Recommending that woodworkers make their workbench out of MDF and plywood reminds me of that old salsa commercial where the cowboys read the label and exclaim, “Made in New York City!” Don’t throw out the Salsa just yet, I think you will like the taste!
Here is the scoop. Your workbench top serves a lot of roles: it is your "flat" reference surface, it supports your work as you violently chop mortises, it acts as a big caul when gluing up case work, and it imparts most of the mass a workbench needs. Good hand tool workbench tops are traditionally glued up from numerous lengths of hard, dense wood. This gives the bench the mass it needs, but guess what? Wood moves. A laminated top WILL go out of flat and you must periodically re-flatten it with a larger jointer plane and winding sticks. Typically, 2 or 3 times in the first half dozen years, until it settles down. Why not forgo all that planing, make your benchtop glue-up tons easier, and build a benchtop that’s dead flat and heavy? Can you say MDF?
I cannot overstate the value of a workbench to a hand tool woodworker, nor can I overstate the effect it has on craftsmanship. I have worked on more types of benches and in more locations than I can remember. What I do remember are the absolute worst and the absolute best workbenches. The worst examples are the ones where you must chase the bench around as you plane because it has no mass; no weight. Skinny wood tops sitting on what looks like the framework of a card table. I've tried to use a shooting board on a bench top so cupped the shooting board sags in the middle. Try chopping with a mallet and chisel on an out-of-flat benchtop where the bounce-back equals your malt strike!
Now contrast that to a workbench with a dead flat top and that is too heavy to budge. Your mallet strike feels like you are working on actual bedrock! Everything stays put. This is what my MDF and plywood workbench feels like.
Now you are a new woodworker with limited skill, limited space, limited tools, limited clamps and worst of all, limited funds! You long for a good work bench and here are your options: build, buy, or make-do.
Option one, building your own custom traditional bench, is probably at the top of every woodworkers list. However, don't forget how we started this paragraph, you lack the skill to cut those massive dovetails, those through tenons and the rest of the multitude of processes that go into a dream bench. What you desperately need is a sturdy bench to start learning and improving those required skills.
Option two is to purchase and workbench. If you are lucky, you stumble across a gem of a used bench from an owner looking to find it a home. OK, time to wake up, the dream is over; you must go shopping for a bench. I have worked on too many commercial benches to ever steer underfunded folks in that direction. They look good from a distance but are lacking up close. Please don't take one home, it "is" worse than nothing! Disappointment is waiting around the corner. Did I mention the terrible vices attached to these cardboard cutouts disguised as a workbench? Don't do it! If you insist on buying a workbench the only one I can recommend is the Elite series from Sjoberg, but it will set you back at least $2000.
I have one horror story to share here for your consideration. I use to buy 12 new Elite 2000 workbenches each summer to teach my Training the Hand workshops in southern Ontario. At the end of the summer I would sell the benches and start the cycle again the following Spring. The last time I did this we only sold half the benches and ended up storing the other 6 for the winter in an unheated shop. By next Spring the benches had cracked, warped, and twisted like you might expect from a big hunk of glued up timber whose individual pieces had differing ideas on which way they wanted to expand. What a job fixing that mess, not for the faint of heart. Better make sure that shop garage stays toasty warm!
Option three is to "make-do". This involves using the end of your tablesaw, your fathers "workmate", the bedroom door spanning a few horses or the cobbled together collection of leftover 2 by 4's nailed to the garage wall. While great craftsman can work miracles with next to nothing, the rest of us need good shop implements to have a fighting chance.
Whats my low cost, low skill solution to a great workbench? MDF and plywood of course!
A handful of years ago (just after the Sjoberg disaster) I set out to build a better bench. Could it be made with few tools, limited space, entry level skill and a small budget? Yes, it can! I won’t rehash the entire building process here because its already on my online videos if you are interested. I have had several students of mine build one and the results have been stellar! Excluding vises, it costs about $100 in material so even a disastrous re-do won't leave you on the street!
My bench base is built from 5/8" plywood (Baltic Birch is best) cut into 4" wide strips. These strips are cut to length, glued, and stapled in a Lego-like fashion to form the legs and stretchers. The result is a bench frame solidly made from 2-1/2" plywood (4 x 5/8" inch pieces glued together) members. It won’t move, doesn't flex, and stays put!
The benchtop is 3 pieces of 1" MDF or 4 pieces of 3/4" MDF glued together to make a solid 3 inches of light brown lead! Its miserably heavy, wonderfully stable, dead flat, and incredibly cheap. All this from one sheet of MDF (two sheets if you use ¾” MDF); $30 bucks for most folks. The 4’x8’ MDF sheet is cut into two 64" by 20" sections and two 32” x 20" sections. The two smaller pieces will be butt joined and sandwiched between two 64 x 20" pieces. Do try to find the 1" MDF, it’s not fun to handle but less work in the construction.
Here are a few tips that will make your MDF bench top last longer. Use Titebond III to glue the layers together. I do one joint at a time, clamp it and come back an hour later to do the next. This is a big surface to glue, don't be timid, take the top off the bottle and pour it on! I made a notched glue spreader from a card scraper with a triangular file. Cut the notches about 1/32" deep and make lots of them. The metal is easy to clean off even after the glue has dried (in the heat of the moment you will forget to clean it). Shake a little table salt on the glue after you spread it and that will help prevent the glue-up from sliding around on you. This glue up is best done as a two-person job. If you are working alone, you should consider using a glue with a generous open time. Construction lumber makes good gluing cauls and can really reduce the required number of clamps. All of this is in my tutorial videos online.
After the glue up and everything is flushed, I rout a 3/16" quarter round everywhere to help combat any MDF separation. Sharp corners don't last long on MDF. MDF has a hard-wearing surface but a softer edge. I soak the entire top with multiple coats of tung oil over several days. This helps firm up the soft edges and keeps glue from sticking to the surface. I have used lacquer but tung oil is easier to work with. Warning: it will take a lot of ting oil, especially on the edges, as it seems it will never stop soaking in! On the dog holes, I rout the top opening with a round-over bit as well. Because the dog holes get some frequent and hard use, I like to saturate their insides with thin cyanoacrylate, this really stiffens the MDF. You're almost done, bolt the top to the base, add a vise (Sjoberg is the best), make or purchase your dogs and unleash this puppy! Almost forgot to mention it makes a great caul when gluing something like a chest of drawers. Should you ever damage the top beyond repair its $30 and back to the glue up.
Below are several pictures of Rex from Texas', who was in my November 2017 Training the Hand Workshop, workbench build. Great job Rex. At the very end is a video I made of this bench a couple of years ago.