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Work that bench

As power-tool instruction booklets often say, "Make sure that your work is secured to a solid surface." That means a workbench, the centerpiece of any shop worthy of the concept.

For those with well-built bank accounts, beautiful ready-made workbenches are available. (See the sidebar on suppliers.) For the hurried or peripatetic, there's also the folding variety, which is to the real thing what an Easy-Bake oven is to a top-of-the-line European six-burner range.

Happily, there's a middle ground, and not only is it far less expensive than either of the two extremes, but you also get to make it yourself. With all your materials and tools at the ready and the help of the friend, you can make this bench in under two hours.


electric drill, variable speed and reversible ($40)

Phillips bit ($2)

1/8" drill bit ($3)

1/4" masonry bit (needed for concrete or fieldstone walls; $3)

handsaw ($14)

tape measure ($8)

carpenter's pencil ($1)

roll of masking tape ($1)

stud finder (needed for walls with studs; $16)

level ($5)

square (optional; $6)

Total: $69 for concrete or fieldstone walls, or $83 for walls with wooden studs. If you already own these tools or can borrow them, so much the better.


1 flat solid-core wood door, 36" by 80" and at least 1-3/4" thick ($45)

2 2x4" beams, 8' long ($5 total)

2 4x4" beams, 8' long (pressure-treated pine, $14; Douglas fir, $22)

1 box 3-1/2" drywall screws ($2)

1 box 1-1/4" drywall screws ($2)

3 large steel angle brackets, 2" wide with 4" long sides ($6)

3 concrete anchors (needed for concrete walls only; $4)

12 pieces of heavy 8-1/2x11" carton ($1)

1 quart Danish oil ($13)

1 package fine steel wool ($2)

Total: $94. Most prices are from Tags Hardware in Porter Square; the cardboard from Bob Slate Stationers; the lumber and solid-core door are from the Somerville Home Depot. (Note: Some locations stock only 1-3/8" solid-core doors; avoid these. It's essential that you get the thickest and heaviest door possible.)

Before you begin, understand that this design is easily adjusted to whatever your preferences are and whatever space you have available. If your shop is too small for an 80" bench, cut off as much as you need to. If you want the legs in a slightly different position, put them there. If there's a vertical pipe or beam on the wall where you want the bench, cut a notch in the bench top. If the obstruction is horizontal, make the supports narrower or build them around it.

1. First things first, decide where you want the bench to be. It must be placed against a solid wall to which it can be anchored. If you have a large room, it should be in the center of a wall with both ends open. If the space is small, you should put the bench in a corner, and in a pinch, you can cut it to fit into from one wall to another of a tiny shop.

2. On the floor, mark with masking tape where the outside edge of the bench will be. Use the tape measure to ensure accuracy.

3. Decide how tall you want your bench to be. Depending on your height and preference, it can be anywhere from 30 to 45 inches. Generally, the surface should be at about the height of the top of your femur.

4. Mark four sections of 4x4" at the height of your bench, less the thickness of the top (1-3/4").

5. Cut the 4x4s with the handsaw. Using a square to mark the lines is helpful but not mandatory.

6. Mark four 30" sections of 2x4," then cut them off with the handsaw.

7. Lay two sections of 4x4" parallel to each other on the floor, their outer edges 30" apart.

8. Lay two sections of 2x4" on top of the 4x4s, so that they make a square. The right edge of the right 2x4" should be at the top of the 4x4s; the left edge of the left one should be about 6" from the end.

9. Using the drill and Phillips bit, attach the 2x4s to the 4x4s with the 3-1/2" screws. Use two screws for each joint, 8 total. You don't have to worry about everything being absolutely square for now; just do it by eye, with a little help from a tape measure.

10. Repeat steps 7 through 9 with the other sections of 4x4" and 2x4."

11. Stand up the completed supports and place them where the left and right edges of the bench will be. Make sure the back of the supports are as close to the wall as possible and that the 2x4s are toward what will be the inside of the bench.

If there's a baseboard or other object that stops you from getting the supports all the way back to the wall, that's not a problem; the supports can be attached to the top at any position. However, if the obstacle -- say a pipe -- is larger than 6," this will push the supports further forward than the bench is deep. You'll need to either build the supports around the object or narrow them. They're easily disassembled and modified, however; work with them until you get the right fit. The one essential component is that the back edge of the benchtop has to be right against the wall.

12. Draw a line on the wall between the top of your supports; this is where the underside of your bench will be.

13. If the wall to which you're attaching the bench has studs, use a stud-finder to locate them across the width of the underside of the bench. Clearly mark both sides of the stud just below the line between the support tops.

If the wall is concrete, insert one anchor about 2" inside where each support will be and 1" below the bench top, and one roughly at the bench's center.

14. With the help of a friend, gently lower the solid-core door on top of the two supports. When it's in place, have the friend push the bench top against the wall and hold it firmly in place.

15. Check the top of the bench with a level. It doesn't have to be perfect, but should be reasonably close. If it's up to 1/4" off from front to back or 1/2" off from end to end, cut 4x4" squares of heavy carton and use them to square up the top; slip as many as you need between the column tops and the underside of the bench until it's more or less level. If it's more than 1/4" off from front to back, you can use slices of left-over 4x4.

16. Ensure that the supports are vertical (use the level), parallel with the sides of the bench, and where you want them to be -- right up against its outside edges, in slightly, whatever.

17. With a ruler and pencil, mark where the tops of the support columns are on top of the bench. Be as accurate as possible.

18. Drill pilot holes with the 1/8" bit straight down through the top in the pattern below. (Note that the exact positions of the column tops will depend on where you decided to place them.) Drill two per support, going just through the top, 1-3/4" down. (It helps to mark the drill with masking tape.)

19. Attach the door to the supports with 3-1/2" screws, sending them straight down through the pilot holes into the tops of the 4x4s. Use two screws per column, for a total of eight. Drive the screws down just enough that their heads are flush with the surface of the bench top.

20. Attach the three angle brackets at the junction between the underside of the bench top and the wall. If the wall has studs (which you located and marked in step 5), position two angle brackets right on top of the ones the furthest to the outside. If they're slightly out from the wall (say 1/16"), that's not a bad idea. Attach each one to the underside of the bench using four 1-1/2" screws. Put the third bracket over a stud that's more or less in the middle of the bench.

For concrete walls, position the brackets over the three anchors you inserted. If the concrete anchor has a thick bolt, you may need to enlarge the holes in the brackets. When the brackets are in position, attach each one to the underside of the bench with four 1-1/2" screws.

21. For walls with studs, anchor the bottom of the angle brackets to the wall with two 3-1/2" screws (there are four holes in the bracket, but two screws per bracket is sufficient). For concrete wall anchors, attach and tighten down the bolts. (Your friend can now finally relax his or her grip on the bench top.)

Note: It's essential that the brackets be attached as solidly as possible to the bench and to the wall -- they're the only thing holding the bench upright. If you anchor them into plaster, your bench won't last long.

22. Verify that the supports are straight up and down. To shift the bottoms by tapping them lightly with a hammer (or a rock, for that matter).

23. If you want to make the bench even more secure, you can use additional angle brackets behind the front legs to attach them to the floor. This is optional, as the bench's weight will hold the legs in place fairly solidly.

24. Apply a coat of Danish oil to the top and let it dry 24 hours. If you're feeling generous, give it a second coat and wait an additional day. Smooth the top with fine steel wool between coats and after the last one.

And you're done! This bench may not be a lot to look at, but it will support an incredible amount of weight (including you, should you need to stand on it) and, if well-anchored, will be stable under the most trying circumstances.

Future days

More than just solid and inexpensive, this is a bench that will grow with you. Below are five simple additions that will greatly increase its utility.

1. A bottom shelf will give you a world of additional storage and lock the bottom supports together.

Attach two 2x4s with screws between the supports and the front and back columns. Cut boards to fit from the top of the front 2x4 back to the wall, then screw them in place. Basic but bombproof.

2. If you routinely work with heavy objects -- say, over 50 pounds -- you can reinforce the bench top with a 2x4" attached to the front of the supports.

Cut a 2x4" the width of the front supports, then attach it with eight 3-12" drywall screws, four on each end; it helps if you angle them up slightly, as this will pull the 2x4" up against the bench top.

3. A backboard to hold tools is easy to add. You can use boards of almost any width and thickness to make one.

First, cut two boards as long as the bench top and lay them down on the floor as far apart as you want the backboard to be tall. Cut more boards, stacking them from what will be the top and bottom of the backboard, until you've reached the backboard's width. Screw everything in place with short drywall screws.

When it's ready, lift the backboard into place on top of the bench. To secure it to a wall with studs, drill 3-1/2" drywall screws right through the backboard and into the studs; for concrete walls, you'll need to use concrete screws or anchors. (As usual, if you're not sure of which way to go, ask at your local hardware store.)

To hang your tools, drive finishing nails into the backboard wherever you need them. It's like infinitely variable pegboard.

4. Shelves are a way of further increasing space. Cut two 8" wide boards the length of the backboard, make short triangular supports (see below), and screw them and the shelves to the backboard and each other.

5. And for the crowning touch, bolt a big vintage swivel vise on one of the front corners. With it, there's nothing you can't do.

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