We moved to a new house about a year ago and in that time I’ve replaced all the downstairs flooring, wired stuff, built a patio, built a patio cover, built a fire pit, refinished two cabinets and a table, planted a lawn (that died), and cut down a problem tree. All this, however, and I still haven’t built a passable work bench and though I do some of my best work on my knees, working on projects on a concrete garage floor sucks.
So, I’ve decided to build a modest work bench and I’m going to do it as cheaply as humanly possible while still making it respectably sturdy. How cheap? Like less than $20US if you scrounge a little and free if your Craigslist game is strong.
- 2 (two) preferably queen sized metal bed frames. I had one already and picked up another at Goodwill but Craigslist had bunches for free.
- 1 (one) 4′ x 8′ sheet of OSB or plywood thick enough to be a work surface, I used standard 7/16″ thickness OSB.
- Hacksaw (I suggest 18-24 tpi blade).
- Electric drill with a sharp 1/4 inch drill bit.
- Tape measure.
- Claw hammer.
- Hub Brewing Abominable Winter Ale. (Okay, you don’t need this but I enjoyed a couple while building this project.)
- Method of attaching materials:
Not absolutely necessary but really nice to have:
- Scribe or Sharpie marker.
- Speed square or a framing square.
- Center punch. NOT an automatic one, just a good hard piece of steel with a point.
- C-clamps, spring clamps, or locking pliers.
I purposely built this project using very basic tools but cheated a little and used a power cut off saw on some parts because I’m taking photos of everything and I was losing the daylight. Obviously, if you have a metal cutoff saw, drill press, band saw, plasma cutter, OMAX waterjet, phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range, etc, you can use those too.
We’re going to use bed frames, which are basically “angle iron” or steel angle, as a cheap source of materials. If you want you can buy steel angle online, at home stores, or at specialty purveyors of metallurgical goods but with something like this, I wouldn’t. I even wrote an article about why I don’t buy metal online.
Also, here’s a couple things to keep in mind as you work on this project, modify my plan, or create your own:
- If in doubt, over build. I’m not a structural engineer so I play it safe and build things stronger and beefier than they probably need to be. This is a modest work bench so bed frames should be adequate for this application.
- Materials are strong in some directions and weak in others. Design your projects to make the most of a material’s strengths then use materials in ways where they can help each other carry the load.
- Generally speaking, joints and connections are inherently the weak parts. Don’t count on a bolt or rivet or screw too much and design your projects so that the bulk of force is applied against where that connection is strongest.
We start with a bunch of bed frame pieces (or rails) and you’ll notice right away that there are brackets and wheels riveted to our angle iron that must go if we’re going to use them how we want for this project.
The easiest way to remove a rivet I’ve found is with a drill. Drill through the head about 1/3 the length of the rivet then whack it with a hammer a few times and normally the head that was holding the parts together will shear right off. The trick is to use a drill bit as close to the same size of the rivet shaft as possible. If it doesn’t go the first time, drill more or use a larger drill bit.
While drilling the rivets out is a fairly quick process, if you can avoid that all together by simply trimming off the bracket end, do it. You’re going to need to cut these rails for length any way, why not solve two problems at once? Just do me a favor and recycle any scrap metal because it can be reused over and over.
Alrighty, after a bunch of hard work we’re left with steel angle that we can make all kinds of stuff out of. Notice that some of the rails are 1″ x 1″ while the larger ones are 1.25″ x 1.25″. This is where you’ll need to do a little seat-o-pants engineering on this as I have only a rough idea of the dimensions of your rails so you’ll need to work with what you have. If a piece you have doesn’t work, adapt the plan until it does.
And here’s the plan. You’re going to need to cut your salvaged angle iron into roughly the following dimensions:
- 4 (four) horizontal rails 48″ long.
- 4 (four) legs 34″ to 36″ long.
- 4 (four) cross pieces 24″ long.
- 2 (two) lateral braces roughly 33″ to 37″ long.
Notice how I leave some wiggle room in the dimensions? For instance the pieces I selected to be my legs turned out being 34 1/2″ after I cut two longer pieces into four legs as that’s all there was enough metal for. That’s fine, roll with what you’ve got.
Take two legs and two of your 48″ horizontal rails and weld them into a box shape with legs out the bottom. I suggest using a square and tacking them together as heat does funny things to metals and compensating for heat distortion effects is an art in itself. Get the frames tacked together then double check the squareness by measuring corner to corner (if they’re the same then it’s square). Do the same with two more legs and two more horizontal pieces and don’t be afraid to “gently tweak” them with a large hammer to make sure they’re square before you weld them for real. It’s angle iron, you’re not going to hurt it.
(Yes, my welds look like shite. I was having an off day and ground issues. Yeah, that’s it, ground issues…)
Now we’re going to weld the 24″ crossmember pieces in to complete our great big box with legs. Clamps are invaluable on a project like this and you can get them for cheap.
BOLT TOGETHER INSTRUCTIONS:
Okay, so every connection I mentioned above can be bolted together rather than welded. Bolts will take longer and could eventually loosen up but if a welder is outside your financial resources, it’s certainly a cheap and accessible option [insert mom joke here].
Dry fit all your pieces together and mark then center-punch where you need to drill for your bolts.
I suggest when you drill the bolts holes, clamp the pieces together (if possible) and drill them at the same time so there is less chance the holes will be misaligned. Here I used a piece of lumber to help support and line up two pieces I was going to drill.
Other than the drilling and bolting, the assembly instructions for this project are essentially the same no matter how you put it all together.
Once you’ve got your box all assembled, measure for two lateral supports. You should have the extra material left over and these supports will significantly stiffen the whole frame. The easiest way is to just lay them on the frame and mark them in place before cutting.
After cutting them to length, it should be a relatively easy task to either weld them in place or carefully mark and drill them to attach to existing bolts already holding horizontal pieces in place. When all is done, you should have something sort of looking like this:
As I said above, materials are strong in certain directions and weak in others. Using boxes and lateral supports like this allows us to use materials in ways where they’re really strong and in this case, all 200 pounds of me was doing dips in the middle of this relatively thin frame and it was rock solid.
Now we can attach our plywood. You can certainly buy several pieces of 2′ x 4′ “project panels” at about 5 bucks each or you can buy a single sheet for around 8 bucks and Home Depot will cut it for free. It’s easy to have them rip a standard sheet of 4′ x 8′ plywood or OSB into four 2′ x 4′ pieces and you’ll come out money ahead.
I used two pieces for the top surface and just set the other two on the lower rails to act as a shelf. If you’re worried about strength and stiffness still, you can bolt a piece of plywood to the back as a back wall. If you bolt it on at least all four corners, you’ll add another level of stability and stiffness as the plywood is very strong on that axis and won’t let the the vertical pieces flex back and forth much at all.
Drill and bolt the top two pieces of plywood in place on all four corners (at least) and you’re done!
Like I keep saying, this is merely a recipe or guideline. Tweak these plans any way you need to or want to, as long as you follow the principles of mutually supportive structures and using materials where they are strongest, you can whip up a great little work bench or whatever you want.
Have fun but if you get stuck, take a break. This project took me a couple days and a moderate amount of cursing but if you screw something up, it’s not a big deal. Fix it, change the plan, or scrap it and start over. This project is super cheap for a reason [insert mom joke] and when you’re done you have a veritable launch pad for all you over projects!
Feel free to add comments or ask questions below.