How to Flatten a Workbench
Have you ever wanted to repurpose an old workbench? Or are you desperately using a workbench that has not been cleaned or maintained for decades? A workbench is a staple in any woodworking shop or woodworking station. Call it a workbench, working area, working table or a working counter, the workbench is where almost all the work is concentrated. Whether you are measuring materials, joining different pieces together or finishing your project, you need a workbench where you can work safely, accurately and correctly. You need a clean and level workbench so you can precisely measure, cut and finish wood. You also need a good workspace where you can come up with creative ideas and awesome inspiration. A clean, sturdy and level workbench basically reflects that you are an efficient, reliable and careful woodworker that puts effort in cleaning his workstation.
Flattening a workbench uses the following materials. Take note that when using power tools such as power sanders or electric sanders, use special protection. Wear goggles, use earbuds and protect your hands with tight working gloves. Take extra precaution by reading the power tool manual or by watching training videos to learn how to use these tools correctly and safely.
Power sanders are used in finishing wood to create a smooth and flat surface for varnish or finish. Power sanders are preferred by woodworkers because these can cover more area than manual sanding and planning. Power sanders use sandpapers of varying grits to be able to completely and efficiently sand and finish a wooden surface. In flattening a workbench, a handheld electric sander is used to be able to maintain power from start to finish.
Take note that it takes time to handle a power sander. If this is your first time to handle this kind of power tool, talk to an expert, watch training videos and read operating manuals before you start. If you have questions on how to use a sander, feel free to ask an expert online or from anyone who has years of experience with this kind of tool.
50 grit sandpaper
This is one of the coarsest sanding paper grits and is usually the first one to be used in flattening a workbench. This grit will be able to remove paint, top coating of varnish and dirt that has remained on the workbench for years. 50 grit sandpaper is available in discs or in regular paper form if you would like to sand your workbench by hand.
60 grit sandpaper
This is a little on the finer side but still has a coarse texture. This sandpaper grit follows a 50 grit paper and is usually used to finish off what a 50 has done. Like the 50 grit, the 60 is also available in discs and regular paper sizes so you can sand surfaces by hand.
80 grit sandpaper
An 80 grit sandpaper is definitely finer than a 50 or a 60 and is used after removing the topmost layers of the workbench. The 80 is used to quickly show off the wood’s beautiful surface so it is ready for varnish and oil finish. 80 grit sandpapers are available in circular and regular shapes as well.
120 grit paper
One of the finest grits is the 120 grit and this is used in fine tuning and finishing projects. Wood surfaces will shine and will resist oil and dirt after a 120 grit paper has been used. In refurbishing a workbench you will likely use these grits in successions. From 50, 60, 80 to 120 and maybe finer but this is all up to how you will use your workbench.
A hand plane is a handy tool to use to quickly remove large irregular pieces of wood. This is a manual tool that can be either several inches long or as long as the width of our workbench. You need a hand plane to even out large pieces easily which could take a handheld sander minutes to do. If you have never used a hand plane before, talk to a professional or an experienced woodworker.
A jack plane is a kind of hand plane that has a stronger, larger grip. This kind of plane makes it easier to work on a larger and wider area compared to a regular plane and is also more efficient in removing larger and irregular areas.
A straight edge is a tool that will help you evaluate if an area is already even or not. You need a straight edge to determine the smoothness or if there are any irregularities in a table or a surface. A metal straight edge is recommended for this project and if possible the tool has to stretch across the surface of the table so you can cover and evaluate a larger surface in one sweep.
Varnish polyurethane film finish
A polyurethane varnish will cover the surface of wood and keep the surface slick and smooth. It also covers minute imperfections that cannot be covered by planning and sanding alone. Varnish also brings out the natural beauty of wood which is impossible to see if the surface was not treated with varnish. Polyurethane varnish also helps prevent the growth of molds, the presence of insects that can penetrate wood and prevent dirt from affecting the even surface of a newly flattened workbench.
Thin oil varnish. This is the finish used in the video. This varnish creates a smooth, luxurious surface that is perfect for preventing dust, dirt and grime from settling on the surface but is not as smooth as would diminish grip on different materials and tools. Waterlock is available in most hardware stores and woodworking outlets.
100 grit sandpaper
A 100-grit sand paper is used after a film of oil finish has been applied and this is just to cut through the slick finish. You do not need a slick and smooth finish if you plan to use your workbench for hammering, cutting and finishing then you have no use for a slick and shiny surface.
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How to flatten a workbench
Now that you are familiar with all the tools that you need to flatten a workbench it’s time to learn how to actually do it. A workbench can be newly built, borrowed or refurbished from an old door or dining table and no matter where you got your workbench; you need to know how to flatten it.
Why do you need to flatten a workbench?
There are many reasons why you need to flatten an existing workbench and here are a few of them:
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To make the workbench even
In all kinds of woodworking projects you need an even surface where you can cut, measure and fasten parts of your project. You need an even space to make sure that a table, shelf or ottoman you are building is level.
Remember that even the newest workbench will eventually change its shape, hump out or warp out and in time, you will eventually need to flatten it out.
To remove old paint
Paint can accumulate and could pile up creating uneven surfaces that can lead to uneven edges and surfaces in a workbench. Flattening out a workbench can help remove paint up to the initial layer of paint that has lodged in the surface of the bench. Old paint could also contain dangerous chemicals such as lead and this should be completely removed as well.
To remove hardware
Flattening a workbench also removes any kind of hardware that can cause uneven surfaces. If you are using an old door or table as a workbench then there is a huge possibility that the table still has hinges, screws and nails. One of the most important steps in flattening a workbench is first removing all hardware because these can also intervene with the actual flattening of a workbench surface.
To strengthen a refurbished table
As you flatten a workbench you will be able to check the entire surface of the table and thus evaluate the strength of the table, or the lack of it. Usually flattening ends up with strengthening the table and this is done by attaching braces to strengthen the legs and additional planes at the bottom or the sides to improve the table’s overall strength. If you use your table for most of you woodworking chores like cutting, measuring, fastening and finishing then this is your chance to improve your table’s strength before you undertake yet another project.
To match a new, modern workspace
Sometimes you just need a sleeker and cleaner table just to match a newly remodelled or repurposed shed or working area. It is definitely better to have a clean and well-maintained table than a dirty and uneven surface to work on in a new or old workstation or working space.
Because you have nothing else to do
Most woodworkers spend a great deal of time flattening their work space or workbench at the end of a few projects especially if projects were too tough on their benches. Take this as a TLC to a workbench since it prepares it for more work to come. If you have a new workbench then get ready to flatten and repurpose it after a few years just to maintain its even surface and good looks. But it you have an old workbench then you must flatten it at least once a year or after several projects has been finished.
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Step-by – Step Instructions
1. Check the surface
Before anything else, check the surface of the workbench that you are going to flatten out. There are many ways to do this. You can simply visually inspect the area for paint drippings, cuts, deep areas, humps, uneven surfaces and natural wood imperfections. As you visually inspect the area, use your hands to touch different areas as well.
Feel the area and inspect for deep crevices, humps and imperfections. Feeling the area is sometimes more reliable than visually inspecting it.
Another way to check the surface is by using a straight edge. Slowly move the tool along the surface of the table. Move from the sides to the middle and towards the back part of the table. Usually one side is lower than the other particularly on the side that you regularly use. You can also check for uneven surface by checking for light that has penetrated the edge of the straight edge or rule. Uneven lighting means that there are uneven surfaces while no light or only a few lights could mean that the surface is close to being even.
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2. Assemble your tools
Have all the tools mentioned above nearby so you can move quickly and more efficiently. Make sure that you have all sandpaper grits ready and replacement grits too so you can efficiently change grits as soon as possible.
3. Secure the table down
If you are flattening an old table surface then you must clamp it down so you can work more efficiently. Use large clamps to hold it in place and make sure that it won’t make unnecessary movements which could affect the outcome of the project.
4. Remove any hardware on the bench
Again, if you are refurbishing or flattening an existing table or door then there will surely be hardware attached to the wood like screws, nails, hinges, locks and more. Use a screwdriver, hammer or a pair of pliers to remove these carefully. Make sure to check the surface from top to bottom and from all sides of the table. Everything has to be ready before you start flattering the table.
5. Use a sander to remove the outer finish
Use a 50 then a 60 grit sandpaper to simply remove the outer finish. The outer finish is basically composed of old paint, dirt, grime, oil and any old varnish that has been sitting on the table surface for a while. 50 grit will scrape out the outer surface well but you need to follow up with a 60 to remove deeper dirt, grime and paint. Sand the surface for at least 15 to 20 minutes.
6. Take a straight edge and move it up and down to check for irregular surfaces
Use a straight edge to check the area for irregularities. Move the edge from side to side and in all directions. Use the light test to check if the surface is already even. Keep checking as you use the plane along the table; diagonal in two directions.
7. A few more passes with the jointer plane
Now use a jointer plane to remove larger chunks of uneven wooden surfaces. Start from the edge moving to the opposite edge of the table. A few passes could suffice. It is easier to work with a jointer plane especially if you are flattening a large area like a table or door. Make sure to hold on to the tool completely and carefully so have total control of your work.
8. Use a three-foot straight edge to check the workbench
Now use a straight edge to check the work that you have done using a jointer plane. Use a light technique to spot imperfections. Feel the area with our hands too to look for areas that you need to concentrate on. Just like using the jointer plane, move from one section to the opposite section, making sure that you have checked and covered every area on the table surface.
9. Use a sander to remove hand plane ridges 50, 80 to 120 grit
It’s time to use a combination 50, 80 and 120 grit sandpaper to remove hand plane ridges more effectively. Take time to use the 50 grit and if possible make two or three passes with the sander to ensure an even surface. Then, take the 80 grit and work on the workbench for two to three passes as well. You will see now that the area is smoother and the plane markings have completely disappeared. Now use the 120 grit sandpaper to finish the job.
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10. Decide if you want to apply finish depending on how you use the workbench
You can apply finish or not on a newly flattened workbench and this all depends on how you use your workbench. If you mainly use the table for fastening, cutting and measuring then you may just leave the area as it is. But if you do a lot of painting and finishing on the table then you must have varnish or finish to protect the area completely.
11. Apply varnish
If you have decided to apply varnish then use a thin film only. Use an old rag or cloth to apply a thin coat and then leave it to dry. Use a 100 grit sand paper to sand it out after it has completely dried. This will remove the shine but still allow the varnish to protect the wood from dirt, grime and paint spills.
12. Sand the front edge of the workbench
You must also give the front, back and side edges of the workbench a good TLC. Use the sander with a 50 to 60 grit paper to cut through the old paint, dirt and oil that may have accumulated over the area. You can also use your plane to finish this off.
13. Make sure that the front edge is 90 degrees to the top
If you use the workbench for measuring and cutting then the side or front edges have to be 90 degrees from the top. The only way to achieve this is also to remove the outer layer and to sand it for at least 15 minutes.
14. The workbench is ready to be used
The YouTube video “How to Flatten your Workbench” is from Highland Woodworking. The video has been published on January 23, 2017 and was hosted by Scott Morton. Highland Woodworking is the author of a number of videos related to woodworking with a focus on a number of woodworking strategies and techniques and the use of various tools. Their official YouTube profile page is https://www.youtube.com/channel/UChYK4HS3hVQmsr6OEHZDDzQ. The video “How to Flatten your Workbench” already has more than 14,000 views.
Flattening a workbench takes time and patience but will prepare and maintain it for more projects to come. A workbench is very important in any woodworking station because this is where you work or projects, where cutting, shaping, measuring and finishing is done. No wonder it needs to be maintained time and time again. Flattening a working table ensures that it is even and it will provide a perfect surface if you need to measure and cut precise pieces for any project. You also need a good and steady table to work on to make sure that you stay safe and secure while you work
Flattening a workbench also requires special tools among these tools are the sander which is an indispensable power tool that can cut through outer coats of paint, dirt and oil. Another important tool is the hand plane; a basic hand tool but no less important in removing large chunks of wood. And of course, a straight edge is used to evaluate if the surface is even and ready to use. In more ways than one, visually inspecting the surface and touching the surface of the table also helps evaluate the smoothness of the surface as well.
Applying varnish or an outer coat of oil is basically up to you. If you prefer a smooth surface to work on then you may use varnish however if you want raw newly flattened wood then you can use the table as it is.
Do you have your own tips on how to flatten a workbench? We would love to hear it. Tell us about it from the comments section. And of course, please share this article with friends and family if you like it.