Keeping your bench top in great condition is essential for safe, effective and efficient workmanship. As any maker, engineer or mechanic knows, the typical worktop gets scratched, dented and contaminated with glue, soldering drips and dirt building up in knife marks all too soon.
Many different materials have been developed as more durable alternatives to the standard MDF and laminate that comes with most standard desks and benches. The best one for your application will depend on the materials and tools that you work with. Here in this article, we look at different options for workbench protection and see how they compare with modern advanced cutting mats.
Comparison Of The Options For Workbench Surface Protection
Glass Worktop Protector
These must be made from safety glass, either tempered or laminated to prevent injury if the glass shatters. Tempered glass breaks into small beads, which are less of a cut hazard than shards whilst laminated glass has a bonded layer that is designed to hold the broken glass in place. They are not recommended for use with hard materials and metal tools. Large glass sections should be well supported across their entire surface, as they can sag or break when under strain.
The good features of glass work surfaces are that they are impervious to water and many chemicals, non-staining, smooth, flat, and resist scratches moderately well. They are also easy to clean and remain stable at a wide range of temperatures. Glass also serves well for pattern tracing, especially if it can be lit from beneath.
The downsides of glass surfaces include their hardness, fragility, risk of injury if broken, and weight. If used in a cleanroom, the problem caused if the glass is broken could be very significant. However, the most common issue is that cutting into glass causes knife blades to blunt very quickly.
Rubber Bench Matting
Flexible rubber table matting is a low-cost, popular protector for workbench tops. It can be easily cut to size, rolled up for storage or transport, and easily replaced as needed. It also possesses non-slip properties and the flexibility of the surface will protect delicate workpieces, unlike glass. However, rubber has poor self-healing properties, does not make a good supportive cutting surface and tends to have a strong smell which can be unpleasant.
If you need a surface that has the insulating, and cushioning benefits of rubber matting, but can withstand multiple knife cuts and has more durability and stiffness, try the Superlite 3mm thick clear mat. Potentially costing more than basic rubber matting, this premium product will last far longer and enable a lot more heavy-duty work without degrading so quickly.
Formica and laminates
Formica, WilsonArt and Arborite are registered brand names of quality laminate surfaces. Due to their expansive design range, this type of surface is used a lot on desks and furniture but they are so thin they need to be permanently bonded to the table to stay flat. This makes them impractical to use as a cutting mat, as they are not replaceable. They are also relatively hard, so do not give any cushioning. In short, if your table has a laminate surface it very likely needs another layer of protection if used for anything other than light-duty work.
Wooden ‘Butcher Block’ Boards
The well-known traditional cutting board, end-grain hardwood was the old go-to for use with cutting tools. End-grain has a good amount of seal-healing properties, as the material is dense but gentle on knife edges.
The surface of wooden worktops is restored by sanding down and resealing with specialist wood or hard-wax oil. This becomes a drawback, as the process involves several stages of sanding and sealing, and apart from the time taken (from a day or two to several weeks to fully harden) the solvents involved can be a problem, and the fine particles from sanding can cause lung disease and cancer.
For the modern-day workshop, a more practical version of the wooden cutting block is used – the Rhino Heavy-duty cutting mat. This has the firmness of hardwood, is more self-healing, and is less prone to “tram lining” the knife than timber is.
Stainless Steel Overlay
Stainless steel worktops are used in many workspaces, from hospitals, cleanrooms and kitchens to car workshops and engineering departments. Rust-free, ultra-hard and easy to clean, stainless steel is durable, and resistant to most chemicals and acids (particularly 316 grade steel).
The downside of steel worktops is they can be too hard, blunting metal cutting tools or causing damage if items are dropped on them. Its conductivity can bring issues in certain situations – think electricity, heat transfer, and user discomfort as they can be cold to the touch. Steel is also costly to purchase and fabricate, although it is obviously very long-lasting.
The edges of steel bench tops need to be contoured and finished well so as not to cause a risk of cut injury.
Epoxy Resin and Polyurethane Coatings
These coatings can be a good solution to protecting existing workbenches from scrapes and deterioration, or even levelling off previously damaged surfaces. Many advanced single-component or two-part resins can be brushed or even poured over flat surfaces, some of which offer high resistance to heat, impact, scratching, or chemical corrosion. Often clear, some can be tinted or mixed to match your choice of colour.
Matt clear coats are better for work desks than gloss finishes, as the latter will likely lose its shine in patches and show up scratches more.
It is important that two-part resins are mixed accurately to the manufacturer’s instructions as the incorrect ratio either way can result in a non-drying, sticky mess! Also pay attention to recommended PPE and product warnings as most of these synthetic resins give off potentially hazardous fumes until fully cured. Single part resins are easier to apply although they not generally as durable as two-part types.
The Rhino worksurface mats are essentially readymade worktop protectors that can be moved from bench to bench as needed. They can be supplied in sizes to fully cover most industrial workbenches.