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Newsletter Article: Why I Build my Workbenches out of MDF and Plywood

Why I Build my Workbenches from MDF and Plywood

By Rob Cosman
20 January 2019


Your workbench serves a lot of roles; it is your "flat" reference as you attempt to locate the last high spot when you dimension boards, it supports your work as you violently chop mortises, it acts as a big caul when gluing up case work, and it holds precisely still as you start that shoulder crosscut on your bench hook.  It does all of this and more, today, tomorrow and the next day without changing, hopefully!



You cannot overstate the value of a good workbench to a traditional handtool craftsman nor can you overstate the effect on craftsmanship as it relates to a workbench.  I have worked on more types of workbenches in more locations than I can remember; what I do remember are the absolute worst and the absolute best workbenches.


 The worst workbenches I remember are the ones where you must chase the bench around as you try to plane; the bench has no mass, no weight.  Skinny wooden 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 where the bounce-back equals your mallet strike!





The best workbenches I remember have a dead flat top and are too heavy to budge.  Your mallet strike feels like you are working on actual bedrock!  Everything stays put, and the feedback when planing, sawing, or chiseling is wonderful. 




Most woodworkers new to traditional handtool woodworking typically have limited skills, limited space, limited tools, limited clamps, limited funds, and no workbench!   They long for a good workbench and are immediately faced with three choices: build, buy, or make-do. 


Option one, building your own custom traditional workbench bench, is probably at the top of every woodworkers list.  However,  don't forget how we started this section: you lack the experience and skill to cut those massive dovetails, those through tenons, and the rest of the joints and processes required to build a dream workbench.  What you desperately need is a sturdy workbench to start learning on and improving those required skills.



Option two is to purchase your workbench.  If you are lucky, you will stumble across a gem of a used bench for next to nothing, but that is about as likely as winning the Powerball lottery.  You realize that you will have to go shopping for a workbench.  Once you start looking you will find that most mass produced workbenches are expensive and sadly, are terrible workbenches.  They look good from a distance but are so lacking up close.  Please resist buying one of those, they are literally worse than not having a workbench.   I have yet to mention the terrible vices attached to these cardboard cutouts disguised as a workbench!  Don't do it!   If you insist on buying, then the only option is the Elite series from Sjoberg but be ready to spend $2000+ on one.





Before we discuss option three, I have a commercial workbench horror story for your consideration.  I would buy 12 new Sjoberg 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 workbenches to students and start the cycle again the following spring. The last time I did this we only sold half the workbenches and ended up having to store the six unsold workbenches for the winter in an unheated shop.  By next spring the bench tops had cracked, warped, and twisted like giant potato chips.  What a job fixing that mess was to fix; not a job for the faint of heart.  Better make sure that shop garage stays toasty warm!


Option three, "making-do" typically involves the end of your table saw, your father’s "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 a good workbench that will give us a fighting chance at quality craftsmanship. 




Don’t despair, I have a solution

A handful of years ago (just after the Sjoberg disaster) I set out to build a better. High quality, low cost, low skill needed to build, quality handtool workbench.  Guess what the bench is made of?  MDF and Baltic Birch plywood and not a single difficult joint in the whole bench.  Though I can't discuss the entire build process in this article, I have it on video on my You Tube channel if you are interested.   I will add that I have had several folks decide to build one and the results have been stellar! 



Excluding the vises, material costs are about $200, so even a disastrous re-do won't leave you homeless and on the street!  The workbench bench base is built from 4” x  5/8" Baltic Birch plywood strips cut to length, glued and stapled together in a Lego-like fashion.  The result is a 2-1/2“ thick, solid bench frame solidly made from high quality, dense, plywood members that doesn't move, doesn't flex, and stays put! 






The 64” x 24” top is made of three pieces of 1" MDF (four pieces of 3/4" MDF will also work) glued together to make a solid three inches of light brown lead!  The MDF top is miserably heavy, wonderfully stable, rock solid, and incredibly cheap.  All this from one sheet of 1” MDF (about $40) or two sheets of ¾” MDF (about $60).  In case you are wondering the 64" by 20" top is made by sandwiching two 32” x 20" MDF pieces between two 64” x 20" MDF pieces all from the same sheet of 97” x 49” x 1" MDF.  If you use ¾” MDF then you can cut four 64” x 20” pieces and glue them all together.   Do try to find the 1" MDF, its heavy to handle but causes less work in the construction. Typically, the box lumber stores don’t carry it but can special order it.  If you are near any commercial lumber suppliers, they usually carry the 1” thick MDF.  If you just can’t find the 1” stuff go with the ¾” thick MDF.



Here are a few tips on how to glue up the MDF bench top.  Use Titebond 3 (Waterproof) to glue the layers together.  Glue-up one joint (two sheets) at a time, clamp it and come back an hour later to glue-up the next sheet to it.  This is a big surface to glue, don't be timid, take the cover off the bottle and pour it on!  I made a notched glue spreader from a card scraper and a triangular file to spread the glue. Cut the notches about 1/32" deep and lots of them.  Alternately, go to Home Depot to the tiling section and buy one of those disposable trowels with 1/32” teeth.  This glue up is best done as a two-person job; if you are working alone you should consider a two-part glue with a generous amount of open time.  


Once the glue is applied you need to clamp the sheets together while the glue dries.  This requires a lot of big clamps.  Gluing cauls can significantly reduce the required number of clamps.  All of this is in my video.  If you don’t have any clamps, you can try clamping the sheets together using screws.  Drill holes on one sheet slightly bigger than the threads of the screws are using.  Then using those holes as a guide, drill small pilot holes in the MDF sheet you are glueing two.  Screw the two sheets together so only the screw head pulls the first sheet into the second sheet.  After the glue is dry remove all the screws. Of course, do not screw on the very top surface or the top of your bench will look like swiss cheese.



After the glue-up and everything is flushed, I rout a 3/16" quarter round on all edges.  MDF has a hard-wearing surface but a softer edge and the quarter round helps prevent the edges from getting chunks knocked out of them.  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 top of the bench when you invariable use the bench as a glue-up bench.  I have used lacquer instead of Tung Oil, but the oil is easier to work with.  Be aware that the MDF will soak up a lot of oil, especially on the edges! 




On the dog holes, I rout the top opening as well, sharp corners don't last long on MDF.  Because the dog holes get some frequent and hard use, I also to saturate them with thin cyanoacrylate, this really stiffens the MDF. 




Now you are ready to bolt the top to the base, add one or two vises (Sjoberg is the best), get your dogs and unleash this puppy!  



So, let me specifically answer the question,  “Why do I build my workbenches from MDF and Plywood?”  There are many reasons, here they are:


1. It Won’t move. MDF and Baltic Birch plywood are man-made wood material and they DO NOT MOVE.  All benches made from lumber will move with changes in humidity.  You will have to go back and re-flatten the top periodically.  Why do this?.    MDF will remain dead flat for a very long time.  If it ever goes out of flat then just make a new top; you only have about $60 bucks of material invested in the MDF so the cost is minimal.


2. It has mass. The MDF and Baltic Birch are heavy and make a very heavy bench that is needed for traditional handtool woodworking.


3. No Joints to Cut. The  process of building the legs by gluing up layers of Baltic Birch plywood is vert quick and lets you create joints without having to cut a joint.  Its super easy, and much quicker.


4. Inexpensive.  You can build this bench with about $200 of materials, another $300 to add a vise.  That’s a lot cheaper than paying $2000+ for a pre-made bench that wont be nearly as durable and long lasting as this one.


5. It’s a great bench. I teach all my Training the hand Woodworking classes using these benches.  My students love them, and they stand up to hard use.


Good luck!