Building a CUSTOM reloading bench
Category : Reloading
I have been asked, quite a few times now, about how I built my reloading bench. In the past, I have only covered the subject in general terms (2X4 frame, 5/8 MDF top, contact cemented laminate, etc). This time, I will share with you some of the details for building your own custom reloading bench.
My first reloading bench, back in the early 1970’s was my circular pine kitchen table. I had a plank C clamped to the table, with a RCBS JR press bolted to the plank. Since then, I have created a variety of benches of all designs, including a simple one that I occasionally take on the road with me for distant reloading classes, a Black & Decker Workmate ™ folding bench. Some of the bench designs have worked well, and some were complete failures. The worst reloading benches were primarily designed as general work benches. 2X4 frame, covered with bolted down planks. Even when painted, the planks always dried out, creating horrible gaps, for things to fall through. They were often wobbly. While OK for general household repair type projects, that type of bench wasn’t well suited for reloading of precision ammunition.
Over the years, and after lots of trials and errors, I have come up with a winning design for a reloading bench that can also serve to handle your household projects. This design is more based on the needs of reloading.
Location, location, location
Those of us who are fortunate enough to have a space better than my original kitchen table space, should plan on a custom bench for making the most of available space for your reloading needs. Some of us have an air conditioned space (very much appreciated here in how and humid Florida). Some of us, however, have only a corner of a garage, or a piece of the cellar (in those parts of the country fortunate to have cellars.) My current reloading location was a converted “home office”, complete with carpeting, desks, a futon, etc. Most of that had to go, and the most important thing to remove was the STATIC creating carpet. Ugh, what a job it was to remove the old dusty carpet. However, by installing laminate type hard wood flooring, it gave me a floor surface that was not as susceptible to creating static sparks as the old carpet was. And, easier to clean up powder, and primer spills.
My design begins with a 2 X 4 lumber frame
Plan Way Ahead for your Bench
Here are some bench tips, depending on your carpentry abilities.
- Remember, create the largest surface area that you can. There always seems to be a shortage of space when reloading
- Create a strong surface, and one that is smooth, and easy to work on
- Create a bench that is a good working height for you
- Anchor the bench to a wall using some anchoring method.
- Make use of vertical space over the back of your bench, but anchor any wall shelves solidly to wall studs.
- Lighting is important, especially for those of us getting older. I really like the new 4 foot LED light fixtures. Lots of light! Place those over the center of your bench, as many as are needed in a row to fill the entire work area with good light.
- My current bench is 11 feet long, 39 inches front to back, and 38 inches tall from the floor. I have also had some L shaped benches that worked well for me in previous locations. .
Hammer Ready? You’ll Need Some Basic Tools and Supplies
So, having given you some of the basics, here’s how I made mine:
- 2X4 construction for building the foundation/platform for the bench.
- I used a concept similar to building a wall in a home to make the outside frame, and then filled in structural supports every 16 inches
- I used doubled 2X4’s for the legs, in my case, six in all. Placed the legs inside the frame, and fastened the legs to the frame with long (4″) drywall screws. No need to worry about leg wobble. The anchoring of the bench to the wall will fix that.
- The bench should have a 2″ overhang. That’s important, since most reloading equipment is designed to bolt to that overhang. Please note that when I do my bullet swaging, the leverage on that swaging press was too severe for the basic strength of the 2″ MDF overhang. For the purpose of swaging, I designed and welded together a couple of support platforms. I mounted the RCBS Rockchuckers (that’s my swaging press) to the weldment, and in turn bolted that to additional supports under the frame of the bench. In hind sight, I am somewhat sure that the Inline Fabrication base plates would take the leverage forces required for the swaging. Unless you are doing some sort of heavy duty stuff on the edge of your bench, this super reinforced system isn’t needed.
- I used 2 layers of 5/8″ MDF (medium density fiberboard) for the top. I did not glue these together. Instead, I fastened the top panels to the frame using 3″ drywall screws, so that I could, if I had to, take the whole thing apart. If your bench is larger than 8 feet long, overlap the joints of the MDF. That might cause some additional scrap, but provides for a much stronger top.
- From previous bench building experience, I found that painting or use of a similar coating on the bench top didn’t work well. I opted for a Formica™ type laminate top
- I ordered, from Home Depot, a custom sized sheet of laminate, 5′ X 12′. The design that I like is: Formica™ “DOTS”. It’s dark black, and has small embossed dots on the surface. Easy to keep clean. The sheet is about $105, and had to be ordered. It comes rolled up. Shipping damage can be an issue. But, that size, in that color and pattern was not a stock item. Depending on the size of your bench, you might be able to get away with a smaller 4X8 foot sheet, which they commonly have sheets in stock. There are all sorts of colors and patterns available.
- Installing laminate is easy, but requires some tools
- Carbide tipped laminate cutter knife is handy to use for cutting the edge strips. This one is what I use:
- Lots of 3/8″ wooden dowels allow you to hover the prepared laminate over the work surface
- Can of “Contact Cement”. These days, this comes in two formulations, the original strongly chemical smell version, and the newer type which is water based. I have always preferred the original version.
- Brush and small roller for spreading out the contact cement – BOTH pieces (the bench top and the underside of the laminate) need to be coated with the contact cement. So, using a short nap roller makes the job of spreading the contact cement faster.
- Having a wood working ROUTER with 90 degree and a 45 degree laminate trimming bits eases the job of trimming the edges of the laminate. But, most work could be done with a file
This bit trims to the exact edge of the laminate:
And, this one is for final trimmer of joined edges, last part of the project:
- Fine-medium toothed file for final trimming.
- Rubber mallet for tamping down the joined laminate
- Carbide tipped laminate cutter knife is handy to use for cutting the edge strips. This one is what I use:
- Cut strips for the exposed edges of the bench first, obviously planning ahead so that you don’t ruin the laminate sheet. Think wayyyy ahead on the planning and layout of the job. I like to use a straightedge clamped to the laminate with the carbide tipped knife
- To use the contact cement, coat the two surfaces to be joined, and allow them to dry to finger touch. You do not want to try joining pieces together with contact cement while the cement is still oozy.
- Install the edges of your bench top first. using your fingers to carefully align the edges so that all of the edge gets covered with laminate. Don’t try to curt these pieces exactly. Allow for overhang on all edge surfaces,. and then trim with the straight type bit or file, to the final exact fit. Do the edges left side first, front, and then right edge, trimming as you go around the edges of the bench.
- Once you have the edges done first, then prepare for the top installation. This is the difficult part of the job. It is a large area, and you only get one shot at the contact cement.
- As with the edges, coat the surfaces to be joined with the contact cement. You’ll need a large area for resting the laminate on while coating the bench top, and allowing both to dry.
- Place 3/8″ wooden dowels (at least as long as the bench is deep), parallel to each other, no more than about 6″ apart. These will allow the top sheet laminate to float above the bench surface to allow you to align the large sheet prior to installing it.
- Once you have the large laminate sheet placed on the dowels, and aligned, carefully pull one dowel out at an end, and press the laminate down to make contact with the bench top. Once you have that first contact made, the risk of the laminate sheet moving is reduced, and you can proceed with removing the dowels one at a time, going along in a row, from one end to the other, until you have the entire sheet stuck to the bench top.
- With the rubber mallet, tamp down the laminate to make solid contact between the two pieces.
- Trim the top to the edges with the straight trimmer first, and then go around with the bevel trimmer or a file to break what would otherwise be very sharp edges. Set the bevel trimmer ONLY to the thickness of the laminate, which is quite thin.
- Use your file to do any tweaking of the final trim
- The last job is to fasten the bench assembly to the wall. This is the part of the assembly that makes the whole bench really solid. Find the studs, and either fasten with long drywall screws directly to the studs (avoiding electrical wires, etc), or use 90 degree angle brackets (small 2″ brackets are fine).
- Drill holes through the top, as needed, to install equipment such as reloading press, etc.
- I really like the design and functionality of the Inline Fabrication bench plates: https://inlinefabrication.com/products/quick-change-system-top-plates . It allows me to swap out a reloading press for a lubricizer (cast bullets sizing lube machine), etc…. Makes much better use of the bench top without having a ton of holes in my nice bench, and too many things bolted to it.
- For additional storage area, I went with the Rubbermaid wall bracket system. This uses vertical rails, with double sets of slots for shelf adjustments. These get screwed directly into wall studs for max strength. The brackets come in the double slot type, in lengths to serve the depth of your shelves, 10″, 12″, 16″, etc. I use wire shelves and composite board type shelves to suit my needs. I’m able to support many heavy boxes of lead and plated/FMJ bullets without worrying about them crashing in the middle of the night.
- Additionally, I used two “cubby” type wall units to allow for storage of my many casting molds. Got those at Home Depot. Had to turn it 90 degrees to get it useful in the space, and that required adding in support dowels (left over from the laminate project).
- Here are some images of my setup.
Planning for electrical
A reloading bench needs some power outlets for plug in devices, and also for overhead lighting. I’m not an electrician, nor do I play one on TV. However, I know a thing or two about where electricity is needed for your reloading bench. You’ll need some electrical connection points on top of the bench, and you’ll also need some place to wire in the overhead LED (or fluorescent) light fixtures. Hopefully, the wall that your bench gets attached to will have some wall outlet(s) nearby. Close enough to plug one of those power strips into. If not, you may have to consult with an electrician to get an outlet to the top of your bench. Normal outlet height is only 12-16 inches (varies by local code.) Of course, your bench top might be a whopping 36″ to 38″ off the floor. Mine is 38″ tall, which is a comfortable height for me. So, wiring the taller wall outlet might require the services of an experienced electrician. And, usually also some codes require that any non-standard outlet be GFCI protected (ground fault).
I also wanted to have the over head lights for my reloading bench to be switched from the rear of the bench. So, my install has two side by side outlets, one with a duplex outlet, and the other with a switch and an outlet. Up in the ceiling is an outlet box, wired through that switch, and allows me to merely plug in the four foot lighting fixtures. The lighting fixtures have a pull chain arrangement, but I cut the chain, and just leave them always on, and use the switch to energize them. I have expanded the outlet ability for my bench by plugging in a couple of outlet strips, each with it’s own circuit breaker, and that gives me enough places to plug in everything that commonly gets used on the bench top. That includes LED lights for my Dillon 550b reloading press, three digital electronic scales, etc, etc, etc. None of those units use much electricity each, so a 15 amp circuit is plenty.
Send me your own images of your reloading setup, and I’ll create a Gallery so that others can also benefit from your creativeness!
Email your reloading bench images to: firstname.lastname@example.org