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Workbenches and Building Surfaces for Building Models

May 05, 2015

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There are three parts to your work bench:  The bench top, the frame and legs and the building surface.  The building surface should be a separate, replaceable component.

I think a good bench must have several qualities.  It must be as absolutely flat as you can get it.  Most of the components of a model aircraft are built on the board and will only be as straight as the surface they are built on.

I use jigs as much as possible but some parts need to be built on a flat surface.  If you do not use jigs then all the parts need to be built on a flat surface.

The bench itself must be flat to begin with but in most cases it will not remain flat unless the frame and legs can keep it that way.

I can not stress enough the importance of having a solid, stable bench.

My main workbench for building flying model aircraft.Good work benches are heavy.  You will be cutting, sawing and sanding parts on the bench.  If it is not heavy and well braced it will tend to move around which is not only annoying but actually increases the amount of work you end up doing.

Any movement by the bench is work force taken away from the component you are working on.  Bench movement also increases the chances of slipping and making mistakes.

If you decide to use a card table as a bench then do not be surprised when things keep falling off of it due to it shaking when you start sanding or sawing. 

My carpentry skills are nothing to brag about so you should probably consult with a local cabinet or furniture maker for techniques to building a good frame for your workbench.  My approach in the past has been to use 4" x 4" legs with a 1" x 6" frame.

The bench was trussed and the legs had adjustable supports to allow me to level the bench.  I never really trusted that the bench wouldn't begin to sag in the middle but mine held up fairly well.

You will want your work bench surface to be as large as possible.  I have never heard of or seen a bench that I thought was too big.  A larger surface allows you to build more components at the same time.  This is important to me because I primarily use slow-drying glues.

I can glue up one assembly and then move to the next while waiting for glue to dry.  You will need room to fabricate and work on individual parts, so you do not want your entire bench to be used by the component you are building.

My first "good" building surface was made from a heavy, solid-core door.  It lasted for years and never warped.  I got rid of it when I joined the service because I knew I would be living in barracks and did not see any point to dragging it all over the world with me.  It wasn't absolutely flat but it was close enough.

My current workbench has a 1/2" x 4' x 8' tempered glass plate on top of a 3/4" MDF bench/storage unit.  It wasn't cheap but it is the best bench I have ever owned.  I spent quite a bit of time leveling the glass.  Even though the bench is square, it can flex and the shop floor isn't even close to being flat.

It is extremely important that the bench top is flat, so taking the time to get it that way is time well spent.  In my case, that required several strategically places shims.  I have to check it every so often because the shims are wood and can slowly be crushed over time.  Although it's not as important as being flat, being level is also nice so that things like round-handled knives aren't always rolling off the bench and into your foot.

If you have the room, set up your work bench so you can access it from all sides especially if using a larger bench.  I originally had my bench against a wall which made it difficult for me to reach across it especially when using a jig that raised the component several inches above the surface.  There are several times I managed to snap a piece off a wing that was in my Ajusto-Jig when trying to reach across it.

At the top of the photo you can see a desk that I use for fine detail work.  I like to stand when doing general construction, but when I need to do very fine, delicate or precise work, then I find I have better control when sitting.  I also build plastic models at this desk.


Utility Benches

Build a utility bench to keep "dirty" work away from your main bench.In model building there is "clean" work and "dirty" work.

Clean work produces things that can be swept up and does not damage anything.  This includes wood shavings, sawdust, covering scraps, etc.

Dirty work is gritty, drips solder, requires oil or produces metal shavings basically things that can soak into the work bench or leave grit behind that can damage the model.

Wood chips probably reside in the latter category but I still consider them to be "clean dirt".

I have a utility bench for doing dirty type of work.  It gets ugly quickly.  The bench surface is 2' x 6' x 3/4" MDF with a 2 x 4 frame and 4 x 4 legs.  It does not have to be flat just solid.  I don't build on it.

This is a good bench to mount a heavy vise to.  If you do not have room for a second bench then try to take this kind of work outside.  You really want to keep crud away from your main building bench.

Because my shop is already over-crowded, I could not make my utility bench as large as I want it.  Often I need to move tools out of the way to make room so I can use another tool.  For example, when I have to drill holes in a fuselage side using my drill press, I normally have to move my disk/belt sander.

On the shelf above the bench are several large ceramic floor tiles.  This is a charging station for various batteries.  The wall is cinder block.  The tiles and wall will help prevent a fire from spreading should something go horribly wrong during a charging session.  All the chargers are on a switch which I turn off whenever I am not in the shop.

Also note the heavy-duty power strip mounted on the wall above the bench.


Building Surfaces

Do not build directly on the workbench.  Use a piece of ceiling tile or dry wall as a building surface.  Pins can be pushed easily into both of these materials and they hold the pins fairly securely.  Ceiling tile and drywall will conform to the shape of the underlying surface.

These two items are not flat on their own and will curl and warp.  For that reason I will either use a light coat of spray glue to hold them down or some type of weight.  Keep in mind that you will have to replace it at some point they do not last forever.

If you go the spray glue route and use too much it is a real pain to remove the tile.  If you have a wood bench then you should coat it with polyurethane so you can clean up the spray glue with mineral spirits when you remove the tile without damaging the bench surface.

I have almost completely converted to building with magnets, but I still keep a piece of ceiling tile handy for times when it is the better choice of building surface.

Do not cut directly on your building surface.  Use a cutting matt, old cardboard, paneling scrap or whatever.  Likewise, be careful about spilling glue and paint on your building surface.  You will be glad you took care of it.

I read a web page where the author said that real builders are slobs and have glue and paint dripped everywhere.  I consider myself to be a "real" builder and one thing you will not see in my shop is a workbench that looks like a kitchen cutting board.  Of course you probably will not see the workbench at all because every square inch of it has something on it but not spilled glue and paint.

A lot of parts are built directly over the plans.  To protect the plans and prevent them from becoming a permanent part of the model, go to your local building supply and buy a package of polyethylene (polypropylene?) drop cloth material.  It is inexpensive and glue does not stick to it (water-based and epoxy glues will not CA might and you should check before building).  A package will last for several models.  In fact, instead of just covering the plan, cover the entire table to protect it from glue drips, etc.

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Copyright 2002 Paul K. Johnson