© Brian Meek
V1.02, All Rights Reserved
Disclaimer: Completing this project will involve the use of power tools. Please observe all safety precautions, including safety glasses, protective clothing, and hearing protection. Any use you may choose to make of this information is entirely at your own risk.
Goal: Building a solid, professional quality jeweler’s bench, while spending as little money as possible.
One old wooden desk (or reasonable facsimile thereof.)
Pine 1x8’s, about 12 feet worth.
Pine 2x6, about 4 feet long
1 – 4x4 of 3/8 (thin) plywood
11 – 3 inch right angle braces (with screws)
6 – 6 inch steel plate straps (with screws)
1 – strip of .050” metal, 36 x 1 inch.
Screwgun. (Cordless drill.)
Circular saw (Saber saw can substitute, but helpful if available.)
Table Saw. (Only for the file rack. Circular saw can substitute with extreme care.)
Electric sander & sandpaper. (Not required, but probably helpful)
Wood stain to match fresh wood to existing color of desk. (Not required, but spiffy.)
There are a variety of very nice, very expensive jeweler’s benches available on the market. When I first began to do jewelry, I couldn’t afford any of them. So I cast about for a solution.
Thus was FrankenBench born. More accurately: reborn. Thanks are due here to my undergrad professor, Michael Jerry, who introduced me to the original FrankenBench. He has a more evolved sense of humor than mine, so it would never have occurred to him to call it a FrankenBench. It was just the latest in a long string of improvisations and improvements that he had made to the college shop. Carrying on the tradition, I taught a ‘build your own shop’ class at Santa Barbara City College’s adult-ed jewelry program. The photos that accompany this are from the construction of one of the 2 FrankenBenches we built during that class.
The essence of the FrankenBench is very simple: find an old wooden desk, take the top off, jack it up to whatever height seems right, cut a half-moon workstation out of the raised top, and get to work. The actual mechanics of it aren’t a whole lot more complex. I built mine in the summer between university and grad-school, and it’s been with me ever since. For a grand total of about $50, I ended up with a bench that’s stood up to everything I could throw at it for years, and is tailored to my exact needs and preferences. It also packs and moves pretty easily. I’ve used ‘real’ benches professionally, and could buy one now if I wanted. I don’t. My FrankenBench is old, and ugly, but he’s a good friend, and solid as a rock. What more could I want?
One note on my FrankenBench(es). I learned a lot early on from European trained jewelers, and then ended up in school in London myself, which means that I prefer a bench with a deep half-moon cutout, rather than the more flat-fronted benches common in the US. The plans I’m presenting here are for a European style bench. Personally, I vastly prefer them, especially when engraving. Try it, you’ll like it. If you’re dead set on a more American style bench, just make it nearly flat-fronted, and add arm rests.
The original condition of FrankenBench Mk II. Any mystery about why I got it for free?
The good news is that we don't care: we're building a jeweler's bench, not a showpiece.
Step one: Scrounge a desk.
This may be the hardest part. Old wooden desks are getting harder and harder to find. What you’re looking for are the old wooden ‘teachers’ desks with the removable tops. The top needs to be wood because you’re going to cut into it. Some desks have drawers on both sides, some only one. My FrankenBench only has drawers on the right, but the one we modified in class for the photos here had drawers and a typewriter till on the left too. Either will work. I find it easier to fit the smaller bench through doors, and to integrate it into various studio spaces.
On the day, it’s likely that the choice will be made for you by whatever type of desk you can scrounge up. Check the local garage sales, goodwill stores, and Craigslist if you have it. (If you’re planning on surviving as an artist-metalsmith, you should already be in the habit of keeping an eye on these resources anyway.) Be patient. Sooner or later, one will float by. Knowing that I was going to need one (or two) for the class I taught, I started looking 6 months out. Eventually, I did find this big old desk. For free. (Look at the shape it was in. Totally useless to anybody who wasn’t planning on drastic surgery. Of this, deals are born.)
The desk with the top off, and the locking mechanism in the drawer stack.
Step two: Jack it up (and lock it down).
On most of these desks, the tops are held in place by a number of screws from the body of the desk into the underside of the tabletop. Find and remove them. The tabletop should lift off.
Set it aside for the moment. Investigate the carcass of the desk. You will probably discover that the drawer stack(s) need tops, as they were intended to be covered by the tabletop which you’re planning on raising. This is what the plywood is for. Eventually the tops of the drawer towers will be covered with the plywood, but only after we finish modifying the body of the desk. Remove the center drawer. Look at the slides for the center drawer, probably near the rear: There is likely to be a pin or catch sticking out that controls an internal locking mechanism for the drawers in the drawer stacks. This can be modified to allow you to lock the bench drawers. The exact nature of that lock will depend on how your particular desk is set up, but be aware of that pin, and what it may be used for. They typically engage by being driven either up, down, or backwards by the rear of the center drawer. Being a metalsmith, you can devise some method of locking that pin down, should you require it.
Step 2A: Know thyself.
Once the tabletop is off, it can be raised to whatever height seems right. But what height is right for you? I’m tall. My bench won’t fit you. Yours shouldn’t fit me, either. The notion of ‘fitting’ furniture to a person seems odd, but it’s necessary in this case. The whole point a jeweler’s bench is not to become a support for ever greater quantities of toys, it is to support the work–and the worker–in a comfortable position, for hours at a stretch. I’m sure we’ve all worked at benches that were a tad too low, and felt the back-strain at the end of the day. Getting the bench height right is a primary step in solving that problem.
Find the chair you intend to use. Ideally, it should be adjustable for height. Adjust it so that you’re sitting comfortably, with your feet flat on the floor, or slightly out in front, whichever seems most comfortable. Sit up straight. Now have someone measure the height from your armpit down to the ground. Subtract an inch or two from that, and that’s the height for the top of the tabletop. The goal is to be able to rest your arm on the tabletop comfortably. If in doubt, go high. You can always cut the boards down later if you need to.
That will put the working area of the bench pin just below your face, right where you want it. It’ll also let you brace your shoulders on the half-moon cutout to gain more support when you need it. Most importantly, it will keep you from slouching and stressing your back during a long day. The tabletop will look very high when you finally get it done, but that’s OK. It’s not intended to be a normal table, it doesn't need to be pretty: It needs to be a jeweler’s bench. The only things that really matter are that it support your body, and your working tools comfortably and rigidly. Everything else is just for looks. Keep those thoughts in mind.
The bench with the risers set in place, and the interior bracing of the corners
Step 2B: Slings and Arrows time.
I usually find that 8” is a good height to raise the tabletop. I then make up the difference by adjusting the chair. However, for optimum ergonomic perfection, you can rip the height-adjusting boards to whatever height you need.
The pine 1x8’s are what we’re going to use to adjust the height of the tabletop. The exact length you’ll need will depend on your desk. You will need enough to make one long board the width of the desk body, and two (or three) that are the same depth as the desk body. If you wish to adjust the height of the tabletop for better ergonomics, now’s the time to rip the boards down to whatever height you require.
Once the 1x8’s are cut to size, take the long board for the back of the desk, and screw it into place by using two of the steel strap plates to connect the outside face of the board to the outside of the desk body. Do the same with the two side pieces, making sure that you have plates at the ends of the ‘C’ that’s being formed. The plates are placed on the outside of the desk to make it easy to get at them. Once the bench is completed, the easiest way to knock it down for transport is to unscrew those straps, and take the top off. The top can be flipped over on its back and placed on top of the desk body for very space efficient transport. (Trust me: I’ve moved cross country with my original FrankenBench at least 4 different times.)
After the sides are attached to the desk body, use the 3” right-angle brackets to screw the corners of the risers to each other. 2 brackets per corner. Make sure your screws are short enough that they won’t come out the other side.
The desk with both internal walls at full length.
The right one ended up being cut back to half length.
Step 2C: Adjust for Reality (and hindsight is 20/20)
If your desk only has one bank of drawers, you won’t need an internal support for the tabletop. If your desk is wide enough for two sets of drawers, you’ll probably need a brace for the tabletop. The tabletop was never intended to be 8 inches up in the air. It was always intended to have the support of the whole desk under it. In its new life, it doesn’t. This wouldn’t matter if we were just pushing paper, but we’re moving metal. Herein lies a problem: jeweler’s benches typically get loaded up with tools. Tools are heavy. This will cause the tabletop to flex and bounce more than we’d like. A means must be found to replace that central bracing to return some rigidity to the tabletop. There are several different ways to deal with this. In the photos, you can see that I added interior ‘walls' to the inboard sides of the drawer stacks, to support the center of the table. This worked, but left very deep drawer-less holes to be used as a storage area. On later reflection, two half-length walls coming out from the back of the bench, half way to the front, along the inboard faces of both drawer stacks would have worked just as well, without creating a blind pocket, especially if another piece of wood were used to bridge the center of the desk, about a foot behind the eventual end of the half-moon cutout. We ended up cutting the right-hand wall back to half depth and retaining the left hand wall at full length to create storage space for specific items.
The top flipped over. This is just to make it easier to screw the angle brackets into place.
Note the plate straps sticking up. They attach it to the body when it's rightside up.
Step Three: Put the top back on.
Once you’re done with whatever configuration of riser walls you need, set the tabletop back onto the top of the new riser walls. There will probably be a print or stain from the original desk to help you get it lined up. If not, slide it around until it’s back into a centered position. Make sure it sits evenly on the walls, and does not rock. If necessary, plane the tops of the walls until this is achieved. Take three of the right angle brackets, and install one at each outermost corner of the outside walls, facing up, against the underside of the tabletop. The third goes in the center rear. You can access that area by crawling into the foot-well of the desk. Once those three brackets are in place, unscrew the exterior steel straps from the body of the desk, and remove the tabletop, with the risers now screwed to the underside. Leave the straps screwed to the risers. Flip the tabletop over, and place it on top of the desk. This is done just to make it easy to get at the underside to screw the brackets in. Place the remaining right angle brackets along the sides, on the inside. I normally put three along the back edge. One in the center, two at the corners. Those two at the corners will hold it there, so I put the other two for the sides at the midpoints of the sides, while retaining the two at the outermost ends of the sides. If you have extra supporting walls in the middle, screw them in however seems best. Make sure that the outer ends are supported. Remove the tabletop, and set it aside for the moment.
The plywood tops to the the drawer stacks.
These were installed before the top was attached to the risers.
Either sequence will work, it's just a matter of preference.
Step Four: A Roof That Becomes a Floor.
The drawer stacks were designed to have the table as their tops. This means that you’ll have to give them a new top once you raise the tabletop. The small sheet of 3/8 plywood is intended for that duty. If you have internal walls, measure the space between them. Otherwise, just measure the size of the upper surface of the drawer stacks, minus the thickness of the risers. Cut to fit, and install with screws. This area is the same size as the tabletop, which means vast. It’s a good place for power-boxes, wax pens, micromotor base units, and all those other ‘boxes’ that typically clutter up a working bench. If you have a lot of power units under here, consider drilling big (several inch) diameter holes in the riser board along the back of the bench for ventilation and cooling, as well as cable access.
Once the drawer stacks have tops again, flip the tabletop over, and reinstall.
Drawing the arcs with a sharpie and string. Hidden under my hand is the screw that's the pivot.
The desktop with both arcs highlighted. Green for the original arc, and yellow for the freehand 'adaptation'.
Step Five: The Old String Trick.
With the tabletop reinstalled, it’s time to cut out the half-moon for the workstation. Lacking a 2 foot compass, I had to fake it with string. Measure the width of the area between the drawer stacks. This will be the width of your half-moon. Mark a point half that distance between the drawer stacks, a couple of inches in from the edge of the tabletop. Shoot a screw in there. Tie a length of string to the screw. Tie a sharpie marker into the string at the point where it is just slightly inboard of the drawer stacks. Use the string as a guide to draw a large circle on the desktop. This will give a perfect half circle, but that isn’t quite what you want, especially if you plan on using all the neat modern bench pin accessories we have available. Those all have a fair bit of depth to them. So the center of the half-moon needs to be farther away than a strict half-circle would have it. Unscrew the anchor screw, and move it in towards the center of the tabletop about six inches. Rescrew it, and draw the forward half of another half circle. You’ll have to merge and smooth the two half circles by freehanding the line. If you’re planning on using a GRS benchmate system (which I highly recommend) I also recommend using the steel benchtop reinforcement plate that is available for it. If you plan to do this, remember to leave the centermost section of the half-moon flat to accommodate its 6 inch width. The ultimate goal here is to have the working area at the end of the benchpin/benchmate at about the point where the deepest point of a true half circle would have been. We just made the cut deeper and more ‘u’ shaped to compensate for the inches of tool and mount that are behind that working area.
Look what we found! Holes!
Note the placement of the plate straps holding the risers in place
When you’re happy with your freehanding of the line for the cut out, cut it out. Use the saber saw to cut through the tabletop, following your line. This is where things can get interesting. The tabletop of my FrankenBench, along with all the others I made before the one in class were all solid hardwood, albeit made up of smaller pieces keyed together. This made them very tough and strong, as well as very heavy. The one I scrounged for class turned out to have a top of a thick composite wood, with holes drilled through it to make it lighter. This was in no way obvious until we cut into it, as the outer rim was made of a thick piece of hardwood. It didn’t really matter, but it did mean that we had to patch/reinforce the holes with bondo, and then trim and reinforce that edge by sheathing it with a strip of aluminum. Clearly solid wood is to be preferred if you have a choice. While you have the saw, chop through the wooden support that ran under the center drawer and remove it. If your desk has a central support at foot height, leave it. It’s necessary to help hold the desk together during moving, especially with the center front strut removed.
Hummm....what to do with this drawer?.....Patching the holes with Bondo.
Note the answer to the drawer question: make a tool shelf out of it.
The grey arc is the strip of aluminum that I'm about to use to reinforce the front of the cut.
Notice that the front brace for the central drawer has been cut away. Leave the foot level cross brace attached.
Step Six: The Trimmings.
Once the half-moon is cut, and the tabletop is screwed into the desk and risers, the desk itself is done. All that remains is the trimmings.
Since the half-moon cutout takes up the space once occupied by the central drawer, the central drawer becomes surplus. Normally, I just discard them, but for the class bench, we got tricky, and cut the central drawer in half, so that it was only half as deep as it had been, then put it back together, and slid it back onto its supports as a tool tray.
The file and plier racks before installation
The finished bench with file and plier racks installed.
Having learned from a bunch of European types, I use a leather bench skin on my benches, instead of a sweepings tray. I find that I like it better, as I’m not prone to cracking my knees on it when I get up. To add that in, buy a hide of chrome-tanned leather with one side smooth. (not suede.) Trim it so that it fits into the space between the drawer stacks, with plenty of slack. Mine is tacked to the drawer sliders for the removed central drawer, with the back (center-of-the-desk) edge supported by strings coming down from the tabletop. In use, it covers my lap like an apron. I left it a little long, and doubled back the open end, so that it folds up at the open edge, rather than forming a funnel that drops everything on the floor when I get up. Install it smooth side up. Traditionally, these are brown, but I got white when I did mine. (It was cheapest at the time.) I find that I prefer white. It makes it easier to spot dropped items, and brightens the bench.
My FrankenBench with the white bench skin.
Note how it's tacked to the sides, and how the white brightens the work area
Note also how all the tools I need are right where they're easy to find, easy to see, and easy to reach.
(And very hard to bury or obscure. A non-trivial consideration.)
There are two remaining trimmings to add: the file rack, and the plier rack. Most people make plier racks by just attaching a bent piece of wire to their bench, and hanging the handles of the pliers over it. That works great...except for pliers with leaf springs at the joints. Those just love to get tangled up with the wire. The solution is to make up a plier rack by bending up a strip of sheet metal. The leaf springs slide smoothly across the sheet, rather than tangling with a wire. For the class bench, we used the end of the aluminum strip that we used to cover over the bondo reinforcing the ‘holy’ benchtop. For my bench, it’s a piece of scrap brass strip that I had laying around. The only important considerations are that it be at least an inch wide, long enough to bend up into a useful length of rack, and thick enough to support a load of pliers. A photo of the uninstalled plier rack is above.
It’s angled so that the pliers lay naturally with their jaws facing out, to aid in easy identification. This also makes it easy to grab tweezers stored on this rack as well.
The file rack: Note how I've got file info on the backs of the handles where I can see it.
The plier rack: the pliers hang with their tips out and visible. Tweezers and compasses also hang easily without flipping over.
The file rack is designed to hold files ready to hand, right where they’re needed. It also protects them from damage. It’s fairly easy to make. Take several lengths of 2x6 wood, and cut slots into it with a table saw. Cut the slots several blade widths wide, and about 1.25” apart on center. Set the saw blade so that it doesn’t quite cut all the way through the wood. The 2x6 will be 1.625” thick. Set the sawblade to about 1.375” and that’ll cover most bench files. Be very careful when you do this. Table saws are very dangerous. Cut several of these grooved blocks. Make the blocks wide enough to fit on the left side of the half-moon cutout. Screw the first one to the tabletop, then screw the next to that one, and so on. 3 blocks is about the maximum there’s space for. In use, just slot your files into the grooves, and you’ll find that they’re right there, ready to use when you want them, and out of the way when you don’t.
Step Seven: Phone Home.
In the years since I first posted these instructions, I’ve received many positive comments from people planning on building their own Frankenbenches.
This gave me an idea: “Spawn of Frankenbench”!!
If you build a Frankenbench, send me a picture when you’re done. When I’ve got enough, I’ll put up another page with pictures of all the spawn of Frankenbench.