Improving the Split Top Workbench

After working with the new workbench now for several months, I can honestly say that I wouldn’t change a thing. Well, except to make the top a full 8/4, but that’s another post. I like the height, I like the wide front apron, I like the crochet, I like having the twin screw vise on the right hand side, and I like the split top. There’s just one minor improvement I’ve been meaning to make but haven’t out of pure laziness. Until now.

See, while the split top is a really nice feature, it also created a minor annoyance for me. Since my shop is very small, I need to maximize storage space. So I added a shelf to the bottom of my bench to store my longer bench planes, and other odds and ends. The annoyance arises when I’m planing cross grain. See, when planing cross grain, the plane doesn’t really make shavings, it makes chips. These chips, and also dust from sawing on the bench top, are small enough to slip between the split top and pile up on the shelf below. In fact, they can really pile up when I’m doing a lot of planing, like say for a large entertainment center. Long grain shavings aren’t really a problem as they’re too big to fit through the 1/2″ wide gap between the top boards. But the cross grain chips and sawing dust goes right through.

This isn’t really a problem, it’s more of a minor annoyance. It just means I need to dig through a pile of chips to get to stuff on the shelf. If you don’t put the shelf underneath, it’s not an issue as everything just falls to the floor. But I finally got tired of sweeping large piles of chips off the shelf and did something about it.

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I mostly use the split in the top to hold a planing stop for planing cross grain, or planing short pieces. The short board the drops into the gap and sits on top of the cross bearers also serves as a quick bench hook for sawing over the right side of the bench. It’s a really convenient feature that I really like. However, I’m constantly moving or removing the planing stop to put wider stock or panels on the bench top, and I sometimes misplace the board. To address this inconvenience, and stop the chips and dust from falling through the gap, I made a full length (8′) filler piece that sits flush with the top of the top boards, essentially turning the top into a solid top.

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“But wait,” you say, “I thought you said you liked the split top?” Ah, herein lies the genius of the filler’s design. In one orientation, it fits flush with the bench top, allowing wide boards and panels to pass right over it, while still preventing dust and chips from falling through to the shelf below. However, opposite the flush fitting side lies a little secret that allows the filler to act as a full length planing stop when flipped over.

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The filler is notched on the opposite side to fit around the cross bearers. The notches are approximately 3/8-1/2″ deep. This allows the filler to act as a planing stop when it is flipped over. Since the filler/planing stop runs the full length of the bench, it prevents the chips and dust from falling through the split top in either orientation.

Now that it’s done, I could kick myself for putting it off so long. It has definitely proved to be a valuable addition to the bench.

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17 thoughts on “Improving the Split Top Workbench

  1. Nice addition, Bob. Instead of turning it over, you can just push it up and slightly over and achieve the same objective…only faster. Great job on recent pod casts. Love ’em!

  2. Nice, the guys at benchcrafted have something similar in their split-top roubo. It’s a great idea.

    Would you mind giving the 30 second version of why you’d go with an 8/4 top? I’m actually planning out a very similar bench and have been considering using 8/4 poplar for the whole thing.

    • Ben,
      I had to use blocking under the holdfast holes to make the top thick enough in those areas for the holdfasts to hold. They don’t grab in 1-1/2″ thick material. Problem is, the holdfasts generate a good amount of shear force when you whack em in hard enough. I’ve popped a couple of the blocks off by hitting a holdfast too hard. It’s not that big of a deal, as I just replane the block, glue and screw it back on, but using full 8/4 for the top would avoid the need for the blocking altogether and simplify the construction of the top. Of course that wouldn’t allow building it from home center materials, but it’s a small compromise for the top. Full 8/4 poplar would be an excellent choice.

    • Danny,
      No SYP around here. I’m above the Mason Dixon :). No need for it to be SYP though. Anything inexpensive and readily available locally will work. In areas where it’s available, SYP is fine. In the Pacific NW, Doug Fir would be a great choice. Here in the mid-Atlantic, it would be 8/4 white pine or poplar from the lumber yard. I would not consider laminating. I really dislike laminating.

  3. Bob,

    This a great accessory for a great bench. I hope to start mine very soon. Now you got me thinking about the top thickness in lieu of blocks. Unfortunately I am not in a wood haven.

    Great Job keep it up, i really enjoy your Blogs and Pod’s.

  4. Thanks for the update on your bench use. I like the insert but wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to use if split into two lengths (allowing raising only half the bench. Looks as though it might be hard to manipulate the 8′ long piece.

    I think we actually discussed those doubler blocks back when you were building and I was drawing. Maybe not but when I drew up my bench I put a 2×4 that runs between each set of cross-stringers rather than the square blocks. I figured I could actually screw them to the cross-stringers. Opinions?

    • Larry,
      May be less cumbersome to split it in two. Not much though. It’s really not that bad to handle the 8 footer. It’s only about 2″ wide by 1/2″ thick and it’s white pine, so it’s very lightweight. Very quick and easy to pull it out, spin it over and drop it back in. Time will tell if I ever need one half of the bench with the stop and the other without. If so, it should be pretty easy to just saw it in half :).

      We have talked about the doubler blocks before. Your solution would work just fine, but I think they’s still need to be attached tothe top in some way as well so they dn’t move when the holdfast is secured. If they move independantly from the top, even by just a fraction, they will allow the holdfast to move and subsequently lose their grip. So they will need to be solidly attached to the underside of the top boards in some way as well.

  5. Hi Bob, I was wondering about the split top when I emailed you last week. This solution is pure genius so I will probably incorporate that when I build my Nicholson style bench. While I can’t get full 8/4 fir at Home Depot, there are several other suppliers in the Portland, OR area that can supply 8/4 or even 12/4. I had to look around and ask a lot of people but they are there.

    • Patrick,
      Try Woodfinder. Just plug in your zip code and it will give you some suppliers that are close to you. You can also search surrounding areas where you’d be willing to drive to. It’s a pretty good resource for finding wood suppliers. http://www.woodfinder.com/

  6. Bob,

    I’ve just finished my bench with lots of inspiration taken from yours – but you said:

    “I had to use blocking under the holdfast holes to make the top thick enough in those areas for the holdfasts to hold. They don’t grab in 1-1/2″ thick material.”

    This is what I have done, but I have the opposite problem … my holdfasts won’t hold at all. I was wondering if the double thickness was too thick for them to hold, and if I should remove the backing blocks. Any ideas? or is there a trick to using the holdfasts that I don’t know about.

  7. Has this really solved the problem? I work on a solid top roubo and I still gets lots of shavings and dust on my shelf. I dont know when or how they get there – maybe I should pay more attention. It is annoying.

    • Bob,

      It has worked for my bench, but I have the wide aprons to keep most shavings from entering from the front and back. My old bench with the 2-1/2″ thick top didn’t prevent the shavings from going under the top and onto the shelf. I’m not sure how one could solve the problem on a bench without the aprons.

  8. Bob, Your workbench is great. I like all the features you built into it that work for your style of woodworking. I like a good solid bench that is set up to support the woodworking I do, which is 90% hand tool work. A bench is made to take the dings, dents and chips that happen over time. Some of the pictures I see of workbench’s, you feel guilty working on them, because they look like a piece of furniture. I used your 80/20 rule when building my latest bench, and it was the best thing I ever did.

    Thanks

    Scott

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