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Working off of my sketches and existing examples of trusted, work bench construction methods, I come up with a plan and begin adding up the numbers. This is generally how I approach a new design, from the sketch I mock up some shapes and sizes using off cuts and batons around my shop to see if in the ‘real world’ things still look like they do on paper. I settle on the overall size and start down my cut list taking into account the joinery.

The top work surface is where I begin and the two panels of 1″ thick, quarter-sawn white Oak are cross cut to length leaving about 1/4″ extra for love. The oak used is offcuts from a past project and has been in my shop for over 7 months now, so I know it’s extremely stable and will make a great work surface and apron. When I originally purchased the wood it was dimensioned before it left the mill so I can surface it all pretty quickly. From jointing plane to smoother I’ll get the top glued up before I even begin thinking about the apron.
This being a work shop project I’m really trying to keep the budget at a minimum so the bench top and apron are made from off cuts as mentioned with the lower frame made from Ipe. It’s an extremely dense exotic I noticed at my local hardware store. They sell it these days as a high-end decking material. This particular stock was already finished at 1 1/2″ square and came in 12′ lengths. At $15.00 a length I couldn’t go wrong. It does come with its edges all beveled but this being a work bench I can live with it. I’d prefer to have square stock to begin but I can deal with the ‘off the shelf’ lumber for the sake of the budget. Now 1 1/2″ stock may sound a little undersized for a workbench frame but keep in mind the scale of the piece and the fact that this Ipe is like iron!

Jointing the Edge

With the oak cross cut to length I’ll go ahead and joint it. To begin, I clearly mark the planks for grain direction and lay them on my bench top, reference faces up. I decide what two edges I’ll be jointing together. I mark the orientation of them with a builders triangle on the face surface and ‘fold’ them back together keeping the inside edges up. This book matched pair will be clamped together in my face vise and jointed simultaneously. I use a bevel-up jointing plane with a nice wide iron at 2 1/4″ and work the edges together. I’ll take a series of through shavings checking for square as I go. I finish off the process with a couple of stop shavings to insure no bumps along the edges. Again I check my work with a reliable straight edge and finally, a light pass again planing through, end to end. The nice thing about edge jointing two boards together like this is if you’re edges are slightly out of square it really doesn’t matter; because of the book matching we did when we clamped them, once unfolded any inconsistencies will cancel each other out. That said, while you’re planing, try your best to keep things square! (maybe this is one of those rare occasions you can get in some practice time while actually working on a project and not just something from the scrap wood pile?)

The Glue Dance

With the edges jointed I’ll glue up the panels and set them aside for the night. Here’s my method for gluing two panels together.
To begin, I set my clamp opening to an 1″ wider than the actual piece and lay them down across my bench top. These pieces are just under 3′ long so I’ll be using 5 clamps, three will go on the bottom and two more across the top.Lay the two planks across the three bottom clamps and a quick dry run will show how things should hopefully go. These two are sitting really nicely together and the joint almost closes itself! It’s a good day when that happens…
Because of the stopped shavings I took earlier, when gentle pressure is applied using only the middle clamp, I’m confident the outside edges of the joint will be tight.
So a generous amount of glue is spread and I begin again at the middle clamp bringing the pieces together. I use down ward thumb pressure across the joint to keep the seam flat and won’t over tighten this first clamp yet- I’ll come back to it in a minute. With the middle of the stock held firmly together, I’ll use a couple of ‘F’ style clamps placed on the outside edges and draw the seam down flush along its length. Then working out from the center again I start tightening things up. I stagger the pressure as I go, from left to right and then left outside and finally the right outside clamp. With the five clamps secure I’ll move back across and re tighten them all down to finish. Take a step back and have a look- double check your grain is running in the proper direction and your building triangle is mated happily back together. This will be your last chance to change anything!
Go make a coffee and check your email, come back in an hour and begin cleaning up the glue. I’ll work between the clamps and remove any squeeze out after it has started to cure but before it’s too hard to easily scrap away. This is also when I’ll usually remove the two outside ‘F’ clamps; if I leave them on overnight I’ll have some deep bruises to deal with tomorrow.

“Top of the morning to ya!” The glue set up overnight so I remove the clamps and get ready to work. A card scraper down the seam removes any final bits of glue- I’m careful not to tear away any wood with it. I’m happy with the results- this oak is stable and sits well on my bench top-another good sign! I’ll double check with my winding sticks and a metal straight edge taking note of any high spots or twist across the surface.

A few light passes with the jointer followed with a smoothing plane and I’ll double check one edge for square. I now have a reference face and edge and can continue on with dimensioning the panel. I’ll use my panel gauge and scribe the finished width around the perimeter; because this was pre-dimensioned wood and I took my time with the glue-up, I’m happy to say the piece is almost square with just a few light passes along one end. With that, I now have a panel with two long edges, completely parallel and square with one finished face.

I’ll check the thickness throughout the panel to see if it needs any dressing and working from the bottom, I’ll plane the stock to final thickness. Not much to remove so this process is pretty straight forward. Four sided stock with two ends that still need to be addressed- that’s where I’ll go from here.

Planing End Grain

I get asked alot how I deal with the long end grain on panels. I think some woodworkers are intimidated when it comes to this area so I’ll show you the steps I use.
So first things first I’ll scribe a deep, crisp line around the perimeter with a knife working off a reliable framing square. The amount of wood I’m removing is very minimal, no more than 1/8″. Again, the time I took to carefully glue up the panel makes these later steps so much easier.

With my line scribed I’ll place the panel vertically in my face vise and block up the bottom off of the shop floor. From there I’ll clamp the left side of the panel in the vise and hold the right side with a surface clamp installed in one of the 3/4″ holes I have across my work bench apron. My bench didn’t come like this but it’s a feature I could never live without. Before I fully tighten the vise and clamp I like to place a small level across the top of the piece.

Also, because we’re dealing with end grain and I don’t want to blow out the face grain on the far edge of the panel,(spelching) I’ll clamp a piece of scrap wood, thicknessed the same as the work piece and tighten everything down to get started.

I’m using my bevel-up jointer again, set to take a fine shaving and carefully work my way down. I’m taking light passes, always watching for those first shiny edges starting to appear. It’s hard to put into words but you’ll know it when you get there. Being careful not to over-shoot, I work my way down so I can see my scribe line still wrapping the entire perimeter. With that tiny strip left glistening, I know the edge is square. (but I’ll still double check it!) Now I can safetly measure up off of this edge and follow the same procedure for the sixth and final side.

So there you have it- a work bench surface, square on all six sides. It may seem like a lot of steps but the above process probably didn’t take much longer than it just took me to write this post. I’m ready to begin the bread board ends and assemble my pieces for the apron. That will be next time.