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Thread: Work Bench Top Material

  1. #1

    Work Bench Top Material

    I'm in the process of designing and building my first woodworking work bench and I'm looking for some opinions. I plan on using a two layer top with 3/4" plywood as the base and the top layer either another piece of 3/4" plywood or 3/4" MDF.

    Any thoughts on pros and cons?

    -Mike

  2. #2
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    Many folks have used similar construction, but do a double layer of sheet goods for the "mass" of the bench and then use a removable/replaceable 1/4" hardboard "Masonite" top. A simple edging keeps that sacrificial top contained so it's not necessary to glue it down. And if you get the hardboard with two good sides, you can flip it when one side gets too ratty and continue to use it for much longer. 1/4" MDF is an alternative for that, of course, but it will not likely wear quite as long. I have used 3/4" MDF for some utility bench tops and it's held up well over the years, but historically, I wouldn't have wanted it as a primary surface that's going to see heavy use like the workbench central to my shop. Even though I love my Festool MFT and have no concerns over the MDF used for it, I still prefer a more traditional, heavier bench for certain kinds of work.
    --

    The most expensive tool is the one you buy "cheaply" and often...

  3. #3
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    image.jpg image.jpg

    Here is the one I am working on. Two layers of 3/4” ply, with a 2x4 sub base. The edges are 1x4 trim boards, which rise 1/2” above the plywood, for holding a sheet of MDF in place, like Jim mentions. The Noden Adjust A Bench base is optional but functional.

    The 2x4 “sub base” has the 1 1/2” side available to attach the edging, with screws & or Dominoes. It also provides a place to screw the Noden base to. The 2x8 stretchers have two 3/8” rods through each board which makes the whole thing steady.

    The 1x4s runs past the two ends so I can make handles/outfeed rollers for raising and lowering the top. One end may get a tail vise.
    Last edited by Mike Holbrook; 06-23-2018 at 11:06 AM.

  4. #4
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    Mike and Jim offer good advice for a 'first' workbench. When you build your second you will know if a solid Maple top is what you need.

  5. #5
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    I'm no fan of mdf for the top of a "working" workbench. too easy to dent or spill stuff on that can cause it to crumble. I like it okay for tool tops like a drill press etc.

    If you want to use holdfasts then your described top then that would require a 1 3/4" top so they may not work for you. I wold also worry about an mdf top chipping or crumbling around dog holes.
    Marshall
    ---------------------------
    A Stickley fan boy.

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Becker View Post
    Many folks have used similar construction, but do a double layer of sheet goods for the "mass" of the bench and then use a removable/replaceable 1/4" hardboard "Masonite" top. A simple edging keeps that sacrificial top contained so it's not necessary to glue it down. And if you get the hardboard with two good sides, you can flip it when one side gets too ratty and continue to use it for much longer. 1/4" MDF is an alternative for that, of course, but it will not likely wear quite as long. I have used 3/4" MDF for some utility bench tops and it's held up well over the years, but historically, I wouldn't have wanted it as a primary surface that's going to see heavy use like the workbench central to my shop. Even though I love my Festool MFT and have no concerns over the MDF used for it, I still prefer a more traditional, heavier bench for certain kinds of work.
    This is what I did....and it is still working well for me 5 years later.

    I did put it on wheels, which is a big help.

  7. #7
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    "Tempered Masonite" is water proof and will not come apart like MDF, although it's construction is similar. They use a different process to make it.

    The most solid workbench that I ever made used a commercial solid wood door for the top. It had a mahogany surface that was too beautiful to beat on, so I covered it with 1/4" Tempered Masonite. Sadly, I left that workbench behind in the basement shop of my former home, with plans to build another when I could finally build a new shop. This was 35 years ago and my new shop ended up being nowhere near as large as the one that I previously had, so I never had the room for a bench this large again. These doors are 2-2 5/8 thick and Very Heavy, so plan on taking help with you when you go to pick one up.

    You can find commercial doors at Habitat and other used building material outlets for very little money. There is a new and unused commercial door at the Habitat Store near me that calls out to me every time that I walk by it. They only want $40 for it. but it has been there for well over 2 years, so it could probably be had for less.

    Charley
    Last edited by Charles Lent; 06-23-2018 at 9:47 AM.

  8. #8
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    MDF is such cheesy material. I'd use plywood. Specifically I'd use baltic birch. It is much harder than MDF, and so more resistant to scratches and dents. It is nearly void-free, so you're unlikely to get cave-ins. If your bench is 60" or less long, you can use the original 5'x5' baltic birch. If you're making a bigger bench you can seam the 5x5 sheet, or you can buy a 4x8 sheet. Recent 5x5 prices here: 1/2" $36, 1/4" $26.

    Mind you, I'm talking about real baltic birch -- 100% birch -- not that Chinese multi-ply stuff made out of who-knows-what.

  9. #9
    I have a work table with a 1 1/8" plywood top then covered with 3/8" MDF, that I got for free, put a few coats of Varithane to seal it, but would be better if it was not piled up with with stuff though.

  10. #10
    The key to a good workbench is a rigid top. The way you achieve this is with thickness. If not when chiseling or hammering there will be too much "bounce".

    If your set on using sheet material, you might consider something like 3 layers of MDF + top layer of either ply or hardboard.

    I've built a couple assembly tables by gluing ply to MDF (MDF on bottom) & temporarily screw from bottom for clamping effect. Remove screws when done & repeat for next layer. This way if you want to drill dog holes, no worries.

    All said and done, you can also make a very good top of SYP. Lots of videos on this check Jay Bates.

  11. #11
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    My “workbench” is actually a work table, work surface, outfeed......I have a compact Hammer bench I bought from Highland on sale. I plan to use the Noden AAB and the Hammer to build a heavier workbench. I like “smaller” workbenches. The Hammer is about 54” long. The Noden work surface is 6’, not counting the lift handles/outfeed rollers. I plan to make my main bench about 84”, like the Benchcrafted Split Top. I am torn between a Split Top Roubo and Ken Hatch’s Moravian style bench. The AAB can then be used to extend the shorter benches. I plan to use a semi Festool grid on the top of at least one of my AAB tops. My AAB is only 22” wide, so I can split a sheet of MDF or Masonite and make two tops. I also have foam that I may use inside the AAB edges when I am using a Festool saw The idea is to have multiple “sacrificial” tops that are disposable.

    There are much better sheets of “MDF” being made now. Some of it has plastic etc. infused. I hear this material works much more like actual wood, except without the grain patterns. It is apparently obtainable in waterproof and fireproof versions. I understand thicker sheets are also being manufactured. I conducted a search a ways back but was not able to locate an Atlanta supplier.....but still looking. If someone locates a source that will ship.....
    Last edited by Mike Holbrook; 06-23-2018 at 11:17 AM.

  12. #12
    If the size fits your design I'd get an Ikea countertop. Not that much more than plywood to a couple sheets of MDF. They have longer sizes and other woods too.

    https://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/90335206/

  13. #13
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    My top is 1/4 hardboard. Easy and cheap to replace and really can take beating. No dog holes in that bench. It sits on two sheets of mdf that is on a solid core door and all that us wrapped in cherry.

  14. #14
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    I have four work benches in my shop. Two of them have masonite tops that I sealed. On a third one, where I do "fine" or "detail" work, I put on formica. That is really nice, but is not something that you would want to use for sawing, drilling, etc. On the two masonite tops, one gets a lot of reallly rough duty, so about once every couple of years, I will give it a coat of white gloss or semi gloss paint. It freshens it up. Eventually, I might re-cover it with another 1/4" thick piece of masonite.

    On my fourth workbench the top is made of 2 x 4's on their edge. So the thickness is around 3.5". I sealed it with a varnish.

    BTW, one time I was telling a friend, who was a commercial building manager, that I was interested in getting a "solid core" oak door. He told me that while they feel solid, they are actually laminated ply and the inside has one or two sheets of drywall sandwiched in. I asked why and he said that it was for sound absorption but more importantly was required for fire code. I don't know if that is a local thing or is more wide spread.

  15. #15
    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Becker View Post
    ...do a double layer of sheet goods for the "mass" of the bench and then use a removable/replaceable 1/4" hardboard "Masonite" top...
    This. Tempered Masonite makes a most excellent work surface that requires no finishing and is cheap to replace, though you can expect many years of service.
    "Anything seems possible when you don't know what you're doing."

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