Making a new top for my workbench

Health warning: this isn’t the most thrilling project in the universe!

My workbench couldn’t be simpler. It was made with one of those quick metal bracket kits from Simpson Strong-Tie. They’re fine for the short term but not for a wood worker’s main bench because the metal brackets get in the way and are a risk for tool and workpiece damage. Mine is going to become an assembly table / power tool workbench pretty soon and now that the original top is bashed up it makes sense to get it ready for that new job, and in the process use it as practice for the new workbench that I intend making some point in the next few months, which will have a proper torsion box top.

Raising the shelf

The shelf was too low in the Strong-Tie kit design, at just a few inches off the floor. This makes the bench as stable as possible for as many kinds of uses as possible but wastes a load of space. I had a choice of adding a second shelf or just moving the existing one up a few inches, making the space beneath available in the process. The latter was faster so I went ahead with that plan.

The design of the kit made this incredibly easy. The only complicating factor is how warped the cheap framing timber had become in the years since I made this bench. Even allowing for that it took just an hour or so.

It’s a basic shelf - I can barely contain my excitement!

  1. Removed the shelf and cut it straight across the middle into halves. I had to cut it because there wouldn’t be clearance to fit it in a single piece after raising the brackets. I didn’t want to raise it in situ because it would have been cumbersome and would have meant I couldn’t remove it later without cutting it up while still in the bench.

  2. Removed the screws retaining the long apron cross member front and back, removed both aprons and put them and the screws aside.

  3. Loosened the remaining screws - this freed up the brackets and short aprons to move up and down vertically (with a little help from a nylon persuader).

  4. Temporarily clamped each bracket in its approximate new position using a measuring tape as a guide, then — one leg at a time — fixed the brackets in their new position accurately using a story stick I cut from some scrap. I screwed the brackets into position but left a little slack for wiggling.

  5. Replaced the long apron members and remaining screws, tightened it all up again.

  6. Gave the edges of the two piece shelf a quick sanding and then popped them in on top of the aprons - leaving them unattached to allow for future modification.

Making the new surface

The old bench surface isn’t too bad really and I could have continued using it for years to come. It had a few random dog holes, lots of glue, varnish, gouges and saw marks, and evidence of the router table experiment that I started but didn’t proceed with.

That said, I really disliked the lack of:

  1. adequate clamping overhang and

  2. accuracy/forward planning to the dog hole positions, which were roughly measured into place leaving them useful as nothing but basic stops.

For the upgrade I need to address both of those issues.

The new surface is two layers of 18mm MR MDF. I had the full sheet cut in half by the timber suppliers for easier transport. I broke this down further into two panels using my tracksaw at roughly 1200x600 mm each. I laminated the bench surface layers using Cascamite. This is great stuff for large panel lamination as long as you take the time and care required to mix it properly - there’s no rushing with a dry, powered glue like this. I don’t have any suitable means of clamping a panel like this so I just piled a load of heavy stuff on top. When the glue had cured, I cleaned up the edges using the tracksaw and the roofers T-Square.

Edging

I edged the panel to add protection for the open MDF core and to provide a more tactile feeling when using the bench. I went with a simple mitred frame using framing timber that I first planed/thicknessed to square stock. It’s when I got to the mitres that things went horribly wrong and a quick project turned into something of an epic for my still inexperienced woodworking hands.

I tested that the mitre saw blade was 90 degrees to its table and then rotated it the 45 degree indent to cut a test piece. This nicely confirmed as square. I cut the two shorter end pieces of edging, confirmed their lengths, glued them in to position with clamps to hold them and added screws 15 mins or so later when the glue cured enough to grab properly.

Then I went to add the first of the longer front and back pieces, I cut one end on the mitre saw, tested for length against the bench for the second cut and then gradually snuck up on it mm by mm until the length matched perfectly - all sounds perfectly logical and correct but when I went to fit the side piece the mitre gaps were miles off.

Reviewing the saw set up I found that I didn’t have the mitre saw properly into the 45 degree indent when I cut the original test piece, and after cutting that piece I had knocked the saw off by almost a degree, so both short sides and the first long side had incorrect angles. I also only had enough prepared timber left to make one new long side.

Multifunction Workbench Dog hole Pattern - Is it an MFT?

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Using the parf guide on a test piece

I’m honestly not sure what the right term is to use for such a bench top.

MFT is a term most used and best associated with Festool’s MFT/3 product, and similar systems are visible from countless manufacturers such as Triton’s TWX7, and the UJK Technology Multifunction Workbench (with a top designed for either Parf or Twist Dogs).

I used Peter Parfitt’s Parf Guide System to drill the pattern, which I highly recommend. It is impossible to truly glean someone’s personality through videos but Peter comes across as an unassuming and highly skilled engineer. He has developed a neat solution to the challenge of creating this type of workbench top, that is both well made and easy to use.

Since I’ve never used the system before I started off doing a mini version on a scrap of left over 12mm plywood from my recent build of a stand for a friend’s Record Power CL3 wood turning lathe.

There’s no wastage here - I’ll eventually use this as a mini-top that can sit on one of my Parkside “Workmate®” knock-offs. That is what the test piece is clamped to in the photograph opposite. I won’t go into the process since that’s a well-documented procedure of the Parf Guide System but what’s more interesting for my situation is the pattern that I settled on for my bench top’s dog holes.

In Matt Estlea’s ULTIMATE Power Tool Workbench (part 7) build series he identified a rail and stile pattern that I think will suit my needs when scaled down to quarter of the scale of his massive bench and one the great things about the Parf Guide System, is that if I’m not happy with this I can come back and add to my pattern later as long as I put in the full matrix of 3mm guide holes up front.

The other point of note for my bench is that the outer set of holes across the rear of the bench needed to sit outside the apron with the second set sitting inside the apron in order to give me a full 600mm capability of crosscut. The downside of this approach is that it left the frontmost row of holes set further back from the leading edge of the bench than I would have preferred. I ended up with a 13 by 7 matrix of 3mm holes after the first session of drilling.

    .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   . ^ .   .   .   .
    .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
    .   o   .   o   .   .   o   .   o   o   o   o   .
    .   o   .   o   .   .   o   o   o   o   o   o   .
    .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   . ^ .   .   .   .
    .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
    .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
    .   o   .   .   .   .   .   .   . ^ .   .   o   .
    

Deciding on the 20mm hole pattern was tricky. My primary uses are going to be as a track saw station and for holding work pieces, e.g. during sanding, planing or assembly. With those two functions in mind I came up with the pattern opposite. The three “^“ characters in the text represent three dog holes offset by 48mm horizontally so that the saw kerf doesn’t hit any of the other dog holes.

Only time will tell whether or not this pattern was a good choice. I paid close heed to Peter Parfitt’s advice of only drilling 20mm holes where you’re sure you’ll need them. I can always add more later. The out-of-place gap in the upper row of 20mm holes is to make that process of adding holes later a little easier. The hole drilling process itself is tedious but you can get through it painlessly enough with some music or an audiobook on in your ears buds.

If I have one small complaint about the Parf Guide System it’s that the UJK Technology Parf Dust Port has to be purchased as an optional extra. At 30 euro (24.96 GBP) it is expensive for what it is. If you watch Matt Estlea’s video above, you’ll see that he didn’t use it in his build, and the shavings and dust quickly get messy - not to mention the health hazard when doing this much drilling into MDF (Valchromat in his case). Personally I think it should be included in the cost of the system (with an appropriate price increase to the system) or at least made available bundled with the system at a reduced price. Then came the tedious process of chamfering every dog hole. This works well in MDF tops, I tried it on my ply test piece and it wasn’t sharp enough for the job but my stash of 12mm marine plywood isn’t in good condition, which might be a factor.

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2 dowels to replace each of these 50mm screws

I would have preferred to use round dowel, hand-cut to length but didn’t have any suitable.

The last construction process was to remove the screws originally used to hold in place the lipping and replace them all with dowels. Then I sanded everything to 120 grit, gave it a good vacuum, and a wipe down with a damp rag.

Finally it was time to apply finish. I used danish oil for this. Just enough to give the surface a little protection from the rough and tumble that a workshop bench inevitably gets. Of course the first thing that will happen is that I’ll be destroying a line of that finish by running the blade of my tracksaw through it when I make the first test cut but that’s the whole point isn’t it?

Only time will tell if I how well I get on with this setup but the flexibility that the system offers is really promising. I’ll post some mini-articles when I try it with a fence for repetitive crosscuts and with surface clamps for workpiece holding.

Fergus N