Full Chisel Blog

July 20, 2008

Using a Workbench

Filed under: Techniques,Uncategorized,Workbench — Stephen Shepherd @ 6:17 pm

I presume you all know how to use a workbench, so some of this may be old hat, but that is not going to stop me.  A workbench is a bench where you do your woodworking (I love stating the obvious) and it shouldn’t interfere with getting work done.

As I have mentioned before my workbench tops are made of softwood, as I don’t want my workbench to damage that which I am working on.  Now while I mostly use pine for what I make, it is more important to me to have a soft top on the workbench.  People ask if it doesn’t wear out?  Well I am sure that the top of my bench will only last a hundred years or so, I can’t imagine wearing out a bench top.

Probably the most important thing about a workbench is that it should be solid and not move on you when you are using it.  If a bench wobbles, moves, sways or jiggles when you use it makes what you are doing difficult as the work is moving in unwanted ways.  Accuracy diminishes when the work moves when it is not intended.  If it is not stable and moves when you work on it, I am not sure it can be called a workbench.

Nor do I think workbenches should be built like a piece of furniture, while they look wonderful and could be in most peoples living rooms, and are great examples of the fine craftsmanship of the woodworker, I think most will be reluctant to use the bench for fear of damaging its pristine look.  That interferes with getting work done.

The reason I built this type of bench is that I am not sure a vise (permanently) attached to a workbench was not a time-saver and gets in the way.  I have two other benches in my shop with tail vises and face vises, they are identical benches, one has been raised up 5 inches (with a cleat under the trestle feet, the other one is lower for planing and both have the nasty tool tray holes, one has been rehabilitated and the other one is in therapy (its crap tray is going away soon).

I have noticed problems when using the tail vises in conjunction with bench dogs.  The screws on these vises can exert an enormous amount of pressure and it is easy to deform boards, even thick long boards, by over tightening.  When holding thin stock it is almost impossible not to bow the board one way or another with just light pressure.  I did some playing around the other day and it was difficult to get the board solid enough within the dogs to hold it without causing it to bow.

It is also much faster to plane boards against a stop or catch than it is to secure it between dogs.  The wood can be easily turned, flipped and smoothed without the vise causing the boards to bow, and it just takes too long, tightening, loosening, adjusting the dogs, not a labor saving devise.

The jam cleat or arrest is also much faster and using a face vise for edge planing, and a surface V-shaped jam cleat holds boards well for edge planing.  Just push the board in place and work, then pull it out, reverse push it in again and you are back to work.  I guarantee that it is much faster with no fear of distortion.

I also like the feel of the wood when I am planing it against the stops or catches and it requires a different technique, that actually improved my hand planing.  Because the rear end of the board is not supported when using just the catch (planing stop), you must exert more pressure on the rear of the plane, especially when off planing the end of the board.  One difficulty is planing a thin board with a bit of a cup to it or a chip of wood under the wood causes it to come up off the stop.  This can be avoided by having an iron toothed crochet (catch) set in the stop to prevent this from happening.

With the increase in heel pressure on the plane there is less of a tendency to plane more on the near side of the wood.  Free planing (not in a vise) is also much faster as the wood is easily reversed for proper grain orientation for planing, and easily flipped over to finish the reverse side of the board.  And having two stops allow you to use them in conjunction with each other to hold round or oval pieces or a corner into the two stops to plane on a skew angle to the grain.

 I am building a folding lap desk 12″ by 16″ by 6″, half blind dovetailed, nailed in bottom and top.  I prepared all the boards on the bench, did the dovetails using a hold fast to gang saw the front and back and did the half blind pins on a side rest (bench hook).  I planed the top and bottom flat before gluing in the top and bottom, using the two stops set all the way up.  I also used the stops to hold the box when smoothing the tops and edges.  I did use an end vise on another bench to hold the box when I ripped it apart.  I finished up the slopes with a smoother, again free planing against the stops.  I mortised the hinges against the stops.  I will post on this box soon.

I do need a vise for sawing, and it is my intention to build a proper sawing vise, then I will never have need for an end vise, which is just fine with me as the Best Woodworking Workbench in the World doesn’t have one.

I am also well pleased by the with the jam cleat (Not a Crochet) on the left front edge of my workbench.  I am contemplating and making inquiries about Moxon (see the thread at WoodCentral) and would like to figure out how that thing works.  The jam cleat or arrest works well with just one peg to support the height of the board at its proper location.  Push the piece in and start planing.  You can also use the bench as a height reference by allowing your fingers to touch the bench, so you can get a feel for the height as you plane.  Any time I can bring another sense into play, rather than relying on sight to check for smoothness or straightness, the better, especially as one ages.

Who says you can’t teach an old dog, old tricks?  Forcing myself not to use an end vise or face vise has been an interesting experiment and the results of which I will continue to practice.  It has not been difficult to wean myself from using vises, and had I not had this particular notion perhaps I wouldn’t have learned some valuable techniques.

I of course am not claiming authorship to any of this, I just looked at what was available during the early nineteenth century in terms of woodworking technology together with the extant examples we can examine and extrapolate and I put 2 and 2 together and got 22.



  1. I agree that planing stops can work great, but where I find they fall down is when I’m roughing a board. When I’m going from ‘rough to ready’ I usually plane diagonally or even at 90 degrees to the run of the grain. It would take a heck of a lot of planing stops to hold the board steady with this kind of thing going on (I take the 45’s from both directions). For this work I like my dogs. Sorry. 🙂
    The planing stop for edge jointing sounds great until you try to fix up a waney-edged slab that keeps falling over. Every time you see someone in a book or article using a planing stop for edge jointing they’re working on a board that looks like it just came out of a planer surfaced on all four sides. Gee, I’m being argumentative today. 🙂
    I do agree that a face vise is a pain. The racking just sucks. I’m moving towards a shoulder vise. Although I’m not thrilled with the protrusion from the bench, it doesn’t have racking issues. Another way to solve the problem would be to mount a Veritas twin-screw vise vertically as a ‘self adjusting leg vise’. That would be sweet. It *can* get in the way, but I still like the idea.


    Comment by Metalworker Mike — July 20, 2008 @ 9:05 pm

  2. Mike,

    When I edge plane I use a shooting board so as to get the work square. Now I do use a jam cleat to hold work for T&G and edge molding. But when planing flat stuff, I like pegs in the many holes in my bench, but the adjustable stops, with cams to prevent them from dropping out of sight does help. The two points allow the corner of a board to be oriented to support cross grain planing. And the quick switch to the diagonal and no loosening and tightening the vise makes for quicker work. This is probably caused by my laziness and the fewer moves to get a job done the better.

    But we all do what is best for us and that is how it should be.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — July 20, 2008 @ 9:50 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress