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Rise to a New Height
Build a Tabletop Mini WorkBench

How-to  ~  Ideas  ~  Inspiration
 From more than forty years having a good time living a sustainable life
in the northwoods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula

Whether your work bench is a full scale, heavy duty, hardwood carpenters bench in a workshop or you make do with a corner of the kitchen table, there are times when you want something taller to work on. A box or a few scrap boards might suffice for a temporary riser but it would be nice to have a sturdier surface. There is seldom room for another large item in either home or shop but there is room for a table-top Mimi-Workbench.

The Tabletop Mini WorkBench to the rescue. I don’t remember the original problem that our first nailed-together scrap-board “temporary” riser solved, but it had been around in various and changing adaptations for years. It was more or less adequate and got a lot of use. But it always seemed to need to be shorter, taller, longer, sturdier -- to want different clamps, holes, options -- and too often needed by both of us at the same time.
Sue filing sculpture
Then one winter some years back, Steve decided to make me something special for Christmas. Living with a make-do, homesteading woodworker has great advantages when it comes to gifts! We don’t always exchange gifts at Christmas, but the homemade ones are the most memorable. And that year I happily received my own, super stock Mini Riser Bench, with a custom modified vise to go with it.

As we have different woodworking goals, and our respective main workbenches are different heights, Steve went on to make several more custom risers to fit his own bowl carving needs. All see a lot of sawdust, yet are easy to store on end, not taking up much space, when not in use. This is important in a two person shop that is only 10 x 23 feet. Though it doesn’t have the usual large power tools, being a hand tool shop and located in the front part of our open design house, it does manage to hold three workbenches, two shaving horses, chopping blocks, and a treadle lathe. Not to mention two woodworkers. Any additions have to fit in the limited space. And the mini-benches do.
Steve starting bowl
The mini-bench (MB) is easily clamped onto any of the workbenches, or to a table, ready to use and just as easily removed, leaving the regular bench top free. Ours are geared for the work we do -- handcarved spoons, boxes, carved bowls, jewelry, sculpture, musical instruments -- as well as a hundred and one other non-woodworking projects. My MB has more dog holes for my work, Steve’s has custom holes for his bowl carving jigs and hold-downs. The basic design is the same and can be customized for your own needs. This is a real workhorse tool.

MATERIALS: The materials used to build our mini-benches were based on what we had on hand rather than on any particular wood requirements -- mostly pine which has the advantage of being easily worked. Softwood for the top has pros and cons. It does dent and mar easily, but it also is less likely to dent or mar the work as hardwood might. You will want a wood and a thickness that won't warp and will stand up to whatever you use it for.

DIMENSIONS: The dimensions of my mini-bench are:
Top -- 9" x 24" x 1 1/2" pine
Bottom -- 9" x 23" x 5/8" plywood
Trestle -- 6 1/2" deep x 14" long x 6" tall of 1" pine
The terms top and bottom are interchangeable, as the bench can be set down either way.

Steve’s main MB is similar but the dimensions are: Top -- 10" x 23" x 2" pine; Bottom -- 9 1/2" x 22" x 1" pine; Trestle -- 6" deep x 11" long x 4 1/2" tall of 1 1/2" pine . His has one set of holes in the “top” and a different set in the “bottom” to accommodate different jigs.

CONSTRUCTION: The basic construction is simple. An “H” trestle is made of a board with two ends glued and screwed on. Then the top and bottom boards are glued and screwed (screw heads recessed) to the trestle. The size of the boards used is based on the final size wanted for the mini-bench.

But the magic is in the details, and the detailing. Following are some considerations and options.

TRESTLE: Figure the final height you would like your work top to be. Subtract the height of the workbench or table the MB will be clamped to, minus the thickness of the bottom and top boards used for the MB, and this is the height your trestle needs to be.

I wanted a working height of 39". My workbench is 31" high, and the top and bottom boards of my MB equal about 2", so the trestle of my MB is 6" tall.

Another consideration is clamp handle room. The 6" of space between the top and bottom boards of my MB is just enough for the shortened Jorgenson bar clamps we have. But Steve’s MB ended up with only 4 1/2". While a small C-clamp would fit, the bar clamp handle wouldn't even begin to fit. It is often nice to have the clamp handle down instead of up in your way when you are working.

Our solution was to cut an inch off the wooden handle of the bar clamp. Scrape off the varnish and flute the remaining handle stub for a better grip since you don’t have a lot of room to get your hand around it. The fluting works well for any of these smooth, varnished wooden handled clamps. It makes a world of difference in comfort and ease of use.

The trestle needs to be large enough to give adequate support for heavy duty work, yet small enough to allow enough top overhang for clamps.

Cut a two or three inch notch in the top center of the trestle center board before assembling. Or drill a large hole. This enables you to thread a strap clamp through to hold down an odd shaped piece.

Drill appropriately sized holes at a slight downward angle in one of the trestle ends before assembly to store your dowel-dogs. Steve made a half dozen dogs from 3/4 inch dowel, turning the bottom halves down to a little less than half inch. Some of the dowel-dogs have a strip of leather glued around the tops. This is nice for use with soft or delicate pieces.

TOP: Drill numerous holes for dogs, clamps, vices, jigs, whatever else you can think of. Holes can be drilled later as needed, but it’s nice to start with a good variety. And it’s easier to drill the top board with a drill press before assembly, especially if it is particularly thick or of hardwood. Most of the holes on my bench are at one end, leaving the other end mostly solid, which works out well for different work.

BOTTOM: You can drill one or two holes in the bottom board to bolt the MB down instead of clamping it. I prefer to clamp, while Steve uses a bolt in the center of his which lines up with an appropriate hole in his sculpture bench to attach his MB. When he’s carving a large bowl he needs that extra clamping support.


* Dogs and Holdfasts: See dowel-dogs below. You can also easily make tapered dogs with a spokeshave or knife. Holes for dogs and holdfasts are spaced randomly about 1 1/2" apart across one half of my bench.

Wedge Clamps on Mini Bench* Wedge Clamp: Two 1" thick, 1 1/2" x 6" hardwood pieces with carriage bolts at either end can be set in holes in the bench top to space pieces about 3" apart (see photo). Saw several pairs of different width, long, hardwood wedges to be used to wedge work between the pieces. This is a simple clamp that works well for holding odd shaped work. As with most of this project, the size of your wedge clamp will depend on what size and type of work you will be doing. Find a secure spot to store your wedges and make extra, so you’ll have at least a few around when you want to use the clamp.

* Bench Top Clamp (orange clamp above photo): I’ve found a Jorgenson 3" bench top clamp to be quite handy on the mini-bench. I have several semi-permanently installed bolts for this clamp in both the MB top and my regular bench top, one positioned conveniently to clamp the back of the MB down to the bench top. The bolt is set just tight enough to hold the clamp, but loose enough that the clamp can be easily removed. The bolt then slips down just below the surface of the benchtop in a recessed hole when not in use. It is easy to reach under the bench and push it up for use.

* Shop Made Jigs: Infinite possibilities here. Drill, adapt, and create for whatever your needs or desires require.
Modified Bench Vise
* Modified Bench Vise (see photo): A wonderful adaptation with or without the mini-bench, this modified tool gets top honors from me. An inexpensive quick-release bench vice was purchased. The hold down clamp was sawn off. Leather-covered wooden jaws were bolted to the jaw faces. The cheap plastic handle on the threaded quick-release rod was replaced with a comfortable large, fluted, wooden handle, turning this into a very nice tool.

A circular base was made of 1 3/4" x 8 1/2" pine. A hole for bolting the base to the bench is drilled in the center, with recesses for both the bolt head on the top and a nut on the bottom to keep the bolt attached to the base. This will prevent having to open the vice jaws to push the bolt down every time you install it. Make sure your bolt is long enough to go through the base and the bench top with room for a comfortably large wing nut on the bottom.

You can drill holes around the perimeter to line up with holes in the bench top for bolt or dowel to keep the vise from rotating. Several holes allow you to rotate the vise as you work.

This traveling vise can be used anywhere it can be bolted or clamped. When not in use it can be stored on a shelf.

woodshop in houseLike many woodworkers and do-it-yourselfers, our workplace is full of handmade tools and jigs. They have soul that is starkly missing in factory made tools and accessories; assuming the item can be found for purchase at all, which it often can’t. It is amazing what even a little bit of handwork on a store bought tool will do for the feel of an item, both physically and psychologically. The proof is in their use. And our mini-benches, with or without the bells and whistles, get a lot of use.

* * * * * *

Copyright 2005 by Susan Robishaw

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Have you read  "Frost Dancing - Tips from a Northern Gardener"? A fun short read.

or "Homesteading Adventures"    Creating our backwoods homestead--the first 20 years.

and "Growing Berries for Food and Fun"   A journey you can use in your own garden.