Welcome to John's Blog World...

Welcome to my little sharing space--where I come to showcase some of my custom projects and to share "how-to" info with others out there. As a lifelong "maker", design enthusiast, and design professor, this blog explains some of the little projects I occasionally throw myself into, with the intent that I may help inspire others toward self-actualization and to show them how easy it really is to construct and realize their own ideas and dreams. As Brancusi said, "Create like a god, work like a slave."

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

My Uber-workbench

As I mentioned in a previous blog entry, I recently got my own shop space...but now I need to make that space more usable by adding work surfaces and storage. It's natural to want all new equipment when getting a new space, but my teacher's salary says, "no way." In an effort to equip the new space with at least my minimum shop needs (without breaking the budget), I've been searching for sweet deals on used equipment all over the place, but have come up short. I'll admit that part of the problem is that I've got some very specific needs, and I like my stuff to last. In general, the typical mass-manufactured, one-size-fits-all equipment that is made of cheap materials and reeks of planned obsolescence leaves me with a not-so-happy feeling. I really just hate wasting my time and money on things I know won't work well or work long. Huge economies have been built on the philosophy of "throw-away" goods, but broader wisdom dictates that such a manufacturing model is not very sustainable, and it definitely is not more cost-effective in the long run. Given those constraints, then, I decided to do what any other able-bodied, money-strapped design instructor would do: design my own equipment. (I should mention here that I really only have this option at my disposal because I have access to some amazing shop spaces at work, so I'm able to build many of the things I need on a more flexible time frame than someone who doesn't have such resources.)

So, today's blog entry will showcase my latest equipment build: my "uber" workbench. (By "uber", I mean that it was my intent to build a robust, stout, mobile workbench with built-in storage that had strength and longevity surpassing that of other mass-produced options available to me.) And since I like to constantly improve on my shop talents, I opted to build the base for this new workbench out of welded steel, simply so I can improve my TIG welding skills--which were lackluster at best. Yes, I could've simply made the whole workbench out of wood. And, yes, I could have opted for a simpler welding method, like oxyacetylene or MIG welding, but I already had those skills under my belt...and TIG was a bigger challenge that would come in handy with some other future projects that I had in mind. So TIG-welded steel with a wooden top it would be.

With my limited budget, I planned on making the top of the workbench as a butcher block glue-up made from scrap wood pieces that our students had left in the woodshop at the end of previous semesters. I've been stockpiling such scrap for a while and gathered together all the maple-species boards and pieces I could from the gleaned bounty. (Not only is this cheaper for me, but it is also "greener", since I'd be using wood that would have otherwise ended up in the landfill..."waste not, want not", baby!) After sizing up all the pieces on the table saw and chop saw, I laid everything out and found that I had just enough wood to make a top that measured 24" wide by 60" long and 2" thick. Obviously, it would've been too perfect to have scrap wood that was all a consistent 60" in length, but I figured that I could make do with the short pieces I had at my disposal. All I had to do was glue all the shorter pieces to an adjacent longer piece, and then take each of these glued-up pieces to the jointer to square them up. I could then glue up all the pieces into either of two halves of a large butcher block slab (since the full-width slab wouldn't fit through the planer after glue-up), ensuring that everything was even and square each step of the way. My plan worked perfectly, albeit over several long hours. It takes much longer to glue up dozens of small scrap pieces than it does to simply process full boards straight from the lumber yard. Here's a shot of the joints (gaps and all)...not the prettiest glue-up job, but it was free!

After the glue had dried overnight, I passed each half of the butcher-block glue up through the surface planer to get a nice flat top, then squared up the long edges on the jointer prior to gluing the two halves together. The final butcher block top was nice and solid, requiring only a little gap-filling with some fast-cure two-part epoxy where there was space between some of the scrap pieces.

A final coating with some Danish oil and wax finished up the surface perfectly. I could have followed this finish with a nice polyurethane coating, but I knew what kind of work I'd be doing on this workbench and did't want to worry about scratching up a really nice finish--the top just generally needed to be sealed and able to resist resin spills from my composites work. Here's the final top:

All told, the top of the workbench top took about eight hours to complete, mostly because of how much time was required to process the wood scrap that I used to build it. (By contrast, a butcher block top made from "new" boards would have taken about half the time to complete.) But the results were worthwhile, for sure, and the top was as stout as any workbench would ever need to be.

Next, I needed to build the base for the workbench. Although it would be overkill to build the design in CAD (verses simply sketching it up on a scrap of paper), I opted to use SolidWorks to create the workbench "virtually" before physically building anything. Since I know SolidWorks' software very well, it helped me knock out the design quickly and then easily figure out how much quantity of material I'd need before starting. The base would need to be built in multiple pieces for easy transport in my car (since I don't have a truck yet), so I modeled up the design for the base as a four piece construction that could be easily transported and assembled onsite.

I decided to construct the base from 16 gauge 2"x2" square tubing--material that was easily sourced from a local metal supplier. Admittedly, using this gauge of material would mean that my workbench would be severely over-engineered, but who wouldn't want a massive factor-of-safety when weight isn't critical and the cost difference is almost negligible? I've never been one to "hope" that my designs are strong enough; unless weight and optimized performance are critical, it's much more comforting for me to know that my projects can sustain a direct nuclear blast without being harmed.

Strangely enough, it seems like I always need a project like this to remind me of how easy it is to build something robust out of metal. Wood is fairly easy to work with in its own right, but there's always the material selection step that takes a while...at least to find the right color, grain, and character of wood. Plastics and composites fabrication have their own benefits, but they require a lot of planning and expense to build anything structural from them. Metal, on the other hand, has excellent material consistency, and structural projects can be fabricated very quickly with just a few tools (and skills). After a few quick cuts with the abrasive saw, I was ready to start my TIG welding adventure. I'd heard from lots of folks that there are some similarities between oxyacetylene welding and TIG...but it took me a little while to get a feel for those similarities. After experimenting a bit with the welder's settings and my own technique, I finally started feeling like I was getting the hang of it a couple hours into my practice. There's nothin' like wielding a welding device to make you feel like you're messing with the molten forces of creation.

To make the best use of my welding practice, though, I did most of my "warm-up" welds on the interior joints of the base where I knew most folks would never venture to look. Here's one of my practice welds...a little uneven and "chunky", but effective:

This same weld looked much better after a little work with the angle grinder:

It took me about five hours to finish all the welding and final grinding of the welds of the exterior surfaces and adjoining assemblies. The results looked a hair better than beginner quality, but pleasing, nonetheless. I am no way an expert with the TIG welder yet, but I'd definitely "cut my teeth" with that more advanced welding tool and am much less apprehensive about using it in the future--which was one of the main points of this exercise. Here are the main pieces for the workbench assembly ready for powder coating:

I finished up the surfaces of the base with a nice black powder coating, using our powder coating gun and huge shop oven. To do this, I cleaned off all the surfaces of my weldments with acetone, electrostatically applied the powder to the pieces and carefully transferred them to the oven. Half an hour at full temperature and they looked great...like something off a showroom floor!

I then drove all the pieces home, assembled them, attached the wheels, and the workbench was ready for use! It could still use a few shelves underneath (which I plan to add in the near future), but it is now ready for some good use, as you can see here in my garage...

At less than $200 for all the materials, this project proved to be cost effective (though I didn't factor in my own construction time, of course), as well, giving me some learning experience with the welder while producing a fine, nearly-indestructible workbench.

I plan on using my new, developing welding skills in just a little while on some automotive pieces that I'm currently designing...so I'll post those as well once I've got them completed. Keep rockin', my friends.