I'm so happy! At last, my 15-year-old workbench is now full height with a new, flat, hard maple top, the best surface I've ever had to play on. I'm going to wait for spring when I can throw open the windows before finishing the top.
Aha! An upgraded workbench
When I first made the bench so many years ago, I made a couple design decisions dictated by my circumstances at the time. First, I made the table low, only 24¼″ high, so I could use it with portable tools (like my table saw and band saw) and also sit at it when working on lamps. This configuration has really served me well, but has meant some pretty sore backs when I'm doing things like sanding.
Now that all my portable tools have their own stands, I don't need a low table anymore. In fact, because I want to start working more with hand tools, I actually need a higher table now, and will just get a high stool for when I want to work sitting down. Fortunately, I made the original table with feet that extend outward 3″ with the thought that I could make a height extension that I could just bolt onto the existing feet (I even predrilled 3/8″ holes for the bolts). And that's what I've done, adding an additional 10″.
Second, I couldn't afford to make a solid hardwood table at the time, so I compromised by making a 3″ thick layered top: three layers of furniture-grade particle board with a layer of plywood on top and edges of maple. The combination of the particle board and maple edges gave me a fairly stable, solid, square table, and the flawless plywood top was beautiful.
The workbench has served me well, but in retrospect, choosing a plywood top wasn't such a good decision. When I sanded it a few times, I didn't do a very good job of compensating for the different grain densities of the plywood, so I ended up with some subtle waves in the top. In addition, over the years the top settled nearly 1/8″ in the center, and I just didn't know how to flatten it.
I wanted to add a fresh layer of maple to the top of the table (as well as to add fresh maple edges), but the challenge I faced was to first get the existing top reasonably flat so I would only have to do minimal work on the new maple top to get it truly flat.
Finally I decided to get some accurate straight edges so I could get a good reading on the high points, and to then use my belt sander to flatten it.
I found some very nice longer straight edges at a flooring tool supplier. They are Crain Professional Straight Edges⩘ , which are made from 3″ wide spring steel and are accurate to +/-.003. My table is 66″ × 27″, so I got a 6' and a 4' edge. They're only 1/8″ thick, but they are quite heavy!
Next I got the sanding frame accessory for my belt sander (Bosch 1276DVS) so I could more easily control it, and so that it would behave a bit like a jointer plane, allowing me to bear down on the high spots and ride over the low spots (the frame is quite big: 16″ × 9″).
And it worked! I used a 100-grit belt and set the frame so that the sander was only removing a little material. I used the two straight edges to find the high spots (the pivot points for the straight edges) and marked them with pencil scribbles. I slowly sanded away the scribbles, then tested and marked it up again. It took a couple dozen repeats of this process over a period of a couple hours to get the top to an acceptable state of flatness. I felt such a sense of relief that this flattening method worked, after having thought about and prepared for it for several weeks!
Then I was able to get the fresh maple boards to fit together so well on the flattened top by using my new jointer plane. Woo-hoo!
I glued up the new top using a combination of Titebond Original Wood Glue and gap filling glue, both of which I applied using a foam roller for even coverage. I created some special jigs that hooked onto the underside of one side of the table and then used a combination of clamping and spreading pressure to seat the boards tightly.
The maple edge of the table is now 1½″ thick on all sides, made up of two ¾″ thick pieces of maple (original and new) glued together with a ¾″ × ¼″ strip glued into grooves I routed into the middle of each piece to create a stronger bond between the edges. In the following photo you can see one of the edge grooves.
The new top measures 28½″ wide × 67½″ long × 3¾″thick, and is sitting atop a very sturdy base that elevates the top surface 35″ above the floor, which is a nice height for me (I'm just over 6').
End edge detail. I love this natural mark!
I also fitted the Record vice with a new maple jaw liner. The jaw liner is 12″ wide by 1½+″ thick, and is cut out to fit around the ½″ vice jaw plate, so it's at least 1+″ thick at the thinnest. It is 4½″ deep, so it extends ¾″ below the table edge to allow for a special feature shown in the next photo.
Detail of the jaw liner showing the special feature I added: a ledge over (but not touching) the vice's spindles and screw, which I designed to hold one end of a long board that I'm clamping horizontally along the table edge (for example, for edge planing), while still maintaining the vice's capability to clamp boards vertically on either side of the spindles.
Detail of the vice with a simple maple jig I made to hold a Bench Dog. The jig fits snugly over the jaw liner ledge. The Bench Dog is aligned to work together with a Wonder Dog that I can insert into a hole on the other side of the table. Eventually I'll add a few more dog holes to the top to use for holding work in various positions, but I want to proceed very slowly with drilling holes into the new top!
A surface like a workbench top is an invitation to creativity. When I look at my workbench, beyond seeing the bench itself, I see possibility. In my mind's eye I imagine the objects that will emerge from it and the capability it gives me. It helps enable me to be a maker.
Okay, now that I've captured a nice set of photos of the new workbench top in pristine condition, I can start beating it up … um, I mean adding character to it as I use it to work on other projects!
Here's one more from a few months later after I added bench dog holes and then oiled the top.