Plywood Roman Workbench (Part 1)

About two years ago, I made the claim that a beginner woodworker in an apartment could make a roman workbench out of a sheet of plywood with a small set of hand tools.  I was only about four years into hand tool-only woodworking and had caught the low, staked bench fever like everyone else.  But I never forgot about that claim I made.

The total cost of this project should be about US$75 in materials.  I’ll be doing this a bit more like a how-to than usual. So here we go:

Supplies:

  • one sheet of 3/4″ Baltic Birch plywood (60″ x 60″)
  • two Douglas Fir 2×4 framing studs (144″ long)
  • PVA glue (Titebond I, in my case)
  • CA glue (Gorilla super glue, in my case)
  • 3/8″ birch dowel (for drawboring)

Required Tools:

  • Bench Plane (No. 4 or longer is best, but even a Block Plane will work)
  • Hand saw that can crosscut a 2×4
  • 1/2″ chisel and mallet
  • Brace and Bit or Drill Driver with with 3/8″ and 1/2″ bits
  • F-Style Clamps, C-Style Clamps or a bunch of heavy pieces of wood (screws would work too)

Optional Tools:

  • Brad nails and a hammer
  • 3/4″ or 1″ chisel
  • Trim Router with flush trim bit
  • Router Plane
  • Shoulder plane
  • Shooting Board

Preparing the Slab:

My local lumber yard has a sliding carriage panel saw for breaking down plywood, so I had them rip the sheet of 3/4″ Baltic Birch plywood into five roughly equal sheets.  I recommend ripping it at 11 7/8″.  The last sheet will be a smidge of 12″ wide, but you’ll trim that down later.  I don’t recommend construction grade plywood.  It’s lighter than the good stuff, it has too many voids and it’s likely to be significantly warped.

Set aside the nicest looking of the five sheets for now.  You’ll need that later.

There are a few ways to laminate the remaining four sheets into a slab, depending on your work surface.

  • I had a really flat surface to work on (my Stent Panel Workbench), so I just slathered on a bunch of PVA glue, laid down all four pieces and piled a bunch of weight on top.  Clamps would have worked well too, but you know my philosophy…
IMG_20190614_153507.jpg

Biggest rock is best rock.

  • If all you’ve got is sawhorses, first make sure the tops of the sawhorses are not twisted.  Wedge under them as necessary.  I would not use the biggest rock is best rock approach here and laminate all four sheets at once.  Better to laminate sheet by sheet and use clamps (with cuts of 2×4 as cauls) or screws.  Just don’t forget to drill pilot holes for the screws and remove them after the glue dries between lamination steps.
  • If you don’t even have sawhorses, I don’t know what to tell you.  Maybe find a couple of matching milk crates or just bite the bullet and buy some cheap home center sawhorses.  Sawhorses are useful for more than just woodworking.

No matter which method you choose, check periodically to make sure the sheets stay in relative alignment as the glue dries.  If you use the right amount of glue, it will grab right away.  But if you go overboard, just use clamps, nails or screws to keep everything from sliding around and keep checking until the glue grabs.  Keeping everything aligned now will reduce planing work down the line.

Unless your sheet of plywood was horribly warped, or your sawhorses were in twist (I warned you), the resulting slab should be relatively flat and true.  Take a straightedge and figure out where it’s high.  Using my workbench as a reference surface the four sheet lamination, it came out nearly perfect.  There was about 1/64″ of a hump along the length.  Flattening didn’t even take me through the veneer layer.  And four sheets ended up being stout enough (almost 3″ of total thickness).

IMG_20190616_105423.jpg

Looks pretty nice with a coat of Boiled Linseed Oil.

But I assume there is a bit on unevenness in your slab, so go ahead and straighten and flatten the top face of the slab as best you can with a hand plane.  Keep the setting shallow and nibble away at the high spots, checking it as you go.  With any luck, you won’t have to remove much more than the veneer layer.

Now glue that final board you set aside onto the top of the trued surface (maybe use clamps or pile a bunch of weight on it this time).  This should guarantee a flat work surface needing little to no final truing (barring any irregularities in the last sheet of plywood itself, anyway).  This also hides any unsightly tearout from the flattening process.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten to this point.  Next time, we’ll talk about cleaning up the sides and ends of the laminated slab and how to deal with any little voids.

JPG

 

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