The Nicholson Bench for Starters. (Also Beginners, Newbies and Novices)

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I like to read and discuss old texts and try to figure out what the authors are trying to tell us. When I read about using hand tools I prefer texts that were written before the use of electricity. Nicholson’s “The Mechanic’s Companion” was one such book. His brief description of a joiner’s bench and the accompanying plate piqued my interest. Why all the holes and how does it work? Only one way to find out: Build it.

Peter Nicholson, definitely not naked.

Peter Nicholson, definitely not naked.

Because this bench is the results of hundreds of years of development, I tried to stay true to the text and plate and build the bench with a similar mindset as the original users. One task of a joiner was to finish the interiors of houses, so the joiner built a bench 10’ to 12’ long from common materials and made all of the doors windows and mouldings on site. My guess is that by the time the project was finished the bench was pretty much used up so he just unscrewed his vise and left the bench, building a new one at the next job.

So what did I learn as reached back into the past and shook the hand of Peter Nicholson?

One of the great features of the English Joiner’s bench is that it is made from common construction materials. There is no need to search far and wide to secure a thick piece of wood. You just go to the lumberyard and buy standard construction planks. There is no need for major glue ups or material preparation. A 10’-long workbench is no problem if you need one.

The construction is simple with basic hand tools – just a handsaw, brace, a few bits, hammer, framing square and a jointer plane. Because of the way the bench is built, the top is practically flat when you are done with assembly. And the bench is solid and stable.

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Softwood from the lumberyard is grippier and doesn’t dent your project. This was a bit of an epiphany for me: The bench dents instead of my project because the bench is made from softer wood than the hardwoods I use in my furniture-making. The softwood top doesn’t polish up like a hardwood top, so the projects don’t slip around as much as I am working on them. Shiny and slippery are not your friends on a benchtop!

It’s cost- and time-effective: $100 and a weekend. If you want a low bench for planing and a taller one for assembly and close-up work build two benches! If you move, you can leave your old bench behind and build another when you get to your new place. All you have to do is toss your Dutch tool chest in the car and go!

It’s functional. While you might have to retrain yourself to work with the bench, its planing stops and holdfast holes, it doesn’t take long to get the hang of it. My first Nicholson had a vise, but after reading Joseph Moxon, I left off the vise and now use the double-screw vise he describes. So I have a bench with no vises – just a crochet, planing stops and holdfast holes to hold the work. Of course, you can also just drive nails into the benchtop to hold your work as well. The first Nicholson bench I built back in 2008 sported a split top that grew out of information from George Ellis’s writing on a Planing Board and spawned a split-top revolution that continues to this day. The bench in forthcoming “The Naked Woodworker” DVD is an outgrowth of the 15 or so English benches I have built with friends and students since the first one.

— Mike Siemsen, Mike Siemsen School of Woodworking

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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10 Responses to The Nicholson Bench for Starters. (Also Beginners, Newbies and Novices)

  1. So, apart from looking awesome, why all the holes in that zippy diagonal pattern?

    • LostArtPress says:

      They are used, with a peg, to support from below long boards, drawers, panels and etc. that are gripped in the vise or crochet.

      • Right…I just wondered why that pattern, and why so many. I trust that this is the right way to do it, I just wonder how that became the pattern. “why not” is as good an answer as any I guess. It works, that’s for sure.

        • LostArtPress says:

          Sorry I didn’t understand the question. I don’t know of any source that explains the pattern. After building a couple of thse benches, I suspect the diagonal pattern allows the the pegs to hold more weight than if the holes were arranged vertically only. And the diagonal pattern allows for easy layout of the holes on the sideboard.

          These are just guesses.

          I think the pattern looks nice.

  2. Very interesting bench. Bob Rozaieski had built one quite a bit like that on his now defunct Logan Cabinet Shop site. Bob is a proponent for hand tools only and he claimed it suited his needs. With only hold fasts and the bench hook it looks to fill most bench needs. I have grown quite fond of the Benchcrafted leg vice w/solo on my bench. I enjoy drinking beer and seeing how many turns of the wheel it takes to close with one spin. Can’t do that with only a bench hook. Good times.

  3. jmaichel says:

    Very timely, I am going to build a Nicholson bench very soon (need to finish my Dutch Tool Chest first). I think I am just going to go with a crochet instead of a face vice. I built a joinery bench not very long ago that takes care of my joinery needs.

    I like the idea of using half-laps for the legs but if I wanted to add a shelf to the bottom, would I need to use M & T joinery for the legs and stretchers instead of half laps?

  4. I wondered where the split top came from, after reading the link to the 01/02/09 blog post now i know.

  5. Since the first post was made that this DVD was coming out in July, I’ve been trying to reverse engineer Mr. Siemsen’s bench in hopes of building one of my own, my first proper workbench. I do have a question, though.
    – From what I understand about holdfasts, they require a minimum thickness of benchtop to work properly. If the top of this bench is made with 2x material, does it require additional thickness so that holdfasts will work properly? I figure leftover 1x material from the aprons would suffice?
    I’m looking forward to the release date being announced. Any word on when that might be?

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