Modern Plywood Workbench

A simple & super-sturdy bench built from strips

A truly useful woodworking bench serves a lot of needs. It secures all kinds of workpieces for operations ranging from rough stock prep to detailed handwork. It offers a flat planing and assembly surface, and provides a suitable platform for a wide variety of hand and power tool operations.

As an instructor at Making Whole (see page 4), I share space with a bunch of fellow woodworkers, mostly novices, who’ve become enamoured by my European-style joiner’s bench, despite the fact that we have plenty of other benches and work surfaces. To keep what’s left of my sanity, it was time to build a similar bench with even better work-holding capabilities. We designed our new bench so that it could be built by budding woodworkers like my junior colleagues. Thus began a collaboration of many student hands to build a bench that would serve their further education.

The most obvious departure from tradition is the choice of building materials. Despite some initial reservations, I discovered that plywood offers several noteworthy advantages here over solid wood. For starters, the material cost for this bench is less than half the price of one made from maple or beech. You’ll also save considerable building time. Because most of the components are made from ¾"-thick strips, the intimidating joinery that would be involved in solid-wood construction (big tenons, deep mortises, and 28 dog holes) becomes a simple matter of cutting and stacking to create the joints. Aside from the expedited construction, the biggest benefits reveal themselves when you put this bench to work (see photos, top right). 

This strip-built workbench has become the new workshop favorite. As a matter of fact, I’m thinking that I might build another to supplant my old bench in my corner of the shop.

Important: The 5"-thick components ensure a super-sturdy bench, but this thickness exceeds the depth capacity of most saws. Even with a 10"- or 12"- sliding compound miter saw, you’ll need to cut in from both faces. If you use 71⁄4" circular saw, you’ll need to complete the cut with a handsaw.

Clever features that lend a hand

The removable centerboard enables workpieces to straddle one of the top’s twin planks, while providing an additional toehold for clamps when necessary.
A sliding board jack works in tandem with the shoulder vise, supporting workpieces for a variety of edge work chores.

A pair of quick-release, leather-padded end vises sport wooden dogs for clamping work to the bench top.

With its pivoting jaw, the shoulder vise can easily clamp odd-shaped work. Not having a guide bar (like metal vises) makes this vise ideal for holding wide boards.

A strip-built bench

We used seven sheets of 3/4" × 4' × 8' Blondewood plywood, sold at home centers, but any 3/4" hardwood plywood will work. Bear in mind that nominal 3/4" plywood isn’t exactly 3/4" thick, so your assembled parts may not precisely match the final overall dimensions shown. The actual plywood thickness doesn’t matter, but take care to obtain all your sheets from the same batch. If the thickness varies from one sheet to the next, the parts might not fit. 

The strips are easy to handle, but the subassemblies can get quite heavy. Make arrangements to have a few extra hands on deck when thicknessing and sizing the components and during assembly. Note also that the adhesive used in plywood dulls bits and blades more quickly than solid wood. Plan on replacing your planer knives (and having your saw blade resharpened) before starting your next project.

Order of Work

  • Rip six sheets of plywood into strips and make dog blocks.
  • Build gluing platform. 
  • Cut strips to make front and rear planks, center blocks, shoulder block, and arm block, and assemble each component.
  • Thickness-plane components to 5",
  • finish, and cut to final length.
  • Assemble top.
  • Cut strips to make legs and rails, and assemble each component. 
  • Thickness-plane components to 5", cut to length, and assemble base.
  • Add vises and end caps. 
  • Make and install shelf, and set top on base.
  • Rout rabbet in top, and make centerboard.
  • Make and install board jack.

onlineEXTRA

Each main component is made up of a stack of strips. Notching and drilling the strips before assembly creates holes and cavities for the vises, dogs, and other hardware more easily than cutting the joinery later. Go to woodcraftmagazine.com for a complete Strip Cutting Diagram used to make the top, base, and vises.

Prep the parts

The workbench starts as a stack of strips. Have a shopmate help you rip six sheets of plywood into 5-1/8"-wide strips. From one of the strips, cut the dog blocks to length, and then saw the dog head notches on the table saw as shown. Referring to the drawing on p. 36 and the Strip Cutting Diagram (see onlineExtras), cut the strips needed to make the twin planks, center blocks, shoulder block, and arm block. 

Although glue is strong enough to join most of the main components, the shoulder vise requires additional reinforcement. To prepare the front plank components for the 1/2"-dia. threaded rod, drill the holes in its 13 inner strips, two facings, and dog block cover strip, as shown. (Drill the holes in the arm block after assembly.) 

Strips from the sheet. You’ll get nine strips from a single 4 × 8' sheet of plywood. To ensure clean-edged strips, trim away the factory edge before ripping the strips to width.
Make 26 dog blocks. Set the blade to 15°, stand the dog block with its inner edge against the fence and cut the angle for the notch. Then, flip and rotate the block 90° and make the long notch cut by first removing a saw kerf of material (inset, top) and then butting the block against the fence to complete the cut (inset, bottom).

Ready the top strips for the rod. An L-shaped stop block ensures that the access holes in the strips used to make the front plank line up for the threaded rod. Lay out and drill a hole in one dog block using the same drill bit. 

Assemble the top

Gluing the strips together isn’t difficult if you have an assembly jig like the one we made for this project. You can assemble each section in stages, and use brads or pins to keep smaller parts in alignment until you apply clamping pressure. To ensure that the clamps exert even pressure, use removable plywood spacers to fill in any cavities, masking or waxing them to resist glue. 

Assemble the two planks, shoulder block, and center blocks. For safe machining, make the center blocks from a single, longer glue-up. After planing this workpiece to final thickness, crosscut the assembly in two.

Once the individual top components have been glued together, plane them to 5" thick. If you plan to seal the top with epoxy (see Sidebar, p. 41), do that next, before cutting the components to length. 

After cutting the parts to final length, glue the planks to the center blocks. Work on a flat surface to keep the sections aligned as you apply the clamps.

Glue up the planks in stages. Stack a half-plank’s worth of strips upside down in the assembly jig, with glue-resistant plywood spacers filling any cavities. After rehearsing your assembly procedures, apply adhesive with a thin-nap paint roller to the strips, and clamp them to the jig. Wipe or scrape off the wet excess glue immediately. 

Assemble the shoulder in stages. Glue together the wide and narrow strips (shown) separately, and then join the two halves. Set a waxed plywood spacer in the rod slot to equalize clamping pressure.

The jig helps keep assemblies flat and square. Build the platform from a 4 × 8' sheet of 3⁄4" melamine-coated particleboard (MCP), which is flat and wood glue-resistant. Make sure to assemble the fences so that they sit at 90° to the base. After assembly, set up the jig on a flat surface (a floor will work if you use shims to level the area), and raise the base on blocks for clamp access.

Plane the planks, then glue up the top

Down to size. When planing the bench top sections, take light, equal cuts from each face in turn to ultimately create 5"-thick sections. Install a spacer ‘leg’ in the shoulder block slot to stabilize the work for the cut.
Joining the planks. To create the main body of the bench top, glue the fully assembled planks to the center blocks, which you have cleanly cut to length. 

A little extra work for a smooth, hard top

Most types of plywood have small voids between the veneer layers. For a solid, seamless work surface, treat the benchtop to polyester body filler (like Bondo) followed by a coat of epoxy. Begin by adding dyes (see page 69) to the filler to match the tone of the plywood, and note your recipe proportions. Then, working with small batches, apply the filler with a wide putty knife. Once the filler sets, plane the parts at the same machine setting as before. Then use a card squeegee to apply a thin coat of epoxy, let it cure overnight, and plane, again at the same setting.

Make the base

Assembling the legs and rails for the base takes the same “cut, stack, and glue” approach used for the top, but you’ll need a way to establish the mortises and tenons. To accomplish this, we made a set of five alignment blocks, as shown at right.

To make the base components, first cut the parts to the sizes shown in the Strip Cutting Diagram, adding a few inches in length. Then arrange the strips on the gluing platform, inserting the appropriate spacer(s). Apply light clamping pressure, tap the ends of the parts to snug them against the blocks, and then tighten the clamps. Remove the blocks and allow the glue to dry.

Once you’ve assembled the legs and rails, plane and cut to length as before. Then drill the holes in the legs and the blind holes in the front and back rails for the bolts. Next, dry-assemble the mid and upper rails into the legs, and then lay out and cut the notches for the end vises in the upper short rail as shown on page 37. (Note that the notches extend into the legs.) Now, glue up the side assemblies as shown. Finally, insert the front and back rails, and drill the 7/8" holes for the bolts.

Base Alignment Blocks

These alignment blocks serve as stand-ins for the rails and legs, ensuring that the parts fit together immediately after assembly. The chamfers on the inner layers allow you to make sure that the ends of all the strips are in contact with the block as you apply clamping pressure.

End game. Glue up the end assemblies, using a hefty block to pound the joints home and clamping over the open bridle joints with cauls to spread pressure evenly. Check for square before setting the assembly aside to dry.
Blind bolt-and-nut joint. Dry-fit the long rails into the end assemblies and drill the counterbores. Then drill the clearance holes partway, remove the end assemblies, and continue drilling until the bit reaches the blind hole.

Vises and finishing touches

A bona-fide bench is starting to emerge. Dry-fit the shoulder vise parts and check that the threaded rod has access through to the center block. Next, drill and rout the arm block to accept the vise screw and housing plate, and then glue and clamp the shoulder and arm blocks to the bench. Once the glue has set, add the threaded rod and cinch it tight with nuts and washers. 

Next, attach the end vises to the top, and then glue on the short and long end caps. Make the end vise jaws, cutting the two-step groove in each jaw part with a router and straight bit on the router table, or with a stacked dado blade on the table saw. Chisel the angled stops for the dogs at the base of the stepped groove before gluing the parts together.

Now, rout the rabbeted ledge in the center of the bench top, and then make the centerboard to fit. Next, drill holdfast holes in the top, using a shop-made drilling guide.

The heavy top registers onto the base via a pair of short “bullet” dowels. To ensure matching holes, create a drilling guide from a plywood strip. Use the jig to drill mating holes in the upper rails and top, then insert the dowels and set the top on the base. Now make a board jack as shown on p. 37. After turning a board jack peg and vise handle from rosewood or other dense wood and attaching a power strip, the bench is ready to work.

Install the vise screw housing. After drilling a stopped hole for the shoulder vise screw housing and a through hole for the screw, rout a mortise and then square the corners with a chisel.
Keep it flat. Glue and clamp the shoulder and arm blocks to the bench, checking that both components are level with the bench top.
Set the vise height. Install a couple shims under each inverted end vise to locate the fixed jaw about 9⁄16" from the top surface of the bench. Then secure each vise with four lag screws. 

Clamp on the cap. Glue the short end cap over the vises’ fixed jaws, using a single clamp and the vises themselves fitted with scrap plywood to clamp the cap tight to the end of the bench.

Cut a center ledge. Rout a 1⁄4 × 1"-deep rabbet around the perimeter of the interior for the centerboard using a bearing guided rabbeting bit, taking two or three successively deeper passes. An oversized baseplate steadies the cut. 
Guide your holdfast holes. Drill a 15⁄16" hole in a scrap block on the drill press, and then use the block and the same bit to drill perpendicular holes part way through the bench top for a large holdfast. Remove the block and finish drilling through the top by hand, clamping a board to the bench’s underside to prevent blowout.

Aiming for a bullet. Make a drilling guide by boring a 1"-dia. hole in a board with a Forstner bit on the drill press. Clamp the guide flush with the front of the end assembly and use the guide and the same bit to drill a 11⁄4"-deep hole for the bullet dowel. Use the guide again to drill the hole in the other end assembly, and two matching holes in the top’s underside. Insert the dowels in the base, and then then lower the top in place.

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