Chairmaker's Workbench

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This article is from Issue 78 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Compact but capable, this knockdown design can be built with basic tools, framing lumber, and a ready-made top

When I’m not making Windsor chairs, I sometimes teach the craft at different woodworking schools. My students need benches that are compact and rugged, with versatile clamping capability. Easy disassembly is important, too, making it possible to keep benches stored out of the way.

The compact workbench shown here has proven its worth to students and in my own workshop. The leg vise on this bench is easy to build and nearly indestructible. Just as important, its throat capacity is far greater than what’s available on more expensive commercial vises. That extra capacity is really helpful when clamping a large chair seat.

The bench also has appeal if you’re a minimalist woodworker like me. No fancy tools, complicated jigs or costly materials are required to build this project. I made the bench shown here from 2 × 12 framing lumber, a $40 vise screw and a premade birch top (see Buyer’s Guide, p. 60). You can complete most of the work with a circular saw, chisels, an electric drill, and a square.

Stores flat, assembles easy

The workbench is easy to take apart and reassemble. Start by inserting the through tenons in their mortises and wedging the joints tight. Then fit the top on the base, and set the shelf boards on their cleats.

Leg assemblies, held together by stretchers with wedged through tenons

The completed workbench has just 5 major parts: a pair of stretchers, a top, and two leg assemblies, one of which contains the leg vise. Wide stretchers with wedged through-tenons hold the bench together, while also making it easy to disassemble. The benchtop drops in place over the base, held tight by battens and its own weight.

Order of Work

  • Make the legs and put together the leg assemblies.
  • Make the stretchers and wedges.
  • Make the vise.
  • Assemble the base and cut the top to size.
  • Install cleats on stretchers, then cut shelf boards to size.
  • Fasten battens to underside of top.

Begin with legs & rails...

Each leg is made up of two 2× boards. It’s best to let each leg half run long by 1" or so, then cut the legs to finished length after assembly. I create matching notches for the through mortise, then screw leg halves together and cut the assembled leg to finished length. Next, I cut rail notches on the bandsaw. The leg that contains the vise is wider and longer than the other legs, but otherwise similar.

Cut notches to make mortises. Before flattening each leg notch with a chisel and plane as shown above, I use my circular saw to cut closely spaced kerfs inside the mortise layout. Break out the waste, and you’re ready to flatten.
Join leg halves together. Insert a tenon-sized scrap board in the mortise to keep both leg halves aligned, then screw the halves together with 21⁄2" deck screws.
Bandsaw the notches. If you don’t have a bandsaw, use the kerf-and-chisel technique as described above. The important thing is to make the notch sides square so that your leg assemblies will be square.
Join rails and legs. Screw each leg assembly together, checking for square as you go.

...then make stretchers & wedges

The kerf-and-chisel technique I used on the legs works just as well when creating the stretcher tenons. The wedges will pull these joints tight to stiffen the base assembly, so aim for a mortise-and-tenon fit that’s snug but not too difficult to disassemble. Then drill and chisel 1"-square openings for your wedges.

Long tenons. Make square shoulder cuts first, then kerf and chisel. Remember that the tenon that extends through the vise leg needs to be 2" longer than the other tenons.
Square holes for wedges. Lay out the hole 1⁄8" closer to the tenon shoulder than the thickness of the leg. Then drill inside your layout lines and chisel the opening square.

Get the vise together

A leg vise is especially useful for chairmaking and any other operations that demand deep jaws and large clamping capacity. It’s also surprisingly affordable, because you’re making most of the parts. The leg that accommodates the vise serves as a fixed jaw that extends level with the top of the workbench; it also contains a through mortise for the parallel guide and a through hole for the bench screw mount.

Keys to smooth vise operation

  • Make sure the through holes in both jaws (for vise screw and parallel guide) are aligned.
  • Check the fit of the parallel guide. It should be able to pivot slightly in the movable jaw and slide freely through the fixed jaw.
  • Cut the movable jaw shorter than the fixed jaw and leg so its bottom doesn’t drag on the floor.

Order of Work

  • Make the parallel guide and the movable jaw.
  • Complete the through mortises, and install the parallel guide in the movable jaw.
  • Clamp the movable jaw to the fixed jaw, and drill a 11⁄2"-dia. hole
  • through both parts for the vise screw.
  • Complete the mortise for the screw mount, then install it in the fixed jaw.
  • Screw the bench screw to the moveable jaw.
  • Make the dowel pin, then attach it to the fixed jaw with a string tether.
Pin the parallel guide. Make sure the guide can slide freely in both mortises, then pin it to the movable jaw with a 1⁄2"-dia. steel rod. Alternatively, you can use a lag screw.

Bore for the bench screw. Clamp the movable and fixed jaws together, with edges aligned and parallel guide in place. Then bore the vise screw hole.

Chisel the screw mount mortise. The bottom of the recess needs to be flat and parallel with the face of the movable jaw.

Attach cleats for shelf boards. Cut cleats from 1× stock to fit along the bottom edge of each stretcher and across the legs. Install them with 11⁄2" screws.

Add battens to the benchtop, and cleats to the stretchers

The benchtop needs some work in order to fit on its base. Your first task is to make a rectangular cutout for the fixed jaw of the vise, which should extend flush with the top surface. Once this is done, flip the benchtop upside-down, position the assembled base on the underside of the top, and set about installing battens as shown in the photo at right. The battens not only hold the top in place; they also provide added thickness for two rows of ¾"-dia. dog holes.

Add battens for deep dog holes. Two parallel rows of dog holes in the benchtop should extend through the battens fastened to the underside of the top. Locate the rear batten against the inner faces edges of the legs. Butt the short battens against the top rails, as shown above.

Vise padding. Glue leather or rubber to vise jaws to increase holding power and protect workpieces. Padding cut from rubber flooring (shown above) or polyurethane sheet material can be attached with silicone caulk.

Make the bench even better with padding, pins, and wedges

A few final touches will make the bench more useful. The same rubber padding used on the vise can be glued to the bottom of each leg for a more secure stance on the floor.

Pegs, pins, and wedges. Hardwood pins and an 8° wedge work great for holding parts on the benchtop. I also make special pegs drilled to accept the stem of a swing-arm lamp.


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