Building a Workbench During the Covid-19 Pandemic
When the Covid-19 pandemic began in early 2020, people everywhere experienced unexpected changes and constraints. For many, these new challenges felt strange, like working from home, wearing masks, not getting too close to people we used to hug, and yes, even wondering when toilet paper would be available again. For most of us, what was once normal, now felt distanced and limited. Throughout my anxieties and fears, the three constants that I used to cope with all of the uncertainty were my family, friends, and woodworking.
I’ve appreciated and attempted woodworking for three decades. Still, I feel awkward calling myself a woodworker because that implies that I have a level of knowledge and skill that I don’t have. Three years ago, I started carving wooden spoons, and I’ve grown comfortable calling myself a spoon carver. I think it’s because a wooden spoon is humble yet functional, which summarizes my philosophical goals with woodworking.
My first pandemic woodworking project was in April 2020. I decided to build a simple bookcase with lumber left over from the bed I made for my son before the pandemic began. I borrowed a Nobex miter saw and a few clamps from friends. Spring arrived, so I put it together outside in my driveway. Neighbors passed by and asked me questions about it from a distance. I finished it, and it felt incredibly satisfying to work within the constraints I faced. It also made me realize how helpful it would be to have a workbench instead of using chairs or my spoon carving stump as a work surface. I decided that a workbench would be my next project.
My wife, eight-year-old son, and I walked every day in the morning and the evening during the pandemic. We started to explore the alleys in our neighborhood to avoid the awkward dance of social distancing when we met up with other walkers on the sidewalks. We were also curious about what people were throwing out on trash day, especially after finding a handmade oak child’s desk in excellent condition tossed out next to a garbage can. We cleaned it up, and our son used it during his distance learning. It became a treasure hunt, and I was always on the lookout for lumber and happily dumpster diving for wood offcuts whenever I saw them.
One day in late summer, as we walked down an alley, I saw a lot of wood in the trash. I came back with my car and found a man cleaning out his garage. I asked him if I could have the wood. He said yes, and then went into his garage and brought out even more. There were 20 boards and every size of dimensional lumber that you could imagine. As I loaded the 4 x 4 cedar posts into the car, I started to see the base of a workbench forming in my imagination. I asked if he was getting rid of any hand tools, and he said no, but then asked if I wanted some clamps. You can never have too many clamps, and I didn’t have any, so I said, “Yes, of course!” He gave me three DEWALT 50 inch clamps, and little did I know the crucial role these clamps would play.
After I decided that I wanted to make a workbench, I started researching different designs. I read Chris Schwarz’s books about workbenches and watched old episodes of The Woodwright’s Shop. I also exchanged many emails and socially distanced conversations with my friend David, who has guided me through many previous woodworking projects. My head was full of ideas, and in my imagination, I envisioned a stunning Nicholson bench with beautiful joinery. When I looked at my pile of found lumber, I humbly let go of all that and started work with what was at hand, and in the end, it was the constraints of materials, skills, tools, and shop space that determined the final design of my bench.
After looking at all of the plans, I decided to do my own thing with some heavy influence from workbench designs by Drew Langsner and Asa Christiana. The goal was to make a small but sturdy and heavy bench with an adaptable flat top. Plus, keep the project easy and inexpensive. I decided to use bolted butt joints because I didn’t have the skills or tools to do any other type of joinery.
I only used a handful of tools – a drill with bits, a miter saw to ensure precise cuts for the butt joints, and the three DEWALT clamps. I scribbled out measurements on scrap paper and then selected wood that I thought would work the best. I made a few mistakes with cutting the posts and adjusted the length of the bench to accommodate for the error. In the end, the most crucial tool was the clamps, which allowed me to hold the bench together, drill the holes for the bolts, and then assemble it by myself.
After constructing the frame, I looked at the wood left and pondered how to make a benchtop. The remaining boards had lots of knots, so I resigned myself to the fact that I would probably have to buy wood for the top, but the principle of that thought gnawed at me. I wanted to make the entire bench from found wood, so I kept putting off a trip to the lumber yard.
My friend David, who knew about my workbench project, called me early one morning and said that he had just found a maple butcher block table in a neighbor’s trash. I hurried over to his house, and I saw him standing by it. While he waited for me to arrive, he had politely prevented two other people from taking it. The table top’s measurements were 24 x 48 inches – precisely the size I needed for my workbench.
The total cost for my workbench was about $40.00 for the bolts, nuts, and washers that I bought at my local hardware store. I started boasting a bit about my good fortune. I was proud of my resourcefulness, frugality and that I save a lot of lumber from going to the landfill. And the cherry on the sundae was undoubtedly finding the butcher block top that was the perfect dimensions and free. Everything had been so perfect, and then, as I was enthusiastically securing the top to the frame to finish the project, my driver bit torqued a tiny fragment of metal from an old screw that I was using and flung it into my eye. Of course, I wasn’t wearing safety glasses!
In a fraction of a moment, all of my pride dimmed into deep disappointment with myself. As the blood began to pool in my eye, I anxiously talked to a nurse on the phone, hoping that I wouldn’t have to go to the hospital. Still, after so many months of deliberately social distancing myself and staying home to be safe, I knew I would have to go to the busiest hospital in my city and have someone put their fingers near my eye. I was a fool! Yet a fortunate one because after examining my eye, the doctor later told me that it was just a scratch and didn’t require surgery. Lesson learned! Wear your safety glasses, especially during a pandemic.
As a wooden spoon carver, I loved the idea that I could work with wood without many tools or a workshop. However, after making the bookcase early in the pandemic and seeing it filled with my books, I realized how satisfying it was to make simple furniture for my home. To continue to make furniture, I needed a flat, sturdy space where I could assemble, chisel, plane, or saw in a safe, efficient, and reliable way.
Yes, I would love a beautiful Nicholson or Roubo workbench made with precise joinery from Southern yellow pine and complete with holdfasts and multiple vices. But that is not who I am as a woodworker. I’m far from fancy. I’m just a cobbler who finds satisfaction in fabricating simple, functional furniture from found lumber. My designs and skills were based mostly on guesswork. My workbench seems to be rock solid, but who knows how long it will last – a question that I often wondered about my own life during the past year. The lessons that I’ve personally learned living through the Covid-19 pandemic are to focus more on the present, be creative within the constraints that come my way, and be grateful for what you can find and use in your life journey.
This essay was originally published in Quercus Magazine.