Almost everything I’ve made since taking up woodwork has been with material I’ve been given or dismantled from previous projects. There’s an enormous satisfaction rewarded with bringing old and discarded wood to life. Whether it be breaking a pallet apart to make a jewellery box, cleaving a piece of cedar previously destined for the fire into shingles or ripping out some old shelves to create a planter for the garden; it’s always gratifying to repurpose timber.
Showing the scars of use.
Making a workbench out of recycled timber though? maybe not always the best idea.
I didn’t really have much of a choice at the time; I was low on funds so I used what I already had. I would’ve killed for some maple but instead had to go with some old trusses from a shed and some half rotten fence posts, all pine. I’m grateful that I had any wood at all to be honest and I knew I could make a bench from it, it was just a question of how long it would last.
Gathering all the pieces of various lengths and thicknesses I realised that I wouldn’t be able to determine the length, width or thickness of my bench top. That alone would be down to the material I had. “Luckily” I have a pretty small shed as my workspace, so a small bench would be perfect, and a small bench it would be.
So I went about planing down the old trusses and cutting the rotten parts off the fence posts. The more I cut away at the wood, the better it looked and the more confident I was that this bench may not turn out too bad after all. I glued the bench top up, made from the old shed trusses, planed it down and stood back with a smidge of a smile. It was the middle of the British winter so this was a welcome pick me up!
Thick with paint and residue I wasn’t going to chance using my handplanes on the old trusses before they were cleaned up.
The bench still wasn’t wide enough for my liking, all I had left was fence posts. They became a robust frame around the old trusses, connected at the corners by finger joints and joined to the old trusses by breadboard ends; this would ensure to decrease the amount of curvature in the bench top as the wood acclimatised and moved throughout the seasons.
2 books in particular helped me with setting out my joints and figuring out just what those joints had to be:
Firstly there’s “Success With Joints” by Ralph Laughton which you can check out at amazon.co.uk and amazon.com with the following links:
Amazon.co.uk – Success with Joints, Ralph Laughton
Amazon.com – Success with Joints, Ralph Laughton
Secondly, and this is one of my favourite books, “Building the Timber Frame House” by Tedd Benson documents the history and all the facets of timber framing, not essential for bench building but for me it helped a lot with various joints. You can find it at the following links for amazon.co.uk and amazon.com:
Amazon.co.uk – Building the Timber Frame House, Tedd Benson
Amazon.com – Building the Timber Frame House, Tedd Benson
Oversized finger joints gave me plenty of leeway when finishing off the corners. Getting the breadboard ends as straight and crisp as possible was important.
Legs; where to position them, with what joint and how tall? After plenty of research I came to the conclusion that the top of my bench should be around wrist height, I tested this out and found it to be comfortable, so that was my answer. One thing I had to keep in the back of my mind was that I wanted to be able to disassemble my bench, my future is uncertain and there may be a move coming up soon so to make the bench easily transportable would be fantastic (as well as adding more complications; or as some people call it, a challenge).
With that in mind I came to the decision that instead of having 4 removable legs, I would have 2 sets of 2 removable legs to not only improve sturdiness but reduce the amount of pieces. At the time I had recently learnt of a technique called drawboring, an idea so simple and yet so incredibly effective I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of it previously. It involves making a pegged mortise and tenon joint, but instead of attaching the joint and boring a hole straight through for the peg one would make a hole through the mortise part of the wood and then offset the hole in the tenon part ever so slightly in the direction of the shoulder. The principle is simply detailed at the following website WoodCentral Drawboring Explained
Drawboring gave the 2 sets of legs an incredibly tight and almost immovable joint, bashing that peg through the offset hole and seeing the shoulder tighten so ridiculously close to the legs was one of the most satisfying moments I’ve had in my workshop.
The fence post legs connected to their stretchers with ash pegs.
The legs were done and I was relieved and filled with a sense of growth, creating a joint I had never previously attempted. The final issue was to connect the 2 sets of legs together but in a way in which they could be disassembled. Once I looked at the bench it didn’t take long to connect the dots and figure out that my answer could be a long stretcher connected to each set of legs with removable pegs and 2 leg braces going from the stretcher to the legs.
The long stretcher would fit into the lower mortise and be pegged in, the leg braces would come from the centre of the long stretcher to the upper mortise.
In order to work out the angles for the angled braces I had to remember Pythagoras’ theorem from middle school in order to work out the side opposite the right angle (hypotenuse) of the triangle formed by the angle. After I had made my calculations and measured my available wood it became a rather simple procedure. Detailed in this website Carpentry Pro Framer Pythagoras Theorem
Once the angles were figured out the rest just slotted into place.
Mass is a quality any woodworking bench will benefit from, thankfully mine is rather heavy and so heavy in fact that I needed assistance to place the top onto the legs. The mortises all lined up, I slotted the long stretcher into the sets of legs and inserted the braces with them. Tapping the chunky ash pegs into the stretcher just solidified the structure even more. Then came the time to lift the top onto the legs; with a grunt and a groan we placed it on the mortises but it needed a little persuasion. Rubber mallet in hand I gave the top a few solid strikes over the mortises until it sat tightly in position. I gave the bench a couple of big slaps; it replied by being completely unshakeable, solid and sturdy.
Am I glad my workbench is made from pine? My brain tells me that maybe it isn’t ideal but then, it is a workbench isn’t it? It’s meant to be bashed up and cut and scraped. I look at the beautiful and finely crafted workbenches so many seem to have today and I am in awe of their skills, but really, I think what I have is more than enough and certainly does the job its supposed to do.
Standing back and looking at it, well it was one of the proudest moments of my life. Perhaps that seems a little overstated but I had created the bench with no plans, little woodworking experience and completely out of recycled timber. Anyone who has worked so hard at something and had to think about it day and night to solve all its problems will tell you that when they actually achieve it, when it’s there in front of them, it’s emotional and memorable.
It’s chunky, it’s tough, it’s heavy and rough and maybe having seen what it can be, pine is fine after all.