So, you've decided to take the plunge and start doing some more heavy-duty DIY work at home. While you might have the inspiration to do so, do you actually have the gear you'll need?
One of the most important things will be a decent workbench. But, should you buy one? Or make your own?
Let's take a look.
How do you create a workbench?
The usual way to set up a workbench is to start with a generic workbench and then throw in all the supplies, tools, and equipment you can think of. A workbench like this might be fine in some situations, like a repair shop where a wide range of tasks is done on different kinds of products.
But when it comes to creating a workspace for tasks that require a lot of different procedures, delicate tasks, or specialized tasks, creating a generic workspace can and will cause delays that waste time, lead to mistakes, the loss or misplacement of tools, and can even cause long-term illnesses like back pains or shoulder problems from having to bend or reach awkwardly. Not good, to put it mildly.
Because of this, it is usually better to make a workbench that is specific for a particular job or type of job. Here, the first rule of design holds true: function comes before form. Once you know what you're going to use the workbench for, you can start making more specific plans.
But you might wonder, "What do I need to think about?"
If you want to make your workbench better or change it, it's always a good idea to learn about human-friendly design.
Even though everyone has different wants, needs, and desires for their ideal workbench, there are some basic things that every workbench should have.
- Make sure it is tough. A decent bench should be sturdy enough to resist movement while you work on it and heavy enough to prevent it from breaking under the pressures that will be applied to it.
- The working position should be optimized: Awkward positions that impair productivity and accuracy while also increasing tiredness and strain on the workbench user, such as working with a bent or twisted back, elbows away from the body, bent or twisted wrists, and a bent neck should be reduced as much as possible.
- Design your bench to minimize excessive exertion: Since you can't completely avoid the need for force to handle materials and operate tools, you can make things a little easier with some planning.
- Get the height and depth sorted: Height and reach are frequently the primary causes of difficulties when using a workbench or items on them.
- Plan the station to minimize motions: Excessive motions should be minimized or eliminated when handling materials and operating the equipment.
- Make the workbench work for you: Constant bending, extending out with arms, and holding items often cause unnecessary fatigue.
- Make your workbench your friend, not your enemy: Hard or rough edges, such as the front of the work surface or other protrusions, can cause harm if you are not careful. This can put a stop to your projects in very short order, or at least remove your enjoyment of them.
- Ensure there is plenty of clearance: Plenty of space, especially for the legs and knees, is incredibly important, for obvious reasons.
- Make the area around the workbench as comfortable as possible: Environmental factors like lighting quality, temperature, air quality, etc, are also important and often forgotten.
- Ensure it meets your needs: The best person who knows your needs is you, so ensure the workbench actually provides the functions you need it to.
That's the theory at least. Now, let's get into some more nuts and bolts advice on creating your perfect workbench.
What wood is best for a workbench top?
The top of the workbench will be, to borrow a phrase, the workhorse of the bench. So, whether or not your new workbench will fulfill your needs will likely depend on the type of wood you employ.
There are many options, and this subject can be something of a rabbit warren if you are not sure what exactly you need.
That being said, many experts advise that a hardwood like hickory or maple is the ideal material for most workbenches that aim to provide a variety of functions. Hickory and maple are both hefty and robust woods that work well for a variety of projects. However, a workbench can be properly made from any type of wood as long as it is substantial enough to support itself.
However, a more in-depth answer to which wood is best is a bit more nuanced. In some circumstances, woods like hickory or maple might not be the greatest option, depending on the kind of work you plan to undertake on your bench.
For example, a garage bench will likely be utilized for larger, heavier work and must be able to withstand a lot of wear and tear. As a result, it might be better to choose a softer wood like plywood or a laminated beam designed for indoor use.
Alternatively, you could add a sacrificial single large piece of softwood on top of your workbench to take the brunt of the abuse.
Plywood is a great choice for this as it is quite simple to work with once it is installed, so it makes perfect sense to use it for a bench that only needs to serve the purpose of being in the garage and holding things.
For other tasks, like a hobby workbench, this may require a softer surface because it is used for small, delicate tasks. As it won't likely need to withstand many harsh hits, it also doesn't need to be nearly as heavy as the other benches.
Of course, everything relies on the specific type of craftsmanship you intend to conduct. You'll likely need something supple, like Douglas fir, or a similar wood wrapped in carpet or leather, if you're working with little models that could break if dropped on a hardwood surface.
However, you might want a harder wood like hickory or hard maple coated in metal to prevent fires if you're working with very hot instruments like solder, or chemicals that could destroy wood. Whatever the case, it's crucial that you guarantee that you have the appropriate surface for your needs.
How much would it cost to build or buy a workbench?
As you can imagine, it is not possible to give a definitive answer to this. The cost will depend entirely on the size of the bench, which materials are chosen, etc.
Also due to the wide regional variation in material prices, costs can vary widely. For example, hard maple costs can vary between $4 and $10 per board foot across the United States and Canada! Not only that, but costs for timber have been rising steadily since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Other woods, like douglas fir or pine, which are usually used for general construction projects, can also vary in price, but are often used for workbenches. For this reason, it may be the case that a ready-made workbench is the most cost-effective choice for you.
However, bear in mind that premium pre-made workbenches will also be pricey. Other budget options are also available, but buying these can be something of a false economy.
Cheaper workbenches often have drawbacks. After using the bench for a while, you could rapidly grow to detest it due to faults like subpar materials, weak legs, or relatively fragile worksurfaces. Higher-end workbenches tend to come with better gear and will withstand a lot of punishment by comparison. However, these can run into thousands of dollars to buy.
So, this will be something of a cost-to-benefit analysis on your part. Go cheap and risk having it not work as well as you would like or having to replace it, or spend a bit more and get a bench that will last a very long time and become like a best friend.
Or, indeed, forego the issues with purchasing ready-made ones and make your own from scratch.
The choice is yours.
How do you build a good work station at home?
So, with all that in mind, let's dig a little deeper into how to best organize or design your perfect workbench. Since everyone's needs are different, we'll give a very rough and ready overview of the main things to consider.
1. It's your workbench, so design it how you want it
Since the entire purpose of the workbench is for you to complete your long overdue DIY projects, make a plan of what type of work you want the bench to enable you to achieve.
Ask yourself some basic questions like: -
- Will you be working standing up most of the time? Do you need access to all sides of the bench all the time? If the latter, can you use casters on the bench? Or should it be an "island" in the middle of your workshop/garage?
- What kind of projects are you going to be using it for? Woodworking? Metalworking? Model making? Electrical work?
- What tools and equipment, if any, will you be using on it? How heavy are they? Do they need power?
- How big do you need it to be? Do you want one large one? Or perhaps have a few "specialized" benches for different tasks?
- How much space do you actually have to fit your bench?
Answering these, and other questions specific to your needs will greatly guide the design of the workbench. Woodworking benches, for example, will have a variety of specialist tools and equipment like intricate work-holding systems with tools like bench dogs and dog holes, planning stops, hold-fasts, and board jacks. For other tasks, like electrical work, most, or all, of these will likely never be used.
If space is limited, i.e. a small garage, then you'll want to also be realistic about how much you can and cannot have.
A good guide would be to use something called the "Pareto's Principle". Also called the 80/20 Rule, it specifies that 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes. However, you can adapt this to help decide how to construct a workbench, as well as its size, height, accessories, and other aspects. This rule could be roughly restated to mean that 20% of anything tends to be responsible for 80% of the output.
It can be applied to many types of work, but from our point of view, it can be used to identify what tools and gear you'll be using for the vast majority of your DIY work. In other words, about 20% of your tools and workspace, etc. will end up being used for around 80% of your work. Once you identify those tools and materials that you use for the majority of your work, you can prioritize those - giving them more space, buying better quality versions of the tools you use most often, and placing the tools you use the most within easy reach, etc.
Once identified, base the design of your workbench around them, and only add to them if space is at a premium.
With all that done, you can then start to plan what you need and whether you are up to building your own workbench or are better off customizing an "off-the-shelf" bench.
2. Make sure everything is well within reach
The first thing to consider is ensuring your tools/equipment are within easy reach. This will cover many of the main points above in one fell swoop.
However, this is entirely dependent on what projects you plan on doing, and how much space you have to spare. However, there are some almost "universal" solutions to this.
A pegboard, for example, comes in very handy for storing larger tools and items like wrenches. This simple piece of gear allows you to hang and store tools on the wall while keeping them within easy reach. Two for the price of one! Outlining your tools on the pegboard ensures everything gets put back in the same place every time.
For the vast majority of tasks, benches will also need space for tools like vises and other hold-down accessories, too. You may not use these often, but they are always handy to have.
For smaller items like random nuts and bolts, drawers, bins, and cabinets are useful. You can also add adjustable hooks and magnetic sheets for tools of all sizes.
It is not only more efficient to use your space in this manner, but it also makes for a safer environment. By making sure everything has a place, you won't have to stop working on a project and spend large amounts of time searching around to find the correct size of nail or bolt. Also, the fewer tools that are left unattended, the fewer accidents are likely to occur.
3. Make sure you are making the most of the space
The next thing to consider is making the most of the space you have to hand. Put some thought into what things you need to hand, in and how to store them.
Source or build your workbenches with drawers, bins, and other storage solutions to accomplish this. It's easier to keep everything tidy if you have more storage. To make the most of the space, utilize dividers or jars to organize small objects like nails and screws, as well as wall-mounted cabinets too.
With a movable tool cabinet, you can make your workbench mobile. This is great for larger DIY projects like vehicle maintenance, etc.
4. Label everything, all the time
Unless you have a photographic memory, assume that you will forget where you have put things. For this reason, making liberal use of labels is never a bad thing.
For larger tools, you can also create outlines of them on things like pegboards so that you always know where to put them back once you're done with them. This also helps to act as a visual guide if a tool is misplaced, etc.
This process is obviously a time-consuming operation, but it will pay dividends in the long run when it comes to time management.
5. Let there be light! (and heat, and fresh air)
Having sufficient and appropriate lighting is crucial for a variety of purposes, including seeing what you're doing, lighting up mill markings on wood surfaces, documenting your work, etc. Make sure there is enough illumination so that there aren't any shadows that could endanger safety or productivity.
Lighting design is an entire topic in and of itself, but as a general rule of thumb for fine detail work, you'll want relatively high lux levels of between 300 and 750 lux.
Lux, in case you are unaware, is a measure of light intensity in a specific area. It is the SI unit of illuminance and is equal to one lumen per square meter. It measures the “amount” of visible light present and the intensity of the illumination on a surface.
If lumen is also a new term to you as well, this is the SI unit of luminous flux, which is equal to the light emitted in a unit solid angle by a uniform point source of one candle intensity.
The color of the light is also another important consideration, and you'll be amazed how different tones of light can affect your ability to work for extended periods of time. In most cases, though not all, 5000K CCT (Correlated Color Temperature), which is the closest to natural daylight, is usually the best for workshops and similar places. bulbs labeled as 5000K will give a cool, blue-white tint, rather than the more traditional warm yellow-orange tint.
Overhead lighting should provide the majority of the light in your workshop but this may not be enough on its own. Such overhead lighting should be distributed evenly throughout the space to avoid any significant dark areas too.
The cheapest type of lighting for a workshop is fluorescent lighting. Fittings are usually simple to install and can be fastened with screws. They are also easily replaceable, bright, and consume very little electricity.
Spot lighting can also improve your workshop/workbench immensely. Place recessed flood or spotlights directly over some of your tools and workbenches in addition to the overhead illumination. Consider LEDs for this purpose, but traditional halogen ones are fine too (with the exception that they cost a lot to run).
It is also easier to keep things organized if the quality of lighting in and around your workbench is sufficient for your needs.
Another consideration with lighting is to have fixtures that can be adjusted. For instance, look for a lamp that can be adjusted to allow you to work while either standing or sitting on a stool. For model makers, this is an essential piece of kit.
And that, budding DIYers, is all for today.
Choosing or designing a decent workbench is one of the most important decisions you'll make if you plan on being a regular DIYer. However, by asking yourself some basic questions, and planning accordingly, the process doesn't have to be too taxing.
Editor’s Note: This is a part of our special DIY HOME ISSUE, where IE explores the best tips and tricks to impress guests with your engineering skills.
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