Workbench Workmates

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This article is from Issue 32 of Woodcraft Magazine.

The cabinetmaker’s bench in our shop is the nicest that I’ve ever used, but despite its beauty and brawn, it didn’t compare with the quirky slab-topped filing cabinet sitting in my garage. After a few months of struggling to do tasks that came naturally at home, I recalled the lesson that turned that old slab into my shop apprentice: A workbench is a work in progress. In order to grab, guide, and hold, a workbench needs an arsenal of bench mates. The right accessories can transform even a solid-core door into a capable and comfortable workstation.

Tired of coming up with Rube Goldberg-style solutions for common woodworking chores, I picked my favorite fixtures and adapted them to fit our new bench. These accessories aren’t revolutionary, but I’ve tweaked the designs to better complement each other, multiplying their versatility. (These fixtures work just as well with power sanders and sanding blocks as they do with chisels and planes.)

If you’d like to take your workbench up a notch, here’s your chance. Building these accessories is a lot easier than trying to grow a third hand.

Partner up square dogs and small wedges to join thin stock. Waxed paper prevents the panel from sticking.

Slide the workpiece into the hook to lock it in place. Tap the wedge's small end to release the vise-like grip.

Planing stops, dogs, and wedges

A good vise is only half the equation. In order to catch and hold, you’ll need a few flexible points to clamp against. (If your bench doesn’t have dog holes, it’s time to reach for your drill. Make two parallel rows of ¾"-diameter holes along your bench’s front edge and a perpendicular row aligned with your end vise. Space the holes 6" apart.)

Planing stops, as seen in the opening photo, are plain simple. They’re nothing more than 3/8"-thick wood strips studded with a pair of dowels sized and spaced to fit the bench. The stop’s thickness leaves enough wood to achieve a decent glue joint with the dowel, but doesn’t usually interfere when planing thin stock. (When planing or scraping thinner material, place your work on top of a piece of 1/8"-thick hardboard.)

Dogs, or single-dowel stops, come next. I rank them just under planing stops because they don’t work well without a partner such as a stop, vise, or another dog. For planing or scraping, a planing stop works well enough on its own.

The dogs show why round dog holes have the edge over square holes. The round studs allow the heads to rotate and automatically find clamping points on parts that don’t line up with the vise. This rotational advantage comes into full play when teamed with a wedge. As shown in Photo A, the combo can replace clamps for delicate glue-ups.

A larger wedged stop can be a simple but effective substitute for a vise, especially when dressing small parts (Photo B).

In addition to providing an instantaneous grip, the stop uses the top as backup so that the stock doesn’t bend when planing, scraping, or sanding.

To make a wedged stop, fit a planing stop diagonally across your bench and then work out the angle on a piece of cardboard before transferring the pattern onto 3/8"-thick plywood.

Board jacks and vise

Boards and panels usually require some edge work, whether it’s planing off burns or saw marks, jointing, or mortising a hinge. To make full use of the front of your bench you need a board jack, a solid point to rest the free end of your workpiece so that you can grab the other end with your vise. Jacks come in almost as many flavors as workbenches, but most fall into two categories: built-ins that slide along the front and after-the-facts that clamp into a tail vise. The first work well with short boards, but it’s hard to justify the retro-work involved in such an upgrade.

My jack (Photo C) is easier than a major retrofit, but like a “slider,” it moves easily along the front of your bench and works independently of an end vise. Made from cheap 2× and 4× stock, the jack stands in the corner when not in use.

Use the figure as a guide, but note that you’ll need to adjust the height of the face so that the head fits under your benchtop. Drill the pin holes so that the face of the jig sits flush with the front edge of your workbench.

Sometimes one fixture leads to the next. When I first put the jack to use, the wide jawed vise racked (the open end closed more than the other); consequently, it failed to provide the necessary grip. This self-setting vise spacer (Inset) solved the problem. To use the spacer “sandwich,” set it on the opposite end of your vise. As the jaws open, the strips will fall into the gap.

End vises need the help of a board jack and spacer to put the squeeze on long boards and wide panels. Set the pin on the jack’s face to hold the panel at a comfortable working height.

Shooting boards

Those who sometimes struggle with blade burn or need to sneak up on a perfect fit will appreciate this fixture (Photo D). With a sharp plane, a shooting board can remove a few thousandths of an inch to both smooth and square the end of a board. I made this jig larger than some others to suit the large No. 6 WoodRiver. (The mass and wide sides of larger planes make them easier to shoot.) Note, too, that a shooting board also works—albeit more slowly—with a square-edged sanding block.

Cut the subbase, base, and runner on your table saw and sandwich the parts together with glue, clamps, and screws. Next, use a square to set the fence and attach it to the base with screws and glue. Attach the fence-facing with screws but no glue so that you can shim it as needed to make it perfectly perpendicular to the runway.

To use the shooting board, set your plane to make a very light, square cut. Hold the workpiece firmly against the fence, and extend one edge over the runway. As you plane, focus on keeping the tool flat on its side and snug to the edge of the base. (A few pencil lines on the end of your stock will help you gauge your planing progress.)

The shooting board also fine-tunes miters (Photo E). As shown in the figure and photo below, the miter fence is a plywood triangle with a grip-friendly recess in the center and sandpaper stuck to the working edge. (Additional miter angles are only a few mitersaw cuts away.)

The bench hook supports long boards and serves as a planing platform for short stock (Photo D, Inset). I made the hook’s base longer than the shooter and attached the fence with blade-friendly dowels instead of nails.

Use a plane and shooter to sneak up on a perfect fit. The matching hook works as both a support and a stop. 

Attach the triangular fence to fine-tune miters. Adhere sandpaper to the working edge of the triangle to prevent the stock from slipping.

Saw guides

Mitersaws replaced miterboxes for good reason, but big blades don’t play well with small parts. Unless you like trips to the ER, you need small-part sawing stations. The woodworking world is split between push and pull saws, so I built a pair of saw guides (Photos F and G). Although they look different, both miter blocks are built in the same fashion.

Size the fence to fit your saw. Adjust the thickness so that the tips of the teeth just touch the base. Next, cut a small rabbet along the fence’s front edge to fit the cutting mat (available at craft stores). Finally, use your mitersaw to cut the 45° and 90° angles.

To attach the multi-piece fence, I clamped a straight board to the base for reference and then used the saw to position each block one blade width from the next.

Push- and pull-saw miter blocks guide the blades and help hold short stock. The cutting mat protects the saw teeth and jig and provides ballpark measurements.

Serving Tray Sharpening Station

This simple station has everything I need to maintain my most-used edge tools, but portability is its main selling point. Place the tray on your bench or counter, and you’ll find yourself sharpening when you should.

I sized the tray to fit my two favorite sharpening systems. Diamond stones, used with a few drops of mineral oil, quickly fix nicks. Honing film, attached to a granite plate, provides a reliably flat surface that’s for touching up an edge. The lid keeps the abrasive dust-free and helps corral sharpening gear.


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