Canadian Woodworking

Minimalist workbench

Author: Carl Duguay
Photos: Carl Duguay
Illustration: Len Churchill
Published: June July 2022

This small, robust workbench is ideal for hand work in a confined workspace.


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workbench materials list

A small, sturdy workbench is a viable option for anyone with a limited workspace, for those who work primarily on small-scale projects and for those who work mostly with hand tools. Large benches are great, but they’re just not prac­tical for many small shop situations. I’ve had a lot of success with this size and design.

I wanted a small, sturdy workbench to put in my sunroom so I could do hand work in the evenings and on weekends without having to scurry off to the workshop. The two main criteria in designing this bench were that it had to fit comfortably into the 60″ wide sunroom and it had to be built in one weekend, which pre­cluded any complex or time-consuming joinery.

Create an Apron Notch
Duguay made two cuts on the table saw to create the large notch in the outer face of the legs. The front apron will eventually get glued to the resulting face of this notch, while the rear apron will be glued to the rear edge of the benchtop and be allowed to move with seasonal changes in humidity.

minimalist workbench

Two Cuts to Define the Mortise
Two cuts will create the sides of the mortise that the rail will get fixed to. A solid mortise jig for your table saw will allow you to make these cuts quickly and safely.

minimalist workbench

minimalist workbench

Remove the Waste
The simplest way to remove the waste between the two cuts is with a coping saw.

minimalist workbench

A Nice Fit
The resulting joint between the leg and rail will be strong. It will also allow the side apron to be glued to the front leg and the frontmost portion of the rail to add rigidity to the workbench.

minimalist workbench

Alignment Assistance
To assist with alignment during glue-up, Duguay used a simple shop-made jig to bore a few dowel holes in the center edge that was about to be glued together.

minimalist workbench

Many Joinery Options
Duguay opted for a hand-cut mortise and tenon to fix the lower portion of the base together, though there are many options for these joints. Select whatever option is more appropriate for the tools you have.

minimalist workbench

Half of the Top
Duguay made his bench fairly narrow, as that’s what suited his situation. He glued up two panels half the width of the top, then dressed them to final thickness. Here, he’s jointing an edge of one of the top sections.

minimalist workbench

Proper Layout
Some work needs to be done to make way for the front vise. Accurate layout is a solid first step. Different vises have different installation instructions, so read yours carefully before starting.

minimalist workbench

Remove Material
You might need to remove some material for your vise. Here, Duguay has prepped the top to accept his vise.

minimalist workbench

Support Block
Duguay machined a support block to help secure the vise to the underside of his benchtop.

minimalist workbench

Wooden Vise Jaw
To increase the surface area of the vise and to avoid metal-on-wood clamping, Duguay added a wood outer jaw to his vise.

minimalist workbench

Handy Helper
A Veritas inset vise is a great addition to any bench. It’s also easy to install.

minimalist workbench

Dog Holes
Duguay had the luxury of having a jig for his cordless drill that assists in boring straight holes into his benchtop and front of his bench. If you’re not so lucky, use your drill press to bore a straight hole through a thick piece of wood, then clamp that piece to your bench. It will assist in keeping the dog holes perpendicular to the surface.

minimalist workbench

Make it your own

Whatever workbench you design and build should fit you and the type of work you do. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to bench height, width or length. These are entirely personal and practical choices. Think about the main type of work you do at a bench, the amount of time you devote to each type of activity, whether you prefer to sit or stand at the bench, and at what angle you feel most comfortable bending over the bench. It’s worth the time to try some of these different activities at a makeshift work­bench. In a pinch you could use the kitchen table.

Though you could install them later, it’s advisable to mount front and end vises when you build the bench. There are a lot of styles to choose from – think less in terms of size and more in terms of suitability.
Over time you may find your needs change. While you can’t alter the bench width or length easily, you can always trim the legs if it’s too high or prop it up on wood blocks if you find it too low. If you’re not sure about whether you need dog holes or not, how far apart to place them, or whether you should have one or two rows, use your bench for a while to see what will work best for you. The same goes for the myriad workbench accessories that you’ll come across; my suggestion is to wait until you’ve used your workbench for several months before installing any accoutrements.

The wood to use for your bench is also a personal choice. Just about any wood other than balsa is fine. I chose to make my bench out of ash because it’s dense, stiff, resists denting, domestic, afford­able and a wood that I enjoy working with. Once the bench was completed, my wife embellished the door panels.

Start down low

On this bench, the legs are flush with the front apron to aid with clamping. The benchtop is solidly fixed to the front of the base, and left to expand and contract at the rear of the bench. I made the leg assembly first, as it gave me an extra surface on which to build the top. While I milled the legs from 2″ by 4″ rough stock, you could also glue them up from virtually any thickness of stock. The tenons on the top of the legs (the left legs mirror the right legs) are quick to cut on the table saw if you use a tenon jig.

If you don’t want to cut mortises and tenons for the front and back rails you could use floating tenons, Dominos or dowels. I made the tenons 1/2″ × 1″ and 1″ long to maximize the gluing surface.

There is 4-3/4″ between the bottom of the benchtop and top of the cabinet, suf­ficient space to accommodate a holdfast or hold-down. The location of the rails isn’t crucial. I wanted to get as much cabi­net height as I could, so placed the top rails 3/4″ below the front and rear aprons and 2-1/2″ above the floor. The 3/4″ gap enables me to clamp objects to the bench top, though I get along nicely using bench dogs and hold-downs.

Top it off

Just about everyone who visits my workspace comments on how narrow the work top is (17″ deep). I mostly build small display cabinets (typically under 24″ long and 14″ wide) so I can easily get by with a narrow top.

While I used solid wood for the top you could also use plywood or MDF. Regardless of what you choose, a thicker top won’t deflect in use and will add a lot of mass. Try to keep the top at least 1-1/2″ thick.

After planing the ash boards, I ended up with a 1-5/8″ thick top. I rough cut the boards 47″ long and used dowels to align the top of the boards flush during clamping. To make things easier (and lighter) I glued up the top in two 8″ sections and then jointed them to final width. A simple shop-made jig makes it quick and easy to drill accurate dowel holes.

Rather than dowels you could use biscuits or Dominos. I would also have used cauls if I had any on hand as they offer an extra bit of insurance to keep the top boards flush during glue-up.

A couple of vises

After unclamping the benchtop, I sanded both sides down to 180 grit and trimmed the top to its final length. The front vise I installed, the Irwin small woodworkers vise, needs a recess for the fixed jaw cut on the underside of the top. I used a 1″ Forstner bit to remove most of the waste and then cleaned up the recess with a 1/2″ straight plunge router bit. A small support block glued to the underside provides extra stability for the jaw.

I installed a wooden jaw face over the moveable vise jaw. You lose about 1/2″ of jaw travel doing this, but I’d rather have wood on wood rather than metal on wood when clamping stock. Plus, at 10″ wide it gives a larger clamping surface. I get 3-1/4″ of clamping capacity with this Irvin vise. You can also install a layer of leather or cork on the jaw face for extra insurance against marring wood surfaces.

I also installed a Veritas inset vise on the right side of the top. This is an unobtrusive vise that has 4″ of travel, adequate for a 48″ long benchtop. To install the vise cut a wide, shallow channel as well as a deeper, narrower channel. The instructions are easy to follow. The vise, which sits perfectly flush with the top of the work­bench, has excellent holding power and the little toggle handle sits conveniently below the bench top. I first drilled out a fair bit of the waste, then routed it to final depth.

Before installing the front apron, I marked out and drilled the location of the holes for the front vise screw and guide bars. The front and back and aprons were then dowelled and glued to the worktop. You could also use lag screws. I also machined side aprons and attached them at the front of the bench but used expan­sion slots at the center and back to allow the solid wood bench to move with seasonal changes while the apron stays put. I attached the side aprons with lag screws. The top is secured to the front of the base so the front apron is flush with the front face of the legs. The top is fixed to the rails with lag bolts through 1″ × 1″ × 8″ long cleats with expansion slots. The rear portion of the side aprons are fixed to the top with lag bolts through expansion slots. The side aprons are glued to the leg-to-rail joint at the front to provide extra rigidity to the bench.

Add some dog holes

Drilling accurate holes in a benchtop can’t be done on a drill press (at least not on mine) and is awkward to do using a drill/driver. If the holes aren’t straight the bench dogs and hold-downs may bind. It’s also important that the vertical pair of holes (front to back) be in line to the front of the bench, otherwise you’ll have problems using a planing stop.

Fortunately, I had access to a Rockler portable drill guide. This is a nice piece of kit that enables you to drill precisely positioned holes on any surface. I drilled two rows of dog holes in the top, spaced 6″ apart. I also used the Rockler drill guide to drill holes on the front apron and right leg. If you work on narrow boards you may only need a single row of dog holes. And there’s nothing sacred about 6″ spacing; choose whatever suits you. I think spacing wider than 6″ would pose the odd problem using the inset vise, though.

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Add a storage cabinet or keep the bottom open

Because my work surface is so small, I wanted to use the space under the bench to store tools and accessories. Once filled to capac­ity the cabinet also adds additional stability to the workbench.

I considered an all-drawer arrangement but opted for a combi­nation of cabinet and drawers. There is ample room between the bottom of the benchtop and the top of the cabinet to accommodate bench dogs and hold-downs. There are no upper rails on the sides of the workbench and the side braces are low enough so that I can easily insert a vac hose on either side to clean out wood chips that fall through the dog holes.

The cabinet sits on the lower front and back rails, which provide sufficient support for a fully loaded cabinet. Stop blocks keep the cabinet from sliding off the rails.

I made my cabinet from 3/4″ prefinished birch plywood, apply­ing 3/16″ trim on all the exposed edges. Size your drawer heights for their intended use. I used 75-pound full extension drawer slides that are very easy to install. You only lose 1/2″ of drawer width on each side. On the 14″ slides about 12-1/2″ of drawer depth is exposed.

Apply a finish…or don’t

You don’t have to apply a finish to your workbench, but if you do I recommend an oil-varnish blend. Any brand will do or make your own (“Shop Made Finishes,” Feb/Mar 2014). A film finish is likely to be more slippery unless it’s heavily thinned and is more likely to crack over time. It also takes more work to maintain. My prefer­ence is OSMO Polyx hardwax oil as it makes dried glue easier to scrape off, provides some stain resistance and is easy to maintain; just apply another coat when the top looks grungy.

Carl Duguay - [email protected]

Carl is a Victoria-based furniture maker and the web editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.


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