2016 Aug. Tech Metal & Shop
One day I was looking around for something to use as an anvil. There wasn't much that was both "cheap" and "good". At the time, most of what I needed to do was straighten bent stuff, and maybe a little bit of mini-blacksmithing.
So I obtained a piece of scrap I-beam. Actually it's an H-beam (more about that later).
For a while it sat on the ground.
(This and other photos in the Rust Gallery, Page 2.)
As a friend remarked, it's pretty miserable to have to work on stuff all hunched over on the ground like that. Not so great for your back, or knees.
Then I got an idea...
We're going to talk about a super-easy metalworking bench that may be the handiest work surface you can make for under $200.
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In This Article
The Basic Idea
The Wooden Top
One More Thing
The Basic Idea
The idea was to build something that's easy, not that expensive, and yet strong. The metal work surface makes it suitable for pounding on metal, heating, and other stuff that would ruin a wooden top in short order.
I first made this in October 2015. Though I'd never seen another one exactly like it, probably a lot of farmers have been using similar ones since the mid-20th Century. It's so simple, but what an incredibly useful design for home-shop metalworking.
The steel I-beam section acts as a "farmer's anvil", and yes indeed you can do some types of blacksmithing on it. I wouldn't pound all day on this with a 4-lb hammer, but small forging and heat straightening are well within its capability. The I-beam flanges also allow you to clamp stuff for filing, hammering, sawing, grinding, tapping, drilling, and welding.
This workbench becomes even more useful if you drill 3/8" or 1/2" holes in the top of the I-beam, near one end of it, and mount a machinist vise. (See the photos).
You don't need a lot of tools to make this workbench, but there are some you can't do without. You will also use them for pretty much everything else you'd do in a backyard metal shop.
1. Angle Grinder. Steel that's been cut to length will have rough, sharp edges. Use a regular grinding wheel first, then a flap disc to finish.
2. Wrenches. These are needed to put the lag bolts in place, anchoring the battens or cross-pieces onto the 4x4 sections. Also needed if you attach a machinist vise onto your workbench. You could do this whole job with a pair of adjustable wrenches, even if a socket-wrench set would be quicker.
3. 10" Miter Saw. All the wood cuts can be made with a 10" miter saw such as this one, as long as the wood is nail-free. Another option is a standard circular saw. It requires more skill to make square cuts, but this is a rugged-rustic design anyway.
4. Power drill with HSS or cobalt bits. If you choose to mount a machinist vise to this bench, use cutting oil to help drill through the heavy steel. Or, if you don't want to drill it, you could just get this Wilton clamp-on instead. However, you'll still need the drill and bits for making the pilot holes in the wood beams. More about this soon.
You will also need a tape measure, a carpenter's square, and a pencil.
Get or make a pair of sturdy saw horses. These will hold the wooden top and the steel beam that sits on it.
It's possible to build permanent legs for this work table, but I liked the idea of sawhorses. Then, the whole thing can be moved in pieces. It's modular, as long as you're not thinking in terms of French cleats or something. You can use different parts of the table for something else, as long as you don't mind moving an 85-pound hunk of steel.
The saw horses I used here are not really that great. I already had them around, though. If you're going to do this right, get or make quality sawhorses that don't wobble or buckle when you move them. (For more such redneckery, see this article too.)
You might try a couple sets of McCoy Super Brackets. Sawhorses made with these are supposed to hold 4,000 lbs per set. Sawhorses, like punches and clamps, are one of those things you can never really have too many of.
The Wooden Top
The tabletop is built from four parallel beams of 4x4 lumber, each 45 inches long. Pressure-treated lumber will work, but it looks more rugged if you use untreated, rough-sawn 4x4's.
The beams will be battened together at each end of the tabletop. This will require two pieces of wood plank, each the same length as the combined width of the 4x4's.
You will also need eight lag bolts, maybe 3/8" diameter by two inches long. These will anchor the battens to the 4x4's, making the top basically one-piece.
If I were making another one of these, I would instead drill the beams and run a pair of 1/2" threaded steel rods through them, so they're anchored together near each end of the table top. You'll also need some of these, some 1/2" lock washers, and some 1/2" fender washers.
If you had the right clamps, you could also glue-laminate the beams together. (I would let that dry for about three weeks before removing the clamps...) Better yet, glue-lam it and run threaded rod.
I didn't weigh the wooden top, but it probably weighs forty or fifty pounds. This ain't no card table.
The ideal beam for this workbench is actually an H-pile or a wide-flange beam (WF or W). The H-pile is simply a type of wide-flange beam, designed to be pile-driven into the ground.
Don't use an "S" type (Standard) I-beam unless you want a much narrower work surface. The cross-section is too tall compared to the width. You'll want a beam with a cross-section that's about the same width as the height.
I used one that's about eight inches wide by eight inches tall. Flange thickness should be 3/8" to 7/16". A little thicker is OK.
This link has some dimensions for standard sizes. Here are a couple that are close to what I used:
W 8 x 31......height 8.00"......width 7.995".......flange thickness 0.435"........31 pounds per foot
W 8 x 35......height 8.12"......width 8.020".......flange thickness 0.495"........35 pounds per foot
Or, look for HP Bearing Pile. Here would be a good size:
HP 8 x 36.......height 8"......width 8 1/8".........flange thickness about 7/16"..........36 pounds per foot
These larger sizes are tough to find on Ebay, but give it a try. You may have to call around in your local area. Figure that a 32-inch length is going to weigh 80-some-odd pounds.
You WILL need an angle grinder and some accessory wheels to finish the edges and the surfaces.
A small vise will make this workbench a lot more useful. Mount it near one end of the H-beam, probably the left end if you're right handed. But that depends on which side you're facing.
I used an old drill-press vise which I'd gotten for a couple dollars; cheap price, but it's missing the swivel base and another part. It still works, though.
You'll have to drill the steel beam to mount this type of vise. Another alternative is to get this Wilton clamp-on vise, which actually looks pretty good for a clamp-on.
I don't think H-beams are hardened steel, but it took me well over an hour to drill two 1/2" holes in the flanges. I wonder if the steel was work-hardening as it was drilled? I'd even got one of those cobalt drill bits (fourteen bucks, I think it was!), went very slow, and used cutting oil. It was unbelievably slow.
Even with center-punching, the drill bit wanted to walk all over the place. The holes were mysteriously oval-shaped when it was all over. No idea; I'm sure some of you know the reason.
This type of machinist vise makes the workbench so useful that I would highly recommend getting one, even if you have to buy new. One nice thing is that if you later get a floor-standing drill press, you can always unbolt the machinist vise and use it on the drill press for a while.
For an 8" wide flange, the Palmgren 000 is about perfect. The mounting lugs are in the right locations. Sometimes you can find the Palmgren 000 through this link.
If your vise has a swivel base, make sure the mounting lugs are spaced the right distance apart to mount on your H-beam.
One More Thing
This table involves some heavy stuff sitting on a couple of saw horses. Give it some respect; don't let your pet llamas get underneath it or something.
That's all the more reason to get sawhorses that are made well. Good sawhorses on a level floor should have no reason to fall, unless you're in earthquake country. Then again, almost anything else would be a problem there, too.
OK, another thing... when you pound on stuff, such as forging or heat-straightening, keep the impacts on the center-line of the H-beam. That's where it's supported by the vertical web. Don't do any big hammering near the outer edges of the flanges, or you will eventually bend them.
This bench is modular, somewhat portable, and you can accessorize it. How cool is that? Just make sure to use quality sawhorses and a level floor, so it doesn't end up on your toes.
Because of where it fits in the progression of my recent worktables, I call this bench the Pounder, Mark II. It's actually my favorite design for metalworking. I've tried a lot of different workbench types over the years. I don't know how I ever did without one of these.
You can build this design rather easily; the only challenge part is to obtain the piece of steel H-pile or wide-flange beam. Eventually you will find a place that has one for sale; they might even cut it to the exact length for you.
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