How to build a rocket workshop (part 5: the butchering)

This shed-to-workshop project is coming along well. So far, I’ve cleaned it out, added two new windows, replaced the old plywood doors with a nice new door (with a glass panel for even more natural light), and given a fresh coat of paint to the door frame and exterior shed walls. Not bad.

The next step is a less dramatic transformation, perhaps, but arguably one of the most important things for a future workshop: a proper work bench.

One of the main reasons I needed some sort of workshop in the first place was just for the additional space and work surface. Sure, it’d be great to have some simple power tools (table saw and vacuum for sawdust, drills, and so on) and other equipment, and a place to efficiently store all those tools. But my single biggest need is just for some extra space – a large work bench for projects, primarily building rockets.

Butcher block work bench
butcher block work bench

I decided to go big with a butcher block countertop from Home Depot. In fact, they offer a few different sizes, and I went with the largest one they had, a full 96 inches (8 feet) in length. I found out two things about butcher block: it’s extremely heavy, and it’s expensive. But worth it!

After doing some initial research and arriving at a decision, I made the mistake of running up to the store myself and trying to purchase this alone. I could write a lengthy article just about the epic struggle of getting this thing off the shelf and hauling it to the front of the store, and loading it awkwardly into my small car (sticking partly out of an open trunk). I blocked many increasingly annoyed contractors in the store’s loading zone. I eventually managed to transport this thing home successfully, but at great cost to my pride, and my lower back.

The butcher block was unfinished wood, and this meant applying some sort of stain and/or seal to the wood, in order to protect it long-term. On a separate trip to the store, I picked up some simple clear wood stain, and also some clear polyurethane water based sealant, along with a couple of brushes.

As a side note, polyurethane can be either water based or oil based, and the difference is how they look after finishing the wood: water based is completely clear, while oil based will give the wood a soft amber look. It’s a purely aesthetic distinction and totally based on your own preference.

Applying wood stain to butcher block
wood stain

The staining and sealing process was nearly as epic as the journey from store to shed, though I didn’t realize this would be the case at first. Following the instructions provided on the can, at least two coats of the wood stain were necessary (to both the top and bottom of the butcher block, as well as all 4 sides), allowing ample time between coats to dry.

The polyurethane was even more demanding, requiring a minimum of three coats per surface. The fact that it took at least several hours for each coat to dry, and the sheer weight involved in trying to rotate this board, meant a multi-stage staining and sealing process that ultimately took more than a week.

This was also mid-winter and while Seattle winters are relatively mild, it was still cold enough to numb my hands halfway into the application of each new coat of stain and sealant. Several of those trips were done with light snow blowing into the shed, potentially ruining my otherwise perfect work.

Applying a polyurethane seal to the butcher block
polyurethane seal

Eventually, I finished preparing and protecting the board and mounted it along one wall inside the shed, centered under a window that provides plenty of natural light. Mission complete!

The only other major feature that a true workshop needs is electricity. And while digging a massive trench and running conduit and wire from my house out to the shed is an awful lot of work, it should also make a decent story, and a couple of good blog posts.

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