A custom-built workbench makes so many of your jobs easier — everything from repairing small machines to re-potting seedlings.
Illustration By Len Churchill
Thirty years ago, I built my first serious workbench. After using it nearly every day since, I still call the design a success. And that’s why I’m happy to share the plans with you.
A solid, do-it-yourself workbench is an excellent starting point if you’re interested in building self-reliance skills. In fact, a practical work surface is more important than most of the tools you’ll be using, as it makes so many jobs easier. Successfully repairing small machines, assembling projects and building furniture are entirely dependent on having a sturdy work surface at the right height. In the garden, transplanting and re-potting seedlings without straining your back requires a table that’s perfectly sized for you. You can build a bench using rough-cut lumber, as I did, or with standard construction-grade planks, composite lumber or even recycled plastic. Using these DIY workbench plans, you’ll turn out a bench that’s heavy enough to be secure, simple enough for any handy person to build, and durable enough to last longer than you. The flexible workbench designs I outline here have three main parts: the legs, top and storage shelf.
But before we get to the step-by-step instructions on how to build a workbench, let’s do some figuring. How long should your workbench be? How wide? How tall? The answers depend on who will be using the bench, and for what purpose. You can go small or large, depending on your space and needs.
The most important dimension is workbench height. The rule of thumb for a woodworking workbench is a work surface that hits your wrists as you stand with your arms hanging loosely at your sides. A general-purpose workbench for, say, sharpening your chain saw or fixing a broken toy could be taller. I’m 5 feet, 8 inches tall, and my old faithful stands 35 inches from the floor to the top of the work surface, and 35 inches deep from front to back.
After you’ve figured the size, you’re ready to start building your DIY workbench. The exploded workbench plans on this page show how pairs of legs are joined together into frames, with the frames connected by the long rails, top boards and shelf boards. Your first task is to build as many of these leg frames as you’ll need to support the total length of the bench you want. Depending on the weight of things you’ll be putting on your bench, and the thickness of the top boards and shelf, aim for 24 to 48 inches between leg frames. The frames will need to be closer together if you’re using plastic composite boards, because these aren’t as strong as wood. If you’re not sure what length you want right now, build the minimum number of leg frames you think will do the job, and then temporarily set some top and shelf boards in place and see how things feel. You can always make an additional leg frame before final assembly if you decide it’s necessary.
You can use 2-by-4s for the legs, but 4-by-4s will work better. Remember, a good workbench is a heavy workbench. Cut all of the legs and crosspieces you need at the same time. A miter saw is an excellent tool for getting these cuts perfectly square, but you can use a handsaw or hand-held circular saw, too. Use deck screws, because these hold better than nails and are easier to drive. My favorite deck screws for the smaller joints on this project are the Spax brand, which have serrated threads that bite aggressively into wood. I use the hot-dipped and galvanized version for rust-free exterior use. The large joints between the rails and legs are best connected with a heavier screw, such as the Camo structural screw.
Here’s a trick for assembling all of the legs and crosspieces accurately: Use a 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood or oriented strand board (OSB) on the floor as a reference tool to ensure square leg frames. Because the corners of domestically produced, commercial sheet material are a perfect 90 degrees, they offer an ideal guide for positioning legs and crosspieces relative to each other. Place one leg flush with the long edge of the plywood as it rests on the ground, and align one end of that leg in the corner of the sheet. Place a second leg on the sheet parallel to the first one, with one end of the leg on the plywood’s edge. Space the outer edges of the parallel legs to match the length of your crosspieces. Double-check the alignment by measuring diagonals taken across the corners — square leg frames will always have equal diagonals. As long as the ends of both legs are aligned with the edge of the plywood and both legs are parallel, your workbench’s leg frames will have 90-degree corners.
Start assembling your workbench by securing the crosspieces to the first pair of legs. The upper crosspiece needs to be flush with the top of the legs, and the second crosspiece should be 6 inches up from what will become the bottom ends of the legs. Use glue and two 3 1/2-inch deck screws to hold each joint together.
The next step is to connect the leg frames to form the support structure. Long rails will make this happen, and recruiting a helper will make this step much easier. Use either 2-by-4s or 2-by-6s, depending on the length and strength you’re aiming for. Either way, the long rails should fasten flush to the top of the legs, and the shelf should rest on top of the lower crosspieces below.
Before you begin assembling the base, here’s another important trick to ensure your leg frames come together properly: Forget your carpenter’s square and grab a 24-inch-long level instead. Find a flat and level floor surface on which to set all of the leg frames upright. After you have the leg frames on a level surface, use the level to make sure they’re straight up and down (called “plumb”) as you fasten on the long rails. Do this, and all connections will be square.
Have your helper hold up the leg frames and keep them in position while you add the long rails. As you do this, check that the leg frames are plumb, and then apply wood glue to the joints. Secure each long rail-to-leg joint using a single deck screw, set off-center so you have room for a second screw later. You could certainly forget the glue, but it’s amazing how much strength and rigidity it adds. And why cut corners? This design explains how to build a workbench that will last you a lifetime.
Your bench won’t be as strong at this stage because the glue is still wet, but that’s OK. Check one more time to make sure that the leg frames are all plumb, and then add a second screw to each joint. If you want the strongest possible workbench, get out your drill and use 3/8-inch-diameter carriage bolts instead of the second screws. Bore holes for the bolts and draw the joints together tightly with the bolts before the glue dries. Besides pulling the joints together for maximum glue strength, carriage bolts will also allow you to tighten the joints with a wrench if things ever loosen up in the future.
You can build the top of your workbench with 3/4-inch plywood or solid 2-by-6, 2-by-8 or 2-by-10 planks. I prefer planks because they don’t cost any more than plywood and they produce a stronger, heavier bench. You also don’t need to cut any of the boards lengthwise to get a specific workbench top width. You can usually mix and match different standard widths and lengths of lumber to deliver the ideal 1 or 2 inches of overhang on the sides and ends. As you calculate your material needs, remember that a construction-grade 2-by-6 measures 5 1/2 inches wide, a 2-by-8 is generally 7 1/4 inches wide, and a 2-by-10 is typically 9 1/4 inches wide.
If you’re using lumber, make sure all top boards are the same length, and arrange them tightly together. It’s great if you can get a couple of pipe clamps to draw the wood together. If not, just pull the wood tight by hand while you fasten the boards to the crosspieces below, driving two or three 3 1/2-inch- or 4-inch-long deck screws into each top board at the crosspiece. Use no glue on these joints, because you want the option of removing and replacing top boards later if they get damaged.
If you’ll be using your bench for gluing or finishing wood, consider securing a replaceable layer of 1/4-inch plywood on top of the top boards. Use just enough small screws to keep the plywood secure. When the glue and mess get to be too much, simply remove the old plywood and replace it with a fresh piece.
You can use long rails to stabilize the lower structure of your DIY workbench, but a shelf will serve the same purpose and also provide storage space. The shelf is nothing more than a replica of the top, except that it fits between the legs, not on top of them. And unless you’ll be storing exceptionally heavy things, 3/4-inch plywood is fine for the shelf. Cut the shelf material so it fits between the legs, and fasten it to the crosspieces with screws only.
To me, workbenches are one of those things that are best made, not bought. These instructions show you how to build a workbench that’s perfectly suited to your shop or garden. Take the time to build it right, and you’ll never wish you had a better workbench again.
Garden Potting Bench Plans
It’s easy and practical to turn your do-it-yourself workbench into a garden potting bench. You only have to inset a removable potting tub or two into the workbench top to make a garden sink. Buy a sturdy plastic tub with a lip, measure the length and width of the body of the tub, and then mark it on the bench top to the right or left of the center legs (somewhere between leg frames). Use 2-by-4s to reinforce the underside of the bench top immediately on each side of the tub’s intended location. Bore 1-inch-diameter holes through the bench top, just inside the lines, one at each corner. Insert a jigsaw’s blade into one of the holes, and cut all four sides of the opening. Drop the tub into position. You’re now ready to store soil or potting materials right at bench level.
If you’d like to add a sink and running water to your garden workbench, you’ve got a couple of options. You can install a garden sink the same way as a potting tub, or inset it below the surface so the sink can be covered with a removable piece of plywood whenever you want a continuous work surface. A reclaimed stainless steel kitchen sink is ideal for covering in this way because its perimeter lip is thin.
A reclaimed kitchen faucet is a more convenient way to bring water to your sink than a garden hose alone, and it’s not difficult to install. Fasten 6- or 7-inch lengths of 1/2-inch-diameter copper pipe onto the inlets of your faucet if it doesn’t already have any, and then secure the faucet to the bench’s countertop, behind the sink. Fit the end of one of the copper pipes coming off the faucet with a quick-release hose fitting, which will make connecting and disconnecting the water supply easy. Direct the waste water from the garden sink into a pail or a graveled area underneath the bench, and you’ll keep messes out of your kitchen by washing vegetables outdoors. Install an optional raised back and sides on the bench top to keep potting supplies and tools from rolling off during use.
Rough Wood or Smooth?
Standard construction-grade lumber — of the kind used to build houses — measures 1 1/2 inches thick, and is an excellent material for a workbench top. But if you live where small sawmills are in operation, you can use rough-cut lumber to make a terrific workbench. It’s typically thicker than construction-grade lumber milled for the homebuilding industry (1 3/4 inches to 2 inches instead of 1 1/2 inches) and, depending on the tree species, this extra thickness probably won’t cost you any more. The only issue to keep an eye on is thickness. Depending on the kind of mill used to saw the wood, rough lumber’s thickness can be quite consistent, or it can vary as much as a quarter-inch from board to board. Planing one side and one face of rough boards is the best way to make them consistent while retaining the greatest wood thickness.
Contributing Editor Steve Maxwell has been helping people renovate, build and maintain their homes for more than two decades. “Canada’s Handiest Man” is an award-winning home improvement authority and woodworking expert. Contact him by visiting his website and the blog, Maxwell’s House. You also can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook and find him on Google+.