Saturday, December 10, 2011

Observations for Nicholson workbenches

I have kept the June 2007 issue of Popular Woodworking on my assembly table as I built my bench.  The cover is the Nicholson bench Chris Schwarz built, but that isn't the reason.  It contains his lengthy "10 Solid Rules for a Better Workbench" article, rules which he has repeated several times since in other publications.  I think he would look at my bench and say I followed them all except for being clamp friendly and workbench height.  I think this bench is clamp friendly; it's just that it emphasizes work holding by other means.  As for height, he acknowledges that there is a range.  I'm about 2" higher than his "pinky guideline", but, at over 6'2", 34" is as low as I will go.

In this spirit, I have decided to come up with 10 observations that I think may be useful to others considering building a Nicholson workbench.  My hope is that you will chime in with comments, criticisms, observations of your own so that readers get a range of views.

So, here's Observation #1:  You can design your Nicholson workbench to have as much mass and rigidity as you want.  More is usually better, but not always.  The most frequent criticism of Nicholson benches is that they lack both and I believe I have shown that it just isn't true.  The amount of mass and rigidity your bench has is a design choice for you to make.  Particularly if you use construction lumber, adding a 2x6 ledger for the bearers accomplishes several things.  It solidly locks the legs vertical, like the shoulder of a huge tenon.  With it, there is no need for a bottom stretcher along the length of the bench.  It stiffens the side board, effectively turning the bottom half into a 4x6.  It's easy, it's cheap, do it.  The second best way is to add bearers.  It is so easy to do this, I think the minimum number is seven.  I'm leaving the top for a separate observation, so the third best way is to beef up the legs.  Again, easy to laminate 2x6's.  Especially if you are using construction lumber, material cost is not a big issue, so why not?

Mass and rigidity aren't always better.  Mike Siemsen wants a bench that he can transport, so a bench over 300 lbs, like mine will be, wouldn't be good.  You can always add bearers on either side of the leg so you have places on the bench that are super solid.  Does the whole top need to be?  Finally, you can build a solid bench raiser if you want.

My point is that this is a choice you get to make, not an inherent characteristic of the Nicholson bench.


  1. Good comments, Andy! In my opinion, once you have enough mass and rigidity to keep the bench from sliding or shaking as you work, anything additional is just gravy. My Nicholson wouldn't replace a granite balance table, but I don't notice any movement when I'm working on it…and that's all I want.

    I do like the shelf below the bench for appliances, and would hate to be without it. As a side benefit, it's also giving me additional rigidity to make up for my less-than-perfect joinery. Since I didn't use glue, this might be even more important down the road; I'm still not sure if that was a foolish decision. Yours is more carefully built.

    I have Schwarz' first workbench book, and I think it's really good. His Nicholson design was a total turnoff, though, because of the complicated-looking joinery for the angled legs. That's unfortunate, because I think this bench should be really simple and fast to build. I can't claim to be an expert, having built one bench, but I'm strongly in favor of the designs you, Mike Siemsen and Bob Rozaieski are promoting.

    One caution for ham-fisted hacks like me: if you use deck screws, be careful when you're boring holdfast holes, especially through the legs. Those screws do bad things to auger bits, and might extend farther than you think. DAMHIKT.

  2. Adam,

    I laughed about your comment regarding deck screws (Sorry). Been there, done that, fortunately with augers for power drills. Since I knew I would do that if given half a chance, the first thing I did was drill all the holes in the sideboards. The other advantage of doing this is it lets you make sure your bearers are out of the way.

    There is nothing wrong with long stretchers and a shelf on the bottom if that is what you like. My only point is that you don't have to have it if you don't want to. I wasn't sure, so I started off this way. If I change my mind, I'm going to add long stretchers between the bottom side stretchers and put a board on top.