Thursday, December 7, 2017

Workbench personalities

Many of you will have seen this series by Christopher Schwarz.  It is amusing and perhaps of some value as a cautionary tale for those about to build a bench.  I have a different take on this subject though.

Woodworkers have explored the design of workbenches exhaustively over the centuries.  Like the foods of different cultures, they all have something to offer and, based on personal preference, each of us likes some more than others.  Some of this has to do with the tools we use, the projects we build, the space we have ... but personal taste plays a big role.

I chose to build a traditional Nicholson workbench and I couldn't be happier with it.  I like it for its historical significance, its ingenious design and its solid functionality, and I also like the look of it.  Roubo?  No question it's a great bench with a lot of advantages, but I don't like it.  Mostly, I am put off by some of its proponents.  A workbench is not a piece of furniture.  This is not a lot different from the fact that I prefer London to Paris.  Scandinavian benches?  Haven't used them, don't know.  I like the food though.  Moravian?  Ditto, although I haven't had the food (but I'd like to try it).

When I try to look at the subject objectively, I think it comes down to this.  A good hand tool workbench is really really solid, has the right dimensions and is good at workholding.  It's made from readily available materials that are reasonably priced.  Most of the rest is taste.

Not much to say about solid.  My bench goes thump and it does not slide.  So will others of many different designs.  The heavier the better.  Workholding?  Good ones of many different designs are just fine.  I'm an outlier, but I wouldn't have a bench vise again.  I like the Moxon.  I like the Nicholson skirts for vertical workholding but I am sure a sliding deadman works fine.  Dimensions?  It's got to be a good fit for you and some of us are pretty sensitive to them.  For me, 22 inches wide, 8 feet long and palm height is just right.  Materials?  Oregonians should make theirs from douglas-fir.  Buy local if you can.

I think I could be happy with any bench that satisfied these criteria.

I am about to build a basic workbench for my son, who doesn't have time to do a lot of woodworking right now but has an interest.  It will be one of two designs.  My first choice is the basic Nicholson bench designed by Mike Siemsen.  I can't say enough good about this.  It's cheap, easy and highly functional, a really great first bench.  You won't like the other one, which is based on the first bench I ever built.  I would construct a base from douglas-fir 4x4s mortised together (though you can use Simpson brackets like I did years ago) and put a top on it made from three layers of 3/4" baltic birch plywood.  Five feet long is all he has room for.  It would stay dead flat forever.  This is a much better bench than you might think.  You can make either of these benches in a weekend.

So, I guess I have revealed my workbench personality:  unpretentious, plain, functional, solid. dependable.  Whole grain wheat bread, not croissants and not Danish rye.


  1. Hi Andy.

    I think you have some very valid points here.
    The one about building a lot with local materials is spot on regarding woodworking in general.
    Jonas (who likes Danish rye)

    1. Actually, Jonas, I like it too. It just didn't work with my metaphor. :-)

  2. Joe built the one we use before we started doing woodworking. With his background in the construction trades, he built a construction worker's bench. 2x6 framework, a couple of 4x8 1/2 inch plywood sheets layered on top, on casters. It's not flat, it's none too solid and it has very little in the way of hold-downs. We have a bench vise, a home-made Moxon, and some bench hooks. Yes, we've thought about building a real cabinetmaker's bench, but we always have other projects that take precedence. So I guess it goes to show a couple of jack-legs can turn out some decent stuff even without a nice bench...

  3. Andy,

    I've had a kick out of the series of posts, with just a glimmer of recognition from a few of them. Of course that is of other folks, it couldn't be about me.

    First time bench builders usually have the most problems just because they have spent too much time reading and thinking about it. As always with most things in life, keep it simple and just do it. The second time will be much better.

    BTW, my current bench is near perfect for me. Which means I have no reason to build a replacement bench....What a bummer :-).