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The  knock down portable work bench

One of my favourite principles in doing pretty much anything is what I call ‘circuits’.  It’s all about getting the energy you are putting in, precisely to the place you want it.

Anyone familiar with metal cutting equipment like lathes and milling machines knows that a great deal depends upon stiffness.  The tool and the workpiece must be held rigidly.  When the tool is presented to the workpiece, any ‘slack’ in the physical path between the tool holder and workpiece will be taken up before cutting happens, causing wasted energy, inaccuracy and vibration.  The ‘circuit’ between the two must not have any energy leaks.

The metal worker, operating at thousands of an inch or less, knows that these ‘leaks’ are visible enemies, and will destroy his work.  They will cause the workpiece to deflect, set up vibration patterns, even cause ‘dig ins’ as the vibration pattern is superimposed on the force attempting to cut.

The woodworker is operating at bigger tolerances, so this problem is not so obvious. When a piece of timber moves as it is sawn, it is often just accepted.  When it bounces as it is struck with a chisel, it is accepted.  When the workbench wobbles as a piece is planed, it is accepted.

Well, not by me.  The point is that *any* slack in the system creates an enormous loss of power and accuracy.  I don’t really think many people realise how much energy is used in moving stuff around, rather than cutting, and what this actually means.

For example try this experiment.  Secure a piece of 1″ x 1″ wood in a vice so it is sticking out about 10″  Then try to cut it with a saw about 6″ from the vice.

You will instantly notice that the wood will vibrate as you cut it.  The energy you are using starts to fight against you.  The vibrating saw cut jams the saw.  It is impossible to cut a straight line because the wood always wants to bend.  The jamming of the saw causes the saw to vibrate and the wood to bend even more.

Now try the same experiment cutting very close to the vice.  All the thrust on the saw goes into cutting.  It is easy and accurate.

The difference between these two experiments is pretty obvious.  Cutting at a distance from the vice turns the wood into a spring that absorbs the energy of the cut, and then releases it in an unhelpful way.

If you properly secure a workpiece in an immovable vice, the effect is astonishing.  Cuts are effortless and take a fraction of the time. you can be stunningly accurate, paring off transparent shavings.  Everything is way, way better.

Securing your workpiece and cutting it close to the vice or clamp is second nature to craftsmen.  But how do you know your clamp is secured? What is going on between that clamp and the ground, and the ground and your feet? All you need is a slight wobble, a slight give in your bench, and all that sharpness vanishes.

A workbench is like a system of springs between you and the workpiece.  As you apply pressure to a workpiece the springs give, absorbing your cutting energy.  The more they give, the more energy is absorbed.  Only at the point that the wood you are cutting cannot resist the force of the ‘spring’, will the wood actually cut.

If there is any slack in the system, your workpiece will travel the distance of that slackness before it is cut.  So you are cutting a moving target, that springs back as you cut it.  The result is far lower accuracy and far less cutting power.  Even a small amount of spring makes a massive difference.

One question that came up some years ago was whether it was possible to construct a mobile workbench with very high stiffness, that could be taken apart easily.  Here is my solution, that is still going strong.  It could certainly be improved upon, but it is way better than most static workbenches, let alone mobile ones.

The basic principle that is essential in a mobile bench is that the circuit between the operator and the bench must be closed.  In practice this means that the bench must include a floor on which the operator stands.  The good old Workmate actually does address this, by having a platform you can put a foot on whilst using it.  But it is extremely springy, and the modern version is very poor quality.

My solution was to have a portable floor.  I made this from OSB, but I think a good quality plywood would be better,

The easiest way to describe it is to show you how I put it together.

Components are the floor, a base, three legs, the bench top/vice and three clamps.  The whole thing takes a couple of minutes to knock down and build, and easily fits in a car.  The bench part has only a single M12 bolt holding it together. The bench and legs are made from Keruing, a hard dense and heavy tropical timber, that I happened to have on hand.  I would recommend a heavy hardwood, because the mass definitely helps.  The base is softwood.

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The components.

The base that holds the bench is made from two pieces of timber in a ‘T’ shape. The  upright of the T is dovetailed into the long part.  The ends of each part are mortised to take the bench feet.

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Softwood base, dovetailed together

The bench itself is two pieces of hardwood, that clamp over the legs.  The legs are half-dovetailed into this, to that once the two pieces are held together, the legs and bench form a rigid structure.

The third leg is bolted through the bench.  This bolt is the only fastening holding the whole thing together.

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The third leg.  This bolt is the only fastening!

Once the bench is fitted to the legs and the bolt loosely done up, the whole thing is placed on the base and the tenons on the legs slotted into the mortises.

Then the base is located on the OSB floor.  The floor has captive ‘T’ nuts underneath that take the bolts that go through the base.  The bolts pass through timber clamps that fit the angle of the legs, and effectively create a kind of dovetail effect.


The clamps bolts the bench to the base and create a dovetail effect on the legs.

This structure is amazingly rigid.  With forces along the vice, it is exceedingly stuff, better than most static work benches.  There is a small amount of lateral movement owing to the flexibility of the OSB but I have got around this by putting weights on the floorboard, or wedges underneath it at the back. An updated version might include stiffeners for the floor board.  I tend to use the centre of the vice for sideways loads, as the forces are resisted very well by the rear leg.

20170626_121102_New Quay CourtIn using the bench, one stands on the board.  Thus the circuit between the user and the bench is always fixed.  You can stand in front or behind.

The vice is fairly primitive, using captive nuts and 16mm studding.  At the time I had only basic metalworking equipment.  Ideally I would have sliding bars to prevent racking of the vice, and maybe handwheels.

Some kind of stop could prove useful. You could even put an end vice on it!

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In action, turning a chunk of oak into a Samson post


Soshelves1me shelves for my workshop, built to fit the space between two loadbearing posts and accessible from both sides. The pics show Sketchup design and final build. I used Wisa 18mm spruce ply. Shelves are held by 8mm routed grooves. For routing I used a 17.5mm straight bit and a Festool guide rail.

The whole project was about 7 hours’ work. The pigeonhole concept is spatially very efficient, and the whole thing works very well.

shelves2It is a good example of the value of 3d CAD. Once the space was set out accurately in Sketchup, the designed components could be easily put in and moved around. Then they simply had to be measured in the program, then cut and machined. Material can be precisely calculated, so there was virtually no waste. Everything fitted exactly first time.

shelves3For fine work I would have used Birch   ply, perhaps with an edging strip to protect the veneers.