Thursday, November 1, 2012

Workbench height: a tall tale

Paul Sellers wrote a post recently in which he states emphatically that 38 inches is the correct workbench height for an average hand tool woodworker and that it should be higher for a taller woodworker.  Since I am almost 6' 3", the implication is that my bench should be about 40" high!  He asserts that this is based on long experience and regards it as an established fact.

Does it matter?  Yes, it does.  It is hard to think of any ergonomic choice that is more significant for a hand tool woodworker and my experience is that it matters a whole lot.  You will be standing or sitting at this bench for many hours.  Is this recommendation controversial?  Yes, it is.  This is dramatically higher than most of the recommendations I read when I was building my bench, Chris Schwarz's in particular.  He wrote the books on the subject after all.

My Nicholson bench, which I am incredibly happy with, is 34" high based on these expert recommendations.  This is the one thing I might change because I have found it to be too low.  But 40"?

As I have thought about it, this recommendation for a high bench isn't as  radical as it first sounds.  Paul Sellers works on a vise attached to the bench.  I use a Moxon vise that is 6" higher than the bench.  He does his fine joinery work on the benchtop.  I do mine on a bench raiser that is 7" tall.  I am doing much of my work at the height he recommends.

Here is another perspective:  In the 17th and 18th century, the average male height was about 5'6" and Nicholson describes a bench height of about 32".  Maintaining the same ratio, my bench should be 36".

It is interesting to look at the height of the better commercial workbenches.  Here's what Lie-Nielsen says about theirs:
HEIGHT: Most benches currently on the market are about 35” (88.9cm) high. For many people today, a taller bench is more comfortable. We can make your bench up to 38” (96.52cm) high.
The standard recommendation for a low workbench seems to be based on what is considered optimal for planing.  I think it might be if you are using wooden planes to prepare rough stock.  I use mainly vintage Stanley planes for this work and that's probably 3" difference right there.  They are thinner and heavier, which means that they require less downward force.  I find myself crouching a bit when I use a  #7, probably because I want more horizontal force and less vertical force.  It is also more comfortable for my wrist on the tote.

I am not trying to convince anyone to work at a tall bench.  My purpose is to point out the broad range of expert opinion and suggest that you take the time to make your own decision based on a trial.  Find something you can work on, get some blocks, raise and lower it as you try a variety of operations and see what is comfortable.  If you use a Moxon vise and/or a bench raiser, try them.

I decided to experiment by putting some 4"x6" blocks under the legs of my bench.  My initial reaction is extremely positive; 38" feels very natural. I've been cutting some dovetails with my Moxon vise and the extra 4" means I  bend over less and the improved posture seems to allow me to work with more accuracy   I am going to give it a few weeks before reaching any conclusions, experimenting with other heights as well.  I'm really curious to see what 40" is like.  Raising my bench height permanently is not as bad as it sounds; I am already thinking of designs that will look good.

Workbench height is a compromise among ideal heights for various operations, differences in tools used and individual preferences.  I doubt that there are viable rules.  Make your own decision.


  1. I think something else to consider about Paul's suggestion is that he does his milling on machines, so he isn't doing heaving planning with a jack/fore plane, which I feel is the type of work the shorter benches are meant to help with.

  2. I second your opinion on testing for yourself and giving each test plenty of time to sink in. When I designed my joinery bench I set up a makeshift work service and cut joinery at that height for several days before shifting to another height. Eventually I decided on something 45" high (I'm 6'4"). The height is outstanding for dovetailing, carving, layout, and many other small operations.
    However, I could not work at this height for any hand planing. Being able to get over top of the plane and to use my legs and core strength to work is reliant upon the lower 34" Roubo bench. I don't know how Paul mills his work but based upon Darren's comment above I can see why Paul would recommend 38" as a good in between number.

  3. Another person that advocates for a tall bench height is David Charlesworth. I have read him saying that he keeps his arms bent and locked to his side and can walk the plane forward using all leg strength. This just comes from forum posts of his and not actually seeing video of him doing it. I believe he is also machine mills his lumber as well.

    I dream of having a nice, low Roubo in my yard for doing milling work by hand, so that clean up is a matter of a rake and the compost bin, then a taller bench inside for joinery work and the like. A man can dream.

  4. Interesting. I'm 6'5" and also prefer a 34" bench. But I use wooden planes, and I tend to sit down to cut dovetails.

  5. I bought my used Ulmia bench from a guy who worked in a shop with a lot of older cabinet makers. He said that every year, the guys got shorter and the benches got higher.

  6. Good to see some questioning of the "pinky rule" that has been promulgated in some quarters and a return to back-saving, cabinetmaking bench heights. Who knows.....we may even see a return to the continental workbench that was used with success for over 350 years!

  7. Very nice blog, thanks for your generous info. More power to you!

  8. I think it's best to have three workbenches of differing heights