For the novice carpenter, grabbing supplies from a helpful home improvement store is one thing. Attempting to build a functional piece of furniture, from scratch, using just spare parts and the most basic tools, is another story altogether. There is no manual for this, no instruction sheet, no alphabetized parts list. The how-to articles I was able to find on the Internet helped about as much as one of those cooking shows on TV where the chef uses ingredients I’ve never even heard of.
My recent experience tackling one such tutorial, while successful, might have looked like I was performing a slapstick parody of This Old House to an impartial observer. I learned a few tricks along the way, including some techniques that really should be considered by tutorial makers everywhere.
My work bench project was mainly inspired by the Low-Cost Sturdy Work Bench From 2×4’s And OSB. I liked that it was laid out using instructions and photos rather than just plans and finished products. Herein lies a problem, though. The photos show that particular bench being constructed in a clean, well-lit workshop with plenty of space to maneuver the parts and arrange them neatly on a flat concrete slab. Now cut to the reality of what I needed to do here in the real world. The reason I wanted to build a work bench was to organize my cluttered basement by consuming some of my scrap lumber and creating new vertical storage and a work surface. My basement offered no more than 6’8″ of head room, utilitarian lighting, and if I had any space to get some work done down there, then I suppose I wouldn’t have needed a new work bench. 🙂
I had some concerns about the design in the tutorial. At first glance, it seemed to be box-framed and lacking any side-to-side stability. I suppose with 16 screws in each corner you’d get some extra support, but I already had cross bracing in mind from the beginning. Secondly, who builds a 32″-tall work bench? I’m not a relatively tall person myself and I still wouldn’t want my work bench below countertop height. Lastly, the bottom shelf seemed like a waste of materials. It just doesn’t make sense to store things a few inches off the floor when you could easily put them on the floor, save those few inches, and not lose the place where your feet are supposed to go under the bench to an ankle-high shelf beam. I was also worried that a low-hanging shelf would be living in colder damp air near the basement floor, which could encourage molds and spider webs to thrive under there.
Changes in the materials list were necessitated by my desire to improvise with what I already had available in the basement. I had just over 12′ of pressure-treated and untreated 2″ x 6″ lumber laying around that I knew I would never use anywhere else. This was the perfect substitute for the 2″ x 4″ stretchers specified in the tutorial. I didn’t have any 1-5/8″ deck screws on hand, but I easily substituted plain old 2″ and 3″ drywall screws.
- 12′ of scrap 2″ x 6″ lumber.
- 17′ of scrap 2″ x 4″ lumber.
- 2′ of scrap 1″ x 4″ lumber.
- 26″ of scrap ¾” OSB sheet.
- 40 of 3″ screws.
- 16 of 2″ screws.
If I had a power miter saw and wood clamps and saw horses and fancy stuff like that, I would definitely use them. Beyond that, the tutorial made it sound as though all I would need was a drill and a tape measure. Well, I think this kind of project needs to be planned out a little better than that. Here’s what I really used:
- Circular saw.
- Clutch driver drill and bits.
- Laser square.
- Yard level.
- Tape measure.
- Permanent marker.
- Shop vac.
- 3-prong extension cord.
- Safety glasses.
- Ear plugs.
- Work gloves.
Building this work bench took me a full day. Seriously, if you are new at this and working in the real world where you have to fix mistakes, push things out of the way to make room for a sheet of wood, and clean up after yourself, there’s no way this is going to happen in two hours!
Assembling the Front and Back Sections
Laying out the front and back parts separately was definitely the best way to go. I substituted a 2×6 for the top 2×4, and omitted the bottom 2×4. When it came to squaring the legs, I wasn’t confident with the diagonal measuring technique because the leg cuts weren’t precisely square and the bottom of my wooden parallelogram was missing. I ended up wasting a bunch of time trying to hold my laser square against various edges before realizing I had it completely backwards. The whole point of the laser square is that you can set it above the corner of two boards and shoot one laser beam to the opposite end of each board. The laser beams are perfectly square, so you adjust the bottom end of one leg until it’s squared against the top board, then move the lasers to the other leg.
Fastening the first three boards together was the next challenge. The tutorial just said, “Then I drove in three more screws for each joint.” In the photos, there is one pilot hole being drilled, and a few screws being driven in. It looked so easy, but I seriously doubt it was done that way. When I drove my screws into the remaining pilot holes, the boards got wedged apart about 1/16″ by the force of the screws (and probably something to do with the floor being uneven). That isn’t the right result. The screws are supposed to pull the boards together and hold them very tightly. For that, I had to drill shank holes through the top board for every screw. Doing that resulted in a lot of bit changes throughout the day, but it gave my bench the rock-solidness I was expecting.
Connecting the Sections
When I had the front and back sections ready to go, I fumbled around with them very awkwardly trying to get an end beam squared and attached. Eventually, I threw away the tutorial and came up with my own technique.
- Take the cut OSB that you’ll use for the top of the work bench and lay it flat on the floor. Ideally, the OSB and the floor should both be clean of debris.
- Stand each of the sections upside-down on top of the OSB along its edges.
- Position one of the end beams and square it up with the two sections using the edges of the OSB as guides.
- Drill one pilot hole at each corner, drill the shank holes, and screw the end beam to the two sections using just one screw at each corner.
- Measure the exact spacing of the legs near the top beams, then make sure the leg ends are spaced the same.
- Screw a 1×4 on to the leg ends to hold them in place temporarily.
- Measure and cut the cross braces for the legs, and screw them in. I simply put a toe screw in the end beam and one screw in the leg for each brace.
- Now remove the 1×4 and you will find the legs are very stable front to back.
- At this point, I unscrewed the legs from each brace so that I could pivot the front and back sections freely against the end beam. This was necessary because my 2″ x 6″ lumber was twisted slightly and I needed each end to be square independently of each other. If I had followed the tutorial, I would have ended up with a huge twisted mess!
- Repeat steps 3-8 at the other end.
- Reattach the leg braces at the first end. If the front and back beams were twisted like mine were, you’ll need to bend the whole frame into position to reattach the braces, but the braces will hold it all perfectly square now.
At this point, I still had only one screw in each corner holding the whole thing together, but this was working in my favor! 🙂
Attaching the Top
Getting this far in the project was a huge relief, and I was really having fun by then. I picked up the frame and set that right side up on the floor. Then I plucked up the OSB and examined it very closely. What the tutorial neglects to mention about OSB is that it always has an up side and a down side! It’s almost impossible to see the difference just by looking at it, but when I ran my hand over the surfaces, I could tell that one was rough and the other relatively smooth. The smooth side goes up because it makes a better work surface.
- With the frame and the OSB both “up,” line up one corner and use a single screw to attach the OSB to the end beam.
- Go to the opposite corner of the frame and square it up with the OSB. Because the frame is still being held together by only one screw at each corner, you can fit the frame perfectly to the edges of the OSB, just like you had it when it was upside down.
- Put one more screw at or near the opposite corner of the OSB to hold the frame in place.
- Now screw down the whole perimeter of the OSB to the bench frame.
- Drill and drive the other three screws at each corner of the frame so that the end beams will be as strong as the front and back beams.
Tada! As you can see, I’ve already put this work bench to use by storing some things on top and underneath while I attack other areas of the basement. (You can probably also see that I need a new camera, but I tried. haha.) One pleasant surprise was that I found a nice three drawer plastic cart to provide some convenient, waterproof vertical storage that fits easily under the work bench. This particular cart came with a wood top, so I don’t have to worry about crushing it with heavy tools and such.
Total money spent on this rock-solid custom work bench: Nothing!