Making a work table
2015 December 30 Tech Workspaces & Tables
The work table is what the name suggests: a table where you do
Today, we're going to talk about choosing one, or making your own.
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In This ArticleTable vs. Bench
A Sturdy Work Surface
The Laminated Top
The Particle Board Top
The Ready-Made Work Table
Table vs. Bench
To me, a workbench is something that has a backsplash, or a
pegboard, or shelves. You
know, something that sets it apart so that it's not really a table anymore.
A work table is something that lets you access the work surface from all sides. You could pull up a chair anywhere around the table, and it's a table. And when you're not using it, maybe you'll pile stuff on it.
Sometimes a basic work-table is all you need. Its simplicity makes it incredibly versatile.
Ideally, the tabletop should be made of wood.
I would say "steel", but for most uses, steel is just too heavy. Many welder's tables are indeed made of steel, and they're 1,000 pounds. OK, some are 800 pounds.
Hammering on a piece of steel plate all day is not really fun. Try hammering flat a piece of curved sheet metal, when your work surface is a steel plate. Jarring, and not very effective.
A useful work table could be made out of almost any common wood. It could be pine, Douglas fir, oak, unknown pallet wood, etc. You could even use particle board or MDF for the top, as long as you always keep the table dry. Or, seal it. More about that later.
A Sturdy Work Surface
Some people define a "good" work table as something pretty. I define a "good" work table as one that doesn't rack.
Racking is when a squared-up frame goes out of square. If it racks badly enough, it will collapse. Some tables won't rack until you put heavy force on them, like trying to bend something in a vise.
That's a really bad time for a table to rack.
There are two common ways to keep a table from racking:
1. Gussets or Angle Braces. These are pieces of wood or metal, attached at 45 degree angles to the tabletop and legs. If you plan to sit at the table, these might use up some of the available legroom.
2. Apron or Skirt. These are wide boards that anchor the legs where they meet the tabletop, keeping all in square. Like so:
2x6's or 2x8's make for a strong apron.
Square it up, lag bolt it all together, and that's not going to rack.
Don't forget to use at least two bolts or nails per attachment. The idea is to prevent pivoting and racking.
A sturdy work surface can be made of 2x10 planks with expansion gaps. I've built a number of workbenches that way. Maybe these are not the tools of fine woodworking; but if you build 'em right, they're tough. They're also cheap and easy, compared to some other designs.
Lately I've been wondering if expansion gaps are truly necessary. They might be, but if you use them, don't make the table top until the lumber has air-dried for a while. If you buy wet lumber and gap it, those gaps will become huge when the boards dry out.
Gaps can be a problem when you're working with small parts that get lost easily.
You could always lay a piece of plywood, MDF, or fine-grained particle on top. Then when that surface gets all nicked and dinged up, just replace it.
The Laminated Top
The more elegant-looking tables have laminated "butcher block" tops. These have no gaps or expansion joints that would allow small parts through.
True "butcher block" uses the end-grain of hardwoods. These are extremely time-consuming and expensive to build. Many workbench tops that are not end-grain are still called "butcher block" because they use laminated boards. But I'll try to call them "laminated tops".
Laminated tops are potentially very sturdy, but they're labor-intensive to make. If you don't want to get into that, you can buy a ready-made laminated top through this link. Then, just use your own worktable frame.
If you do want to make your own top, there are several things you'll need:
Wood Glue: you'll need lots of it. When you clamp the pieces together, it will squeeze out a lot of excess wood glue. You could try to use the thinnest layer possible, but at least make sure the coverage is thorough.
Clamps: you can never have too many clamps. Get yourself a few sets of Pony Clamps; they're brilliant for this kind of work. Also it's probably a good idea to have a couple of these. The more clamps you can use along the length of the top, the better.
And of course, you'll also need the usual stuff for carpentry: circular saw, carpenter's square, a good tape measure, etc.
You may want to cover your work surface with waxed paper while you're gluing everything up. I use newspaper, because usually there's a lot of sanding of the finished product anyway. Whatever newspaper is still clinging to the dried glue, you'll just sand it off when it's dry.
Make your own "reclaimed wood" laminated top. Here are some
salvaged 2x4's, ripped down so there are no rounded edges. It looks ugly now, but it cleaned up nicely.
You'll need clamps and glue. And a lot of patience.
A belt sander will help even up the surface.
I need one of those; or I should say I need one that works well and has all the parts.
Meantime, I've been using a thoroughly trounced orbital sander that's being kept alive with WD-40.
If you are going to be making laminated tops, a jointer and a planer are almost not-optional. Don't bother with cheap ones; most of those are rickety and out-of-square. If I had the budget, I would at least get this one. As for the planer, I'd probably get this.
Without a jointer and a planer, expect to do a lot of sanding, probably a lot of hand-planing, and more sanding. The pros say that if you can buy only one, you can get by with just the planer, so this one is going on my wish list.
A batten is simply a board that's anchored across the laminated top, perpendicular to the other boards. The idea is to hold the boards together, usually from the underside. Typically this would be fastened with glue and drywall screws, deck screws, or even lag bolts.
I've used battens, but I probably won't use them for laminated tops anymore. Well, actually I'm not sure. This is not a settled question.
You can't keep the wood from expanding and contracting, which will happen with temperature and moisture changes. Battens could lead to uneven expansion & contraction. On the woodworking forums there is a post that talks about this happening to a maple top.
Then again the tops were probably not made yesterday, so these failures could take years.
If the table is going to be in a 65-75 degree climate-controlled room all year round, the wood is not going to expand and contract that much. The problem happens when you leave one of these tables in a shed where it varies from -10 to +110 degrees Fahrenheit or something. That's going to make glue joints go bad.
The good news: even if those glue joints fail, the battens will continue to hold the individual boards together. Which means it will still function as a work surface.
The Particle Board Top
Fine-grained particle board will make a good work surface, with some limitations.
I've found that one thickness of particle board can be enough for a workbench top. Sometimes. It can work with a small vise, as long as you're not trying to bend iron pipes or something.
If you'll be adding a heavy-duty vise on that workbench, you might want to double up the thickness, or even triple it. Saw two (or three) identical pieces of particle board, clean off the dust, and laminate them together with wood glue. (I like this stuff.) You'll probably want to put a lot of heavy weight on them. Let them dry for a couple days that way.
When the glue is dry, sand or saw the edges to remove any overhang.
You may or may not want to finish the edges with hardwood or some type of painted trim. It's not strictly necessary.
If you want your table to last long, consider sealing the particle-board, especially along the edges. See my article on workbench finishes.
Without sealant, your particle-board top could get ruined by a single rainstorm. Also, unsealed particle board likes to absorb motor oil, condensation from an ice-cold glass of lemonade, and so on. Sealer is good. That article talks about several methods, including wood glue.
Particle board has an advantage over a laminated plank-top. As a group, the particles don't expand or contract in any particular direction. (And if they do, it's not much.) That means it should not make glue joints fail.
Particle board does have its advantages, if you can work around its limitations.
Ready-Made Work Table
It can be a lot of work to make your own table. Laminated tops are very labor-intensive. Even particle board "done right" is a lot of work.
If you just want to get working on stuff, there are many different possibilities here...
- This kit is not a complete table, but it makes it a lot easier to build your own sturdy work table. The holes are already staggered, so you don't have to worry about bolts hitting one another. You supply the lumber. Top it with a ready-made butcher-block top, even.
- Gladiator! This is what I'd probably get if I didn't build my own. Bamboo top; looks like a nice table.
- Industrial table legs: here's another one that's not quite "ready made"... but attach a solid top, and you're all set.
- This BenchPro table seems to be good, solid, and it's not too expensive. Looks to me like another great choice.
- even a Lifetime folding utility table could make an OK work table; set a piece of plywood or MDF on it as your work surface.
The vise is one of the most important shop tools there is. To me, a work table is not complete without one.
A massive hunk of steel or ductile iron, anchored to your work table, is going to bring with it some demanding physics. Try to bend a pipe or something, and you'll put considerable force on the bolts that hold the vise down.
If the planks are too thin or the table too weak... you know the rest.
A table made of thin planks can probably handle a mini-vise like this one or even this stouter one that's made-in-USA. However, I wouldn't put a larger bench-vise on a table, until we start using planks about 1 1/2" thick. I'm not speaking from engineering calculations there, just personal observation and experience.
A 1"-plank table may well be able to handle a full-sized bench vise, as long as you never use it for heavy bending and such. I'm sure there are scenarios where 1 1/2" lumber isn't even strong enough, but you're unlikely to see that in a basic workshop. I can speak from experience here; I've done more than my share of "failure mode testing" of various shop tools. (It was actually a buddy of mine who broke the hydraulic press, though, so I won't claim that one.)
"Two-by" lumber is actually 1 1/2" thick. Since it is the most common type of lumber, you might as well use that anyway. Then you can mount pretty much any vise that's not silly-heavy.
Work tables are something we often take for granted. And yet, you can't do much without a steady work surface. It sure beats working on the ground.
You can build a work table if you're handy; there are also some surprisingly nice ones ready-made.
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