How To Build a Smaller-Sized Workbench

Dear James: I need a good strong workbench to use for a remodeling project. I am not tall, and all the kits at the home centers are either too tall for me or flimsy. What are some tips for building my own? — Carolyn D.

Dear Carolyn: Your problem is not unique. Most ready-to-assemble workbenches are sized for a typical man’s height and long arms. This is neither comfortable nor safe to use for a typical woman. One time, I placed some bricks in front of a workbench to stand on, but it was not stable enough.

Keep in mind, if you feel awkward working at a tall workbench, there is a greater likelihood of your whacking your finger with a hammer or cutting it with a saw — ouch! Also, the more substantially built your workbench is, the easier and more precise your projects will be.

Even if the overly large size were not a problem, it is still a good idea to make your own workbench. It will definitely not be flimsy, like some of the kits you saw, and you can design it with the specific features you want.

Plan on spending over $100 to build a good workbench. This may sound like a lot, but it will last a lifetime. The money you save with many do-it-yourself home repair and improvement projects will pay back the material costs many times over.

I recommend building a workbench with a good quality hardwood top and finished edge over a plywood base. Standard 3/4-inch, tongue-and-groove oak hardwood flooring works great. This not only looks good (unfortunately it won’t stay that way for long), but it holds up well to hammering, vibrations from sawing and torque from bending pipe.

No matter how experienced you are, you will still occasionally miss a nail head and pound the top with a hammer. Hardwood will dent slightly, but not at all like standard plywood or, even worse, just pine lumber. Finish the top with several coats of urethane. This looks great and resists oils and other common chemicals.

Many workbenches are typically 35 inches high, about 28 inches deep and 4 to 5 feet long. With your smaller stature, size yours to be about 31 inches high, 26 inches deep and five to six feet long if you have the space in your garage. A longer workbench is more stable when you have a long heavy item in the vise on one end.

My favorite workbench design uses two horizontal frames (made from 2×6’s) attached to strong vertical legs. The lower frame supports the lower shelf, and the upper frame supports the top work area. For a professional look, notch the corners of the lower shelf plywood for the vertical legs, so that it is flush with the edges of the frame.

If you want to build it right, use 4×4 legs, not just 2×4’s. Use treated lumber for the legs if your garage floor is damp or you spray it out regularly with a hose and cleaners. Cut the legs square on both ends and 1.5 inch shorter than the finished top height (the top is 1.5 inch thick).

Size the horizontal frames to allow for a 10-inch top overhang on each end and a 3-inch overhang in the front. Ten inches is adequate to mount your vice and other devices. The vertical legs are mounted inside the frame corners with three-inch-long screws, or better yet, one-quarter-inch lag bolts. Screw the top plywood base to the upper frame. Nail the hardwood flooring to the plywood.

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