When I began to build a simple workbench for my garage, I had no idea that it would take me down the path of wood working the way it has. Initially, I just wanted some extra storage to put all of my tools away — most of them firmly planted in computer and electronic tools. The task seemed pretty straight forward; build 4 legs, attach them together, screw down a sheet of plywood for a table top and voila, my table would be finished.
Well, four legs and a plywood table surface later, I had quite frankly what can only be described as, if I’m being honest with myself, a wobbly pile of crap. “What the hell? I thought. This thing has legs, it should be more sturdy than this.” I grew frustrated out of just how poor the design was. I even tried to add braces in every which direction to try to make it a bit more sturdy, to no avail.
This vexing problem nagged at me. Some days I’d be at work and my mind would momentarily drift back to that wobbled design. “I need to make it better. What do I need to do to make it more sturdy? This is going to require a bit of research.”
Let me start off my saying that prior to this I had absolutely zero experience in wood crafting. Yes, I went through a wood shop course in high school where we drilled holes in wood, tried to make a bridge to see how much weight it could hold out of sticks (I was terrible at it), and sanded down a block of wood into a derby car propelled by co2 cartridges. I sucked at it all. I always thought it was interesting, but I simply sucked at it.
Now here I was trying to build furniture; rudimentary and unpolished, but furniture nonetheless. I thought back to the design my father had built for his workbench so many years ago; the very same one he uses today. “That thing has lasted over 30 years, there’s got to be some wisdom in that design.” So I went to visit my dad and scoped out what he had built. I went onto Youtube, the new-age DIY spot for just about anything you could possibly want to do. I began to learn a few things.
After looking at the several designs, I began to notice the way the table was braced. First, the skirt of the table (the part just below the surface which runs the perimeter of the table) is not just for looks, it acts as a solid frame which allows you to screw, glue, joint, or otherwise attach the base, in this case the legs, of the table.
The next thing I noticed was that the legs, at the base, were joined together in a similar fashion as the skirt along the top. This, I came to surmise, was probably particularly important for a workbench, where the table would need to be quite sturdy to withstand heavy weight and weather the storm of other forces wrought on it in a shop-like environment. Particularly if I wished to store my extra wood or other heavy equipment I began to accumulate, like a chop saw, I’d need something that didn’t threaten to collapse each time I added or removed something.
I felt this was sufficient knowledge and began on a new workbench right away. I was quite satisfied as I began my first cuts of board to length. “This one will be different. I’ve put in much more forethought than the last time.” I cut my boards to length, finding a sort of simplistic pleasure in working with my hands for a change. There is something quite gratifying in working with something tangible toward an end goal; the satisfaction of realizing an image from your brain has been translated to a real and physical object.
I started on the legs, attached the skirt, and began to proceed on the bottom framing. “I thought I cut these all to proper length, why am I having to put so much pressure on these boards to properly align them?” I thought. After heavily yanking on the boards to screw them in place, I finished by placing a quarter inch thick plywood board at the base for some rudimentary shelving to place my wood on, and a full inch thick plywood board on top as a surface. “There,” I thought, “Finally, a work bench that’s solid.” I wiggled it in all directions to validate my statement, even jumped up and down on top of it once or twice for good measure.
I then went to place a few screwdrivers and remaining nails on top of it to clean up the area I had just been working in.
I paused for a moment. I looked over to see my screwdriver had fallen. I slowly reached out for it and cautiously placed it back on top of the table. I must have been clumsy and not placed it fully on the table.
The screwdriver rolled off the top and back down onto the ground. I stood for quite a long while looking at that workbench. There was a moment where I considered trying to lift it just to heave it across my garage. “How could I not have considered this? The top isn’t even close to flat.” I went back to home depot for some more equipment. Using a level and a ruler, I found that one side was almost a full inch lower than the other.
My first thought was that I had simply not made the workbench on a flat surface. If I was attempting to level on a graded surface, such as my driveway, then it would make sense that one side was a bit lower than the other. “I’ll need to actually build this in my garage,” I surmised, “the driveway is not flat enough.”
My solution for the workbench at hand was to place “sugar packets” underneath the once side to lift it up and make the table completely flat on top. I put a lot of effort in that workbench, I would not waste it like the last one simply because it wasn’t level. Still, I wanted another workbench anyway. After making several trips to the store, I was beginning to collect a large number of power tools, and all of these tools needed a home to store and a surface to work upon.
This time I built a longer workbench in the garage where, according to my level, it was flat. I had cut everything to length, as I had done similar before, and noted somewhere in the middle of construction that I was still having issues with requiring an extraordinary amount of force to join the boards together and screw them in place. This one, however, would be perfect. Nice and flat, or so I thought.
Once again, I placed a level on top and noticed that one side was considerably lower than the other. “I did everything right, this time!” I couldn’t comprehend what was happening to make my tables so off. Perhaps I wasn’t cut out for woodworking, after all (I still think this, from time to time). Back to the drawing board, I went to the blueprints to make sure I was building it right, looked up other sites, and came to a conclusion: I was not accounting for warped and twisted boards.
Dumbfounded. That probably best describes my thoughts and feelings at that point in time. I was completely dumbfounded. “How did I not consider this?” It seemed so obvious. Board twisting and warping would perfectly explain all of that “inexplicable” force I had to exert while building these blasted things. “How in the hell do I solve this problem?” I jumped in deeper after some additional research and bought a planer and jointer.
“Well, now I’m really in it,” I decided, “I’ve got just about every tool I’d need to build anything.” I went about milling the boards prior to cutting them and placing them together. My unskilled hands still created discrepancies. There were still gaps I needed to putty over, mistakes with glue, slight — smaller than previously but still existent — grades in the surface, and many, many boards thrown in the scrap pile after a large mar, crack, or splinter would form while attempting to work.
Still, despite those issues, I finally built a workbench, and this one was built to last. It was — mostly — flat on the surface, held sturdy storage underneath, and seemed viable for working on. “Finally, I built it.” I stood proudly over my creation. In that moment, all the splendors of life filled me to the brim, and I was ecstatic that these unskilled hands had finally built something. Sure, there were blemishes, but this was an achievement. As it turned out, a workbench was far more than four legs and a surface top.
Now I started to get cocky. “What else can I build?” I wondered. Maybe now I’d try my hands at building real furniture. In fact, I recalled, I really needed a nightstand for the bedroom in the basement. Why buy one when I can build it? Not much time passed after I began the planning and construction that I heard those familiar words, “oops.”