If you know a kid who’s bursting with inventive ideas, this workbench is the perfect gift. Unlike most child-size benches, it’s not a toy. This is a real workbench, designed to withstand all of the challenges that a kid can pose. Its large work surface, generous storage space and built-in light make it perfect for a range of projects, from building birdhouses to creating scrapbooks.
Even a beginning woodworker can tackle this project. You can find all of the materials at a home center, and you can easily modify the dimensions to create a bench that’s the right height. I painted this bench, but you could also leave it unpainted and let it wear naturally. After all, the best sign of good workbench is the well-worn patina that develops over years of use.
Make the panels
Start by cutting the panels to the overall sizes in the cutting list shown in the PDF below. The easiest way to make the straight cuts is with a table saw, but a circular saw or jigsaw and straightedge will also do the job.
The subtop and work top are notched to fit between the legs, and the exposed corners are rounded to a 2-in. radius to eliminate sharp points. Lay out the cuts on one of the pieces. Then clamp them together and cut both pieces at the same time using a jigsaw. Leave the pieces clamped together and sand the cut lines smooth.
Instead of attaching hardware handles to the doors, I chose to drill handle holes. Use a 1-1/2-in.-dia. spade bit or hole saw to bore the handle holes. Use a router and 1/8-in.-dia. roundover bit to ease the edges of the handle holes, door edges and work top (photo 1). Sand the faces of all of the panels as well as the door edges.
After drilling one 1-1/2-in.-dia. handle hole in each door, round over the hole edges and outside edges with a router and 1/8-in.-rad. roundover bit.
Build the frame
Most of the workbench frame is built with standard dimension lumber (1x2, 1x4, 1x6), so all you have to do is cut the parts to length. The front rails are the only two pieces that must be ripped to a narrower width. A table saw is the best tool for this task, but if you don’t have one, you can rip the pieces using a circular saw and straightedge guide (photo 2).
Rip 2x4 boards to make the top and bottom front rails. An alternative to using a tablesaw to make these rip cuts is to use a circular saw and straightedge guide. This simple guide was made with a piece of 3/16-in. hardboard and a straight piece of 1x2 pine.
The front and back rails fit into notches that are cut in the front and back legs. Use a jigsaw to cut these notches (photo 3).
Cut the notches that will recess the front rails into the front legs. Drill a 1/4-in.-dia. access hole for starting the jigsaw blade in the inside corner of the lower notches.
Sand all sides of the frame parts smooth. Sanding the parts individually is much easier than sanding them after assembly.
Assemble the front legs and rails first. Position the front rails in the front-leg notches. Use a square to make sure that they are perpendicular and then drill two countersink and pilot holes at each joint. Attach the back rails to the back legs with glue and 1-1/4-in. brad nails (photo 4). Then attach the front rails to the front legs with glue and 2-1/2-in. wood screws.
Attaching front and back rails to front and back legs. Attach the back rails with glue and 1-1/4-in. brad nails and attach the front rails with glue and 2-1/2-in. wood screws. Use a square to make sure the side rails and legs are perpendicular.
Next, attach the side rails to the front and back legs. Apply glue to the leg where the rail will be attached. Then press the rail in place and check that it is perpendicular to the leg before attaching it with 1-1/4-in. brad nails (photo 5). The brad nails don’t provide a lot of structural strength, but they will secure the joint while the glue cures. If you don’t have a brad-nail gun, clamp the parts while the glue cures.
Attach the side rails to the front legs with glue and 1-1/4-in. brad nails and then flip the assembly over and attach the side rails to the back legs.
Cut the shelf and shelf back to length. Then notch the ends of the shelf and round the front corners. Attach the shelf to the shelf back with glue and 1-1/4-in. brad nails. Then attach the shelf assembly to the back legs with screws. Drill countersink and pilot holes for each screw.
The final step in the frame assembly is to attach the front leg fronts to the front leg sides and back leg backs to the back leg sides with glue and brad nails. Then attach the middle back post to the bottom back rail and top shelf back.
Paint the parts
Fill in the nailheads and screwheads with paintable wood filler. Sand all of the surfaces smooth after the filler is dry.
Use painter’s tape to mask off a 3/4-in.-wide strip along the sides of the outside face of the side and back panels. This area will be left unpainted to provide a better glue bond for attaching these panels to the frame.
Apply a coat of primer to the frame and panels. I used a dark-tinted primer to make it easier for me to get good coverage with the deep-tone paints that I had chosen. Lightly sand the parts again with 220-grit sandpaper after the primer is dry. Then apply two (or more) coats of paint.
To achieve a smoother finish, I added a latex paint conditioner called Flotrol to the paint and applied the paint with an HVLP sprayer (photo 6). Flotrol extends the paint’s open time (the time it takes to set), helping it flow out over the surface better, which minimizes application marks.
Prime and paint the frame and panels separately. You can brush or roll on the finish, but the fastest way to achieve a smooth finish is with an HVLP finish sprayer. Follow the sprayer and paint manufacturer’s recommendations for thinning the paint.
After the paint has dried, remove the masking tape that was stuck to the panels and finish assembling the workbench. Attach the side and back panels to the frame with glue and 1-1/4-in. brad nails (photo 7).
Remove the masking tape from the inside of the legs and panel edges. Then attach the panels with glue and 1-1/4-in. brad nails.
Next, mount the doors to the front legs with T-strap hinges. You can improve the strength of the hinge connections considerably by replacing the 3/4-in.-long wood screws that are typically included. Instead, use No. 8 x 1-in. machine screws and locknuts to fasten the hinges to the door and 1-1/2-in. wood screws to fasten the hinges to the front legs. Note: To avoid pinched fingers, don’t use snap-closing hinges on children’s furniture.
You can choose from a couple of different materials for the hanging-tool board. Pegboard featuring 1/4-in.-dia. holes is probably the most readily available choice, and many types of compatible hooks are available. But I chose to use slatted wall panels. They give the workbench a more modern look, and the hooks are less likely to fall out when a tool is lifted off the wall. Attach the tool board to the back-leg backs with 1-in. drywall screws (photo 8).
Attach the slat wall panels or pegboard to the back leg backs and middle back post with 1-in. dry wall screws.
The work light is an 18-in.-long under-cabinet fluorescent fixture that plugs into the wall. (The power switch is on the fixture.) Several other types of under-cabinet lights are available, but I prefer fluorescent bulbs because they stay cool. Mount the light to the underside of the shelf and drill a 1-1/4-in.-dia. hole for the plug to run through the hanging-tool board.
The final step is to attach the tops. Drill pilot and countersink holes through the subtop and attach it to the top rails with 1-1/4-in. screws. Then attach the work top to the subtop with 3/4-in. brad nails. If the work top gets worn out, you can easily replace it — and be thankful that your gift is being put to good use.