Which Workbench? Whatever

What is the best kind of workbench? It’s simple: Any bench that allows you to easily work on the edges, faces and ends of boards and assemblies. Everything else beyond that is tradition or personal preference.

Those of you who have read my first book, “Workbenches: From Design and Theory to Construction and Use,” might recognize that statement. It’s the core thesis of the book.

I’m repeating it here, five years later, because anytime I teach a workbench class I get asked by readers why I’ve changed my philosophy of constructing workbenches. Why have I abandoned the sliding dovetail joint? Eschewed the wooden spindle? Flushed my thoughts about using pine?

Truth is, I haven’t abandoned or changed a thing about what makes a good bench. Make it solid. Use the best joints you can. Use the cheapest material that is the stiffest and heaviest. Make it as long as your space will allow.

The rest is noise.

So why am I building old-world French workbenches without a sliding dovetail through the top? Because we had to make these benches in five days with limited equipment.

Why did we use French oak for the top instead of Scot’s pine or fir? Because that was what was stacked there when I arrived.

Why are the benches only 2 meters (6’) in length? Because that was the longest size that the students’ shops could handle. Many had to cut their tops down even shorter.

Why didn’t we use a wooden spindle for the face vise? Because we couldn’t find any in Europe that were reasonably priced.

And on and on.

Once you recognize the essence of the problem – the workbench is a 3-dimensional clamping surface – you just need to get there by the best route possible.

— Christopher Schwarz

About lostartpress

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
This entry was posted in Books in Print, Workbenches. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Which Workbench? Whatever

  1. Badger says:

    “the workbench is a 3-dimensional clamping surface”

    Yes. I built my first bench of our scrap and leftovers, and I built it with an apron because that was what the materials I had on hand dictated.

    I constantly run into situations where clamping is difficult because of that. My next one will be more clamp freindly.

  2. Eric Bennett says:

    I started with a plan from Lee Valley and improvised (almost ten years before reading your bench book). I drilled round dog holes before glueing up the top. I had over calculated hard maple and added wide aprons to the front and back. I admire other benches but love mine best. When the Anarchist’s Tool Chest is finished – my life will be complete. I’ll sell the old Kennedy machinist cabinets… maybe.

  3. Jim Eckman says:

    My bench will have to be on the short side, 6′ or less due to space constraints. I like your English design because I don’t have easy access to planers and the like. I already have a metal leg vise though which means 90 degree legs. I also recently purchased and tried the Gramercy tools holdfasts, Makes the whole apron thing doable.

  4. Tim Null says:

    I just finished my Roubo. I followed your design, mostly. I eschewed the sliding dovetail because frankly, it was too hard! I actually did one in a test bench (became my joiners bench with a moxon permanently mounted) and I did not like how long it took or the look at the end. My fault on both counts. So after reading BenchCrafted’s account, I did a single tenon that does not even go all the way through the top. I then put in a horizontal stretcher on the short ends to account for any forces from the leg vice. I used BenchCrafted’s rollers on my wood screw vice from Lake Erie Tool Works. It works great. Very smooth. The bench is a rock. Totally solid. I used two solid maple boards for the top and ash for the base. I like my benches (this is my third) to look nice as well as be functional. This is both.

    I completely agree with your position. I just read on a forum where the dovetail joint was being discussed in depth. Why did you not use it? Is it important? Will the bench fail? It is a bench after all. Make what you like. It should be based on sound principles, but if you don’t want dovetails, then do single tenons. Just build it solidly and there should be no problems. We all love to debate minutiae to the nth degree. Build a bench that complements what you want to build in the manner you want to build it. Make it sturdy. Make it pretty if that is what turns your fancy. Then just use the heck out of it!

    Thanks for all of your work and opinions. I appreciate it all, agree with most. LOL Keep up the good work.

  5. Paul says:

    With all the talk about french benches in the last few years I was kind of embarrassed by my bench. Roughly based on a design a few years back in Popular wood working I made it is out of southern pine and fir salvaged from extra-large shipping pallets. It is solid and strong. Now with your post I feel like I can let people see it.

  6. Eric Dinges says:

    I have been working on my bench off and on for 4 years. I used SYP and employed the thru tenon / sliding dovetail joint. I was really intimidated by this as I had never ever did anything like this before. To top that off, I was using hand tools which I was learning to use at the same time. I wanted everything to be perfect. After a while though, I said to hell with it and just started putting it together. I absolutely love the way it is coming out. It’s not perfect but this thing is going to be beefy as hell. I finally get the base together and attached the top but I had to leave it at that stage due to being assigned to another country for work. I can’t wait to get back and finish it.

  7. Marlon says:

    “So why am I building old-world French workbenches without a sliding dovetail through the top? Because we had to make these benches in five days with limited equipment.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but haven’t you said this before? Well, I guess if it’s worth mentioning, it’s worth saying twice.
    I enjoy your photography, music choices, instructional videos, and reading your off the wall humor in your books/articles. I’ll try to keep on helping you put food on your family’s table. Now, take a vacation & stay home.

    • Christopher Hawkins says:

      Yes, Chris mentioned time as a reason for using the through tenon when describing the April class at Marc Adams School of Woodworking.

  8. don2laughs says:

    I should take a picture of my ole bench to punctuate your philosophy. Made it twelve years ago with vises bassakwards …. Veritas twin screw left end and Jorgensen quick release on right front …. round dog holes….. laminated maple top on 4×4 (big box) base, edges chamfered and I absolutely love it. As my hand tool skills have developed, I have improved it …… flattened & smoothed the top after learning (sliding off the slope) hand planes. Built drawers for it after learning to dovetail. And I know my kids will bury it next to me if it ever dies…..’cause they know what it means to me.
    Thanks for keeping us updated on your doins! Have fun in San Diego. If you email for my number I can introduce you to the whose who of woodworking in these parts while your here … You know San Diego has one of, if not THE, biggest Woodworking Associations in the world. The Fair has an international juried show (Design inWood) AND exhibits from the Palomar School of Woodworking. Can’t imagine you missing all that without regret!
    Don

  9. Matt says:

    I hear you Chris. I just finished my bench, made it out of Southern Yellow Pine from Home Depot. Because it was cheap and it works. I could have spent 10 times as much on hard maple, but I wanted to spend my money on wood for furniture instead of tools for furniture.
    Keep It Simple Stupid

  10. Scott Custer says:

    Nice to have you back, those FD shirts I promised will be there soon (had to order the smaller ones)
    Great Book by the way (Anarchist ToolChest) sorry I waited so long to get it.

    Scott

  11. I think if you embrace the face, edge, end holding idea or the “door test” you talk about in your Workbenches book then a good workbench just disappears. It does it’s job so well that you don’t even think about it. It is due probably to the perpetual bench buzz you have created that I have even started to pay attention to the little things that make my bench “invisible”. No matter what size piece or what face I need access to, I am no more than a mallet whack or turn of a screw away from rock solid work holding.

  12. .

    A bit off topic, but the little bench mentioned in a “Workbench for the shop-deprived” finally sold in Australia for Au$325.

    All best…

    .

  13. mikeandike says:

    Chris,

    Hoping you’ll see this but given the general topic of this post here’s a question. I recall you writing that you had built the Hotzappfel for your home workshop and the Roubo was for the shop at PWW. So…question is…if you could only have one, which would it be?

    I’m finishing up a couple of the Shaker side tables from Woodworking Magazine (I miss it so much!) and the next project will be a bench. I’m renting my house and am 90% or more certain that I will move out next spring/summer so I’m leaning towards the Holtzappfel as it seems easier to move.

    Thoughts? Your feedback would be greatly appreciated!
    Mike T.

Comments are closed.