Choosing A Work Bench: Here's where woodworking get's personalComments (0)
This article is from Issue 43 of Woodcraft Magazine.
Here’s where woodworking gets personal.
By Jim Harrold
Of all of the tools in the shop, none receives more use (and abuse) than the workbench. Here, project parts undergo shaving, scraping, and sanding. Assemblies take shape with the help of a mallet, glue, and clamps. Projects get prepped for hardware and finishes. Whatever the task, there’s no denying that a workbench serves as a shop’s primo activity center, and choosing one is akin to selecting a lifetime partner.
What constitutes a workbench? For DIYers, a piece of plywood or MDF on a pair of wooden sawhorses can suffice. But as woodworkers, the more time you spend in the shop, the pickier you become over the definition and, ultimately, the type of workbench that best serves your needs. Going back centuries, you find classic styles such as the tilting carver’s bench or the burly cabinetmaker’s bench in its many forms, both designed for specific tasks. Today, however, woodworkers expect their benches to do more, what with their arsenal of hand and power tools. They seek a workbench that fits a diversity of needs (and their shop) like a fine steel blade in a quality plane.
So, if acquiring a workbench sits atop your to-do list, consider this wealth of options, all aimed at helping you find the perfect match.
Assess your needs
Because no two woodworkers are alike, your bench choice will be unique, based on these factors.
- Footprint. While bigger is better, it’s often the size of your shop that dictates workbench size. The size of workpieces you tackle also plays a role. Commercial models range from 191⁄2" to 30" wide and 53" to 90" long, with protruding vises adding to these dimensions.
- Ergonomics. There’s no getting around it—tall woodworkers need a tall bench; short woodworkers, a short bench. And while most workbenches stand between 32" and 38" high, the rule for arriving at the ideal height is to measure from the crease of your wrist to the floor. Establishing the correct working height can’t be overemphasized. Standing for hours and leaning over a too-low bench can lead to backache. There’s also the issue of sitting height, which you adjust by choosing the right stool. In still other cases, the task at hand may require a higher than standard bench. (See page 56).
- Mobility vs. stationary. Hand-tool woodworkers argue the merits of a stationary workbench—one that stays put when pushing and shoving against it while planing and scraping. Indeed, some European-style workbenches (see below) weigh over 700 pounds and aren’t meant to go anywhere, offering size and unmoving stability. But if your shop is a multiuse space like a garage, mobility may be critical.
- Match style with use. Not everyone needs a monstrous workbench. Consider what you do at one. If you’re a box maker, a 5'- long bench may be more than adequate for hand-tool work, sanding, and assembly. Some manufacturers sell hobby workbenches—an affordable choice for beginners.
- Should your bench do more? The basic bench consists of a base and workbench top. It may or may not have a vise. From there, you can trick it out with storage and accessories, including a power strip.
- Budget. A final factor is cost. Workbenches can run from $200 to $3,000 (with shipping). On page 57, find ways to save.
What's Your Style?
Whether you are a beginner or an advanced woodworker, there’s a workbench for you. At the beginner end, you have the lightweight (56 pounds) Sjöbergs Hobby Workbench.
This adequate and inexpensive trestle model features a simple end vise, dog holes, four plastic bench dogs, and an MDF shelf. While it may not stay put under the pushing and pulling of hand-tool work, it can serve as a modest assembly table or sanding and glue-up station.
Weighing in at 725 pounds is the classic European-style Laguna Signature Series workbench. This end-all behemoth features a thick 90"-long seasoned beech top that includes quality face and tail vises, a tool well, dog holes, and a full complement of drawers.
The thicknesses, lengths, and widths of tops on store-bought workbenches match the overall footprint discussed earlier. When considering thickness, think about how you intend to use the bench. If you just plan on doing assembling with glue and clamps, and not much in the way of hand-tool work, a wider, thinner top should serve your needs, as long as you can reach to the center. If you’re a woodworker engaged in chisel and mallet work, hand-planing, scraping, and so on, go with a heavier, thicker top that can take a pounding.
While shop-made tops range from solid-core doors, MDF, and plywood to dense laminated hardwood of various species, most store-bought models consist of glue-laminated strips of seasoned birch, beech, or maple. Thicknesses range from just over 1" to a stout 4" as shown in Photo A Inset, with 2" to 3" being common. Some tops feature 4"- to 5"-thick aprons around a 21⁄2"- to 3"-thick center.
Higher quality benches dress the top ends with end caps. Sometimes featuring dovetails or box joints and one or more bolts, end caps help keep the top flat and cover the end grain while allowing the top to expand and contract across its width.
Some woodworkers find a tool well handy for containing frequently used items. Still others claim wells steal countertop space and collect debris.
Dog holes, both square and round, prove themselves regularly in a benchtop. Used with bench dogs and hold-downs, they help secure workpieces for a variety of tasks.
5 Benchtop Accessories
Vises for Versatility
Without vises you essentially have a project assembly table or top where workpieces are held in place with hand clamps. Having bench vises to hold parts quickly and firmly saves on setup time while providing an extra set of hands. Store-bought benches offer three types: face, end, and tail (Photos B, C, and D).
A face vise gets the lion’s share of holding assignments. Equipped with dogs, an end vise can secure wide workpieces that span the top. The flush-mounted tail vise can hold long workpieces vertically or horizontally.
All three have steel screw mechanisms with wooden jaws of various widths. Some manufactured workbenches come with predrilled holes that let you relocate the face and end vises, accommodating righties and lefties, as well as holes for bench dogs.
In some cases, you may want to trick out a basic bench with an aftermarket end and/or face vise (Photo E). A time-saving feature to look for is the quick-release mechanism that lets you open or close the jaws without cranking on the handle.
This wood trestle-style base can go mobile with the addition of casters.
The mobile Adjust-A-Bench base (adjustabench.com) can elevate 161⁄2" in 11⁄2" increments.
General International’s workbench (general.ca) features adjustable steel legs.
The wall-hung Bench Solutions Fold Away Workbench provides instant extra counter space. (Woodcraft, #413564)
As the foundation for the top, you want a workbench base to be sturdy and rigid for performing a variety of hand-tool operations. Perhaps the most common (and effective) construction for traditional workbenches is the wood trestle-style base with tough mortise-and-tenon joinery (Photo F). While some feature through tenons, others combine mortise-and-tenon joinery with bench-bolt hardware. The advantage: the ability to easily disassemble the bench to move it.
One slam on an all-wood workbench is that you’re stuck with its height, regardless of the task at hand. Ergonomically, some tasks–such as routing hinge mortises–are better executed closer to eye level. Here, two metal bases (Photos G and H) solve this problem with height adjustability while countering uneven shop floors.
Another issue with heavy-duty workbenches lies in moving them. In multiuse spaces like a garage shop, where machinery, cars, and work surfaces trade places, having casters on the base makes sense. You can purchase a set of casters for some metal benches or bolt casters onto your wood base (Photo F Inset).
A final option: If your shop won’t allow room for a workbench, consider installing a folding worktop (Photo I). It can provide temporary counter space in an instant.
With a benchtop, vises, and sturdy base, your workbench can do plenty. But it may not reach its full potential until you add in storage. A simple shelf supported by the lower stretchers can keep frequently used tools at arm’s reach. When loaded, the shelf can add needed pounds to a lightweight bench. Better still, several store-bought models give you the option of buying and installing door and drawer cabinets (Photo J). Here, you can organize marking and measuring tools, scraping and planing tools, and portable power tools, keeping them at the ready.
3 money-saving workbenches
While buying a workbench can save time, it won’t save money, but these three shop-made solutions will.
- The Mix-and-Match Workbench. As shown at right, this cost-effective approach includes buying a laminated maple benchtop, adding one or two vises, and building a rugged base from home center dimensional lumber. (Estimated cost: $600). An alternative is to buy and add the Adjust-A-Bench base (opposite page).
- Torsion-Box Worktop and Bases. Don’t need vises or a heavy-duty workbench? Go light by building the torsion-box tops and stackable stools featured on page 35 (Estimated cost: $125).
- Traditional Wood Workbench. Okay, so you want a classic all-wood workbench but don’t want to pay for one. Build the Carlyle Lynch trestle-style workbench (Woodcraft #150845, $12.99) for $700.
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