In recent posts, I discussed how I designed the basic structure of my modular cabinets, and the needs and criteria that factored into some of the decisions I made.
With a frame designed and built, and side panels installed, the next step is to add a worktop, which is what this post is all about.
Other Posts in this Series
- Part 1: Designing the Modular Cabinets
- Intro to T-slot Hardware and Fasteners
- Part 2: Adding Sides to Modular Tool Cabinets
Worktop Material Choices
There are a lot of different materials I could have used for the top. Plywood is one of the cheapest options, but it’s often not as reliably flat as you’d like. MDF can be very uniform, but it is susceptible to the elements.
I’m particularly partial to Ikea Gerton Butch Block table tops, which are really solid, but after 2-3 years mine are no longer flat. The individual pieces of wood have expanded and contracted in different ways.
As I did my research I stumbled across Formica MicroDot laminate. It’s the same material that Kreg uses for their router table top and Woodpeckers for their drill press table top. It’s a very low friction surface, giving it a really nice feel, and it appears more durable because the dimples make scratches less obvious.
I’ve worked with laminates before and I’ve always been pleased with the end results. They’re durable, easy to clean, and I like how it looks.
I purchased mine from Cabinet Maker Warehouse. One thing to note – it’s my experience that you can get a 10% discount if you create an account, add the item to your cart but don’t buy it and then check your email the following morning. You’ll have a 10% voucher waiting for you. YMMV.
I paid $127.44 for a 5′ x 12′ piece, which gave me enough laminate material to create tops for 5 of my cabinets and workstations. That’s $25 for each, plus ~$40 for a piece of 3/4″ MDF, which I buy in 8′ x 4′ sheets.
When you cut the laminate, you want a piece that is at least 1″ wider and longer than the MDF you are gluing it to.
Laminating might be a little daunting at first, but it’s pretty straightforward and easy to create a very professional finish. Weldwood Contact Cement is my go-to solution for gluing the top down on to the MDF.
You should read the instructions and make sure you know how to use it safely and at the right material temperature. I often end up putting pieces in the house for a day to get them to 65°F.
Use a Respirator!
Before you start, be prepared to wear a good respirator mask and work in a very well ventilated area. Contact cement really stinks, even if you have good ventilation. I’ve got a headache from laminating even the smallest piece of wood. I now always wear a 3M Multi-Purpose Respirator, which blocks the vapors and smell.
Stuart’s Note: 3M’s organic vapor cartridge is for “professional use only for mold, lead, and sprays from coatings and sealants.” If you’re unsure where to buy one, you can usually find organic vapor respirators in the paint section of home centers. Make sure they’re NIOSH-approved. When in doubt about selection, fitment, or whether you are healthy enough to wear a respirator, consult professional or medical advice.
Apply the Contact Cement
I’ve found that cheap single-use brushes or a smooth roller is the best way to apply the contact cement. Between coats I wrap the brush or roller in a disposable glove so it doesn’t dry up. If you use a cheap brush, you should check to ensure that none of the bristles have fallen out. If they have, remove them from the glue before you put the pieces together!
You start by applying a coat of the contact cement to the MDF and the laminate, wait 20 mins and do another coat on the MDF. You need two coats on the MDF because it is a really porous material. I skipped this step the first time I tried laminating and it fell off the next day!
After another 20 mins you can put the two pieces together. Start by placing some dowels on the MDF, and then carefully place the laminate on top. As soon as the two sides touch you will be unable to re-align them, so don’t let them touch. Line the pieces up so you have an overhang on all sides.
Remove one dowel at time, starting in the middle. You press the two pieces together with your hand before using a roller to apply pressure. I use the Powertec Long Handle J-Roller.
I’ve learnt that you have applied enough pressure when you stop hearing popping noises when you’re rolling. I presume this is the air being squeezed out of the glue bubbles.
Once you’ve done a section, you remove another dowel and work your way towards the edge. Then repeat for the other end.
You want to be carefully at the edges and make sure you don’t apply pressure to the overhang, because if you do, the laminate will crack and could ruin your top! I find it is helpful to put a scrap of MDF underneath the laminate overhang so you don’t risk breaking it.
The next step is to trim the edges, I particular like the Freud 1/16″ radius laminate trim bit (1/4″ shank, 41-502). In particular, I like how you can use the same bit to trim and round the edges. You simply install this bit into your router and run it around the four edges.
The edges of the board can get gummed up with the contact cement, so I will often run a sander along the edges to clean them up, before doing another final trim with the router to get it perfectly flush.
For good measure I will then use the J-roller on all the edges to make sure they are securely laminated.
Attaching the Top
With my top worksurface glued up, I needed a way to install it. A 3/4″ laminated top is pretty sturdy so I focused my research on an economic way of mounting it to the frame.
Initially I went with a design that I saw recommend on a Festool Owners Group discussion. Richard/RMW (who has given me a TON of inspiration) started that thread and he used his CNC machine to mill his own tabs.
He basically created a bracket with a tab that inserts into the T-slot of aluminum extrusions. The bracket is the screwed into the top to hold it all in place.
I liked this approach, so I picked up some 3/4″ and 1″ HDPE scraps from Tap Plastics, which cost ~$10 and gave me enough material to make my own.
McMaster sell a piece of 6″ x 12″ of 3/4″ HDPE for $15.76. Each bracket is roughly 2″ x 1″ so this is enough material to make +30 brackets.
Option #1 – Raised Top
My first design was a straight copy of the design I saw on the forum.
I cut the HDPE into 4″ x 12″ strips, then used my router table to route down both sides of the HDPE so it fits snuggly into the frame. I then cut this up using my Miter saw into 2″ x 1″ brackets with the rabbet on the short side.
They then squeeze into the T-slot and one screw through the bracket into the top holds it into place. The fact that the bracket isn’t actually fastened to the aluminum isn’t a problem because the top is exactly the right size to fit into the frame so there’s no lateral movement.
As for how strong this is… I use 8 brackets evenly spaced per 51.5″ x 25″ top. When I built my CNC cabinet, I installed a 3/4″ plywood shelf using this approach and was able to stand on it without issue.
Option #2 – Flush Mount
Although I initially liked the raised design, I subsequently moved to a different approach, where the top surface is flush with the extrusion. I found some cheap joining plates that were almost exactly the right thickness at HomeDepot.
Given that I planned to keep this cabinet almost permanently under my workshop, I wasn’t too concerned about screwing it in place. Instead I wrapped the bracket with double-sided tape to give it some stability and to ensure they didn’t jump out of place when I close the drawers. One of these in each corner of my frame was enough to create a stable top.
I’m not sure how strong this is, I haven’t tried standing on it but I only use this approach for cabinets that will have very little weight on top. It is probably really strong on the corners but I wouldn’t want to stand in the middle of the top without some additional support.
The joining plates do have screw holes so I can all ways screw them into place at a later date. So far it’s been unnecessary because the top fits snuggling into the frame and the tape holds the bracket in place.
This is the design I have used for all my tool cabinets.
Option #3 – Top Mount
For completeness I’ll also mention the third approach I have also used. For my assembly table, router table, and miter saw table, I wanted to mount the worktop onto the top of the frame. To do this, I used 1″ HDPE bar stock to create a bracket for just this design.
This is by far the strongest of my three methods because it puts the weight on the frame and the bracket is only there to hold it in place.
Other Worktop Mounting Options
I did think about a few options but did not pursue them further:
- You could tap a hole in the aluminium and put a screw from underneath through the frame into the top. This would be very strong and easy to do, but requires putting holes in the frame. Given my investment I really wanted to avoid permanent changes that make it harder to rebuild and reuse the pieces in the future.
- You could also counter sink a screw into the top, and then use a t-nut to hold it down on to the frame. This method is stronger, but you might not want holes in your work surface.
- Finally, there’s also Faztek or 80/20 brackets specifically designed for this task, but they can be pricey. The brackets have elongated holes, which allow for lateral movement if your base material is made from solid wood or butcherblock material.
The mounting method you choose depends on what you plan to do with the workbench or cabinet. Any of the methods would suffice for supporting projects that are being worked on.
But if you want to put heavy weights on top, you’ll likely want to consider having the worktop mounted on top of the aluminum rails, and maybe even adding a cross rail or two across longer spans to prevent sagging. To support heavier loads, you could double up on the MDF base material for extra rigidity.
Also, keep in mind that the MicroDot lamination work surface was chosen for its low-friction properties. If you anticipate putting heavy dents and scars into your worktop, you might want to choose a different material, or configure your top to have a sacrificial layer made of hardboard or something similar. Going in that direction can limit the number of ways you could mount a worktop.
Ready for Drawers
So that’s the frame, sides and top done. In the last post in this series, I’ll finish the build by adding the drawers.
Tools and Materials
- 20 single use brushes (via Amazon)
- Powertec Long Handle J-Roller(via Amazon)
- 3M Multi-Purpose Respirator (via Amazon)
- Freud 1/16″ Radius Laminate Trim Bit with 1/4″ Shank (41-502) (via Amazon)
- Formica Fog Microdot (via Cabinet Maker Warehouse)
- 6″ x 12″ of 3/4″ HDPE (via McMaster Carr)
I have built similar work benches from structural aluminum for my woodworking shop. My preference is for a recessed top that allows me to use the top and side slots for attaching accessory bars, clamps, jigs etc. Phenolic plywood uses multiple birch veneer with a super slick plastic surface that rivals laminates in durability. It’s used in concrete work for forms and the trade suppliers will have it for a much lower price than the woodworking stores. I use shop-made plywood clips to mount into the aluminum slots and screw battens underneath for strength and stability.
But the top material I favor now is bamboo flooring which is harder than most wooden benchtops. This is the solid tongue & groove flooring that comes pre-finished in a variety of colors and in different thicknesses. I attach it by gluing / nailing the bamboo to hardwood crosspieces arranged like joists. It has proved to be very durable, resistant to glue/varnish/paint mess, and very stable. A box or two will be enough for a bench or countertop and take less time and cost less than laminate.
Structural aluminum makes terrific stands for powertools too. For attaching drawer slides, or other cabinet bits, I mill soft hardwood or pine on the router table into T-shapes that will slide into the slots but are flush with the outer surface. Cut to a usable length these hidden strips make it easy to use regular woodscrews to attach hardware or panels.
I forgot to mention that structural aluminum is easily drilled for access holes through the slots. Then you can use wide head bolts into threaded inserts or even regular screws to clamp the plywood/wood from the access of the opposite side. This is a good method for attaching a top that rests on top the full frame and will need only a few attachment points.
I love that idea of filling in the t-slot with wood! That’s interesting. I might CNC a T-piece that slots in the whole length and use that as part of a future build!
Could you link to some pictures of your setup?
I would add to stuarts comment on the respirator – if you already have one and are uncertain of your canisters or don’t have any. They do have a finite life – and getting new canisters is fairly easy on the internet and relatively cheap. So just start of buying a new organic vapor canister and a filter top (often they come together).
That is for the 3m branded ones I don’t know about others – but I understand many use the same bayonet mount size.
So I guess you didn’t want to top mount so as to not edge band the mdf?
I sort of figured I would want the top to cover the rails of the cabinet or I guess at a minimum cover the slots that are exposed – so as to keep stuff out of them.
Do you find that’s an issue now that you made them, or does it not matter.
Not having to edge band is one reason. I also wanted the extra 3/4″ space on top so I could store material on top of these cabinets below the benches they sit under. There’s about ~2″ of usable space for storing random things which is quite useful.
I didn’t mention it in the article but I use their T-slot covers to fill in the extrusion, this keeps all the dust out. You can see the black lines in the middle of the extrusion in one of the top down photos. It’s $15 for 5x 8′ pieces from Zoro and finishes of everything nicely. The exposed t-slot is definitely a dust magnet!
On my assembly table everything is exposed so I can use them for clamps.
Really great post and excellent resource on the microdot laminate. Just might have to try that out. It would be excellent for glue-up table, easy clean up surface.
You’re welcome! I think it’d work really well for a glue-up table.
Why bother with a $$ fancy chunk of plastic to make the top attachment point clamps when they could very simply and securely be attached with a similarly machined pieces of 3/4 Baltic birch plywood and easily cost 1/10 of your hitec plastic choice?
You need a solid material for something like this. Plywood, even Baltic Birch, won’t tolerate the stress well and will likely delaminate and fail. You’d have to thin it out to fit the slot, and then the stress will be placed in the plywood’s weakest direction. Or, use a whole lot more high-strength plywood, create more work for yourself, and negate any cost savings.
If you want to save money, you could forego brackets and simply attach the worktop to the top framing of the cabinet.
As pretty and clean as those workstations are – it seems as you may be overestimating the stresses that top will be placing on those retaining clips. I ‘m thinking none will be welding stations or garage beater beanches.
Though, at roughly a minimum of $400-500 a cart just in materials cost alone, not including the time and labor, I guess an additional $15 in some plastic sections is pretty much a non-issue.
Hi Julian – I agree for a workstation that will take a beating I wouldn’t use a recessed top like this with brackets. I don’t do any welding (yet) but for my assembly table the top is placed on the frame for the most strength.
The brackets are then only used to hold it in place. I purchased scrap offcuts from a local plastics store, so I was able to make 30 odd for $10, that’s pretty reasonable.
Keep in mind that any plastic will become weak and brittle over time. Even the best will only last 15-20 years before it becomes easy to crack. But,,, I guess that’s plenty long for most of us.
If I need low friction, I spray a light mist of CRC or DuPont slicone spray on my oak, maple, and beech work benches and my table saw. That stuff is really slick, leaves no residue, and evaporates in a couple of weeks. I also use it to move heavy furniture, my drill press, etc with a piece of cardboard misted with silicone spray. If you’re skittish about chemicals, get the food grade silicone, which is identical but has a better smell.
If they last 5 years I’ll be very happy 🙂
Totally inspired! Thanks Ben V. I’m a frustrated mechanical engineer as well and enjoy building/designing upgrades for my Toyota FZJ80. Love your attention to detail and methodical throught processes – thanks for sharing!