When designing a French workbench (or any other style, really), one of the most common hang-ups for new woodworkers is determining how much the benchtop should overhang the base at the ends of the bench.
When I design a workbench that doesn’t have an end vise, I usually use an overhang of 12” to 15”, and I make the overhang equal at both ends of the bench. Simple. And it looks good.
When you add an end vise into the equation, some bench designers become a bit uncertain. Is that cantilever too much? And when you are building a smaller workbench – say 6’ long – then real worry begins to set in. Will the bench be stable?
Here’s how I go about proportioning things.
With An End Vise on a Big Bench
If your bench is 8’ or longer things are pretty simple when adding an end vise. Determine how much overhang you need to accommodate the end vise, usually somewhere between 13” and 20”. Use the same overhang on both ends of the bench and you are pretty much done.
Because of the thick top of the French bench, the cantilever isn’t a problem. A 4”- to 6”-thick top is plenty thick enough to resist gravity and the weight of the vise.
If, however, you are making a short bench, things get complicated.
With An End Vise on a Short Bench
Here’s a typical problem: You want to put a Benchcrafted tail vise on a 6’-long bench. You need about 19” overhang on one end. If you made the overhangs symmetrical – 19” at both ends – then your workbench’s base is only 34” long. That’s ridiculous and unstable.
What do you do?
One solution is to use a small overhang on the end opposite the end vise. This is the solution used by the modern European-style workbench with its massive tail vise. This solution works just fine, though the bench loses its symmetry. But hey, it’s a bench, not fine furniture.
The other downside is that the bench – like European workbenches – becomes less stable. If you or your fat friend plops down on the cantilever, then you might get an unexpected thrill ride. I have seen this happen dozens of times, especially at Woodworking in America when people are setting up benches in the Marketplace.
Or Use No End Vise
If you are willing to eschew an end vise, your bench will be less expensive and easier to design. Plus, you can easily use A.-J. Roubo’s dimensions and proportions to draw a bench that is – to my eye – beautiful.
At the top of this blog entry is a detail from Plate 11 from “l’Art du menuisier” on which I have overlaid the known dimensions from Roubo’s text. I do not think that everything in his drawing is perfectly to scale. However, I do think that Roubo is showing a 9’-long bench, which he says is the standard size. If the bench is indeed 9’ long, then the planing stop, the legs and the stretchers are all correctly scaled and match his text. (The mallet is a different matter).
If you want to follow Roubo’s drawing, then make the overhang 12” or a little longer.
One side note: What if you are making a 12’-long bench? Do you need a third set of legs in the middle? I think you can avoid this complication by making the top thicker – 6” or a bit more – and by using an 18” to 24” overhang on the ends.
— Christopher Schwarz