A Workbench for the Shop-deprived

One of the workbench problems I’ve yet to solve is what you should do if you don’t have a dedicated place to work.

I’ve seen lots of portable, fold-up benches, but none that I thought were worth building. I’ve seen many vintage plans for workbench tops that are supposed to go on top of your kitchen table. But again, none inspired me enough to take up a saw.

Yesterday a reader sent me a link to the photo above. Damn. I don’t have time for this, but I just might have to build that thing and see how it works. It’s just too ingenious (and crazy) not to build.

If you are still a bit confused, the photo is showing the underside of the portable benchtop. The two clamps at the top of the photo attach the rig to a worktable. The whole thing is 1-5/8” thick, 9-5/8” wide and 31” long – smaller than I assumed when I first saw the photo.

Here is why this is clever/crazy enough to build.

1. The face vise. You have two screws and four holes. You can move the screws around to clamp whatever you have at hand. It’s a double-screw, it’s a shoulder vise. It mows the yard.

2. The dog holes. Despite the fact that the holes are deep into the assembly, they are still near an edge. So you could still use fenced planes with this benchtop – a big plus in my book.

3. The wooden wagon vise. That’s just cool.

What are the downsides? My biggest concern is the weight combined with the cantilever. I imagine that you have to clamp this to a pretty stout table or a fixed countertop. Even so, I wouldn’t want to mortise over a portion of this bench that was unsupported.

The example is for sale at this Australian tool auction site. So if you live in Australia and buy it, drop me a note about how it works. The auctioneer’s description says it’s of “Scandinavian origin,” so if you’ve seen one in Europe, drop me a line. I’d love to learn more about this gizmo.

— Christopher Schwarz

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35 Responses to A Workbench for the Shop-deprived

  1. John Switzer says:

    Seems to me that if you were move the mounting clamps closer to the front and on the end caps you could reduce the cantilever quite a lot. Just line up the front face of the calmps with the inner face of the double screw and them make sure the wagon vice has a bit of clearence so it doesn’t drag on you table. I supose you would also need really short bench dogs at this point as well.

  2. Howard says:

    .

    An interesting little vice – home-made, in my opinion, I think from Beech which is plentiful in the UK, at least and the rest of northern Europe.
    Well-seasoned Beech is certainly my wood-of-choice for benches.
    Like you, I think that you would need a substantial table to sit it on and find hammering mortises a bit fraught.
    The row of dogs are a bit too far in and athwart a pair of chunky screw heads to make conventional planning easy.
    On that note, I believe that it was made and used by a carver for light carving and able to be packed away at the end of the session; at least, that’s what I’d do with it.
    It doesn’t look too difficult to make a copy, though personally I would do something a little different with the face vice and position the row of dogs nearer the front.

    Good luck from Wales

    Howard

  3. Michael says:

    What a fun find! How big is it? Has to be for light work since that tail vice and double screw vice, if torqued too much, will pull those finger joints apart (no pins or dovetails in sight)

  4. Will says:

    For once I have to disagree, for very light work it might be OK. It would be better than no bench at all. What ever you clamped it to would have to be pretty stout. The opening for the face vise area it right where most people do most of there work. It does look neat though……but so did the Hindenburg.

  5. John Jarosz says:

    Maybe it is assembled incorrectly. Rotate the two worktable clamps 180 degrees and most of the cantilever goes away.

  6. Don Williams says:

    Sigh, another thing to put into “Build this some day” notebook, which is already bulging. It is unspeakably clever. I look forward to learning if it is like the H-S workbench/toolbox, clever but useless.

  7. Rascal says:

    Very cool! I think I must be missing something about the face vise… the chop must be missing from the assembly. This is the most promising small bench I’ve seen yet. I’ve been looking for something like this although I currently have plenty of shop space… in the summertime here in Vegas when it’s 116 outside it would be nice to be able to do some work in the house on small projects or pieces.

    • Derek L says:

      Click on the picture and look at it in full size – it never had a chop. Boards slip in through the slot, and the screws run through the edge of the bench into the slot to provide clamping force.

  8. Very cool find. It looks like the clamps may have been moved at some point. The endcap to the right in the picture has two plugged holes that look like the same spacing as the screws holding the clamps, and the hint of a shadow line where the clamp block may have been. There are no screw holes on the other endcap by the wagon vise though. Maybe the wagon vise was added later, and the clamps were moved back further to allow clearance for a board clamped vertically in the wagon vise.

  9. Jack Ervin says:

    I see what appears to be holes that seem to match the pattern of the clamp blocks on the right end of the end cross piece. That one clamp block would be enough to hold the top farther back on a bench/table top to give vertical transfered to the bench/table top.

    Regards,

    Jack Ervin

  10. Scott P. says:

    Neat! I think it needs a pair of folding legs at the front. The legs would need to be adjustable in length and just stout enough to handle vertical loads, pounding and the like, presuming what ever the back side is clamped to can handle the side to side loads. I wonder if I can make one that will clamp to my truck’s tailgate…

  11. David Pickett says:

    Interesting – looks like the sort of thing a modelmaker might use, or someone making small boxes for scientific instruments, or mahogany and brass plate cameras – something like that. It might be a bit of a challenge to make any furniture-sized pieces on it.

    Appears very well made, though. Not something sold to the bottom end of the amateur or child’s toy market.

  12. Jack Ervin says:

    Aaron,
    I was studying all the dimensions and hadn’t gotten back to see your response.

    Chris,

    You may need to build another bench that this top will complement. I have a plane top (1 3/4″t X 21 1/2″d X 55″w maple) tall bench (42 1/2″) that I have constructed for and dedicated to my journey in carving. The work holding features that this top would bring would greatly enhanse the utility of this bench. If the clamp block were to be attached at the front then a blocking piece “L” shaped with enough offset to allow the dogs to protrude below could be held vertically and extended below to register against the front of the main bench to stabilize this top. That would allow work pieces to be worked flat on this top. If it were used for holding vertical pieces such as for dovetail sawing the the work piece itself would be all that would be necessary to align this top. Carving doesn’t need as much support below as mortiseing so I see many possibilities for this addition.

    Regards,

    Jack Ervin

  13. abtuser says:

    I actually thought about doing something like this for my ‘no bench’, but with MDF, maybe pipe clamps or something similar. This ‘portable’ looks like what I was actually looking for.

    I currently work on a ‘no bench’, that is, not a real shop bench. And my ‘no bench’ works somewhat well. If this ‘portable bench’ is for real and can be clamped to my ‘no bench’, then it would be a bonus. On top of that, my ‘no bench’ is portable. As for anchoring a portable bench, I’m a big guy and can move a full sized bench when planing if it’s not against a wall, like others have noted. If I weight my ‘no bench’ properly (it’s a lot of weight) I can get useful work done.

    I’d also like to have something portable like this, again, if it’s not a gimmick as Don suggests, to be able to use my hand tools outside of my own non-shop, and with others who are shop deprived too.

  14. abtuser says:

    The device is described as a workbench extension on the website, but maybe it could be extended.

  15. Dean says:

    Due to a lack of qualifications, here are my unqualified comments. :-)

    Considering the top is only 9.625” wide I don’t see a great concern for cantilevering, unless the board that it’s clamped to is low mass and not attached very well to it’s “foundation”. Okay, maybe a concern if Chris were hammering out mortises with his 2 lb. Mongo mallet! I do like Scott’s idea of a pair of legs though. However, depending on where this bench top is mounted, you could use an angled bracket back against a vertical surface, or swing out supports.

    I see there are two additional holes on the front that the two vise screws could be inserted in for different spacing’s. The holes are in a deep shadow so they almost looked plugged. So, you could use the outside holes, the inside holes, or closely spaced on the left or right. What I don’t understand is how do you protect the surface of the wood when the end of the vise screws press against the work piece? Maybe there was some sort of “foot” that fit on the end of the vise screws, that is not longer there(?).

    I also see that the item comes with one full length metal bench dog (I see it sticking up (down?) in the picture). Since the dog holes would be over open space, the length of the dog would not be an issue.

    It would be nice if the tool auction site would post a picture of the top, and maybe a side picture. I’m sure Chris will sort all of this out for us in the near future. Maybe Chris could create the “Wing Chun” wooden dummy version of a small footprint workbench.

    One last comment. I think Shannon Rogers (Renaissance Woodworker) has a compact bench design worthy of consideration for the “due to the lack of space, this shop has been cancelled” group. That would be his Joinery Bench, and his Planing Beam which is an accessory for his joinery bench. The Joinery Bench has a small foot print and the Planing Beam, which I believe can be disconnected so it could be stored vertically (or otherwise). Shannon?

  16. Floss says:

    Looks like a Sloyd bench. Used to make a smaller bench for children.

    North Bennet Street School may have a photo of one in use. At least that is where I remember seeing a photo of such a bench. That was about 10 years ago.

    F.

  17. Jeff says:

    On the subject of a Workbench For the Shop Deprived, I have always thought that someone needs to look into the details of David Hartka’s bench as illustrated on p.195 of the Workshop Book by Scott Landis. Now, THERE is a very versatile bench that can be disguised as furniture. I attempted to get some detail pictures and drawings but had no success. Chris, you might have the clout to dig up some information on that bench.

  18. J. Pierce says:

    For years I worked on the 2×6″ railing of my outdoor porch, and never missed having a bench. The layout of the porch let me clamp a piece of wood or sheet goods diagonally across a right angle by the stairs to let me get a bigger work surface. By all means, any individual part of that porch-bench should have been flimsy, but because each part was attached to another, and the whole thing was attached to the two stories below me, and the the ground below that and the building above and behind it, it was a pretty good work surface.

    When I moved, I basically assembled a giant bench hook out of a slab of pine, a cleat-hook on each end, and one on the front side, to set on top of my butcher block counter in the kitchen to work on stuff. It worked pretty well. Having the right end of the countertop open (i had to scoot the stove out) to hook the thing on was key.

  19. Publius Secundus says:

    The auction site has a second picture, right side up. So the face vise has no jaw on the screws– just the ends of two screws?

    Each of the top boards on my Workmate is 4 7/8″ wide. If you crank the two Workmate boards fairly close together you may be able to clamp the thing down on one board and support it on the other, and maybe there would be full clearance for the thing’s face vise and no cantilever issue. And you’d have a wagon vise for planing against dogs.

    • Dean says:

      Interesting. That second view wasn’t there earlier today.

    • David Pickett says:

      Speaking from bitter experience, a Workmate makes a very poor bench (and still would even with the ‘bench extension’ fitted). It’s too low, so planing gives you backache very quickly, and it has insufficient mass, so you either chase it round the room, or it tips up. To stop it tipping up, you put one foot on some part of it’s anatomy, which means you get bachache even more quickly as you’re now trying to plane whilst balanced on one foot.

      Don’t even bother trying it.

      There may be good uses for a Workmate, but I’ve owned one for 25 years and I haven’t found any yet.

      • Scott P. says:

        I agree that a workmate is not good for hand tool woodworking. It is too low, too light and tends to wobble side to side under the force of planing. I made a 2′x4′ pine table top for mine that clamps in with a cleat on the bottom and use it as an auxiliary assembly/finishing table. It is also a great portable platform for benchtop power tools like planers, chops saws, etc. Mostly I use it for general carpentry.

  20. woodgods says:

    I have placed a bid on this little gem, as a bench to bench, it will be interesting just to explore its capabilities.

    Regards,

    Frank.

  21. bawrytr says:

    A lot of tradesmen here in Europe had and have small traveling shops in the back of a van. There is a line of indentations, looks like from maybe bars along the back of the bench and in two place extending out almost to the holes for the dog. If you think of a mechanic or a plumber or something that already had a metal frame of some kind in a small shop or van who dabbled in woodwork for some reason, then this bench would make a lot of sense. Or think of a turner or bodger with a lathe. You move the stock out of the way, and then the bench could be clamped to one of the rails on the bed while the other rail supported the middle of the bench, and suddenly you would have a very useful bench for smaller pieces. But it could have changed hands a couple of times, as anybody who had any faint clue could see what a useful bit of kit it was. I can’t believe that it was simply clamped to the edge of another table, as you can see from the top that the clamp/hooks are fastened with screws and not bolted through. They are beefy screws, but you would rip those out pretty quickly if they were under much stress.

    One thing is that it looks like it was installed semi-permanently, as there are the marks of a metal vice and the bolts for it on the top. The vice would have reduced the convenience of storing it tucked away somewhere.

  22. Paul M says:

    I have looked the picture of the bench for a long time: I cannot see how the two face vice screws can generate any clamping force against a board in the slot. What we appear to have are two face vice screws and no moveable surface inside the slot to provide the clamping force. Or does someone see something I am missing?…

  23. Paul M says:

    Now I get it having seen the second photo! The two wooden screws provide the force and are moveable, there is no clamping plate. A neat solution.

  24. Francis B. says:

    I’ll start making a copy f it this weekend. I have a bench with no vises, which is just fine for 95% of my violin-making work, but there are a few occasions where I would like the ability to clamp things in a vise. I wouldn’t want to retrofit something in my current bench because I like it just the way it is, and so this seems like the perfect solution.

    A few modifications I will make, though:
    -I’ll move the clamps a bit, so that a larger portion of the extension sits on top of my bench. I’ll either make it flush with the dog holes row, or with the hole for the face vise (and then use shortish dogs)

    -I’ll probably drill a long horizontal hole somewhere, to act as a storage space for the dowel that will act as the handle for the vise screws. There’s a hole that looks just like that on the face of that bench, but I suspect it’s for a large metal screw that prevents the face vise screws from pulling the bench apart.

    -I’ll make two little leather-lined “cups”, to fit on the ends of the face vise screws to protect my work. Seeing how the original screws have an unthreaded portion at the end, I’m guessing this bench might originally have had such cups, but they were lost, since there’s a good chance they were loose. I might tie mine to the underside of the bench, with two short strings.

    -Last but not least, I’ll also make a base for it, onto which I can screw the top, so that it can be used on its own. It will make a great portable mini-bench for those summer days when I wish I could work outside, or as a bench for my daughter. She’s only two, but soon enough I’m sure she’ll want a bench of her own…

  25. Matthew says:

    Looks like this bench would work good on the two heavy wide faced sawhorses I own. The tops of these saw horses are atleast 6 inches wide, and can actually touch one another if the legs are placed right. I’ve actually clamped them togather to hold boards on their side while jointing the edges. They are heavy enough that they don’t scoot around the yard like my workmate does when I use it to do the same thing. I may have to build this and try it out. Oh and incase you were wondering why the two top boards haven’t split with grain and broke off yet, its because they sit on atleast 2 layers of 1/2″ ply. It looks like whoever built them just kept adding scaps of wood to replace what they had sawn through. They are more frankin-horse than saw horse really

  26. Chris Oville says:

    Maybe no one mentioned it because its too obvious, but I think this thing is upside down.

  27. Chris says:

    just reread, sorry

  28. Graham Burbank says:

    hmm, trying to put this into historical context, I wonder if this was the kind of thing that you would put in the back of your “prarie schooner” wagon for those often-needed on the road repairs? (I assume australia had some similar long distance overland migrants) If this was found in utah or oregon it wouldn’t be that shocking.The traveling tradesman thought is a good one. I wish I was making these in st louis or chicago in 1840 for sale to people headed out west…

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