Heart Valves, Digital Levels and Happy Holidays.

My new workbench uses metal shelving units and laminated countertops. I used deckboards to help support the countertops and boards that sit between them and the basement walls. The boards create some more overhang at the front (toe kick) and bridge a gap I had to leave in the back because of a drainage channel along the walls. I tried leveling the countertops with wood shims but it didn't go well. So I removed one of the countertops and started leveling the boards with paper from old catalogs and magazines (that blue stuff is masking tape). I finally realized my Harbor Freight digital level wasn't accurate. Read the article to find out why you shouldn't buy one.
My new workbench uses shelving units and laminated countertops. I used deckboards to help support the countertops and some boards between them and the basement walls. The boards create some more overhang at the front (toe kick) and bridge a gap I had to leave in the back because of a perimeter drainage channel. I tried leveling the countertops with wood shims but it didn’t go well. So I removed one of the countertops and started leveling the boards with paper from old catalogs and magazines (that blue stuff is masking tape). I finally realized my Harbor Freight digital level wasn’t accurate. Read the article to find out why you shouldn’t buy one.

The worry level is pretty high at my house right now because my 30-year old stepdaughter is getting a heart valve replaced tomorrow.  We knew she had a “minor” and somewhat common mitral valve defect but she didn’t have any problems with it until just a couple of weeks ago.  We hope it goes well because we have two young grandchildren who need a healthy mom.

I have no room in my workshop

There’s also another reason why I haven’t gotten much work done in my workshop or added much to MachinistBlog or MachinistVideos lately.  We’re having some major remodeling done and our contractor has finally finished taking over my garage workshop with his tools and materials.  As a result I haven’t had room out there for awhile to work on my CNC router.  So I’ve been concentrating on getting my new “winter” workshop in our basement finished.

I have only one major task left before I can start using it.  That’s to install a couple of 10-foot long laminated countertops that are mitered to join in a corner.  My contractor said that to get a good joint the two pieces have to be perfectly level and I’ve been having a lot of problems getting them that way.

The countertops are on heavy-duty shelving units that can also be assembled as workbenches.  There’s a small variation in their height and they’re sitting on a basement floor that’s not very level.  To make a long story short I have to do a lot of leveling over a 20-foot distance and I wasted hours of work before I realized my digital level wasn’t accurate any more.  I bought it at Harbor Freight because it was inexpensive, it had much greater resolution than a standard construction level and it had a built-in laser that I thought might be useful.

DO NOT BUY Harbor Freight’s Digital Level Model 93884

I checked and it was very accurate when it was new.  But it’s out of warranty now and it can’t be easily recalibrated like many other digital levels.  You can typically place them on a fairly level surface, press the recalibrate button, turn the level exactly 180 degrees on the same spot and press the button again.  They can then determine true level.  The Harbor Freight digital level can’t do that and it has to be recalibrated by a “qualified technician.”  I wasted another couple of hours unsuccessful searching the net and trying button combinations to see if I could find a way to calibrate it myself.  So do not buy the Harbor Freight 24-inch digital level model 93884!


I then switched to using my 8-inch Starrett machinist level on top of a much longer construction level.  It’s extremely accurate and so sensitive you can easily see the difference in height caused by a very thin piece of paper.  They cost about $120, so I was heartbroken when I managed to drop it a few inches and ruin it by cracking its vial.

iPod Touch to the Rescue?

So now my plan is to use my iPod Touch.  It has a couple of digital level apps on it that are very fast and sensitive.  But it’s not long enough and the back of its case is a little rounded.  So I’m going to attach it to my construction level with double-sided tape and if necessary, bed the edges in Play-Doh if it needs more support.  Then I’m going to calibrate it for true level using the method I described earlier.  I’ll probably use the Clinometer that comes with AppBox Pro, a $1.99 collection of useful apps that I like because it includes the best tip calculator I’ve ever found.

I just have to find (make?) some time to finish the job.  If you’re a regular reader you probably know that I’ve been unusually busy with my job, family and yard work.  Things have finally begun slowing down and I’m getting caught up.  But to be honest I’m tired and a little burnt-out.  I’ve also got a bunch of relatives and good friends who are going to be in town visiting next week.  So I may take some time to relax and goof-off if things go well with my daughter.

Happy Holidays

I want to wish you all Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah,  Joyous Kwanzaa, Happy Festivus and a Happy New Year. (Yes, I do try to be PC – Polite and Considerate to all).

7 thoughts on “Heart Valves, Digital Levels and Happy Holidays.”

  1. I hope all goes well with your daughter, Rob. A Mitral Valve replacement is a major procedure but is done fairly commonly so the experience level of most centers is pretty high. I will keep her, you and your family in my prayers. Please convey my wishes to your family for a safe and wonderful Holiday Season.


  2. Hope all goes well with the operation.

    As to the countertops, don’t over think it. It’s at the joint you need the best accuracy, and even that isn’t as critical as you might think. Laminate covered particle board will soon conform to the underlayment. In fact, you might want to lay boards all along the front and back edges to prevent sagging between the boards that are perpendicular to the walls.

    Unless you plan to change things, I would bolt a 2×4 (stood on edge) to the front & back frames at the top of all the bases, tying them together. That gives a good edge to set the counter on.

  3. You gave me a lot of good advice Roger. Lengthwise supports would provide much better support, especially along the front edge of the countertop, and it would be much easier to get them level.

    However, my desire to push the countertops forward about 4-inches may not make it possible to bolt the 2x4s to the metal frame. So I’m more inclined to put them on top of the existing boards. But I want to lay the 2x4s flat instead of on edge so the workbench isn’t too high. And since I’m going to have to go to the store anyways I may use 2x6s. What do you think?

    BTW, this wasn’t the way I was going to build this workbench. My original plan was to weld up a frame using 2-inch square steel tubing. I thought it would be stronger, quicker to build and more portable if we move. It also wouldn’t have cost much more than wood construction.

    But I picked up these shelving units somewhat impulsively at the only Black Friday sale I’ve ever gone to. Then I realized I couldn’t use them where I was going to. So I’m using them for my new workbench instead.

    Unfortunately the “wood” shelves they came with quickly sagged even with almost nothing on them. And a scary looking greenish-gray mold quickly started growing on them. So I spent about $100 to replace them with 3/4-inch melamine covered particle board I bought at Home Depot. I could have some saved money by using plain particle board but they look good and will be easy to keep clean.

    So far I’ve spent $100 for the original units, $100 for replacement shelves, $208 for two 10-foot long laminated countertops and at least another on $30 on boards, clamp kit, shims, screws and other materials. If I’d realized at the start that I was going to spend $450+ I would have probably explored cheaper options.

    On the other hand I’m going to have a workshop that looks nice and that’s kind of important to me. One of my life-long goals has been to have a nice well-equipped workshop and achieving that goal has become more important as I’ve grow older. I’ll also have lots of useful shelves which I probably wouldn’t have if I’d gone cheap. And I’ll be able to take this workbench with me without too much trouble if we ever move or I decide to rent a space for a bigger workshop.

  4. Best wishes on the heart surgery. Jan 8 will be the 4 year anniversary of my mitral valve replacement. I opted for the organic (porcine)type because the metallic ones require ongoing use of a blood thinner, which is a big hazard to a machinist. I figure when it needs replacement that the materials and techniques will be vastly superior to those currently in use.

    As Mikey noted, it is a serious operation, but not uncommon. I felt much better after the surgery, so will your stepdaughter.

  5. She came home today and quite frankly looks like crap. But I’m sure you’re right and she’ll feel much better once she’s fully recovered. She seemed to be very tired over the last year or so but I assumed it because she’s a single mom with two young kids. Now my wife and I realize it was probably because of her heart.

  6. So, updates? How’s the daughter doing? Where are the pics of the completed benches? You can’t leave us hanging like this!

  7. She’s getting better. It’s been a little less than 3 weeks since her heart surgery and she’s still tired and weak. Although, I think pain and the side effects of her pain medication might be limiting her just as much or more. There were some noticeable improvements right after the surgery. For example, her fingers looked healthy and pink again instead of gray.

    I’m much more worried about my wife. She’s trying not to show it but she’s very tired and still stressed. She’s over there everyday until the boyfriend comes home from work and sometimes that’s pretty late because he has to go to AAA meetings because of a recent DWI. He’s just the latest in a long string of bad choices. I’ve always kept my mouth shut because I try not to be judgmental but I think that’s going to stop when she gets healthy again because she’s setting a very bad example of our granddaughter. (Sorry, but thanks for letting me get that off my chest)

    I took your advice and screwed 2x4s to the front top rails of the shelving units. They made them more rigid and provided a good level reference point. I couldn’t mount 2x4s on the back rail so I set a bunch of them flat where the top shelves went and then used shims to level up the back edge of the countertops.

    I can finally switch to working in my new workshop instead of on it. But I’m not going to post any pictures until I have something more impressive to show. I still need to put up peg board, install some new outlets on the wall and bring a lot more tools in from my garage. I also need to build a temporary stand for my CNC mini-mill. It’s going to stay in it’s wooden cabinet until I can build a new metal and Plexiglas cabinet that can handle coolant.

    Many of those chores are going to have to wait because I want to get back to working on my CNC router.


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