Workbench Backlash

Lately there have been discussions about workbench designs on forums and blogs that have concluded with a warning: Don’t be a slave to “fashion” when you design your bench. Instead, do what I did….

Let me translate this chatter for you: Don’t build a French-style bench or some other ancient workbench. They are just a fashion craze.

I get asked to weigh in on these discussions. A lot. I never do. Here’s the reason: I do not give a rat’s hinder what “style” of workbench you build. The “style” is immaterial. The era is came from? Irrelevant. The particulars of the workholding? Mostly a non-issue.

When I wrote my first book, “Workbenches: From Design and Theory to Construction and Use,” I began the text with the only thing I care about when it comes to workbench design. I hate to quote myself. But because my ideas get mangled like a hog through a grinder, I’m going to make an exception:

“Every piece of lumber has three kinds of surfaces: edges, faces and ends. A good workbench should be able to hold your lumber so you can easily work on these three kinds of surfaces. Any bench that falls short of this basic requirement will hold you back as your woodworking skills advance.”

That’s it. That’s all I care about when it comes to workbenches. I go on for 128 more pages in that book, but that’s the core idea. Now you don’t have to buy the book (hat tip to the wives).

So why do I build French benches ad nauseam? Because they accomplish that goal with flying colors, and are they cheap, simple and fast to build. Period. That’s it.

That’s not a hemline that goes up and down in wartime. That’s just fact.

You can build any workbench in any style that makes it easy for you to work on faces, edges and ends. I’ve seen them – even benches made out of melamine slabs that are mindlessly humping military desks. You can modify a Euro bench to do the job (I’ve done it). You can probably make one out of toothpicks or Legos and accomplish the same goals.

How you get to the goal is irrelevant. The goal, however, is everything to me.

So if you are one of the many would-be bench builders out there who have been confused, concerned or constipated by these discussions, relax. There is no bench fashion. There are only benches that work and benches that make you do all the work.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Chris Schwarz

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
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36 Responses to Workbench Backlash

  1. ejcampbell says:

    I built as my firast bench several years ago the Roubo from your first book after having read that book and an earlier one from Scott Landis. I have the leg vise in front and a more standard vise with a raise-able stop on it on the right end, functioning as a tail vise. Every time I use it, I am again pleased with the choice because of how easy it is to move a board so I can work on all 3 types of surfaces. Plus it weighs a ton and doesn’t move an inch or vibrate in any way no matter how I beat on it. Sometimes it’s nice to be spoiled.

  2. sablebadger says:

    It’s the internet, people get bent out of shape about all kinds of dumb things. If they don’t want a French bench, that’s fine. If they think it through,and it suits their needs, great.

    You presented the information (well I might add), and make some recommendations, but no where do ask people to follow you blindly. In fact, it’s usually quite the opposite. What was that phrase again? Disobey me? something like that.

    I did a Nicholson-ish bench first, now I’m going to build a Roub0-ish bench next because I want the the 3D clamping surface.

  3. jborgschulte says:

    When I finally get the shop space, I’ll be constructing one of these beasts, too. My reasoning isn’t because it’s French or because it’s been the “trendy” workbench in hand tool world for the past few years. Hell, the design could be from Madagascar for all I care (carvings of lemurs are optional). And I’d have to assume that its trendiness comes from people recently discovering it, proclaiming it’s practical virtues and encouraging others to do the same.

    I guess people are looking at the Roubo as more of a piece of furniture than what it really is—a tool. Sure, some are beautiful and made with little aesthetic embellishments but that’s not what this bench is all about. Just like you said Chris, it’s all about the work holding. The style, country of origin, time period, etc. are just secondary—or even further down the priority ladder. It’s function. Function. Function.

  4. Ron Underwood says:

    Perhaps if you were in the business of selling benches instead of knowledge you would worry about the next hem line. I built my second bench off of your Holtzapffel chapter out of The Workbench Design Book. The first bench was a relative cheap, tension rod, drawer filled device, that I discovered I hated after attending a woodworking workshop. To your points it looked ok, had storage space, but didn’t do the magic of holding work in the right plane. I chose function and the design was based mostly on reusing the vises I had already purchased. I now love to go to the bench….even finished the shipping box when I found out how much the bench contributed to the process.

  5. Scott says:

    THE DOGS BARK, BUT THE CARAVAN MOVES ON

    I realize why you felt compelled to answer the question, possibly unspoken, of many of your readers, followers and other members of the (primarily) hand tool working renaissance. And it was the right thing to do, for no other reason than to reassure. But really to call something designed centuries ago ‘fashion’ or to even infer that it is…

    I admire many of the current writers and bloggers and agree, and sometimes agree to disagree with many of their writings or pronouncements.

    I absolutely do not appreciate being lectured to that ‘this is the way to do it and the only way’. And that ‘I know this is the way because I have ‘insert number here’ years of experience’. Hate to quote kung fu, the television show, but ‘there are many ways to the tree grasshopper’. And sometimes x number of years of experience is just one year of learning followed by x-1 years of repetition of poor technique.

    To end my diatribe. Tell me how you do it, and tell me why you do it that way -the reasons-not just because ‘that’s the way I do it and it works so it’s the only way’. Then I’ll make my decision based on my own learning, experience, practice, relearning, and so on. And I’ll use whatever works.

    Finally to make my point.
    1)How high should a hand tool bench be? Correct answer 32″ (for me) and apparently 38″ for some others, which is wrong?
    2)Which is wrong pins first or tails first. Correct answer who knows, who really cares.
    Whenever I ask questions like that my sensei answers ‘could be’. Which is the only correct answer, it means think for yourself and there aren’t any wrong answers. If its stupid but it works then it ain’t stupid. Narrow minded, pedantic, dictatorial, divisive now that can be stupid. Such things set me off (obviously).

  6. Eric Bennett says:

    I like my skirt. It was a happy accident.
    I built it ten years ago, loosely based on a plan I purchased from Lee Valley and found myself with an extra, fairly massive slab of hard maple and slapped it on the front edge with a half dozen dog holes. Handy for clamping. Wait! There’s more! It extends about ten inches past the end of the bench, where I put a giant 1-1/4 brass bar in a mite hole – thinking it mite be handy. It is handy – for supporting heavy boards as I tighten the face vice and holding a roll of paper towel.
    Easier to show than tell. Any suggestions on a better face vise?

    Eric Bennett Workbench

    I also posted a few of my Anarchist’s Tool Chest. I love using it. Thanks again to Chris for his brilliant book!

  7. joemcglynn says:

    After reading the workbench book I had to dismiss most of what it said. It totally didn’t cover the Irish Bench. They generally have a padded edge on the top to rest your arm on when paring or chopping mortices, and a brass foot support to stabilize your position when sawing dovetails. The mirror behind the bar, er, workbench helps you saw straight too.

  8. Jonas Jensen says:

    The two things I remember best from the first workbench book is the story about the artist of the city of Kouroo. And that of the drama major girlfriend.

    Apart from that, I am looking forward to having a workbench where I can flattten the top.

  9. billlattpa says:

    I have both books and though I didn’t actually follow the plans I used the design priciples. I can honestly say that I have no complaints with how my bench works. And even more so I have only two very minor disagreements:I didn’t make a massive top, my bench top is only 3″ thick pine, which was supposed to be temporary but has held up very nicely two years later, though if I used the bench every day and not just weekends that may not be as true, and the only other “disagreement” is that I found that I like (not love) tool trays. That is more of a personal preference because of the way I work and nothing to do with the actual function of the bench itself.

  10. John Brinson says:

    Take two IPA’s and call me in the morning……

  11. Jerry Dye says:

    I like the IPA prescription!! But really: if it helps you do the task, it must be a workbench. If it don’t, it aint. Tomorrow things may change.

  12. Graham Burbank says:

    yeah, heard enough crap against the roubo out there. Bench #1, circa 1988, is a scandanavian 800 pound monster with a shoulder vice, “Nyquist” tail vice, and emmert on the end. Since then, I have built 3 more (48 by 72 by 2-1/2″ thick solid maple assembly table with a yost for the kids, a veritas twin beam with twin screw endvice and most hated tool tray, with a piel patternmakers vice, a 102″ by 30″ by 4″ with aformentioned hated tool tray and nyquist tailvice with wilton patternmakers/school vice) and own two other commercial benches, one likely a 1970’s era from Grainger, the other a scandanavian abortion from the turn of the century (5 feet long, wood screws long gone and replaced with metal hardware)…Everyone wants to use the first one I built at age 20. I, on the other hand, am still seeking bench nirvana, perhaps in the form of a roubo. Two of these will recieve new bases flush to the front edge, thanks to your info. I may just have to infill that damned veritas tool ditch with a block of 16/4 maple and call it a day.
    Advice? use every bench you can get your hands on. Figure out what works for YOU. Now where did I put that benchcrafted phone number? There’s a slab out back calling my name….

  13. Tim Null says:

    Shhhhh……..the real answer is there is no ONE right bench…….which is why I have THREE! I built a Nicholsonesque bench based on a FWW Ultimate bench design. Veritas twin screw end vise and normal face vice. Sturdy, and love the twin screw vise. Then I built a small jointer’s bench. Veritas inset vice on one end and a semi-permanent Moxon on the other. Love the Moxon! The raised jaws I use for joinery, carving, and anything else I want up closer to eye level. Third was the infamous Roubo. Great for hand planning and love the leg vice. It grips like grim death. I can clamp from any angle. I find I gravitate towards all three depending on what I need to clamp. Best of all worlds. If I had to have just one…..Roubo with a leg vice, twin screw end vise and a removable Moxon. But I like my three just fine, thank you. 38 inch high bench, only if you have no Moxon and you like to hand plane with your arms only. LOL

    • Graham Burbank says:

      I’m with ya there, tim. Just need a variance to add another 1200 square feet to the shop, Gotta have a couple more benches left in me before I excorcise the demon for good!

      • Tim Null says:

        I am very fortunate. My wife kicked me out of the one car garage I was in, she wanted the space for my business. We needed two more computer terminals for my processing people for my consulting business. She got tired of them using her office. So she let me rent 1300 square feet in the industrial park, 3 minutes from my house. I went from having to roll out half my shop into the driveway every time I did anything to having room for three benches.

  14. Jay C. White Cloud says:

    :”Here, Here, poignant once more…

  15. Ron Harper says:

    I suspect that most of the folks who really get knotted knickers on the forums about “fashion” in benches really do not get concerned about the work holding capacity of a bench. They actually do very little work on one. They are cyber craftsmen. The folks who call you opinionated are correct, but you very clearly and frequently point out that there are many ways to do a task and often suggest that if I have found a way to do woodworking that produces good result, I should probably continue. How folks can object to that is mystifying

  16. Ches Spencer says:

    Yup, I love my Roubo of 2005! When I am not working on it, which is most every day, I am reading a woodworking magazine and look up and smile at my Roubo. It continues to give me much pleasure and I constantly find different work holding solutions to use with it. It survived our recent flood in Sept 2011 where there was 28 inches of water in my shop and as I worked the past year to rebuild my machines and shop the Roubo provided much inspiration as it stood so strong and proud.

  17. tsstahl says:

    What color Lego?

  18. Seamus says:

    Ditto all of the above
    I became a Roubo aficionado
    when I saw Tarule’s in Landis’ book
    simply because I could make
    a pair of holdfasts a hell of a lot cheaper
    than I could buy a vise of any kind.
    We had two mortgages and I was unemployed
    but we had a carboy full of things
    to get done at the new place.
    I didn’t know you didn’t have to have
    a Roubo to use a holdfast and I didn’t
    know you could get workbenches and
    vices so cheap at farm auctions, but
    there ya go. I learned something.
    If anyone ever asks me how to do
    something I always say
    “I don’t know how to do that,
    but I can show you what I do.”

  19. joemcglynn says:

    A Limerick:

    There once was a bench made in France
    On the internet it caused loads of rants
    But for planing and sawing
    it had woodworkers all awe-ing
    but the forums complained, I grants

    (inspired by a night at the Irish bench?)

  20. Russ says:

    The “workbench fashion” you clearly rail against here does indeed exist. Your point of function over form is well taken. However, you seem to have ignored the reality of your own success.
    You have a faithful following that has continued to bloom. You express well thought out personal opinions and observations. Others agree and continue your message, sometimes adding their own perspectives.
    The french bench is merely an example of your success in action. Your intention is not the only message you preached in your books, articles and blogs but it was also your actions and contagious enthusiasm regarding this subject, (and others).
    You have created this “workbench fashion”. Some other “authors” or similar talking heads see a big body of written attention regarding the French “workbench fashion” and that just fuels their writing hopper with future comments.
    In short, relax. It’s not anger or frustration focused at you. It’s the result of the faithful following their pied piper and the rest of the watchful, envious media wishing to cash in on it.

  21. Dan says:

    I always ignore the type of people you refer to in your post. Without fail they always end up being a “Mr. Wilson” type, grumpy with the world.

  22. It’s difficult to say “workbench fashion” and “Southern Yellow Pine” in the same sentence.

  23. Chuck N says:

    There are woodworkers who pronounce their ‘knowledge'; you teach yours.
    The pronouncers are suprised a teacher carries more sway than they.
    They may or may not know woodworking, but they sure don’t know people.

  24. Just a heads up that the audio/video troubles with The Woodwright’s Shop vids of the Moxon vice and Anarchist’s Tool Chest seem to be fixed. (though the thread is closed to comments).

  25. Brett says:

    I suspect that the real reason some people declare bench X is better than bench Y is because they own bench X and don’t want to admit that bench Y might be better.

  26. ArmyGuy says:

    Different tools do different work….the same applies for benches. I watched the show that mentioned the F word about benched. I guess the bench would work for him but it would not suit my needs.
    Time for the real answer
    A beer and a nap

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