Organizing the Loading Bench
Date: May 28 2013
Compared to keeping a loading bench clean, neat and trouble-free, herding cats is a breeze. Handloaders are inveterate hoarders, amassing astonishing collections of partially filled boxes of bullets for rifles no longer owned, trays containing a few obsolete primers and loading dies picked up at garage sales on the off-chance of someday owning a .219 Zipper Improved.
This pack-rat mentality is laudable in some ways, lamentable in others. During times of shortage, such as the past presidential election (and right now, for that matter), handloaders are able to keep shooting because we have a 10-year supply of the wherewithal. Where it becomes lamentable is in keeping it all organized, with everything stowed in its proper place and easy to find when needed. In fact, the problem for most is having a place to put it to start with. These collections eat up space voraciously, and there always seems to be a couple of boxes of something left over, with nowhere to put them.
The natural place for stuff to accumulate, alas, is the loading bench. So the first place to start organizing a loading room is the bench itself.
After years in various dives, struggling with makeshift benches and portable tools, in 1988 I moved to an old farmhouse where I had space for my ideal loading bench. I followed a design published by Wiley Clapp in the early 1980s, and I followed his instructions to the letter. It was, for a non-carpenter, a major undertaking.
Clapp’s principles for the bench were that it needs to be rock solid with a reasonable cost of construction and the bench itself a usable size. To take the last first, his design calls for a bench that is only 18 inches deep. This accomplishes two things: It takes up less space against a wall, and it does not have a lot of extra surface to fill with clutter. It is deep enough to provide a good working area but discourages storing anything on the bench itself.
A guiding principle of handloading safety is that you should have only one powder on the bench at a time, and that is the powder you’re working with. This prevents any mix-up with possible dire consequences. The same goes for primers and bullets. Supplies of powder, primers and bullets should be stored well away from the bench, brought out only when needed and put away immediately afterward.
When I built my first bench in 1988, I made some mistakes, although the resulting edifice still worked well. Years later, I gave it away and built a new one, incorporating what I’d learned. The description that follows deviates from Clapp’s specifications in several ways.
The finished bench is 8 feet long, 18 inches deep and 3 inches thick. It is made from four layers of 3⁄4- inch plywood. Clapp’s original plans called for only the outer layers to be made of plywood, with the center layers from particle board, for economy’s sake. In my old farmhouse, with its damp dirt-floor basement the particle board swelled, causing all sorts of problems. So the second time around I spared no expense: The entire bench is high-grade plywood with the outer layers of premium oak plywood.
The bench is finished with 3-inch facing; on the first bench I used pine, on the second, oak. Oak is hard and durable. The difference in price is well worthwhile.
The bench is very heavy, so to be solid it needs to be firmly attached to a strong wall. This provides the support for the rear edge. The bench then has three legs that are bolted to the floor. Clapp used three sets of double legs, made from steel pipe welded to steel plate. The plates were bolted to the bench and the floor.
For various reasons, I could not follow that design. On the first bench I made do with legs of 6x6 pine; the second time around, I used steel pipe, cut to length and threaded, and then attached the legs to bench and floor with threaded flanges. The threads allow about .5 inch of adjustment. Very few foundation floors are exactly level, but the bench must be level. Consequently, the three legs will be slightly different lengths to reach the floor. The pipe is available at any building supply store, and they can cut it to length for you. Slight differences are accommodated by tightening the flanges.
The final major feature of the bench is its removable inserts. Before the four layers are glued together, slots are cut in the top and second layer which, when overlaid, create a dovetail. The cuts in the second layer are 8x11 inches, and in the top, 7x9 inches. The inserts to fit these dovetails are made from the extra plywood. Tools that are used sporadically are attached to these inserts and placed on the bench as they are needed. You can make as many as you have tools to fit. I have my main press permanently bolted to one end of the bench and then have about a half dozen different tools attached to inserts. When no tool is needed, two blank inserts provide a clean, flat working surface.
The inserts themselves can be bolted in place, which I did with my first bench, but not the second. If the inserts are made carefully and fit snugly, they are solid enough to handle even large tools like Redding’s Ultramag or a massive multi-station progressive shotshell reloader without any additional fasteners.
One caution regarding the gluing, which is the most difficult part of the operation. Do not attempt to glue all four layers at once. Glue the bottom two, which are the easiest. When they are dry, add the third layer. These can all be firmly clamped, and believe me you will need clamps – wide ones to keep the layers aligned and smaller ones all around to pull the layers together.
White wood glue creates a somewhat slippery surface. As you tighten the C-clamps, the layers want to shift out of alignment – hence the wide clamps to hold them in place. These can usually be rented.
The top layer should not be clamped down too tightly or the inserts will not slide in and out easily, and may need sanding to make them fit. At the same time, they should not be loose. This is why it is important to do the top layer separately and fit it carefully.
The bill of materials runs as follows:
1. 4x8 plywood, 3⁄4 inch (2 sheets)
2. steel legs (3)
3. flanges (6)
4. oak facing, 3x1/4 inch (12 feet total)
5. oak facing, 11⁄2x1/4 inch (8 feet, for inserts)
6. oak finishing strip, 11⁄2x3/4 inch (8 feet)
7. 2x4x8 (one – hemlock or pine, but must be straight)
The plywood can be cut into four pieces, each 8 feet by 18 inches, at the lumber yard, which allows you to make sure they fit before you bring them home. This is vastly easier in every way than trying to cut them yourself; and it makes it easier to get the pieces home too.
You will need more facing de- pending on where your bench is situated, and whether you need to finish the ends. As well, you need facing for the inserts.
The 2x4 is used to attach the bench to the wall. I simply bolted it flat to the wall, putting two lag bolts into every upright, and then resting the back of the bench on it like a rail. This gives the bench all the vertical strength it needs. The bench is further held in place by the oak finishing strip that runs along the top, also screwed to the wall. For additional stability, I fixed the bench to the 2x4 with some angle irons, which keep it from shifting while the legs are put in place. The advantage of this method is that the bench can be easily disassembled if you move and want to take your bench with you, or wish to relocate it.
The height of the bench is up to you. Since I prefer to stand while I’m working, the top surface of my bench is 42 inches from the floor.
Having created the basic bench, you now have a rock-solid work surface. From there, you can add shelves and expand the working area in various ways.
A shelf above the bench is very useful for holding tools used all the time. In my case, a window casement provides a deep, flat surface that serves as a shelf. The cats like it because they can get up there and lie in the window while I’m working. As Dean Grennell was fond of pointing out, no loading bench is complete without a cat.
I put a separate small (24x6 inches) shelf on the wall above the loading press to hold my balance beam scale at eye level. This protects the scale from knocks and vibrations and makes it convenient to use. It’s always there, yet it’s always out of the way. A powder measure is attached to this shelf as well. There is an electrical outlet above the bench at each end, and another one underneath. Beneath the bench, I have two, 8-foot shelves fixed to the wall. The top one holds loading manuals, loading dies and some small drawer units for storing bits and pieces such as shellholders. The lower shelf holds the inserts with the larger tools attached.
I should add that, unless you are a far better carpenter than I, your two dovetail slots will have slight differences in size, so the inserts will not be interchangeable unless the tolerances are very sloppy. Hence, a little planning is required as to where you would want to use each tool before you affix it to an insert.
The oak top and facing are extremely durable. I finished it all off with tung oil, sanding between coats to get a very smooth surface. Two sets of track lights run along the ceiling the length of the bench. Using goosenecks, you can then direct light onto specific operations. Because I also use the bench for purposes like mounting scopes and cleaning guns, I have a ribbed rubber mat for it, to protect against dings and solvent spills.
Just off the loading room is a small storage room, which is where I keep usable quantities of bullets, brass, powder and primers. When I find myself with a large quantity of one item, or multiple containers of the same stuff, I keep them in a larger room at the back of the house. This makes it easier to find things in the immediate-access room and uses up considerably less space.
Loading dies can occupy a lot of shelf room, especially if you keep dies for guns you no longer have on the theory that someday you might own one again. I keep dies for current rifles under the bench and store the others on a shelf in the back room, behind the powder supply.
Because both guns and reloading materials are sensitive to heat and moisture, I keep a dehumidifier in the loading room and another in the main part of the cellar to augment the air conditioner. Cool and dry is the word for everything from Winchesters to primers to H-4831.
The setup I have now is not perfect, if only because the inventory keeps growing, but it’s at least manageable. I haven’t stopped hoarding, but I have stopped worrying about it. That’s progress.