2017 March 5 Wood Workbenches & Tables
Every do-it-yourselfer needs a good work surface.
A solid table needs a good foundation. It all starts with the table legs.
This basic table has the apron boards held on by lag bolts. They're strong, but some type of rabbet joint would make it even stronger.
A rabbet joint is sort of like a set-back or shelf cut into the wood. It can be good for supporting weight: better than just using fasteners for that. Even drywall screws can support static weight, but things change when you pound on stuff or use a bench vise.
We're going to look at a basic carpentry method for making these strong worktable legs.
(Oh yeah, and read the Disclaimer.)
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In This Article
1. Basic Design Rationale
2. Measure Twice
3. Different Cutting Methods
4. Even Better
Basic Design Rationale
An apron is a set of boards that keeps a table from racking. (Explained in more detail here.) The apron also supports much of the tabletop's weight.
If you hold the apron up with nails or screws, that's a weak link. Better that each upright should have a shoulder or ledge where the apron boards can rest. Then the forces go directly to the uprights, not through some fasteners.
Let's say you're planning to use 4x4 or 6x6 timbers for the legs. You could notch these to form ledges about 1 1/2" wide. This would match the standard thickness of two-by lumber.
See that picture up top, where the timber is marked? This is how it begins.
Decide the length of the table legs. Also choose the exact width you'll want the apron boards. A standard 2x6 is 5 1/2 inches wide, but it has rounded edges. I'd take 2x6's and rip them down to 5 inches wide; they look nicer with squared edges. Or, rip 2x8's down to 7" wide. Make sure you get extra lumber in case you mess up. Or, in case you want to laminate a double-layer (such as, to make thicker apron boards, or 5x5 posts for the table legs). We'll get to that later.
Get a good tape measure. I have used a lot of tape measures and had most of them break. Often they stop reeling back in when you most need them to work. One of the only tape measures I really still like is the Stanley Powerlock.
Different Cutting Methods
There are at least nine or ten possible ways to make the rabbet cuts. Some are safer than others. (Disclaimer, again.):
1. Circular Saw. Adjust the cut depth to 1 1/2 inches. (If you want the apron boards to stick out a bit, you could make the cut depth 1" instead.) If your apron boards are 5" wide, mark a line 5 inches from the end of the 4x4. Next, make repeated parallel cuts so there are a bunch of thin wooden fins where there used to be solid wood. Then knock out the fins with a hammer. Clean up the rest with a wood chisel.
These are corner posts, so you're going to do this along two sides. When you finish one row of cuts, rotate the post 90 degrees and do it again.
You could saw all four of the timbers at once by clamping them together with a couple of bar clamps. The timbers have to be lined up carefully and clamped down securely for this to work well.
If you don't have a circular saw, get one but learn how to use it safely. They are not expensive, they are highly versatile, and they can do some of the same functions as table saws and miter saws at a fraction of the cost. (Again, just be careful.) The circular saw I used here was given to me because it was old, heavy, and didn't work properly. I rewired the cord and it works OK, but it weighs a ton because it's all-steel. Newer circular saws are often lighter; as of 3/2017 you can get a decent one for about $50 and a fantastic one for about $125.
2. Table Saw. Here again you would make parallel cross-cuts on the lumber near the end, then knock the fins out and chisel away the waste. Or you could use a dado blade set, if your table saw can accommodate that.
The cuts are near the end of a timber, so I don't know that I'd use a table saw for this. It might be a bit safer with a cross-cut sled, but I never seem to get around to building one. Never make crosscuts on a table saw when the rip fence is installed. This is another reason to build a big cross-cut sled... there's no room for the rip fence, so you can't inadvertently leave it on there.
3. Radial-Arm Saw. Many people today overlook this type of saw, because some of what they do has been replaced by portable miter & chop saws. But the radial-arm saw is a great tool. It can crosscut wide planks that a miter saw cannot handle. If you're patient, you might pick up a used radial-arm saw for $75.
You're basically doing the same thing here as with the circular saw: making partial-depth cuts in parallel, knocking out the fins, and cleaning up with a wood chisel. The radial-arm saw is potentially the best tool for this, especially if you're going to make a lot of these.
4. Reciprocating Saw It's tough to make perfectly square cuts with this. There are much better ways; I would use a different tool for this job.
5. Jig Saw. this method can be slow, and again the blade tends to flex and go off-course. You might be able to build guides to help keep everything straight, but I haven't tried this yet. I don't like using a jigsaw to cut very thick lumber, either. Again: there are other tools that work a lot better for this.
6. Band Saw. A skilled bandsaw operator can make almost anything. It's also safer than a table saw, miter saw, or circular saw. Problem is, end-cuts into long pieces of 4x4 can become unwieldy.
7. Old-School Carpenter Saw. Also known as a handsaw, this type has been produced by Disston, Stanley, and many others.
Finer-toothed saws are better for precision wood sawing, although this isn't really precision wood sawing.
Basically you're crosscutting at the line to a depth of 1 1/2 inches. Then you're rip-cutting down the length of the 4x4 until you reach the cross cut. OR, you make the crosscut and then use a wood chisel to remove material slowly.
Time-consuming, labor-intensive... but it can be done.
8. Router. If you do this right, it yields a very professional-looking result. I have not tried a router for this, though.
9. Axe, Draw Knife, Wood Chisel. Labor-intensive, but it can work. A block plane can help even things out.
It will go a lot easier if you make the first partial-depth crosscut with a saw. Then you won't remove material past that mark.
Whichever method you choose, the result should look something like this:
The stretcher boards (where you rest your feet or put a shelf) don't really need to be rebated into the timbers. There won't be as much weight on them. With that said, if you want the table to look right, there are a couple options:
Option 1. Make rebate cuts where the stretcher boards will go. Use basically the same methods we've just looked at. Recessing the stretcher boards will make the table look more professional. Then again, we're using pressure-treated 4x4's in a piece of furniture....
Option 2. Double-up the apron boards so the apron is twice as thick. You don't have to make the rabbet cuts any differently; you'll just have one of the apron boards rest on the shoulder, while the other layer will not be. Then the table will look more "right" if you don't notch-cut for the stretcher boards.
This was a look at some ways to make rebate or "rabbet" cuts in the ends of a timber. Then you won't have some cheesy drywall screws being the weak link that holds the weight of the table!!
A strong foundation for your work surface is one of the most important things in your workshop.
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