How to Make an All-Purpose Work Bench

by A Manly Guest Contributor on April 4, 2012 · 128 comments

in Manly Skills, Projects

Editors note: This is a guest post by Ethan Hagan from One Project Closer.

A Quick Intro

In the video, I share that you’re about to learn how to make “the only workbench you’ll ever need.” That’s a bit of an overstatement, especially for woodworking enthusiasts who will need features like an integrated vice and bench dogs. If that’s you, I’ll bet you already have an exceptional workbench. For the rest of us, what we need is a solid, versatile work-surface for assembling a bird feeder one day and re-sharpening a mower blade the next.

Maybe you don’t think a workbench is really all that important. After all, you’ve only got a few tools and everyone knows the folding table in the basement is your space. A dedicated workbench isn’t worthwhile, is it? I’ve seen too many guys stashing their tools in a kitchen drawer or expecting their kids to not touch the freshly painted picture frame. You need a proper place to work and store your tools, and I’m going to show you how to build it.

How to Build an All-Purpose Workbench

Your workbench is going to have some key features like a strong, rigid work surface, power for your corded tools or chargers, a shelf to store tools and accessories, and wheels so that you can move about. The materials are going to run about $120 (cheap ≠ quality) and you should secure a drill/driver, miter* saw or circular saw*, and jig saw* before getting started.
*You can substitute a handsaw if you’re up to the challenge.

Materials:

Head over to the local home improvement center with this shopping list:

  • (1) sheet of 3/4″ sanded plywood
  • (1) sheet of  3/8″ plywood
  • (9) 2—4×8′s
  • (8) Simpson rigid tie connectors (see below)
  • (200 count) #8 x 1-1/4″ screws
  • (4 count) 3″ screws
  • (1) tube of heavy-duty construction adhesive
  • (4) 2-1/2″ locking casters
  • Mountable power strip

I’ve listed nominal plywood thicknesses, however the store will display actual thicknesses. For instance 3/4″ plywood is actually 23/32″ and 3/8″ plywood is actually 11/32″ thick. Sanded plywood will give you a nice, splinter-free surface, and, at 3/4″ thick, it’ll absorb a lot of deflection.

Have the store rip both sheets of plywood in half (resulting in 2 x 8' pieces) to save some work.

Straight boards make for a straight workbench, so look down the length for any cupping (side-to-side curve) or crowning (up-down curve), and put those boards back.

The Simpson ties are awesome because they form the corners of your workbench and shelf. Without these, you'd need a lot of angled braces.

The #8 screws are usually sold right next to the Simpson ties because they're designed for each other.

Down to Size

Since the home improvement center ripped the plywood for you, all you need to do is cut the 2×4′s down to size. Use a square to mark straight lines. Here are the lengths:

  • (5) 90″ for the lengthwise supports
  • (4) 17″ for the width-wise supports
  • (4) 36″ for the legs
  • (2) 24″ for the caster supports

Let me save you some confusion and tell you that the plywood is going to overhang one side by 3″. This is on purpose because that overhang will protect the power strip that we’ll mount to the side.

Some Assembly Required

To put this beast together, start with the sides. Grab a leg and width-wise support and slip a Simpson tie in place. Use pieces of scrap to make sure all the heights line up, and be sure to orient the legs the same way we show in the pictures.

Remember, you need two Simpson ties per leg (one for the work surface and one for the shelf), and corresponding ties should sit at the same height. Put screws in all of the pre-drilled holes, keeping each piece firmly against the adjacent pieces.

Now it's time for the length-wise supports. There are five of these because we'll use the extra to reinforce the work surface.

Run the extra support centered between the other two, and secure it through each end with two 3" screws.

Before you put on the 3/4" plywood top, run a bead of construction adhesive on all the supports. Put screws every 16" or so. Once you're finished, flip the table upside-down.

Next, grab one of your 3/8" plywood pieces and cut 2x4 notches in all the corners to account for the table legs. I used a jigsaw but a handsaw would work just fine. Do the same for the remaining piece of 3/4" plywood.

This piece of plywood is going to be fastened to the underside of your work surface. It may seem odd, but this "torsion box" design will further improve the rigidity of your work surface. Glue and screw just like with the 3/4" plywood.

While it's upside-down, screw those caster supports between the table legs and then fasten the casters in place. These supports are important because otherwise the caster is only sitting on end-grain which makes for a weak joint.

Flip the bench right-side-up and put on the 3/4" plywood (glue and screw) for the shelf. Lastly, mount that power strip underneath the overhang. This'll help prevent sawdust, paint, oil, etc. from damaging the strip.

Gloat

Step back and marvel at your creation because you have just finished building a hardcore workbench. Go ahead and feel the solid work surface that won’t bounce when you’re hammering something together. Unlock the casters and move your workbench around the room. Set up a battery charger on the conveniently mounted power strip. Best of all, call up your friends and brag.

_____________________________________

Ethan Hagan is the primary editor at One Project Closer. He spends most of his days shadowing real contractors on actual job sites and most of his nights writing about the experience. To see what I mean, check out their latest “Pro-Follows” or finished, expert guides on things like How to Build A Shed and How to Build a Deck. If learning and interacting with pro contractors sounds like something you’d enjoy, sign up for OPC email updates.

{ 128 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Thomas October 14, 2013 at 9:20 pm

Just finished this as my first real carpentry project, ever, in my new workspace in my first home, turned out wonderfully, looks great. I left off the wheels, since it’s not going to go anywhere and the floor is a little slanted – also, I totally forgot to install the support 2×4 before attaching the underside plywood – too late now, but it seems plenty stable.

Thanks!

102 Bob October 26, 2013 at 8:36 pm

Great info. well done really nice, Thank you. If you have a moment , question #1. is there a math relationship between the amount of weight a work bench holds and the height, width and thickness of the type of wood you are using for the legs, question #2. is there a math relationship between the length and width of a work bench table top and the size of the legs and question #3. with an increasing length and width , using only four legs how do you calculate the amount of weight the center of the table top of the work bench can hold, and how do make it stronger, assuming only four legs Thank you for your time I am struggling with these questions .

103 Nate October 27, 2013 at 3:40 pm

Hi Bob,
I’m not an excellent handyman but I do structural engineering work on boats and ships. The answer to all of your questions is Yes, but would take a lot of time to answer in detail. You would be surprised by the amount of weight a vertical 2×4 can support provided the ends are stabilized well by the table top and the lower shelf. If you want to increase the weight capacity of your table without adding legs, double up the corner posts (screw two pieces of lumber together). If adding width to the table top (long dimension), using deeper horizontal members to support the table top (2×8 instead of 2×6 or 2×4 for example) will give you the best bang for the buck to increase stiffness & strength.
You can do some simple tests to gauge the ability of the table top support beams to carry weight by laying the boards out on the floor with supports underneath at the desired span. That sort of test will be conservative, because the assembled table will have increased stiffness due to the simpson ties adding rigidity (fixity) at the corners. Hope that helps,
Nate

104 bill November 1, 2013 at 11:56 am

Hi Bob,
Question, I notice that one piece of ply wood is hanging over by 3 inches. Do the other 3 pieces of ply wood need to be cut off by 3 inches?

105 Mark November 2, 2013 at 10:22 am

Just built this, excellent plans used them exactly and no issues. You do go through a lot of screws so make sure you buy the 200. I bought a pack of 140 and burned right through them. Also I did not put on casters only in an effort to save some $$. They were running about 6 bucks per wheel at Lowes so it saved me 30 plus bucks. I priced out the entire project and came to $160.52 for the supplies. For the money the table is FANTASTIC.

106 Go November 8, 2013 at 5:39 pm

Did I calculate correctly? I figured you need eight (not nine) 2″x4″x8′s : five for the 90″ length-wise supports; two for the 4-36″ legs and the 2-24″ caster supports; and one for the 4-17″ width-wise supports. Also while not mentioned, should the second 2′x8′x3/8″ sheet be used to form a tension box with the 2′x4′x3/4″ shelf?

107 Sam November 11, 2013 at 12:37 pm

Thanks for the great bench idea! It was an incredibly satisfying project. In a desire to use up the leftover 3/8″ ply and have a half shelf, I got carried away and decided that what this bench really needed was some drawers in the middle. So I added 3 1′ wide drawers and used that as the end support for a shelf. I needed some extra 2x4s and some 1x10s, but was able to use most of the 3/8″ ply for my half shelf and the drawer bottoms. Makes it much more versatile piece.

Go: I got away with only using 8 2x4s, but only because I was willing to have the caster supports be a little bit short. You lose some material (~1/8″) with every cut because of the blade’s kerf, so you need to take that into account when planning your cuts.

108 Eric November 13, 2013 at 12:01 pm

How are the width pieces 17″??

109 Mike November 17, 2013 at 1:33 am

Bill,
The extra 3″ of overhang is to protect the cords that you would connect to the power strip pictured above.

Go,
I believe the intention is to use the second piece of 3/8″ plywood to form the second torsion box on the bottom shelf. It’s not a great shot, but this is what’s pictured in the image of the casters being attached.

110 Jamie December 21, 2013 at 4:43 pm

I am looking to build this soon, but what is the height of it at the end of project? I have a bad back and don’t want to be bending over it (the bench). I plan to mount my chop saw to it and having it at a comfortable height is a must.

111 Drew December 24, 2013 at 2:54 pm

I just finished making this, one suggestion is to leave the plywood top off the bottom shelving. This ends up giving you a bit of a pocket shelf.

Loved the plans though, really fantastic.

112 Marc January 1, 2014 at 9:22 pm

Built my bench last week and continue to count my blessings that you saw fit to post these plans and instructions. Had been looking at various Big box store workbenches and found them to be too expensive for the size and capacity I was looking for. Came across these plans and within 5 hours I had the bench built. Parts were well described and easy to find (confirmed availability of parts at homedepot.com first). I thought perhaps the leftover 2′x8′ plywood piece was supposed to have been used to complete a torsion box on the shelf but ultimately used it to create a backsplash on the table.

Will use many of the same concepts to build shelving next. Thank you!

113 jesse January 4, 2014 at 7:20 pm

How do you get a 3″ overhang on the top if the plywood is all equal width?

114 Thomas G. January 8, 2014 at 4:01 am

This was easier to build than I had expected. My friend and I put it together in about an hour and a half. Great post and please keep more building projects on here. I’d like to see a desk in the future!

115 Rob January 17, 2014 at 8:43 pm

So, the width pieces can’t be 17″; if you join them based on the instructions the overall width will be 25″ -> 17″+4″+4″ = 25″; you’re joining the 17″ piece to two 2 by 4′s… So, wouldn’t you need the width pieces to be 16″ so you end up with an overall 24″ width. that way when home depot cuts your 4×8 sheet of plywood in half length wise you won’t be an inch short? Anyone confirm?

116 Scott W. Vincent January 18, 2014 at 11:55 am

I’m looking for ideas later this year when I build my own workshop, and this is going to be at the top of my to-do list. I really like the design and it looks like something I can handle. Can’t wait to build one of my own.

117 Shane January 21, 2014 at 7:28 am

I buiilt this.. really easy and all instructions were clear.

Cost $190. Also might need 300 screws or at least 250. The only step missing was to cut off the overhang on the 3 pieces that do have it. I think the length of the bench minus the over hang was 93 and 1/4 inches.

118 Steve January 21, 2014 at 9:25 am

Am building this right now.

1. Make sure your cuts, especially for the 2×4 legs and cross pieces are all correct both in length and the cross cut. Use a guide if freehanding the cut or a miter saw if not. The Simpson ties have some play but not too much.

2. If you’re going to have Lowes or Home Depot rip the 4×8′ in half, make doubly sure on their measurements. Mine ended up being off by about 1/4″ thus one board was too narrow and one was too wide.

3. You will need to make the three pieces of plywood for the shelves and under the top 93 1/4″ at the center to not have it overhang the ends.

4. Before securing the 90″ horizontal supports to the ends, use your level to ensure the ends are vertical. Really easy to have them be slanted in when you screw in the 90″ horizontal supports.

5. You will definitely need a 2nd pair of hands (and maybe three) to secure the 5th 90″ to the top that goes under the top piece of plywood. We tried turning the whole thing upside down and just placing it on the floor, but it then didn’t end up exactly flush to the other 90″ top rails that will support the 3/4″ top.

6. Buy good screws for the 5th 90″. We bent three cheap Lowes wood screws when screwing them in, even though I had predrilled pilot holes. Ended up using some left over 3″ deck screws with the star bit. Worked great.

7. Buy countersinking (or countersink other) screws for the top and top of the shelf (in my opinion). The Simpson screws sit too high and won’t ensure a flat work/shelf surface.

119 Steve January 21, 2014 at 9:56 am

@Rob

2x4s are 3.5″ actual width so it’s 17″+3.5″+3.5″ = 24 or 1/2 the width of a 4×8 sheet of plywood. I am building this right now. The 17″ width for the cross pieces for the outer supports is correct.

120 Chayne January 21, 2014 at 3:33 pm

**IF I’m understanding the designs correctly**
@Jesse: the 3″ overhang is on the length, not the width. The width is all 24″, which matches the width supports (see comment to Rob below). However, the length supports are cut to 90″. Add this to the thickness of the width supports on the ends (1.5″ + 1.5″ + 90″ = 93″) (again, see comment to Rob below). The 3/4″ sheet should be 24″ x 96″ or 2′ x 8′. And there’s your 3″ overhang, which cover the power strip when mounted as illustrated in the pictures above.

@Rob: 2×4′s aren’t exactly 2″ x 4″.
That’s the nominal (or “in name only”) dimension being referenced. They are actually 1.5″ x 3.5″, giving you 3.5″ + 3.5″ + 17″ = 24″ when constructed according to the pictures. The 2″ x 4″ is referencing the actual dimension of the lumber immediately after being roughly sawn at the mill. The process of drying and planing (which results in the final, nicer, usable product you see at Lowe’s and Home Depot) reduces the actual dimensions to 1.5″ x 3.5″.

@Shane: which 3 pieces have overhang? I’m looking to build this in a week or two and would like to know which pieces I can expect overhang on

121 Chayne January 21, 2014 at 5:50 pm

Dang, Steve! Beat me to it! Haha

Actually I have a question for anyone who can answer:

In trying to save space and have as much multi-purpose to the things in my garage as possible, I was considering screwing pegboard to one of the long sides. This would function as a backstop for the bottom shelf and would also serve as pegboard for larger items and extension cords. Judging by the measurements given (36″ legs minus 7″ for the foot part = 29″) I could do 28″-30″ out of a full sheet of pegboard and fasten it to the legs and shelf/table supports. The question is: would you guys think it should have some sort of support in the center? Maybe before putting the plywood down, I could stick a 2×4 in between the length-wise supports. I’d have to cut an additional notch in the 3/8 for the bottom of the table and the 3/4 for the shelf and get some 5″+ screws to hold the 2×4 in place, but would that be enough? Thoughts?

Also, for anyone who HAS built this, what is the exact height of the tabletop (meaning just how much does the 2 1/2″ casters ACTUALLY add to the height)? I’ll be needing to make the legs a bit shorter but I’d like to try and figure out just how much shorter. My goal table height is 35 1/5 with wheels.

Thanks in advance!

122 Steve January 21, 2014 at 6:57 pm

The 2 1/2″ casters, as sold by both Home Depot and Lowes here in CO, are actually 3″ between the holes of the base (I checked all of them in the bins). Thus, they don’t work if you’re using a 2×4 as the cross piece on the bottom as pictured. If you put the caster base one way, it doesn’t fit at all as the 2x4s are 3″ deep, and if you rotate the caster base 90 degrees, three of the four holes hit wood but the inside hole in the upper left doesn’t. So I returned the 2 1/2″ casters and bought ones that have 2″ between the holes. (They didn’t have any that had 2 1/2″ between the holes). Maybe it’s my HD and Lowes, but here in CO, the ’2 1/2″‘ casters are 3″ between the base’s holes.

123 Steve January 21, 2014 at 7:03 pm

@Chayne

I don’t yet have the casters installed. From the floor to the top is 36 3/4″ and the casters are 2 1/2″ high, so call it 39 1/4″ tall once it’s done. But, the casters I bought are marketed as 2″ casters. The distance between the holes is 2″ but the height is 2 1/2″.

124 Steve January 21, 2014 at 7:13 pm

Adding onto to my earlier comment about the fifth 90″ that goes in the center of the top rails. While it’s a pain to try and hold and screw at the same time, like I said before, I used leftover deck screws that I already had. Worked fine. But if I didn’t, a Sampson 2×4 butt end joist hanger (like the LUS24Z) should work fine to hold it solidly in place, and provide additional places to secure it besides the 2 3″ screws per side that the instructions call for.

125 Chayne January 22, 2014 at 8:23 am

Thanks Steve!!

Derp… So just add 3 1/4″ (3/4″ plywood + 2 1/2″ actual height of 2″ casters) to the 36″ legs. Makes sense. Correcting my post from last night, I need a table height of 35 1/2″ (not 1/5… typo). So by subtracting 3 1/4″ from that, I need legs that measure 32 1/4″ instead of 36″.

And as to my additional support to add pegboard to one of the long sides, I think I can make a stud plate work to attach an additional 2×4 support between the shelves (SP1Z). And with the shorter legs, I can have the pegboard ripped to 24″ which will give me more leftover for later projects.

Speaking of which, I’m already drawing up designs for miter saw and table saw benchs. I’m thinking on the table saw, I’ll need to cut a hole through the torsion box for sawdust and then I can build a dust collection bin that will likely take up most of the bottom shelf. It’ll be a while before I build that one, but I’ll definately post pics when its all done!

126 Shane February 20, 2014 at 10:12 am

This tutorial was really great! I had no problems following the instructions and it turned out really nice. I made a few mods though.

1. I used the 3/4″ plywood for the surface of both the top and the shelve and I used the 3/8″ plywood to cover the bottom of both as well.

2. I added a 2x4x8 for support on the shelve, just like the top has.

3. I centered the top piece of plywood. Not because I think it’s better, but because I just forgot to offset it all to one side. So it’s 1.5″ overhang on both sides.

4. I didn’t mount a powerstrip. I plan on mounting one later, but I skipped it for now.

Overall, I liked building this workbench so much that I think I’ll make two more! But shorter. Maybe a 4′ and a 6′ so that I can rearrange them in my garage as needed.

127 Sam April 5, 2014 at 11:24 am

I might leave the adhesive off of the table top to ease replacement of the top years down the road.

128 Aaron April 5, 2014 at 3:45 pm

Ever since I saw this article months ago, I have been itching to make it. Previously I did not have a garage or a workspace, so I had no reason to build it, though. I just recently moved to Oklahoma and now have a home with a garage, so I set out this week to get this project done.

Because I don’t own any powertools (yet) I used a handsaw. For me the project was less about getting it done quickly and more about enjoying the process.

I messed up when trying to add the 3/8′ plywood shelf on the bottom because I did not cut the extra 3 inches off (since the shelf didn’t have that overhang).

I ended up putting the 3/8′ plywood down there for the shelf and adding a 2x4x8 for support lengthwise under it.

Either way, the bench is solid and I am more than pleased with it.

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