A Coffee Tab…er…A Workbench!

Last month, after I made the shadow box, we decided to start working on our new coffee table. We had the wood already. I cut it all to the specs and it was sitting there waiting to be assembled. The plan is to use biscuit joints for the table top and the lower shelf. A technique neither of us had ever used before and I had only experimented with in putting together scraps. All of the advice and tutorials for biscuit joinery stress a clean, flat, and level surface to work from. This isn’t surprising. However, being that we rent where we live, work out of a garage, and have never had a permanent wood shop we were deficient in that very basic thing; a clean, flat, level surface.

Our primary work surface has been 2 quarter sheets of plywood on folding plastic saw horses. Plywood sheets that have been abused in all manner of ways including being left out in the Vegas heat and — believe it or not — rain and even snow that one time. They were far from clean, or flat, or level. What to do? This coffee table is supposed to be a focal point of our living room and something that we’ll have for many years. We don’t want to half-ass it and come away with a wonky table top you’re afraid to put your wine glass down on.

Full stop on the coffee table. We had to build a workbench. At least a workbench top, anyway. As much as we’d love to build our own sturdy workbenches with storage that meet all of our needs, considering the realities of our shop that’s just not practical. What we could do is build a workbench top with higher quality wood. And as a bonus, we could practice with the biscuit joiner. So, off to Lowes we went!

We weren’t too bad at the hardware store. We only got the wood we needed, some biscuits, some finishing oil, another set of small clamps, an additional 36″ clamp (3rd of 3), a belt sander and its sandpaper. Could have been worse.

Pic. 1: A mock-up of the table top.

The top is just three pine 1 x 10’s cut to 72.” The speed square (i.e. the orange triangle) in Pic. 1 is 12″ to give you an idea of the scale. After cutting them to the size we wanted the next thing to do was start joining them together.

We measured out where we wanted the biscuits to go and cut the slots. But before putting it together for real we experimented with the boards and clamps.

We’ve used clamps plenty in the past, but never like this. For one thing, these clamps are a lot bigger and heavier. They max out at 36″. So that means you can have tension on one linear yard of material at one time. But we’d also not done so going narrow edge to narrow edge. We previously only sandwiched items together. Also, we typically had only needed to clamp two items together, not three. The more I imagined the physics in my head the more I didn’t think this was going to work. And you know what? I was right.

Pic. 2: Clamps!

Without any biscuits or glue the three pieces just bowed and collapsed on each other under the pressure of the clamps. Okay, fine. Not a problem. So instead of trying to do it all at once we decided to do two, let them set for an hour or so, and then put the last one on. And that’s just what we did.

In Pic. 2 you can see that we’re already on putting the third board onto the table top. You can also see that we’re using still more, but smaller, clamps at each end to keep the top from buckling. Yes, it was still wanting to bow and buckle, but through the magic of physics, clamping, and biscuit joints we manage as flat and level table top as two newbies could reasonably expect to have.

Again, we let it set for a while. But when we were back at it we added the features that help make this a work bench and not just the worlds worst surf board or most boring door. One of the problems with the old plywood-on-a-saw-horse method was that there was no way to add stability to your set up. Without creating a full workbench setup that was going to sit on the ground in one place forever our options for stabilizing the surface were limited. But we came up with an idea that seems to be working.

Pic. 3: DeLyle placing the channels

We had a bunch of 1 x 3 lumber leftover from last year’s bed build. This was also the lumber that made up the shadow box’s frame. We took that and made channels on the underside of the top for the saw horses to slide into placing them in a foot at each end and in the center. Now, there’s nothing there to keep the sawhorses from tipping over if you put too much force into what you’re doing, but the space is tight enough to keep the table from vibrating out of position. They also add the benefit of providing stability across the top to help keep it rigid and together should our novice-level joinery start to fail in the Vegas heat.

This was a lot to do in one day outside in a Vegas summer. Plus, the glue on all the joints needed to finish setting overnight. So, we packed it up for the day and went back inside to the cats and the air conditioning. Sanding and finishing would wait until the next day.

When you’re doing woodworking in Vegas in the summer, it gets somewhat limiting what you can do. For one thing, it’s hot, obviously. And the human body can only do so much when the temperature is over 100*. Also, all those nice paint colors, stains, and finishing oils, they get a little wonky over any temp hotter than about 90*, so finishing a project can become difficult. June in Vegas is hot, but not as hot as July and August. Now, that’s not going to surprise anyone in the Northern Hemisphere, but what I’m trying to say is that you have to watch the time of day and the temperature before you start finishing your projects, as it can hit 90* any time between 9 and 10 o’clock here all summer long. In fact, I’m typing this on Saturday, July 11, and the forecast says that it won’t be under 90* before Tuesday at 3:00 AM. You gotta get at it when you can.

The next morning we got up early and took our coffee out to the shop to get working before mean ol’ Mr. Sun made us stop. I busted out the brand new belt sander (we’d never previously used one) and got it going. Since every piece of lumber is unique and all of the lumber sold by Lowes and Home Depot is… well… marginal in quality at best there were some waves in the wood that we needed to take care of to give ourselves the flat and level surface we were looking for. A few minutes and a lot of dust later we had a surface a smooth as a baby’s butt. We cleaned up the dust and got to putting the finishing oil on.

finished workbench top slightly broken in
Pic. 4: The finished and slightly broken in workbench table

We decided to use the same finishing oil for the workbench that we are going to use for the coffee table top, Dutch finishing oil. It’s a mix of varnish and boiled linseed oil. This will deepen the colors of the wood, bring out the grain, and for the workbench make it easy to clean up paint, stain, and glue spills. It will also help protect it from the Vegas climate.

So, there it is in Pic. 4. We had forgotten to get a picture of it when it was first done and we’ve been working on it since, so it’s already broken in a little bit. The good news is that we’re very happy with it and it’s performing exactly the way we wanted it to. Yay, us!

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