Shop Starters

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This article is from Issue 43 of Woodcraft Magazine.

3 simple building blocks to jump-start your shop.

We all know that the key to efficient, enjoyable woodworking is a well-appointed and well-organized workshop. But the detail that's often overlooked is how frustrating it is to build a shop without a workshop to start with. So what’s a shop-challenged woodworker to do? Well, consider this trio of projects designed to help you build your shop from scratch. The stacking stools get you off the floor, the torsion boxes double as a work surface and assembly table, and the base cabinet offers needed storage. While you can use these projects separately, they all work best as a set.

These projects were designed for the beginner and can be easily built with a basic collection of benchtop and portable power tools. And when built in the order shown, each project will help you construct the next. The cost for lumber and hardware won’t break the bank either; you can build the set above from birch plywood for less than $300. It shouldn't take you more than a day or two to complete all three.

Overall dimensions: 131⁄2"w × 25"d × 217⁄8"h

Think of these simple boxes as the first building blocks of a working shop. Like a sturdy flat-topped sawhorse, a stool offers a seat, a work surface, and a work support with storage. Serving as stands for the torsion boxes, they can be arranged to work as a large assembly table. When not in use they’re easy to stack and stow.

The instructions and Cut List are for two stools, but for greater flexibility, consider making four. Also, feel free to adjust the height to suit. I’ve seen stools (carpenters call them “totes”), ranging in height from 12" to 24". I made mine taller so that I can park my jointer and tablesaw beneath the torsion box “countertop.”

Cut the parts and make the legs

Cut the tops and bottoms (A) to size; then rip 31⁄2"-wide strips of plywood for the stretchers (B, C) and legs (D, E).  Using a mitersaw, cut the long and short stretchers to fit the top.

To make the legs, cut 8 strips an inch longer than twice your desired leg height. Next, outfit your tablesaw with a 1⁄4" dado set, and cut a rabbet along one edge of 4 narrow leg pieces (D) (Photo A).

To lay out the grooves on the wide leg strips, position one of the rabbeted strips beside a scrap piece of plywood, and mark out the tongue’s location with a marking knife. Adjust the fence and cut the groove. When the scrap fits, groove the wide strips (Photo B). Now join the narrow and wide leg strips with glue and clamps.

Rip the narrow leg strips (D) to 3" so that the legs are the same width on both faces. Using a mitersaw, trim an end from each assembled leg. Set the freshly cut end against a stop, and cut the legs to the desired length (Photo C).

With the best plywood face down, rabbet the narrow leg strips against an auxiliary fence. Use a featherboard to keep the stock against the blade.
Groove the wide leg strips with the best plywood face up. Test the fit of one leg pair before grooving the remaining strips.

Trim one end on all of the legs; then place each trimmed end in turn against a stopblock to ensure that the legs are all the same length.

Assemble the boxes one side at a time with glue and 11⁄4" nails or screws. Use 11⁄2"-wide spacers to offset the stretchers from the bottoms of the legs. 

Assemble the stools

If this is your first shop project, you may be forced to work on the floor. Not a problem. Arrange the long stretchers on the wide leg strips, and then attach them to the legs (Photo D). Attach the short stretchers in the same manner.

Rabbet the top and bottom panels where shown, and attach them to the assembled frame with glue and 11⁄4" finish nails. Knock down sharp edges with 180-grit sandpaper. 

Overall dimensions: 96"l × 12"d × 4"h
96"l × 10"d × 4"h

Torsion boxes offer what a space-strapped woodworker needs most: flat work surfaces that can be moved to wherever they’re needed. They’re strong, straight, and simple to build. The long and short ribs, made from 31⁄2"-wide plywood strips, create a glued-together framework that provides almost as much rigidity as a solid beam, but without the excess weight. The larger 12"-wide version weighs about 40 lbs.

You can adjust the length to suit your space (I made mine 96" long), but I suggest making a pair. One box provides a level gluing surface for its mate. I made a 10"- and a 12"-wide set so that they can sit on the stacking stools with a gap between them for positioning clamps. Both boxes sport lipped edges to provide toeholds for the clamps.

Cut and mill the parts

In addition to a stack of 3⁄4 × 31⁄2"-wide strips for the ribs, you’ll need to cut the tops and bottoms (A) to size. Since my previous tablesaw lacked a sufficient outfeed table, I used a track saw (Photo A). Alternatively, you can outfit your circular saw with a straightedge. Soften all the sharp edges with a handheld router equipped with a 1⁄8" round-over bit.

Next, groove the tops and bottoms for the long ribs (B), where shown in the figure. I used a handheld router equipped with a commercial edge guide and a 3⁄4" plywood bit (Photo B). Check that the long ribs fit into the grooves. Break the long rib edges with sandpaper so they easily fit into the grooves during glue-up.

Rip the short ribs (C) to 3". 

To determine the exact length for a snug fit, temporarily install the long ribs in their grooves, position a rib as shown (Photo C), and then mark the length. Set a stopblock on your mitersaw, cut a practice rib, and check the fit before cutting the rest. Do this for both boxes.

Stack-cut the top and bottom of each box so the parts are exactly the same width. 
Use an edge guide to rout clean, flat-bottomed grooves that are parallel to the workpiece edges.

With the long ribs staggered against the short rib, mark the latter to length. 

Nail the ribs together to prevent shifting during the subsequent glue-up  Work atop the edges of another box to ensure a flat assembly surface.
Offset the screws from your layout lines so they don’t hit the nails. PowerHead screws pull the long ribs into the grooves like a row of tiny clamps. 

Assemble the boxes

Referring to the figure, mark the locations of the short ribs on the inside faces of the bottoms and mark all rib locations on the outside faces of the bottoms and tops.

To create a level surface for assembly, clamp one of the boxes together and use it as a gluing platform. Place the bottom of the unassembled box on the clamped box, run a bead of glue in both grooves, and insert the long ribs (B). Working quickly, apply glue to the edges and ends of your short ribs, slide them in, and tack them in place (Photo D).

Brush glue into the grooves of the top and press it in place. Using the layout lines as guides, counterbore the top, and then secure it to the long ribs with 3" screws (Photo E). Clamp the assembly together, flip the box, and drive screws through the opposite face. 

Overall Dimensions: 131⁄2"w × 231⁄2"d × 413⁄4"h

In addition to the countertop torsion boxes, I needed a multipurpose cabinet to store a variety of tools. This simple design does the trick.

Adjustability is the key feature. Shelves slide into the dadoed sides to fit tools of various sizes. The base sports leg levelers, so you can raise the cabinet even with the stacking stools to serve as an extra work support. (If you’ve altered the height of your stools, don’t forget to adjust the cabinet sides to suit.  The wide leg levelers add 1⁄4" to the height and can raise the cabinet a total of 21⁄4".)

Cut and mill the parts

The case is made of just three basic components, the sides (A), the top, bottom, and divider (B), and the back (C). To avoid hassles during assembly, use the stack-cutting technique on page 39 or a tablesaw with a crosscut sled and stop to cut the same-sized parts to length.

Lay out the rabbets and dadoes in mirrored fashion on the sides. Then rabbet the sides for the top and bottom using a 3⁄4" plywood bit and T-square (Photo A).

Next, rout the six matching pairs of 1⁄2"-wide × 1⁄4"-deep dadoes for the adjustable shelves, using a dado jig like the one shown at right to fit your router. Unlike a commercial edge guide, the guide strip is sized to fit the 1⁄2"-wide dado. Clamp the side to your bench and rout the dadoes, working up from the bottom edge (Photo B). Rout the first 1⁄2" of the dado for the 3⁄4" divider; then finish up with a T-square.

Using an edge guide or tablesaw outfitted with a 1⁄2" dado set, groove the back edge of the sides for the back (C).

Employ a router and T-square to cleanly cut the rabbets on the top and bottom of the sides.
Rout the dadoes by first registering the jig’s runner in the end rabbet, and then in each successive dado. 
Apply glue to the 3⁄4" dadoes, and clamp the top, bottom, and divider between the sides for screwing. 
Unscrew the feet and use the brackets to locate screwdriver access holes for height adjustment.

Assemble the cabinet

Arrange the sides (A) and top, divider, and bottom (B) on your torsion box assembly table. Assemble the case with glue and screws (Photo C).

Cut the base front and back (D) and sides (E), referring to the Cut List. Glue and screw the front and back to the sides. Then screw the base to the case from the inside. Attach the levelers to the base. To allow foot adjustment in use without flipping the cabinet, unscrew each foot and drill a screwdriver access hole through the bottom (Photo D).

From 1⁄2" plywood, cut as many shelves (F) as you need. Chamfer both back edges with sandpaper to prevent chipping, and slide them into your case.  

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