Whether you are a journeyman contractor, a Do-It-Yourself person or a weekend hobbyist, one of the most useful tools you can own is a workbench. Also known as a shop table, having a large, level surface is critical to doing an efficient job. It will be the most utilized tool in your workshop.
There are many things to consider when making the terrific decision to buy a workbench. Variables like size and height, wood or steel frame, table top material, and of course, customizing with accessories, all play a role. Will it be portable or fixed in place? Center of the room or on a wall? So many possibilities, it can make your head spin. But don't lose heart. We are here to guide you on this journey.
Should I get a mobile workbench or one fixed in place?
Let us first ask you a question: What is it going to be used for? Clearly you need a large, flat surface to do a project. If your answer is handyman or contractor work, then a portable workbench is the obvious choice. If the answer is you want a space for woodworking or a hobby involving building things, then you aren't going far from home except to get supplies, and having your workbench stationary, or on lockable casters, is perfect for you.
Portable workbenches aren't typically as large as the models for fixed purpose use, but they are quite versatile. With telescoping legs, folding table tops, and weighing very little because of their aluminum and plastic construction (wood tops also available), they go anywhere you go. The top affords the option to add a clamp if needed. The legs are set at an angle to increase stability. And taking your own workbench is the best way to guarantee you have your most important tool on hand. These are also rarely taller than 36".
In your workspace, your two choices for a workbench is stationary, or rolling on wheels, also known as casters.
Depending on the tasks, where you put your stationary workbench is largely a matter of choice. Some people like to have theirs on a wall, affixed to a peg board. Some people like to have one or more strewn about the shop floor, the possibilities of multiple projects happening at once. But the common thread is once it is put in place, it is fixed in place. These models are often heavy, constructed solidly. Some have drawers, some have shelves, but they are large and bulky, so moving them isn't logical. Choose their home wisely. They can be a multitude of different dimensions, so knowing how much space you need, versus how much space you have, is important.
Rolling benches void the need to deem one spot the bench's home forever. While still heavy, constructed solidly, the wheels or casters, set at the corners of the base, allow it to roll freely around the work space. Most casters have locks on them to keep your workbench from drifting away from you if you lean on it or bump into it. Rolling benches also come in various dimensions, but none so large as to be unwieldy, or so heavy as to compromise the casters.
A metal (steel) workbench has one detail that its wood counterpart lacks. While there is still some weight to it, because metal is often stronger, it requires less of it to make the framework for the bench, and thus less overall weight. That makes it easier to relocate to another part of the shop if need be. It is still just as sturdy, but has a skeletonized look, more function than form. Only a single or double shelf on the base or back is available. Adding to a steel framed unit can only be done if the addition in question is mounted to the frame itself, or the table top. And steel vibrates, made very noticeable when power tools are used.
A wood frame however has equal parts form and function, allowing many custom possibilities. Wood is soft and therefore drilling into it to mount a new piece of hardware is relatively simple. The benches are heavier, which can make them more sturdy. And unlike steel, wood absorbs vibrations, so your projects don't dance on the table while you are working with power tools. They often have an overhang on the perimeter, which makes adding a clamp very easy. Wood frames are more squared off than their steel counterparts and adding drawers or shelves is less of a hassle.
What type of table top can I have on my stationary workbench?
There are three kinds of table tops for your home or shop workbench, each with some specific functions for use.
These table tops typically only go with metal frame workbench set-ups. They are welded or bolted on and made of stainless steel. They are rarely the go-to option for anyone who works with wood. However if you need something that won't stain and is a snap to clean, this is perfect for you.
Table tops with a laminate coating, also known as Formica, are terrific if you want to choose what color the table top will be. Formica comes in a whole host of styles and a wheel of colors. It is smooth, easy to clean, but will stain if a caustic substance is left on the surface too long. The laminate is a thin piece of plastic, surrounding most often a particle board interior. It is hardened and can take a beating.
Wood table tops, usually maple, are great for many projects, but have the flaw that it will tell all of your abuses. If you are rough on it, stab it, saw it, stain it, or otherwise damage it, everything that has been done to it will show. No one wants to ding up their work space, but accidents happen, things get spilled, and the consequence is a large wooden record of the trials and successes, or failures, of your many undertakings.
If you intend to be rough on your workbench table top, a removable particle board top is a great idea. Particle board is basically compressed sawdust, held in place with glue. You can dig it, dent it, drill into it, spill glue on it, drip paint on it, and, when you've decided it is beyond saving, throw it out and replace it. Cheap and easy.
What are my options in shelves and drawers for my workbench?
Having somewhere to store your tools is key to maintaining the workspace.
A good sturdy shelf, installed on the appropriate brackets, can handle quite a bit of weight, and give your tools a home when not in use. They can be metal or wood, of many different lengths, and can be installed under the table top with an all wood workbench. Metal workbenches have arms that extend above the table surface, and can accommodate shelves there as well.
For any and all storage and organizational needs, drawers are invaluable. Deep or shallow, custom designed for specific items or a catch-all, adding one or more drawers to your workbench will put tools, and things like screws and nuts, at your fingertips. They install easily under the table top, ready for storing your things.
What are some accessories I can use with my workbench?
Once you pick out your perfect workbench, now it's time to choose whether or not your job or hobby would be benefited by a few additional attachments. Some accessories can improve efficiency, productivity and be an extra hand if you're working alone. And they can be either permanently installed or easily removable.
- Vise: A vise can be bolted to the table top surface, or pre-installed on the side of the workbench. A vise is great for holding items when you need two hands free for work.
- Power strip: For ease with using power tools, having a handy, close-by electrical outlet is a great asset. Most power strips have half a dozen outlets, perfect for using several tools without plugging and unplugging for each tool.
- Drop cloth: A roller can be added to the end of your workbench for a roll of cloth or paper, that can be used to protect the bench when painting or staining a project.
- Grinding wheel: Adding a grinder to your workbench, near an end so you don't block the workspace, is great if you do a lot of crafting with metal.
- Clamp: To keep two or more items held together, a pipe clamp is a good go-to choice. It can be added to the side or the top, and is designed for easy removal.
- Tilting table surface: A thin, hard piece of wood on hinges can make some projects a little easier if seeing them at an angle is important. Great for looking at blueprints.
- Peg boards: A terrific addition to any workshop, the peg board, with corresponding tool hooks, allows you to see all your small tools and easily access them at will. They are simple to cut to fit your bench size and can be mounted to the back of the unit or a wall.
- Press: A press is a godsend in woodworking. Like a clamp, a press holds items together. The difference is, a press places greater pressure on the items between its plates, marrying them more securely.
- Lighted magnifier: A magnifying glass with a built-in light is crucial if your hobby or craft involves intricate detail. Bolted to the frame, it has a long, hinged arm that can move across the whole work area.
- Secure cage: If you have kids, this is strongly recommended. Placing your power tools under the workbench on a shelf is fine, but if you have curious children, installing a steel security cage that can be padlocked under the bench top for the more dangerous items is a wise plan.
How do I clean my workbench in-between projects?
Keeping your workbench tidy and maintained is a snap, regardless of which table top you choose.
- Metal: A clean, wet cloth and some stainless steel cleaning spray will do nicely.
- Wood: It is recommended you treat the wood with a water-blocking agent like Thompson's water seal. This will allow liquids to bead and not be absorbed by the wood. Use a dry towel with liquids, and a hand brush for other debris like wood chips or sawdust.
- Laminate: A clean, wet cloth and an anti-bacterial multi-purpose cleaner spray works well.