Workbench in 12 Easy Pieces

The workbenches we built this week at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking this week are a little different than the French benches I’ve built at other classes. The biggest change: We attached the top to the base with four through-mortises instead of the combination mortise-and-dovetail joint I’ve used in the past.

Why? Time and volume.

We had to make 17 8’-long workbenches in only five days using 6,000 pounds of material. In past classes we’ve done this class in six days, built shorter benches or let the students worry about vises when they got home.

So I set out to engineer a design that was suited to our material – 6×6 Douglas Fir beams – the limited number of workshop hours when we could use the machinery – 42 hours – and for a class that was made up of mostly beginners.

The above design is what I drafted, and it almost worked.

I eliminated the four sliding dovetails and increased the size of the four through-tenons. I’ve seen this feature on surviving benches so I know it works. And it saved us hours of handwork to cut the dovetails. The through-mortises in the top were cut before assembly by kerfing the extents of the mortise and removing the waste with a mortiser. This worked remarkably well. All the benches slid together with few problems.

The real star of the class was the material itself – 6×6 beams of kiln-dried Douglas Fir that the school purchased from the J. Gibson McIlvain Co. The material arrived in our hands with an actual dimension of 5-1/2” x 5-1/2”. My hope was that we would be able to plane the stuff down to 4-1/2” x 4-1/2”. The stuff was remarkably stable and well-behaved. We surfaced almost every stick down to 5-3/8” x 5-3/8”, so it wasn’t very twisted, cupped or bowed.

That saved time on machining and emptying the dust collector.

So where did my plan stumble? I think we all ran out of energy by the fifth day and didn’t push hard enough at the end to get everyone’s vises on. Everyone who wanted to assemble their bench got it assembled (I think that’s correct). But most of them only got a start on their vises by the time we started cleaning up by 2 p.m. Saturday.

I’m quite happy with the design of this bench and the material. It was darn clear and almost entirely free of heart, so it didn’t split as much as some construction timbers. If I had an extra day, I might add the dovetail back onto the design, just because it looks so nice. But I don’t think the addition of the dovetail or the lack of it will change the usability of the bench.

— Christopher Schwarz

P.S. You can download a SketchUp drawing of this design from Google’s 3D Warehouse using this link.

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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19 Responses to Workbench in 12 Easy Pieces

  1. Anthony says:

    I love how straightforward this design is. My favorite part of this bench though, is the number of visible knots. It was refreshing to see that you don’t need perfect material for a bench, as long as it’s stable.

  2. Christopher Hawkins says:

    As a participant in the class, I had a wonderful time and am glad I took the course. Chris is an amazing guy and his knowledge, passion and giving nature were displayed many times last week. Honest feedback is a gift that I believe (and hope) he will appreciate so here is mine.

    Highlights…
    • The final product. I believe this bench will serve me very well for the rest of my life. It may serve generations of my ancestors.
    • The folks at WASW. Special thanks to assistants Doug Dale and Jeff Stafford. They are extremely knowledgeable and provided valuable input and physical help at every step along the way. Without their help, we couldn’t have done it.
    • The camaraderie. Having a bunch of guys with wildly varying backgrounds working together toward a common goal is a lot of fun.
    • The focus on making sure we don’t hurt ourselves when using any of the equipment.
    • The food. It was excellent and the ladies who served it are nice.
    • The facilities and equipment. All are top notch.
    Lowlights…
    • Workflow was pretty bad. Better planning of material movement and clear pathways would have gone a long way in improving productivity and decreasing fatigue.
    • Me falling over the box of magazines when helping push the cart from the 24” planer on the 2nd day. Dang that hurt. My ribs hurt like $*^@ the whole rest of the week and hurt even today.
    • Having handouts that illustrate the sequences, tools and techniques for marking out the mortises and stretchers would have been helpful during the class and for my next workbench.
    • The moisture of the of the wood in the approximately 15 pieces of wood I measured with a LignoScanner SDM at ¾” depth varied between 11 and 18%. The difference in weight of the various pieces of wood with same nominal dimension was very easy to detect. On page 103 of his book “Workbenches, from Design & Theory to Construction &Use” Chris writes “Don’t be alarmed by the high moisture content. You can use it to your advantage when building this bench. You need a moisture meter to do this, however. Mark every board with its moisture content and then segregate the boards. Choose the wettest board for the top and legs, those parts will shrink on the stretches of the bench which should have a lower moisture content than the other parts. This approach will keep the joints tight and will slightly distort the base’s shape, which is going to happen anyway.” We understandably didn’t have time to do this. While this will not impact the final usability of the bench, I wonder how extra reflattening of the bench and leg instability this will cause. Time will tell.
    • I believe greater emphasis on the physical nature of the week would have been helpful. In his defense the tool list for the class does have ibuprofen as the last item.
    • Speaking of the tool list, I heard a bit of grumbling about not using many of the tools on the tool list. I’m glad I bought the tools on the list, but understand the comments from others.

    Final thoughts
    • I’ve attended two classes that Chris taught and both times came away with new skills, a valuable item for the shop, a smile on my face and greater appreciation for Chris and what he brings to the woodworking community.

    • Christopher, the material ordered for this class was a Select Structural #1 grade Douglas Fir. This is primarily an exterior product so it is only kiln dried to 2″ deep with a center around 12-20%. It is sold as an S4S product and the higher moisture content is necessary for an exterior product much like decking that is sold air dried in the 18% area. If you mill this stock like you guys did for this class it is common for some of the interior moisture to migrate outward as fresh faces are exposed which is what led to the readings you got with your boards. To dry a timber like this all the way through is very dangerous in the kiln and often causes damage. The alternative is radio frequency drying to get a homogenous moisture content but this is highly cost prohibitive and usually not worth it in the long run for anything other than decorative interior framing.
      I don’t think you have anything to worry about with movement on your bench as the large size ameliorates the movement to a large degree as well as insulating the inner layers allowing a slow equilibrium in moisture and thus a more stable timber.
      In most cases, as Christopher has indicated in his other posts, timbers sold like this are much wetter (30% and up) in the interior and 15% on the outside to the point where you get splashed while sawing it.
      -Shannon Rogers, Director of Marketing; J Gibson McIlvain Co.

      • Christopher Hawkins says:

        Shannon: Thank you for you detailed and prompt reply. What you’ve said makes sense to me and I’m confident that the bench will perform as needed. The stock is beautiful and as Chris S indicated in his initial post, it had remarkable little cupping or bowing given the very large dimension of the stock. Thanks for providing such excellent material for us to use.

        Chris Schwarz: When teaching your next classes on workbenches, please consider including a brief explanation on the impact of moisture content. I realize my initial post and this post might sound like I’m bitching. This isn’t my intent. I’m seeking clarity and providing feedback in an effort to make your next class even better. I think you know how much I enjoyed the class and appreciate all you do for the woodworking community.

        • lostartpress says:

          Chris,

          No worries on my end. I thought your comments were very constructive and helpful for the next bench class. I appreciate you taking the time to write them down.

  3. Christoph says:

    Why use through tenons? Does the extra tenon surface outweigh a contiguous working surface across seasons?

  4. kenmorgan says:

    I took the course and found it a rewarding challenge. Working with such large members was physically demanding as well. I learned about reading wood grain and saw the strength of the wedged tenon. The assembled benches were like the Rock of Gibraltar.

    I did not get my bench assembled as I had hoped, because I made an error in layout of a mortice. Layout and assembly of such a large piece are new skills for me. At least I was consistently wrong and made the same error on all four legs, so I could have assembled it as it was, with a different stringer arrangement. But I was not happy with that option aesthetically or mechanically so I decided to take leg stock home and will be mortising new legs by hand over the next week or so.

    I agree with Chris Hawkins above on all counts. Handouts would be the only improvement. Chris Schwarz broke the work into logical segments, but those segments would have several steps that needed to be done in order. It was complicated enough that I would loose track of order or miss an entire detail.

    I would highly recommend this course for anyone who would like to build an excellent bench but doesn’t have the experience or skills to pull it off alone. There was gifted and encouraging instruction, good tools, and good company.

  5. phil williams says:

    How will having a top that thick affect the use of holdfasts?

  6. Devon says:

    My only compliant is the disreputable character in the phonograph above – he seems perpetually puzzled.

    It was a great week, I personally don’t think that I would have finished assembly if I had dovetailed the top.

    My cuts and bruises are healing and I even “daydream designed” an “X brace” to keep my leg vise chop parallel last night – like the one Chris showed us.

    Thank you MASW and Chris for a wonderful class.

  7. Nelson says:

    Great post, and thanks for sharing the design. I’m in dire need of a work bench, and having this design with your dimensions gives me a little something to play with. Appreciate it, and I’ve been enjoying this blog for a while now.

  8. Tim Henriksen says:

    I took the class and left with an assembled bench. Mission accomplished. I had envisioned gorgeous dovetails and shiny Benchcrafted vises ready for work upon my return home. I didn’t make it to the vises. I was becoming frustrated that I wasn’t progressing to that point fast enough. However, after unloading the massive bench that spent an hour in the rain on my trip back home I realizes just how absolutely solid this guy was. Do I miss the tails? Sure, but I can’t see ANY sacrifice in utility. I will share but doubt ever publish photographs of my bench that will see its fair share of cigar smoke and coffee stains. I love that there is no glue, nail, bolt or pocket screw below the top. That will always be my testament and reminder of good joinery. Plans may have helped keep you on course if you fell behind. If I had it to do over I would have left my vises at home and simply focused on making the best bench I could and enjoyed that wonderful process.

    Otherwise, I agree with the other positive comments. What a GREAT way to build a massive bench; teamwork, camaraderie, excellent guidance, top-notch tools and rib sticking food!

    I also agree the above character is disreputable, although he’s also one of the nicest you can meet!

    Tim Henriksen

  9. Wolfram says:

    Chris, after this report l am eagerly waiting to join your workbench class at Dictum / Germany in June. I am sure this will be a lot of fun…

    All the best
    Wolfram

  10. Brad Ringer says:

    My wife liked my workbench so much she let me put it upstairs. close to the kitchen. she even said for me not to hurry on finishing installing the vises. Wait a minute. What are those cloth napkins and wine glasses doing on it? is that a plate of cheese? Son of a #2 biscuit…it’s been turned…into….a….kitchen island! #@$%&!

    But seriously, the class was awesome. Chris did demo’s of all kinds of things that related to the workbench build as well as general subjects such as sharpening and sawing. we got to quiz him on all manner of subjects, dig through his tool chest and try out all the tools you see in the books and magazine articles.

    The tool list was long but it reads much like any good hand tool checklist and follows closely to Charles H. Hayward’s suggested basic tool kit. if you have any intention of putting a hunk of wood on this bench and transforming it into furniture you need the tools on this list.

    Plus….seriously…..you complaining about an excuse to buy tools? i didn’t think so. “But Honey, I had to buy that new Wenzloff large tenon saw. it was on the list!

    I do think we could have used an extra day to wrap things up. Things were crazy Saturday trying to finish up and clean up. but it did get done. This class was a team activity and everyone did their part to help everyone else whenever they could. I felt lucky to be a part of this team.

  11. Devon says:

    One of the best parts for me, other then the woodworking bonding, was using everyone’s wonderful tools. Brand’s Wenzloff saw, Chris’s Lie-Nielsen Number 8, Kenneth’s Veritas Smoothing Plane, and everything else. I came away with a long list of “someday” tool buys.

    I did complain about the number of tools – but only when I had to round them all up on Saturday. 🙂

  12. Chris, if time isn’t an issue but you were new to woodworking would you suggest using the Drawbore technique of your first bench book, the dovetail and through tennon of your recent benches, or the single through tennon of this blog?

  13. Chris, for new beginners in woodwork, would you choose this technique over your first book Drawbore style or the dovetail/through tennon of your recent benches? Which is your go-to for us newbies?

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