Full Chisel Blog

March 24, 2010

The Workbench

Filed under: Historical Material,Of Interest,Proper Tools,The Trade,Workbench — Stephen Shepherd @ 7:18 am

The Workbench

Much attention has been given lately about various historical iterations of the trusty workbench, that stalwart of the workshop, that one tool necessary to get any woodworking done.  There are detailed original engravings showing every type of workbench and most of them are complex with fancy joinery and a variety of ‘improvements’ included on each.

I for one was caught up in the fray and have built about 10 benches in 40 years; I only built one with the useless tool tray and have converted two benches with trays to useful benches by removing the useless tool tray abyss from the workbench top.

The last bench I built was one of the simplest designs and if I were to build another it would be even simpler.   A couple of the benches were quite nice and I was apprehensive to use it, so I sold it and built another that didn’t have that problem and I used it for several years.  I have seen benches built by folks that looked like a piece of furniture made out of fancy hardwoods with a high gloss finish and were quite very impressive.  I think the first time a sharp chisel went into the bench top the owners went apoplectic.

There are even books written about workbenches and on woodworking forums there is always a thread about the latest efforts to build the ‘perfect’ workbench.  I enjoy some of them because it is them doing the work and not me.  I don’t think there is a perfect workbench but there are several that approach perfection, sort of like the search for the ‘ideal chair’, the search continues.

When researching old probate inventories and other historical records; workbenches are mentioned and occasionally priced and much to my surprise the workbench or bench was listed for very little money.  If the list included a bench vise it was always much more expensive than the bench.  The books that mention building a bench the description is quite simple, left rough everywhere but the top.  Books also mention buying second hand benches.

And the value of these benches, were from $0.05 to 0.375, which is not much even in nineteenth century dollars, a skilled craftsman would make about $1.50 a day.  The cost of a workbench was less than a glue pot.  Of course there are some surviving workbenches that would have more value, but by and large it was just another tool and not much time or effort was wasted on making a bench when it was much more important to get to work to make things that could make money.  And that is the difference between then and now.

Today we can take inordinate amounts of time on building a workbench because most of the people doing this kind of woodworking are not making their living doing woodwork.  Not that there is anything wrong with this, I like workbenches and have my opinions as to what contributes to a good workbench, like a top made of softer wood so as not to damage the work being done on the workbench, &c. 

I think a lot of people decide to build the fanciest bench they can find and don’t really think about what they will actually be doing on that bench.  Many of them then realize when their bench is finished that they never use the tail vise and most regret the tool tray, etc.  When building a workbench consider what you need to get done and build a workbench that will accomplish those goals.

Stephen

10 Comments »

  1. True words and well said. I understand some of the more artistic types will want something fancier, but for getting work done, there is nothing like a southern yellow pine bench (fir, I guess, for you westerners). In my book, you need a vice and you need the top of the bench to be flat (at least the front where you do planing). Besides, that, it needs to stay put while you are working. As long as you can get a clamp up under it, everything else is gravy for general work. I don’t have an end vise installed (bought the hardware and never put it in), but there are times I wish I had something to wedge stuff in.

    On the other hand, given that modern woodworkers are learning on their own and struggling in ways and with techniques our forefathers totally took for granted, it doesn’t hurt to give oneself every advantage in the areas you can, especially if you aren’t charging by the hour.

    I don’t get the whole expensive hardwood thing though when cheap construction grade lumber can look decent and perform wonderfully. Maybe if you are doing woodworking videos for a living, you could justify the expense. Glossy finishes are rubbish for bench tops.

    I’m getting ready to move and probably won’t be able to ship my bench. My next bench will probably be SYP 1×4’s screwed and glued together face to face for the top with some beefy legs, a front vise, and, if I am feeling industrious, an end vise or something of the sort to wedge stuff in for cross grain planing. That way, I can glue up the top and put it on sawhorses to plane it so I can have a bench to build my bench on.

    Comment by Luke Townsley — March 24, 2010 @ 8:26 am

  2. I could not agree more with everything you have said, When I finally got it in my head that it was getting to be time to build a real workbench to support my real hobby I spent years researching the damned thing. I’m glad I took my time and really thought about what I wanted, I skipped the tool tray (never liked that idea anyhow) when I settled on the ideas I wanted I did decide to go with a Nicholson style bench, I modified things to fit my methods of work, and knew I’d learn from the experience for the possibility of the next time. I built mine out of construction pine as well to help save tool mishaps and workpieces. In several months use it shows some war wounds, but isn’t that what a bench is for? It’s to work with, to get dirty, to show some character. not look at. It’s like having a 4×4 pickup that never sees dirt. I have seen several antique workbenches sacrilegiously utilized as display tables for stores. But the things that give them character, make them fun to look at (more interesting than the crap the new owners have placed on top of them) is the signs of work. Scratches from a misguided saw cut, indents from hammer blows and gouges from a skived chisel. History right there you can feel with your hands.

    In retrospect on building my own bench, doing the angled legs for the Nicholson style was fun, but I believe I would have had better results if I had done them in a perpendicular style. The angled legs were difficult to get perfect, and a few wedges are required now to keep it from racking during heavy operations. But you live and learn, and I am taking the lessons to heart as I am soon beginning work on a smaller, but taller joinery style bench.

    Cheers!

    Oldwolf

    Comment by Derek Olson — March 24, 2010 @ 9:28 am

  3. Well said as always Stephen! When I built my first two benches, I had this dilusion that the continental style bench with the pretty trestle legs and all beech construction was what a workbench was supposed to be. I mean after all, that’s what all the books and magazines showed at the time. However, the more I started researching traditional techniques, the more I realized that those benches were not really designed for the kind of work I enjoy doing. The more I worked using traditional tools and methods, the more I realized that the old guys got it right. I have modified my bench in recent years to better suit my working style, and have always put off building another new bench because the one I have now has always been adequate to get work done. However, I do miss my softwood bench, so I’ve decided to finally get around to building anew. This time, I’m listening to the old guys and doing it right.

    Comment by Bob Rozaieski — March 24, 2010 @ 10:00 am

  4. I’m struggling with this right now. I have a power tool workbench that came with the garage when we bought the house. I am learning how to hand tool work, and I’m having issues with height, holding work, etc.

    I’m trying to design my new bench, and I run into those pretty pretty benches that I’d be afraid to use. I’ve used a nice expensive one at Roy Underhill’s school, and i really liked it.

    So, trying to design and build on a budget something that will hold work, and be very solid, with all the references out there is a bit challenging. Especially when you don’t know what you need because you’re learning still.

    I’m leaning towards a simple solid top 2+ inch thick, hopefully 3, with a single vise and some dog holes. Nothing fancy, probably reclaimed wood from a building salvage place, or maybe even a solid core door or two (if I can find ones that is really solid not loose filled.) I’ll probably learn what kind I really need as I work on this one, so why put tons of money into it. Plus, it’s meant to be used, abused, and worked on, not admired in magazine spreads. 🙂

    badger

    Comment by Badger — March 24, 2010 @ 11:06 am

  5. Hmmm…

    The perfect bench, as others here in the thread have stated, will never be built. Type of work, time available and personal temperment all affect what is good right here and right now.

    This said, I’ve worked on benches with and without the tail vise, with and without the dogsleg vise, with German style front vices, round dogs, square dogs….you name it. They all work. My love though is for the traditional European style planing bench built in beech. I trained on these benches as an apprentice as an organ builder and now teach my cabinetmaker and joiner students on these benches too. The vises do yeoman work holding the workpiece, the tool tray protects my tools from being accidentally pushed onto the floor and the beech top is robust enough to withstand punishment from slips of the tools.

    I’m planing on doing the test to gain a cabinetmaker’s journeyman’s letter as an addition to my organbuilder letter. The practical piece I’ll build will be….the traditional planing bench.

    Comment by Jerome Weijers — March 24, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

  6. What has turned out to be a very happy arrangement in my shop is to have two benches. One, with a single 2″ thick elm top 19 1/2″ x 60″, that has Record vices at one end and on the front, with round dog holes for Veritas dogs. It is for really robust work where I’m not fussy about the surface of the bench getting marred, or drips of finish splashed on it. It is used for both hand and hand-held power tools.
    The main bench is patterned after Frank Klausz’s plans, and I want to speak up here on behalf of the tool tray. For me it is not useless, but useful. The main surface of the bench is kept clean and flat for hand tool work and lots of small items can get placed in that tray when I don’t want them in the way but can also be at hand as I need them (hinges, files, sandpaper, screws, etc.) The tail and shoulder vices, bench slave, and various simple bench aids I’ve made to compliment the workbench provide everything I have needed to be efficient and accurate in my work.
    Regarding the quality of the wood for the bench and it’s overall look, well, if you walk into your shop everyday to work and make things, why not have something that is not only adequate but actually beautiful and inspiring?

    Comment by Tico Vogt — March 24, 2010 @ 6:43 pm

  7. Thank you all for your comments, I wasn’t sure how this would be receive, but it seemed to go well. The only disagreement seems to be about the tool tray. I am glad someone finds them useful, and you can always fill them in if you change your mind.

    One should not be afraid to use ones tools and a fancy bench with a gloss shiny top can cause intimidation.

    Stephen

    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — March 25, 2010 @ 8:44 am

  8. Great post, Stephen, but you are definitely thinking like someone who makes his living standing at a workbench and not like someone who is using one for enjoyment.

    When you are making a living with your bench, the beauty of it is in its serviceability. To some that use a bench for enjoyment, the beauty is found in its aesthetics.

    I have always thought that all the ongoing discussions regarding a perfect bench design was moot. A work bench is as personal as a pair of knickers. Whether based on an ancient design or built to a contemporary style, whether built from used 2 x 4 framing or from the finest in exotic woods, if you built it and your happy with it, then you, my friend, have the perfect bench.

    Comment by Mitchell — March 26, 2010 @ 9:40 am

  9. What bench do I use the most? Years ago I picked up (figuratively speaking) a massive commercial door. 1/4″ MDF laminated over 1″ structural composite core. I cut it in half, smeared tile cement in between them and screwed down the edges to make a 3″ thick bench top. Mounted on two old steel lab legs, drilled a bunch of holes in the top for holdfasts and added a small Record vise on one end. It’s about 40″x50″, heavy as all getout and has served as my go-to bench for everything from sawing, planing, assembly, finishing, etc. for well over 20 years. I throw a hunk of corrugated cardboard over it when finishing or glueing. And that’s about it.

    Works for me.

    Gary

    Comment by Gary Roberts — March 27, 2010 @ 9:46 pm

  10. I am currently starting the process of building my first workbench. I’ve decided to try a Roubo style bench and have opted to use ash.

    I wanted to use Southern yellow pine (SYP), but was unable to find a sufficient quantity in “good” shape. (I went to 4 big box stores and the pickings were slim) The local professional wood suppliers offer clear SYP but at a price of ~$3.5 a board foot for 8/4 stock. 9/4 ash cost $4 bf, so I opted for that instead. Maple or beach are just outright ridiculously priced.

    I hope to make a “beautiful bench”, but I will not be afraid to ding it or create wear marks on it. I am building it to use after all. I don’t see the harm in doing a good job on the bench since I will most likely not remake it anytime soon. I just look forward to excellent work-holding and a solid, massive anchor point. I am tired of my work pieces moving everywhere while I try to work on them.

    I will probably build an assembly bench as well for glue-ups and the like. For now I can throw a piece of a less desirable sheet good product on the bench. If this works out well enough, I may never build a secondary bench, my only concern is that I have a place to work while the glue or finish dries on a previous work piece.

    I’ve enjoyed all of the comments.

    Comment by Will — March 29, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

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