Trouble with Tool Wells

The problem.

Last summer, I built myself a workbench, after several months of design and deliberation. Despite being a vast improvement over the previous design I was using [read: ‘struggling with‘], I’ve realised there are a couple of areas that don’t work quite as well as I had hoped… Sometimes, you can’t know these things until you’ve actually tried them out! At a later date, I hope to look at repositioning my front vice but, to begin my workbench revision, I’ve been looking at my tool well…

I’ve always seen tool well as being a useful place to hide your tools and clear a space on the bench top. However, the reality is that they’re the best place for crap to accumulate – sawdust, shavings, offcuts, sheets of abrasive paper… Even on a small project, I’ve found that my well can fill up very quickly! At the time of building this bench, I was short on ideas so, until now, it’s been nothing more than a few scraps of 6mm ply; easily removable in case I ever wanted to clamp something at the back of the bench.

Speaking to Nick Gibbs recently, he’s someone who doesn’t like the idea of a tool well (for all the reasons above) but he did like my idea of building a series of boxes to go in fill this space. Initially, I was thinking along the same lines as Popular Woodworking editor’s Robert Lang’s (who’s ‘21st Century Workbench‘ had a huge effect on the design of my own), where each box had an open face so it could collect tools one way or, turn it upside-down and the base provided a flat surface for working on. Nick suggested the use of lids, which now means I don’t have to clear the contents of each box in order to bridge the gap between the main bench and the rear rail.

Here’s what I came up with:

Finger holes make the lid removal easy.
The solution!

All I’ve done is to added an MDF frame to the old bases. So far, they’ve been very good and I no longer have to place a large sheet of MDF on top of my bench, where two of the four legs from an assembled frame would otherwise end up sitting in the tool well! It is tricky getting the box to sit flush with the bench top and I have had to plane the MDF edges down on one of them. All four edges on the lower faces of the lids are rebate so that they’re held snugly within the box openings and cannot move around.

If you attempt to do something like this on your bench then, I highly recommend allowing at least a 2mm gap all around. Removing the old bases wasn’t easy as the main area of my bench top had expanded in width, locking the the plywood in tightly against the rear rail! No matter what I try to do, MDF always splits whenever I screw it. Okay, these are only 12mm thick, which doesn’t help matters… It is only a workbench, after all! If you have any suggestions, please let me know!

How do you prevent MDF splitting?

This was a job I completed in a day last week. Within the next week or so [once my thumb’s better!], I’m hoping I’ll be able to look at repositioning the front vice and also to look at ways of preventing sag in the tail vices I bought from sagging (not that I use them often!).

Thanks for reading.

4 thoughts on “Trouble with Tool Wells

  1. Olly

    I had exactly the same problem with my tool well, and came to a similar solution. In fact yours is a far better solution, I just infilled the well with a piece of ply, shimmed to be level with the bench top. When I get a spare minute I may well borrow your idea, and build a couple of boxes to place in my bench.

    Cracking idea.



    1. Thank you, Aled. I’m feeling quite chuffed!

      Only thing I forgot to add was that I made hole in the lid 19mm/3/4″ so I could still fit a bench dog in there, if ever the need arose to put one at the back of the bench! Might not be convenient if you have chubby fingers, though…… 😉


  2. Very nice work and I really like the bench mate.

    Have you tried the spax mdf screws? They’re quite good and don’t split the mdf out as much. Another thing to try is put a wooden clamp around the area that you’re screwing into to keep the sides from popping.

    Keep up the good work mate.



    1. Hi Patrick,

      I haven’t used Spax screws on MDF before (I’m too cheap when it comes to buying screws!!) but I have found that they seem to drive home a lot easier than basic pozidrive screws, even without a pilot hole. There are so many screws on the market these days designed to suit many specific applications that it’s sometimes hard to know which ones to trust (…That’s my other excuse!).

      A good tip also on clamping the MDF around the screw. Not something I’ve tried but, it sounds so obvious that, like many things, I’m sure it works very well! 😉

      I’ve been meaning to make some minor alterations (again!) to my workbench top for several months now. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do some more work on the ‘bench this side of Christmas…!

      Thanks for reading and writing.


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