates some fumes.  If you do then you definately should do it outside.  I may have taken a year or two off of my life by doing this.  Also you have to be careful because the board does warp a bit as it is heated.  It mostly regains it's shape when it cools but it does keep a little bend.  Eventually I got mine flat again by pressing it down hard as I screwed it to the 2x4s.

Building Workbench    So long as I was burning wood I decided to do a bit of woodburning on one of the 2x4s too.  When I use the bench I am looking right at the front 2x4 of the top shelf so I decided to burn some reference material onto it.  I have a yard measure broken down to 1', 1" and 1/2" marks. I have a meter broken down to decimeters and centimeters. I also have charts for Ohm's law, resistor color codes, capacitor markings and greek number suffixes/powers of 10.  For the color codes I burnt squares which I colored in using model paints for most colors. I didn't have purple or brown so for purple I used some of Aliesha's nail polish and I used a darker wood stain for brown.  After the burning was done  I stained and polyurethaned it.  I used a lighter stain for the shelves and the front 2x4 and a darker stain for the legs and other 2x4s.  Actually I waited until after this was done to put the screws in.  That way I could get every surface of the wood protected, even where they were joined together.  I also left the 2x4s off of the shelf frames until after I had them attached to the legs.  This way they were lighter and easier to work with as I attached them to the legs.

    I had put off planning the legs and how to hold the whole thing together until this point.  Now it was time to think about how to support everything.  My first thought was just to run vertical 2x4s along the outside.  I didn't think this would be sturdy enough though.  Next I thought I might get something thicker, more like 4x4 and chisel notches into them for the shelves to fit into.  I don't have a router so I really would be using a chisel for this.  That sounded like way too much work.  Instead I decided to run 1x4s along the outside and attach 2x4 spacers to go in between the shelves and bear the weight.  I also decided to make a base to go around the bottom for added stability.  My first thought for the base was to make a rectangle of 2x4s on edge much like the top and bottom shelves.  I wanted to be able to slide things on the floor underneath the bottom shelf easily though so i decided to put a flat 1x4 in front much like I did with the work shelf only upside down.  I didn't really want to do this as it meant more chisel work but I decided it was really the best way so I did.

   I now built the rest from the bottom up.  I laid my base down and attached the 1x4s.  I gave it two legs in back, 2 at the sides which would meet all 3 shelves and a couple shorter ones in front that were just for the work shelf. Then I attached the bottom set of 2x4s to those.  I laid the frame for the bottom shelf on top of the back four 2x4s and bolted it all together with drywall screws.  It was already sturdy.  It was very sturdy. I had thought that when it was done I would have to put cross straps across the back and one side to keep it steady. Even with just the base and 1 shelf frame it already held steady if I tried to flex it.  I knew it would only get sturdier as I added the rest of the shelves so I was very happy.  From here I installed the plywood surface of the bottom shelf. Then the 2x4s which support the work surface.  Next the work surface, it's frame, etc... on up.  For each level I would measure and cut the 2x4s stain and polyurethane them and finally screw it all in place.  This would take a week or so for each level because I was doing a coat of stain and 2 coats of polyurethane.  Each coat took 2 days because I would do 1 side and the edges, let it dry and then flip it to do the other side.  I didn't trust my measurements enough to try to plan ahead and cut all the 2x4s at once so this was all just on level at a time.

   I almost didn't build this workbench.  I certainly didn't build it to save money.  At a holiday gathering I asked my grandfather and uncle where they would suggest I go to buy a workbench.  My grandfather owns a farm and is a huge do it yourselfer, my uncle has his own building company.  They looked at me like I was crazy.  Buy a workbench?  If you are the type to need a workbench shouldn't you be building it yourself?  I pointed out that these days with the cost of wood I really could buy one if not cheaper then for the same price as building it.  Unless you are a builder yourself getting special volume prices at the lumberyard there is no deal to be had by building.  They thought for a moment and agreed.  In the end I built my bench because I knew exactly what I wanted. The depth, height and width fit my space perfectly. I had three shelves just like I wanted.  Even the narrow front I could clamp things to was my way.  I could never have bought a workbench that fit me so well.  Between planning, working, and waiting for things to dry this took me from midsummer almost up to Christmas.  In the end it was very much worth it though.  You can see that my little tester agrees!

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