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Rock-Solid Plywood Bench
Tools and Materials
Build this versatile workbench in a weekend for under $250
I had wanted to build a sturdy workbench for some time but was put off by the cost and complexity of a traditional hardwood bench. I knew that such benches derive much of their strength and rigidity from the mortises and tenons that join the framework, and I wondered if there was a way to combine this joinery with the inherent strength, rigidity, and dimensional accuracy of plywood. The design I created has a base of laminated sections of plywood and a top of plywood and medium-density fiberboard (MDF).
An advantage of this design is that the piece can be built without a planer or jointer, perfect for someone just getting started in woodworking. For under $250 including a vise, I have a bench with the rigidity I desired without breaking the bank.
This project originally appeared in the Tools & Shops 2006 issue of Fine Woodworking (FWW #181).
How to Make
Design the bench, create a cut plan, and begin
Finalize your design: This method of construction can be adapted to almost any size and type of bench: You could even construct just the base and purchase a ready-made hardwood top. My bench is 33 in. wide by 72 in. long by 34 in. tall, a comfortable height for me to work at. It is also 1/8 in. lower than my tablesaw, allowing me to use the bench as an auxiliary outfeed table. The cut plan I used allows you to create a bench with legs up to 36 in. long, giving a bench height of 37-1/2 in.
Glue-up requires quick work, attention to detail
Assemble materials: Aside from plywood, other materials needed are 2-, 2-1/2-, and 3-in.-long deck screws, and a quart of fresh PVA woodworking glue. Glues with extended open times (especially in hot, dry conditions) will make alignment of the laminations easier.
Assemble the frame sides and join them with plywood panels
Pre-cut plywood: If you decide to build a bench with the same dimensions as mine, or one that is slightly taller, use 2-1/2 sheets of 4x8 birch plywood and a sheet of MDF from your local home center. Have your plywood seller make the first (above) and second cuts (below) as shown to ease handling the material. The bench’s sideboards should be 23-1/2 in. wide. The two optional shelves should be fashioned out of a half-sheet of 3/4-in.-thick plywood.
Make and attach the top
Cut components with a tablesaw: All base components—legs, aprons, and stretchers—are laminations made from 3-9/16-in.-wide slats of 3/4-in.-thick plywood. Set the tablesaw’s fence and rip all the strips without changing the setting. You always will get some tearout when you cut plywood: This can be minimized with a zero-clearance insert on the tablesaw, but in any case rip with the show side of the plywood up. If you do get some tearout, lightly sand away any splinters and keep the tearout side inward when assembling the components.
Drill out the pocket holes: The last step before laminating the components is to drill pocket holes every 6 in. on one side of the two outer apron pieces to attach the top with pocket screws. Or you can use the battens described below.
Assemble and glue stretchers and aprons: Even with glue that has a moderate amount of open time, you must work quickly, so do a dry run first and have all components in order. I apply the glue to all mating surfaces with a disposable brush that has the bristles trimmed, but a roller would work. Glue the laminates on a flat surface protected by waxed paper.
Next, make the legs: Make sure all like pieces are trimmed to exactly the same length (the stretchers should have the same dimensions as the aprons.) Draw a line 3-1/2 in. from both ends of the longer center-slat pieces, and mark the ends of both sides with an “X” to indicate non-glue areas. (The jig drawn above will help you out.) If you are using pocket holes on the aprons, make sure the holes are facing outward and upward. Glue the three pieces of each component together, being careful not to get any glue on the tenon ends. Turn the assembly on edge so that the plies are facing up and insert one end in the apron jig. As you apply clamping pressure, keep the slats aligned and pushed against the jig to maintain the 3-1/2-in. tenon and even cheeks. When the glue is dry, run both exposed-ply sides of each component through the tablesaw to clean them up.
Clamp the legs: Prior to assembly, make the spacer blocks and wrap about 5 in. of each with clear tape. Used to create the lower mortise on each leg, the spacer is driven out after the leg has dried. Tape prevents glue from sticking to the spacer. The leg stack consists of two outside slats, the lower center piece, the spacer, the upper center piece, and two more outside slats. Locate the upper and lower mortise areas and mark both mating surfaces so that you will remember not to apply glue there.
Reveal the mortises: A simple L-shaped jig helps to lay up the legs accurately. Glue the slats together, remembering to insert the spacer. After assembly, turn the stack so that the spacer is sticking up. Using both sides of the jig, keep the ends and edges of each slat in perfect alignment and the center slats pressed tightly against the spacer as you apply clamping pressure. Apply two small clamps to both outside pairs of slats that form the upper mortise.
Clean up the edges: Placing waxed paper on your worktable will protect the wood surface. When the glue has dried, knock out the spacer block with a mallet and a thin piece of wood to reveal the mortise.
Begin with frame sides: After the glue has set, make cleanup cuts on the tablesaw to remove residue; the final leg width should be 3-1/2 in. Use sandpaper to slightly chamfer the bottom edges of the finished legs to prevent splintering of the outer veneer if the bench is dragged across the floor.
Reinforce the joints: Start by dry-fitting the tenon on each end of a stretcher into its respective mortise. If a tenon extends beyond the leg, trim it flush or slightly recessed. Lay a leg on a flat surface protected with waxed paper. Apply glue to the mortise-and-tenon, then insert the tenon and clamp lightly. Use a carpenter’s square to bring the stretcher and leg to exactly 90°, and tighten the clamp. Remove the excess glue with a damp cloth, put the joint aside to set, and assemble the second leg and stretcher. Once the glue has set, remove the clamps and lay the leg/stretcher down with the inside facing up. Drill four countersunk pilot holes at least 2-1/2 in. deep into each joint and drive in waxed 3-in. deck screws. Reinforcing the joints in this manner may not be necessary, but it is very cheap insurance that the joints will hold forever.
Attach the stretchers: Stand the assembly on the floor with the stretcher pointing up. Place waxed paper under the apron mortise; apply glue to the mortise and insert an apron tenon, being sure the pocket holes are oriented properly. Check for 90º and clamp the apron with a bar clamp.
Add the shelves: When the joint is dry, reinforce it with four 3-in. deck screws and then attach the other leg in the same manner. The benchtop should rest on the aprons, not the legs, so if the top of a leg is higher than the apron tenon, trim it flush. Sand the exposed joints on the legs to remove glue residue. If you are not using pocket screws to attach the top, prepare a couple of 2-in.-square battens with countersunk holes in two directions. Clamp the battens flush with the top inside edge of the aprons and attach them with 3-in. deck screws.
Stand the front and rear assemblies on their legs on a level floor, and cut two pieces of plywood to fit between the stretchers and aprons and to the desired width of the frame. These sides will serve as the end stretchers. There will be space to install an end vise above the side of the bench if desired. Chamfer the edges of the sides. Drill countersunk holes every 3 in., 1-3/4 in. from each edge to locate the screws in the center ply of the legs. Clamp the sides in place with the edges flush with the outside edges of the legs. Be sure to check that the frame is square by measuring the diagonals between opposite corners; adjust until the distances are even, then tighten the clamps. Now drill pilot holes 1-1/2 in. deep through the previously drilled countersunk holes, and drive 2-1/2-in. deck screws.
Next, add two plywood shelves, the lower one attached to the front and rear stretchers with 2-in. screws, and the upper one screwed to battens attached with 3-in. screws through the end stretchers into the legs. Because the shelves, sides, and top are screwed on, the whole bench can be disassembled for moving.
If you are making your own top, lay the layers upside down, making sure one end of the assembly is flush, and screw them together using countersunk screws that will not go through the top layer. Cut the other sides flush using a circular saw and straightedge, or the tablesaw. Ask a friend to help place the top on the frame and position as desired. Mark the corners of the legs on the underside of the top. Then turn the top over and mark the holes for the vise(s) on the bottom side so that you can drill small holes through. You may have to add a spacer block to bring the vise jaws level with the top. Turn the top back over and use a spade bit to drill recesses for the bolt heads at each of the small holes. Then drill for the bolts and attach the vise. At this point you can attach the top: Place it on the bench frame and secure it with the pocket holes or battens. To protect the soft edge of the MDF top, I screwed a solid wood edging around the entire benchtop, leaving a gap for the vise. Drill holes for benchdogs (if desired), and you are done. If you plan to use this bench primarily for glue-ups or finishing, a good choice would be to laminate the top; otherwise, apply a clear finish or just leave it natural. Photos by Mark Schofield; Drawing by Chuck Lockhart