Man is a tool-using animal... Without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all.
Thomas Carlyle 1795 - 1881
This week's Blog is my attempt to demystify the humble workbench.
No matter what type of woodworking we do, we all need a workbench. Of, course we can hack away on a plank placed on two paint tins, but at some point we realise, that there must be something more suitable and user friendly!
Back to Basics:
In my opinion, woodworking workbenches have to fulfil the following requirements:
- Be at the correct working height for you.
- Be a suitable length to cover most of your project requirements.
- Be a suitable width to cover most of your project requirements.
- Be heavy enough, so that it does not move around when you are planing or sawing.
- Have a thick enough worktop, so that it does not spring and bounce when using mallets and chisels.
- Have at least two very good vises that don't rack.
- Have two rows of bench dog holes that fit your bench dogs and holdfasts, as well as matching the tracking lines of your vises.
- Have heavy and sturdy legs that can accept dog holes as well.
- Have a really flat worktop
- Must be made from stable wood.
There have been endless books and magazine articles written about the perfect workbench, Shaker style, Roubo style, English style, Scandinavian style, Hybrid style etc, however, only you can define your own requirements and style of bench.
For example, let us assume that you only make Windsor chairs, you really don't need a 3 metre long behemoth of a bench, but you do need it to have excellent vises and and dog hole layouts for it to be wide enough to comfortably handle the footprint of your projects with a little extra to spare.
My personal preference is for a solid wood bench with one face vise and twin independent tail vises. I like this configuration. It has served me very well for nearly 30 years. I also don't like steel vises, all my bench vises are solid wood, with wooden hand tapped threads, but that's just me.....
Whether you opt to buy a quality workbench, or you choose to make your own to suit your particular requirements, the following factors are very important:
- Workbench Height - The surface of your worktop should be approximately the same distance from the floor as the knuckles closest to your wrist, when standing and relaxed. It is extremely important to keep in mind that you hardly ever work at exactly the worktop height, 99% of the time you work on something that is placed on top of the bench, not at the actual worktop level, so this factor MUST be part of your bench height calculations.
- Your vise configuration should be as efficient as possible. One face vise and either one inset tail vise, two inset tail vises, or a full width tail vise in either a twin screw or single screw configuration are the most popular formats.
- Do you want the workbench to be a completely standalone tool, or do you want to use it in conjunction with a separate assembly/glue-up table? I have used the latter system for many years and this way my bench stays clean and glue free, but most importantly, my bench is available for work while my glue-up is sitting clamped on the assembly table.
- Do you want to fit cupboards and drawers into your bench? This has both plusses and minuses...... When a bench is fitted with a cupboard/drawer module, there is no space for your legs when working seated and close to the bench. Space for holdfast shafts is also then limited. On the other hand, your tools are close at hand, and the weight of the cupboard/drawer module and its contents adds to the overall weight of the bench. Personally, I don't have cupboards, etc under my bench, I make use of a tool till behind me, and this works well for my kind of woodworking.
- Your workbench position within your workspace is extremely important. Firstly, consider the natural light that that you have available. Natural raking light across the bench is critical for me. You also need a fair amount of space around your bench, especially for you tail vise end of the bench.
- Consider carefully whether you will opt for your bench sitting against a wall, or free standing in you workshop. Once again, my preference is for placing my bench so that I can work on it from all sides. I don't like the wall placement idea, as it has too many limitations. If you have limited space and you wish to place your bench in a free standing position, simply put the bench on heavy duty braked rubber castors, your bench is then usable wherever you want it, and can be rolled back and out of your way when not in use.
- Something that many woodworkers don't consider is that your workbench vises must be laid out in the correct format for your dominant hand: Right handed benches have the face vise on the left and left handed benches on the right. If you are purchasing a bench, make sure that the bench has the availability to reposition the face vise into the correct position for you.
Whether you choose to buy a good quality bench or to make your own is up to you. Don't however, think that making your own top quality bench with decent hardware will be cheaper in the long run than buying one off the shelf. Do your sums carefully.....
There are very few really good brands of workbenches on the market, and the best ones come from Scandinavia and Europe.
Whatever your choice is for your workbench (purchased or custom built yourself), always buy well and for the long term, you will be rewarded. Decent quality hardware, vises, dogs and holdfasts are once in a lifetime purchase, so buy properly and buy once!
If you wish to build your own bench, talk to fellow woodworkers that have done it and got the T-shirt, you are not re-inventing the wheel here, you are simply building a tool that must do its duty well, and without fail.
In closing, please remember the following:
- If you are going to build your own bench, always acquire ALL of your hardware first!
- If you are going to buy your workbench, make sure that the height and vise configuration will work for you!
- Whether you are buying or building a bench, remember to maintain it properly. Keep your vise screws clean and lubricated, keep your benchtop clean, oil your bench regularly, keep your dog holes free of debris and glue and keep your benchtop flat!
If you have any questions at all about either building or buying your own workbench, please email me, and I will do my best to assist you.
Until next time, let's keep making shavings, not dust!