Bob's Bench Pages




General Bench Overview

A Good First Bench

My First Bench

My Ultimate Bench (for now)

Using the Workmate for Hand Tool Woodworking

Benches Built by Others

Bench Accessories

Other Resources

Frequently Asked Questions



Introduction

A workbench is an essential tool for a woodworker who uses hand tools, and it can be useful for power tool woodworkers as well. Most woodworkers who don't possess one dream of a classic bench. A workbench is something of a wood craftsman's rite-of-passage, a tool he wishes to make for himself. And a well-executed bench is a good reflection of the woodworker's skills. Once he has built a good bench, a woodworker has the confidence he needs to attempt more serious work.

There are many styles of woodworking benches to choose from. Some styles reflect a craftsman's way of working, some are dictated by the work he does. Most benches have these two features in common: they are heavy and rigid enough to keep still while the wood is being worked, and there is some method for holding the work in place at a comfortable position and height so that the worker can use his tools with both hands.

The main thing that distinguishes benches is the way the work is held in place. Most benches have more than one way to do this, depending on the operation being performed.



Contents




Holding the Work

I need a photo of a planing stop The most basic method of holding the work is a planing stop, which is simply a peg or small piece of wood or metal that stands just above the surface at the end of the bench top. The work is placed on the bench with the end pushed against the stop. The force of the planing keeps the board in place, so long as the force is always toward the stop. Planing against a stop gives the woodworker good feedback - he can tell a lot about what is going on just by the pressure, force and balance required. A stop can take the form of a batten attached to the end of the bench, or it can be adjustable, able to be moved up and down according to the size of the work - or pushed down below the surface when not needed. A simple bench dog can serve as a planing stop.

The next oldest work-holding device Western European workbenches is probably the holdfast. A holdfast looks like a shepherd's hook. The shank goes into a hole in the bench top and the tip of the hook is pressed against the work from above. The holdfast is set by rapping the top with a mallet, and released by hitting the back side. A good holdfast works remarkably well, and it's inexpensive and easy to install.

The holdfast can also be used for clamping work to the side of the bench for jointing. If the legs on your base are not too far under the top, simply bore a hole in the side of the leg and use the holdfast horizontally. A woodworker can do just about anything he needs on a bench with only a planing stop and a holdfast or two.

Japanese woodworkers typically hold the work differently. They will sometimes use a cord held by their feet across the work to keep everything in place. They will often use their body weight by standing, kneeling, or even sitting on the work. These are effective methods - if you have the right build. If you can easily touch your toe to your ear, this way of working may have appeal for you. I'm built like a typical American (if such a thing can be imagined) and I have trouble getting my body into the positions that my Japanese friends can assume with no effort at all. My one exception is my mortising bench - where I keep the work in place by sitting on it.



Vises

Long ago, just as today, woodworkers needed a handier way to keep the wood in place while it was being worked. Some kind of device was wanted that could be used effectively on different sizes of wood, as the need arose. Probably the first such device used two stops - at least one of which was adjustable for position - and wedges between them and the work to fix it in place. This is still a cheap and effective method for holding the work.

If you think about it, a screw is really just a wedge in the round. Today, most vises use a big screw to apply the clamping force.

There are two main categories of vises: vises on the end of the bench and vises on the front of the bench. End vises (also called 'tail vises') are usually mounted on the right side of the bench for right-handed workers. They can typically hold work in two ways: between the jaws and along the top of the bench using moveable 'dogs' in place of jaws. Not all benches have tail vises. A front vise (also called 'face vise' or 'shoulder vise') is typically mounted on the left front side of the bench. They may be used for holding a board to be edge jointed, or sometimes for sawing out dovetails and the like.




Front Vises

Probably the oldest front vise design is the leg vise. It's called a leg vise because one of the bench's legs is an integral part of it - usually forming the inside jaw. The outside jaw also goes all the way to the floor - or nearly so. There is a single screw mounted between a quarter and a third of the way down that goes through both jaws with the nut on the back of the leg. Finally, there is some sort of horizontal beam at the bottom to act as a fulcrum. This beam may take the form of a board that can be adjusted by means of holes and pegs, or it can even be another screw. The leg vise is probably the simplest and least expensive of the front vises, and it is very strong.

Another old design is the shoulder vise. This best thing about this design is that it allows clamping directly behind the screw. This yields unobstructed vertical clamping for cutting dovetails and similar operations. There is also typically a little play in the screw/jaw attachment that provides for clamping of angled work. This is one vise that should be designed into the bench from the beginning, as it is difficult to retrofit into an existing bench. The primary drawback of the shoulder vise is its fragility. It's fairly easy to break it with a big steel bench screw - but you should never really have to put that much force on it. Some woodworkers say that the big vise gets in the way of some jobs, but I've never found it intrusive.

Perhaps the easiest face vise to install is the self-contained iron vise, sometimes called the 'quick-action' vise (except they are not all quick-action). This tool comes already assembled and only has to be mounted to the bench. Usually, auxiliary wooden jaws are added. The quick-action feature makes setting it much quicker and is quickly taken for granted. Not only are these vises easy to install and use, they are also robust. Their main drawback is the relatively high cost.


One old design is making a comeback thanks to Lee Valley's Veritas Toolworks. The twin-screw vise was popular during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, particularly with chair makers. The updated Veritas design uses a chain to connect the two screws, keeping them slaved to each other. There is also a provision for decoupling the screws so that tapered work can be held. This design has many of the advantages of the classic shoulder vise and single screw face vise, with few of the disadvantages. It can also be used effectively as an end vise. The main drawbacks of the twin-screw vise are the expense and the relatively difficult installation.

The patternmaker's vise is sometimes used as a front vise. This style was originally designed for patternmakers, the folks who make the forms used in metal casting. Pattern making is exacting work using shapes not normally encountered by a cabinetmaker. The patternmaker's vise can hold odd shapes at various angles, and it can certainly hold simple shapes at regular angles. The drawbacks of this vise are the expense, the moderately complicated mounting, and a tendency to fragility. The tool of choice is an antique Emmert, but there are several clones on the market today, including one by Lee Valley that is made of an aluminum alloy - which should be less likely to break.

I need a photo of a continental style face vise Many of the commercial European benches have a front vise that uses a wooden jaw and a metal screw and built-in anti-racking hardware. These vises are also available as kits that so they can be mounted on almost any bench. These kits are not expensive, and I've heard good things about them - but I've not had much opportunity to use one.



End Vises

The traditional tail vise uses one large screw, either wooden or metal. It is made in the form of a frame, with the back part of the frame fitting under the bench. The jaw has a face that contacts the bench top, and it has one or more dog holes on the top that are in line with the dog holes on the bench top. This is the least expensive option for a tail vise.

I need a photo of a steel-plate tail vise A newer form of tail vise does away with the need of a frame. It uses steel plates for its structure - one steel plate with the nut is mounted on the side of the bench, two others are built into a sliding jaw along with the bench screw. This is a robust design and it's easier to install and adjust than the older style.



Face Vises as End Vises

Some bench designers have adapted face vises for use as tail vises - with differing levels of success. Unfortunately, we are most likely to find the continental style vise used this way, and it's really least suited to the task. When used as a tail vise it has a strong tendency to rack because of the side forces. It isn't long before the hardware begins to show wear.

The steel quick-action vise doesn't suffer so much from this problem. With one exception, it functions well on the end of the bench. Its main drawback as a tail vise is the distance of the dog from the edge of the vise. Ideally, the dog hole strip should be fairly close to the edge of the bench. This puts your weight more directly over the work and behind the plane, enabling you to put more power and control into the operation with less strain. It is also important to keep the dog holes near the edge so that fenced planes can easily be used. With even a small quick-action vise the dog hole strip is still pretty far from the edge. So if you decide to use a quick-action vise as a tail vise, get the smallest good one you can find.

The twin-screw vise marketed by Lee Valley works well as a tail vise - that's really what it's designed for. The old wooden twin-screw design isn't suited for this task because there is no facility for holding the offside jaw open.



Front Vise Comparison

Vise Type

Cost

Advantages

Disadvantages

Leg Vise

Low

Strong design
Adaptable

Can be cumbersome to set
Not good for those who dislike stooping

Shoulder Vise

Low

Work clamped directly under screw
Can clamp work vertically
Can handle tapered work

Relatively complex and fragile design
Bench slave required for jointing
Shoulder gets in the way of some work

Continental Style Vise

Medium

Relatively wide face
Wood clamping surfaces
Can be made to fit a range of installations

Not ideal for vertical clamping
Prone to racking

Quick Action Vise

Medium

Strong design
Can be quickly set one-handed
Relatively simple installation

Not ideal for vertical clamping
Bench thickness critical

Pattern Maker's Vise

High

Most Versatile
Can clamp odd shapes at odd angles
Can be retro-fitted to existing bench

Somewhat fragile
Bench thickness critical

Twin Screw Vise
(Used as front vise)

High

Very Strong Design
Can clamp work vertically
Good for jointing
Can handle tapered work

Relatively difficult installation



End Vise Comparison

Vise Type

Cost

Advantages

Disadvantages

Traditional Tail Vise

Low

Classic Design
Can be made with all wood parts

Relatively difficult to build and install
Relatively fragile

Leg Vise
(Used as end vise)

Low

Strong design

Can be difficult to align
Can be cumbersome to set
Not good for those who dislike stooping

Continental Style Vise
(Used as end vise)

Medium

Relatively easy installation

Not particularly suited to this application
Prone to severe racking and wear

Quick Action Vise
(Used as end vise)

Medium

Can be quickly set one-handed
Relatively simple installation

Bench thickness critical
Puts dog hole strip farther from bench edge

Steel Plate Tail Vise

High

Strong design
Easier to install and align

Some construction still required

Twin Screw Vise
(Used as end vise)

High

Very Strong Design
Adaptable for double dog hole strips

Relatively difficult installation




Materials

Most workbenches are made from solid wood; the most expensive and desirable are made of solid hardwood. I have also seen benches made from plywood and Masonite, and bases of treated pine and even steel. There are tradeoffs, of course. Solid wood has many advantages including strength, workability, appearance - and if you want a classic bench, it's really the only choice. A plywood or hardboard bench top has the advantage of being stable, relatively inexpensive, and in some ways it's easier to work with - particularly for a woodworker who doesn't yet have hand tools. As I see it, the practical drawbacks of a plywood or composite bench top are that they don't hold their corners and edges well, and they can't be resurfaced with a plane - something that should be done from time to time.

Workbenches are fairly forgiving in the choice of wood. I have never had a problem using maple, cherry, mahogany, or even pine. I understand that beech, oak, walnut, and fir make good benches. I've even seen some made from exotic woods like purpleheart and teak - though the expense must have been very high. The choice of wood is not as important as the integrity of the design - cross grain construction and inadequate joinery will have a more destructive effect than the use of a less-than-ideal wood.

One popular and cheap source for bench top material is old bowling alley lanes. These are usually made from thick, high-quality laminated maple. There are a couple of things to watch for if you decide to go this route. First, the waxes they use on the surface frequently contain silicon and other substances that can play havoc with your pieces when you try to finish them - a little silicon on a project will cause trouble with many finishes, and you won't notice it until it's too late. The other thing to watch for with bowling alley wood is nails. Most pieces have loads of nails buried in them, so be careful with your tools when you're cutting or boring.

purpleheart dog I've seen a number of benches that used different species of woods together. I used maple and cherry (and even some mahogany) on my first bench top. If you decide to do this, be sure to use woods that are compatible with each other - particularly in the area of relative movement. Otherwise you may have a problem with your bench top de-laminating after just a few years. Of course the same thing can happen within the same species if you mix face-sawn and quarter-sawn pieces in a lamination.

Speaking of exotic woods, lots of woodworkers have incorporated some interesting specimens into auxiliary parts. I have made an ebony oil cup; paduk, purpleheart, and hickory bench dogs; and a black-walnut sawing stop. Other places that folks use to show off their exotic pieces are vise handles, vise handle knobs, planing stops, tail vise tops and bodies, and vise jaws. The spacer on the classic shoulder vise is another popular place to show off an unusual piece of wood. Some of these woods have qualities that make them suited to these applications (if you need an excuse) - for instance, I've found that purpleheart makes an outstanding, long-wearing bench dog. If you are interested in this sort of thing, Pen turning blanks are a good source for small amounts of otherwise expensive exotics.




Size and Positioning

The size of your bench depends on your work, your space, and your budget. In general, bigger is better - though I have found that no matter how large my bench, about ninety percent of the work is done on the front few inches of the top, and then mostly in the front vise or right around the tail vise. So a smaller, narrow bench isn't as much of a drawback as might be expected - and it is far better than no bench at all. I was surprised how small Tage Frid's bench was when I saw it, and it's probably the most copied of all benches. The biggest disadvantage of a smaller bench is that they are usually too light to resist heavy work without skidding around - but this problem can be overcome by attaching the bench to the floor. I have known people who kept their bench in place by securing it to a sheet of plywood, which they also stand on as they work.

Woodworkers seem to be evenly divided on the subject of bench positioning. About half like to be able to access their benches from all sides, the other half like their bench against a wall. The advantage of wall placement - besides the saved space - is that tools can be stored on the wall over the bench, within easy reach. This keeps the tool storage out of the way, and the tools can still be reached without turning around or bending down. I like my bench against a wall with a window - it gives me good light and a pleasant view while I work, and a nice breeze in fine weather.



The Base

A good workbench base should support the top so that it doesn't move, while at the same time keeping clear of the work. There are two main types: open bases and bases with built in storage. I prefer open bases because they are easier to build and there is less chance of the base getting in the way - plus, it is usually necessary to compromise the strength and rigidity of a base in order to accommodate storage.

Probably the most popular style is the sled-foot trestle base (A). With this design, each pair of legs is put together in the form of an 'I' with two vertical bars. The leg pairs are connected by a pair of stretchers. These stretchers can be permanently fixed to the leg-pairs, or they can be made removable with tusk tenons or a bed-bolt arrangement. One of the advantages of this style is that there is no end-grain resting on the floor, so the legs are not as prone to wick-up moisture and rot.

Another popular style is a simple post and rail table structure. This is probably best implemented in heavy gauge steel, as wood doesn't really give enough resistance to the side forces that develop during heavy work. Most people who use this style with wood end up making another base before very long.

If you want something quick and solid, Lee Valley sells a cast iron leg kit (B). All you need to do is add the connecting stretchers and you have a finished base. (Photo courtesy of Lee Valley).

I have used a hybrid design of the sled-foot trestle and the post and rail styles to good effect. Instead of an 'I' structure, the sled foot is moved up to become a rail - sort of an 'H' with a bar across the top. This puts end-grain on the floor, but it is otherwise a strong design and somewhat easier to build. Plus, the feet don't get in the way as sled-feet sometimes do.


A Bench of Your Own

There are a few roads to your very own bench: you can build one from scratch, make one from plans and a kit, or buy one ready-made. A scratch built bench can be just about anything you want, but it can also be a big project. If you want to build your own, but are a little intimidated, I have developed a bench for the first-time builder.

There are also several sets of plans available for people who like detailed instructions. Lee-Valley offers three different sets, and they sell the hardware to go with them.

Not everybody wants to build their own bench. I've gotten a flattering number of offers to buy some of mine - but I'm not in that business - I do this just for fun. I never bought a commercial bench (except the Workmate) because by the time I had the money I had already built my own. If you got your money before you got the workbench bug you might want to check out these:

Ulmia
This is an old German company whose benches are highly thought of.

Hoffman & Hammer
These are sold in the United States by Highland Hardware. I've seen them and worked with them and they appear to be fine tools. Highland uses these benches in their classroom shop, including an intriguing square bench that can support four students at a time. Highland also sells bench plans and parts, including a complete line of vises.

Veritas
Lee Valley markets a workbench built around their excellent twin-screw vise. You can get it with a hardwood base or in cast iron. They also sell bench parts, kits, and plans.

Diefenbach
This is another old German firm with a good reputation. Why do most commercial benches come from Germany?

ECE
This company also makes a line of fine hand tools.


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