Before you build your workbench, there are a few decisions you need to make about the top, including:
- Material to use
- How to attach it
- How you plan to protect it
Who knew there were so many choices? And there are just as many strongly held opinions about it.
Discover what you need to know before you build.
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It’s all about my workbench build.
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More details are also available below this video in the Highlights section.
Following are the main points covered in the video.
Best Workbench Top Material
The best way to determine the type of material you want for your workbench top really comes down to how you plan to use the bench.
- use it mainly as an assembly table?
- be pounding on it to join things?
- do a lot of painting or staining?
- be doing glue ups?
Following are a few material choices.
I used a 3/4” finished oak plywood sheet for my workbench top, as it is mainly an assembly table for me.
But the things I’ll have on it are a little heavy.
I need a smooth surface and didn’t want to do a lot of sanding.
And I need it sturdy enough not to buckle with heavier pieces.
It’s a little pricey, but saved me a lot of time, and that’s money too.
This is likely the most expensive type of top in both material and time.
You’ll need to glue up hardwood strips like a butcher block.
But this will take any type of pounding you can do on it!!
MDF is cheap for a reason.
It’s a good plywood alternative for when you need a solid, slick piece to build a box or such.
But it really does not stand up well to the kind of heavy use a bench top gets.
Plus, you HAVE to seal it as it is super prone to absorbing moisture and will warp.
Be sure you seal it on both sides!!!!!
Otherwise the unsealed side will absorb moisture and move while the sealed side doesn’t and that gets ugly, fast.
Protecting the Bench Top
Some woodworkers expect their workbench top to get messy and don’t care.
And they choose cheaper material for the top that they plan to change out regularly.
But, there are ways to put a thin layer of protection over thick plywood to get a little more life out of your top.
Masonite sheets come in 1/8” and 1/4” thicknesses and give you a super slick surface instantly.
Thin, finished plywood is another good option. You can have a thicker, non-sanded top, and then purchase a sanded, or finished plywood sheet that is thinner. It can be cheaper that way.
Laminate sheets, such as those used for flooring, are a good option, especially if you will be painting and/or staining on your workbench. It’s super easy to clean. However, it may not be so easy to apply flat in such a way that you can easily change it out later.
Oil and wax is the way I sealed my workbench top. It only takes a couple of applications of oil to seal the wood. And then a thin coat of paste wax seals that in and makes the top a little slicker. And no, the oil and wax do not get on any of your work pieces.
NOTE: If you use this method, be sure to read up on properly handling the rags you use to apply the oil!!! Wadded up rags left to dry can spontaneously combust. Lay them out flat to dry.
If you do glue ups then you may want to consider taking addition measures, depending on your top material and any other protection you have on it.
You can’t have the glue overflow sticking to your bench. And you don’t want glue dribbles sticking to it either.
If you have an unprotected surface, such as just plain plywood, or MDF, have fun trying to get that glue off!
Attaching the Top
Cleats as wood blocks – these require a little more skill, as you’ll need to router out a wide slot in the frame rails for the tongue of the cleat to ride in. The wood block part attaches to the top with a single screw.
Cleats as angle brackets – these are easier to attach than the wood blocks, but still require a router to make a thin groove in the frame rails for the thin metal tongue of the cleat to ride in. The nice thing is, you can probably cut that groove with a couple of passes on even a mini/handheld router.
Figure 8 brackets – these have been around a while and are very popular for assembling desktops. Installation is almost as easy as countersinking a screw, but you will need a chisel to square to hole.
Pocket holes – these are very popular among new DIYers. And while they do allow you to change out your bench top easily, they don’t allow for as much wood movement. You will want to drill the pocket holes in the rails prior to assembling the frame.
Brad nails – this is the easiest, but least desirable way to attach the top. They allow for no wood movement and they make changing tops a bear!
Countersink screws – again, one of the least desirable ways to attach the top. Since there will be more of these than pocket hole screws, they allow for less wood movement. And, you HAVE to countersink them so your workpieces don’t get scratched as you move them around your top. All manner of sawdust, glue, and other stuff gets gunked up in the screw head. Of course, you can do wood filler, but then that makes it a pain to replace the top.
How Will You Do Your Workbench Top?
Many first-time bench builders will take the cheap and easy way with this.
But, for your second bench, maybe you want to use a better method and stronger material.
What have you done with your workbench top, and how long has it lasted?