Cutting Tool Engineering
February 2011 / Volume 63 / Issue 2

Workbench and working comfort basics

By Tom Lipton

Shops need several types of specific workbenches and worktables. All should be of sturdy construction, because a rickety workbench is annoying.

The main types of workbenches are basic work and assembly, welding and mobile. All three have special requirements. When the budget is tight, many shops build their own during slack time.

A basic assembly and work version should be rectangular with a maximum width of 36 ". Much wider and it’s hard to reach across. We surface our general benches with a whiteboard material called melamine that is similar to what is used for dry erase boards. We also add a short rim on three sides on some of the benches near machinery to keep tools and parts from rolling off.

A table height of 36 " to 40 " is appropriate for most workers. A lower height causes back pain after a long day. Generally, higher is for fine work and lower is for heavy work.

Light-colored replaceable tops reflect light and make small parts easier to see. When they get beat up, changing the tops makes the tables look brand new. Beware of the lower shelf; it’s an area that tends to collect junk.

Courtesy of T. Lipton

A short rim on three sides keeps tools and parts from rolling off a workbench.

I used to believe that the only things in a shop that should be on wheels were a hand truck and forklift. I have since changed my mind. For maximum versatility, most—if not all—workbenches should be on wheels, with the exception of heavy welding tables and benches that have heavy machinery attached to them. These need to be stable to do decent work.

To clarify this a bit, the wheels need to be swivel ones with a brake and swivel lock. Otherwise, skip putting wheels on a workbench.

Having most workbenches on wheels allows reconfiguring a workspace quickly for any job. Such workbenches are easier to move for cleaning or if more floor space is needed for a large project. For job shops that never quite know what will crawl through the door, bringing the table to the job is beneficial.

Mobile workbenches and carts are much smaller than regular workbenches. These are used to move raw material and parts between machines and processes. High-quality wheels are a must for these often-overloaded carts.

Small is beautiful for mobile carts because of where they are used. They are easy to stow and push around because they have a load limit of 200 lbs.

Furniture dollies can also be used to move heavy plates and boxes to different work centers. They are cheap, store relatively flat and roll easily. Carpet on the surface keeps loads from sliding off.

In addition to having appropriate workbenches, a shop’s environment is critical for enhancing efficiency. Because many metalworking shops start out as warehouse spaces, they are typically cold in the winter and hot in the summer. If you can, insulate the space and then add dedicated heating and cooling equipment. Typically, these areas need to be kept at different temperatures than office spaces, so be sure they have their own climate controls. I don’t think anyone would complain if the temperature remained at 68° F all year. This also keeps precision measuring equipment closer to calibration standards.

The food preparation and eating area should also not be overlooked. Every engine needs fuel, and every shop needs a refrigerator and at least one microwave oven.

If you have two or more microwaves, you can designate one for questionable food items and forensic leftovers. There is always one person who has to heat a fermented mackerel and sardine casserole to the temperature of the sun’s surface, permanently contaminating the oven.

The lunch room should be separate from the shop. It’s nice to sit down and not hear CNC machines running while you’re taking a break. A large table promotes camaraderie and boosts morale. And be sure to leave work-related magazines in the lunch room. CTE

TomLipton.tif About the Author: Tom Lipton is a career metalworker. Lipton’s column is adapted from information in his book “Metalworking Sink or Swim: Tips and Tricks for Machinists, Welders, and Fabricators,” published by Industrial Press Inc., New York. The publisher can be reached by calling (888) 528-7852 or visiting By indicating the code CTE-2011 when ordering, CTE readers will receive a 20 percent discount off the book’s list price of $44.95.
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