My local home improvement center has a simple DIY workbench plans / kit you can buy for under $100. The kit includes just about everything you need to put together a bench for a workshop – 2x4s and 2x6s precut to length, and a box of wood screws to bring it all together. The complete package is nicely bound in heavy box, ready to load in whatever vehicle you can make it fit. However, I had to wonder if there was any benefit in buying the kit, rather than finding my own set of workbench plans and cutting the lumber myself.
First I priced the boards individually, to see if there was any big savings in me buying all the materials separately. I was kind of surprised to find that that the difference wasn’t that big, really. The kit sells for about $65. If I were to buy all the materials separately, I’d be spending about $48. That’s not something to get too excited about. Sure, I could save myself plenty of
time in the shop by getting all my lumber precut to size. And I suppose having workbench designs already completed would save me the trouble of having to dig through a lot of woodshop plans to find something I like. But I still wasn’t convinced the kit was a better deal. So I tried to break down the pros and cons to see which would make better sense – buy or build a workbench.
What I Think About Buying a Workbench Kit
The biggest drawback to buying a kit is that the particular workbench design just might not be what you had in mind for your workshop. The bench I was looking at didn’t get me too excited. I suppose it would be fine for most basements or garages, but I wanted something a little nicer – especially for the workbench top. For example, this bench uses a row of 2x6s for the top, which I’m sure is tough and durable, but I’ll definitely need something more smooth – I just can’t have small parts rolling into the cracks. Plus, I would just as soon design a workbench to fit the space I have available in my own garage. This bench is about 72” long, but I have a wall in my workshop that measures closer to 8 feet. So I’d just as soon fill that extra space with more workbench.
What I Think About Building a Workbench
Building a workbench from scratch takes a little more work at the start. Finding a set of workbench plans (or designing your own) takes a little time – to make sure you have something that really works for you. You’ll have to measure and cut everything yourself, and do a fair amount of drilling to get the pieces lined up and together. You’ll have to decide for yourself if the extra labor is worth the trouble. In my case, since I don’t really like the design of most kits I’ve seen, the extra effort in coming up with my own style really outweighs any benefits in buying a kit.
Sometimes people ask me how much of an overhang they should allow on their benchtop — especially with the more simple designs similar to what you see in this plan. I can understand the concern, since a large overhang could conceivably make a workbench unstable and vulnerable to tipping over. However, this would have to be an extremely large overhang (like maybe over 2 feet), which isn’t what I believe most people are talking about. In most cases, the question is more about the consequences of having a much smaller overhang, something around 6-12 inches. From my experience, this amount of bench top overhang won’t compromise the stability of a workbench in anyway.
The primary reason for having an overhang in your bench design is to allow for clamps – just to give them something to hang on to when securing something to the top of your bench. If you’re using the smaller, quick-style clamps, an overhang of 3″ – 5″ should be plenty of room for clamping.
Keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need an overhang on all four sides of a bench. This is especially true if you plan to place one side of your bench up against a wall (which wouldn’t need an overhang at all). You might also consider designing a longer overhang on just one end of your bench — creating somewhat of a “clamping station” devoted to just that type of work.
If you’re thinking about mounting a permanent vice on your bench, the best approach is to buy the vice first and then design your bench top overhang around the vice. Different vices have different mounting hole sizes and patterns, which makes it difficult to build a bench without first knowing the exact dimensions required for the vice.
Truth is, there is no universal answer to that question. However, I’m guessing that most people end up with a workstation that’s probably too low (more on that later). When building a bench for a garage or workshop, the distance you allow between the floor and the workbench top should be custom tailored to fit both your body height and the type of work you plan to do. First let’s look at why you should even care about such things.
Why is Height Important?
Doing any kind of manual work puts stress on the body. Nothing wrong with that, really, if it includes a healthy mix of moving, stretching, pulling, and pushing. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen while standing in front of a workbench, where we can easily spend hours going through the same motions over and over. The most common hazard from this kind of repetition is lower back pain, which usually comes from working on a bench that is too low. Over time, this kind of muscular stress can cause serious back problems that are difficult to fix. If you’re in the planning stages of your project, it’s well worth your time to stop now and think about designing your bench to fit both your body height and the type of jobs you plan to do there. If you already have a workbench that’s not really the ideal height for you, I’ll show you a couple tricks to remedy that problem. But first let’s take a look at how to find that perfect height before you start building a bench.
Step One – Match Workbench Height to Body Height
The basic rule of thumb is to make the top of your bench meet the bottom edge of your shirt cuff. This will give you nice, workable surface for most general types of work. For someone like me, who stands about 5’ 10”, setting the top at 36” is just about right for most jobs. Now remember that when designing your bench, the height is determined by both the length of the legs and the thickness of whatever material you use for the top. My EZ Workbench Planner can help you calculate exactly what these numbers should be, and is available as a PDF download here.
Step Two: Match Workbench Height to the Job
After you’ve found your ideal bench height using the “shirt cuff” method, you might need to adjust that number for more specific types of work. For example, my ideal height for most jobs is right around 36.” However, if I’m primarily doing jobs like sanding or carving wood, I want the top to be somewhat lower, so I can lean over my work and use the weight of my arms and shoulders to help push the tools. In this case, I’ll subtract 6” from my ideal height to make the bench closer to 30” high. On the other hand, if I’m primarily doing jobs like fixing mowers and putting together toys for my kids, I want the top be a little higher. This will keep me from having to bend over my work, and make it easier for me to see what I’m doing. In this case, I’ll add 6” to my ideal height to make the bench closer to 42” high.
Adjusting the Height of an Existing Workbench
Most of us already have a workbench sitting in our garage or basement, which may or may not be the ideal height for the work we want to do. This problem has a fairly easy remedy. If I discover my bench is too low (which is usually the case), I can always add something to the bench top to raise the work surface – like a box, a scrap piece of wood, or even a new layer of plywood. I might also consider raising the height of the entire bench itself – by placing something sturdy under each leg, like concrete tiles or wood blocks. If I discover my bench is too high, I can always place something on the floor just in front of the bench to stand on – like concrete tiles, rubber mats, and rugs. I might also consider trimming the length of each leg, to bring the entire workbench height down to an acceptable level.
Other Tips for Using a Workbench
Getting the right workbench height is by far the most important thing you can do to prevent lower back pain and muscle fatigue. But let me mention a few other tips that can make a big difference in making your work more productive, more effective, and just more fun.
Avoid Standing on a Cold Floor
Concrete is notorious for sapping heat from the body, especially in cold climates where basement and garage floors can get very cold. As tempting as it might be to head to the shop in your socks or bare feet, be warned that a bare floor can give you a good chill – usually before you even realize what’s happening. Try to get in a habit of putting on a reasonably thick-soled shoe before working on a concrete floor. You’ll be more comfortable, and you’ll get more work done. For the ultimate comfort in working at a bench (especially in the cold months), you might consider buying a heated floor mat, which you can find online at a variety of different workshop supply stores.
Keep Pegboards in Short Reach
Most people put their pegboards along the back of a workbench, since it makes good sense to have all of your tools right where you need them. However, if your workbench has a particularly deep top, the stretch you have to make to pull those tools down could add some stress to your back. As general rule of thumb, I try to hang tools no farther away than the length of my arm. This ensures that my back stays upright when pulling things off the pegboard, especially when reaching for the heavier tools. My arm length is right about 30” so I’m careful to avoid locating pegboards behind workbenches that are deeper than 30 inches. If you want to build a bench than this, consider locating your pegboard somewhere else in the shop.
Most of the problems related to driving screws while building a workbench have nothing to do with the screw itself, but everything to do with the pilot hole (or lack of). I know it’s easy to assume pine is soft enough that you can simply force a wood screw to go where you want it to go. Sometimes this works, sometimes not. Overall, you can expect that most wood screws are too large to be forced into a board without some type of path to lead the way. Although they’re tempting to ignore, pilot holes can mean the difference between project success—or project disaster.
What Size Pilot Hole Should I Drill?
As a general rule, a pilot hole should be the same diameter as the root of the screw—the area just below the threads. This allows the bulk of the screw to easily enter a board without splitting the grain, while the threads do all the work of pulling two boards together to form a joint.
Countersink Bits for a Better Fit
A simple pilot hole might be fine for the threaded portion of the screw, but it won’t provide any space for the head or the shank. The solution is to use a countersink bit, which creates both a pilot hole for the threads, and a larger hole for the head and shank.
Tapered or Straight?
Some screws have a shank that is wider than the threaded portion of the screw. That’s when I like to use a tapered countersink to get the best fit. For screws that have a more narrow shank, I like to use a straight countersink bit.
I often tell people that a garage workbench is the perfect project for getting started in DIY and home remodeling. The first reason is somewhat obvious – everyone needs some type of workshop table to get anything done that involves power tools. The second reason is that a workbench is a fairly easy project to undertake. Most bench designs require nothing more than a circular saw, a drill/driver, a few 2x4s and some hardware. From that you can build a surprisingly heavy-duty workbench that will last a lifetime. This can make a big difference for people who like the idea of building something from wood, but don’t really want to learn the finer skills of woodworking.
I also remind people that since the bench will be located in the garage, there’s no reason to sweat the small details. There’s plenty of room for small errors that won’t make any difference in how well this piece of workshop furniture works in your shop. As long as you can make the bench solid and stable, you’ve succeeded in your mission. And since we’re talking primarily about inexpensive 2×4 lumber, you can relax about making a few mistakes here and there. Just make sure to bring home a couple of extra boards as a backup. With most dimensional studs costing as little as dollar each, you can afford to make mistakes. Besides, making mistakes is the best way to learn.
The type of workbench design I suggest for the garage doesn’t require any fancy joinery, like you might find in a woodworking workbench. Yet, it can be just as strong (or stronger) than the finest benches around. The trick is getting 2x4s firmly joined at the corners — where the rails and stiles meet (see my workbench planner for more info about the anatomy of a workbench). Since we’re not using typical woodworking tools here — like a table saw and a router table — we need to have some method of creating stable joinery with a circular saw and a drill. One method I suggest is creating what I like to call a “false” half lap, where one board simply overlaps the other. Anyway, the more conventional half-lap joint is fairly common in woodworking, for creating super-strong joints with lots of exposed wood for effective gluing. Problem is that a typical half lap requires a table saw or a router. One way around this problem is to sandwich 2x4s together in such a way that emulates the holding power of a half lap, but without having to make complicated cuts with more expensive tools.
Another nice (and easy) component of a garage workbench is the top — which is fairly important part of this piece of workshop furniture. In most cases, a simple sheet of plywood cut down to size will do the job just fine. However, I’ve seen several benches lately that have nothing more than an old wooden door mounted to the frame. And depending on how solid of a door we’re talking about, this can be an amazingly nice material to finish off your bench design.