How to Flatten a Workbench Top
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It is necessary? And if so, what are the best techniques?
Like any tool or machine, a workbench requires accessories (jigs, equipment, appliances) and occasional maintenance to actually do something of great value. A bench without a bench hook is a dining table. A bench with a cup-shaped worktop is an exercise in bewilderment and wasted effort.
There are several ways to flatten a workbench top, including some that are blatantly insane. But before moving on to the list of your options, I ask: does the top have to be flat?
Whenever I’m in an old barn, workshop or even an old shopping mall, I can’t resist rummaging through the bowels of all the old workbenches I find. When my wife and I take the kids on a hay cart, I end up in the chicken coop checking the 18th century wood screws on a face vise. When we visit living history museums, children chase animals and I ask the boy dressed as a cooper if I can browse the trolley on his bench.
I found little evidence that these shoals were flattened regularly. Many of them bear deep tool marks and varying ages. I’ve seen benches so worn from use that the edges look as round as a pillow. A bench I saw in Columbus, Ohio was so worn in one place that its 3-inch top was less than an inch thick.
And when I check books from the 19th and early 20th centuries, very little attention is paid to the workbench top. Although there are detailed instructions on sharpening, tool maintenance, and the act of building a counter, flattening its top is not often listed as routine shop maintenance. At most they will notice that the top should be flat.
There are several explanations for this:
1. Workbench flatness is overrated and is a product of our modern obsession with granite surface plates and dial clamps.
2. The first carpenters used “planing trays” – a disposable workshop fixture that attached to the counter and allowed carpenters to plane the scale parts of the cabinet at a variety of angles.
3. Or a flat workbench was so important to hand planers and furniture components that its flatness was a given.
I don’t have the answer, but I suspect all three are true to some degree. If you’ve ever done manual work on a bench that was cupped, bent, or twisted, then you know it’s not a good way to work. Downward pressure from a handplane (especially wood-bodied planes) can bend the work at a low point on the bench. When using long planes in particular, a low point will prevent you from gliding the board level.
You can use small wooden wedges under the butt to support it and keep it from bending down to a low point on your bench, but the problem is you’ll have a hard time knowing when your board is flat. A fairly flat workbench top is also a fair way to evaluate the flatness of other boards.
Two solutions for top
So my recommendation is that if you can handle a handplane (even just enough to make trouble), then you should either use a planing tray or make an effort to keep your top fairly flat. You can overdo it with this. There is no need to flatten the top using methods involving a machinist’s ruler and feeler gauges. And I would like to keep you away from methods using a router that runs on a cart suspended above your bench. I have seen people do this and it is very difficult to build these devices.
I think there are two clever routes: learning how to use a joint plane (flattening a workbench top is best practice for this) or removing the countertop and taking it to a furniture store that has a sander to work with. wide ribbon.
(Side note: Some models of workbenches can be flattened using domestic woodworking machines. One of these models has a worktop consisting of two 10 “wide thick plates with a 4” wide tool tray. width screwed together. Just remove the screws and run each 10 “wide slab through your hand plane. Reassemble! Side note: I don’t like tool trays, aka hamster beds.)
I can hear the workbench purists squirming from where I perch. Sending a workbench plan through a wide belt sander doesn’t incorporate it with grit that will ruin workpieces for future projects? Not in my experience. After dusting off the top and applying a finish, such as an oil / paint mixture, the grit becomes part of the finish.
Also, even though there is some # 220 grit in my countertop, that fine grit is much kinder to my work pieces than anything else set in my bench during my normal work: bits of dry glue, dyes, pigments and sporadic metal filings residues.
Flatten it with a handplane
Since I don’t have a wide belt sander, I prefer to use a handplane to do the job. Once you do this a couple of times, you’ll find it’s a 30-minute job and a lot less lifting than hauling a soft top across town. The first time I tried to flatten a desk with a handplane (years ago) I was 100% successful and barely knew what I was doing.
Flattening a countertop is like flattening a board onto one face. First remove the high points. These high points could be at the corners or there could be a hump all along the center (although I’ve never had one of these on my desk). Find the highest points using two wrap sticks: parallel lengths of hardwood or aluminum corners that are longer than the width of your bench.
Mark the highest points with chalk or pencil and work them with some brisk planing using a jack, bow plane or jointer set to take an aggressive cut and equipped with a domed iron. Come closer. Check your results with your winding rods.
Take your seam plane and work the entire top using diagonal strokes that overlap. Repeat the process by going diagonally backwards at the top. After each pass, your chips will become more and more regular. When the chips are long, the top is flat (enough). Now plane the entire top with the grain and use slightly overlapping strokes. It should take two or three passes to produce regular full length chips. You’re done. Then finish with some oil / paint mixture and get back to work.
Do you need details? Visual? I have prepared an illustrative essay of the process that should help you get started. My digital camera encodes each photo with the time it was taken. The first photo was taken at 10:46 am. At 11:44 I was done. And remember: I had stopped to take pictures about the process and each photo had to be illuminated with our photo lights. I think the photography took longer than the actual work.
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