A Flip-top Workbench


Combining a workbench with tool storage is always a balancing act. Here’s a solution I have not seen in the wild (though some have proposed it).

It’s a workbench where the back half of the benchtop (15” x 102”) lifts up to reveal a shallow tool well. Though I’ve not worked on a bench like this, I suspect it has these plusses and minuses:

  1. When the lid is down, you have a full workbench surface that will support carcase sides etc. This is superior to an always-open tool well in my opinion.
  2. The downside is you have to work in a manner that is particular to this bench. I suspect the best way to work on this bench would be to leave the top open as much as possible, giving you access to the tools in the well. Then, when you had to plane a wide panel, you would temporarily lower the lid to create a wide work surface. One other possible downside: Assembly on this benchtop could be tricky. You would have to ensure you had all the tools you needed before you closed the top to make an assembly surface.

So I think it’s clearly workable. If I were to build a bench like this, I would consider making the lid in two or three hinged sections. That, however, could create some problems with flattening the top and keeping all the bits in line.

From studying the photos, the person who built the bench clearly was skilled. Check out the mitered dovetail on the shoulder vise and the filleted ovolo on the end of the vise. I suspect the painted boards that fill the base were a later addition – they don’t seem in character with the remainder of the workmanship.

My favorite detail is they are using a marking gauge as one of the dogs for the tail vise.

According to the Craigslist ad, the top is 113″ long x 44″ wide. The top is 34” from the floor. The base is 77″ long. Thanks to Gerald Yungling for pointing this one out.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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13 Responses to A Flip-top Workbench

  1. John Lewis says:

    Thanks Chris for sharing. Very interesting. I found I prefer to have my tools out in the open and available. Even when storing my hand tools etc I have never been one to tuck or hide things away. I had a big Grizzly work bench once that had a fold down shelf near the bottom. I never used it.

  2. John Vernier says:

    Roy Underhill’s extra long dovetail saw would work well with that enormous shoulder vise. Nicholson’s original description of his bench includes storage under the top, behind the apron, accessed by lifting a loose board on the top. Never seen another one in the wild.

    • John,

      Yup. Same. I have seen English benches where there is a drawer in the apron. But never a well in the top. Also, “Audels Carpenters Guide” shows such an English bench with a covered well in the benchtop. But still, never in the wild….

      That’s why I found this particular example interesting and worthy of note.

  3. Its looks like a cabinet was below the bench top at one time.

  4. bernardnaishb says:

    My Grandfathers bench circa 1890 is in the English style and has two storage cubby holes. One at each end nested between the two aprons & under the top. At the left end it was left open but on the right I seem to remember a door hinged on leather straps. This contained some moulding planes.

  5. Ryan McNabb says:

    I can see this working if you do a run of of the same procedure needing certain tools, say building drawers or planing a limited assortment of moldings. You get out the tools you need, lay them out, and keep the top closed most of the day. Personally I can’t see working with this bench top open (imagine the mess!) unless I was doing ornamental carving. If I had a dozen chair legs all lined up, with the chisels arrayed in their trays, then this could be a cool way to work. Carving chisels take up vast amounts of space but need to be laid out in plain view and used repeatedly and systematically.

    Of course the ability to just “dump” your shavings onto the floor by raising the lids may be the best, and unintended, feature.

  6. Eric R says:

    I think, unless there was space between the boards, that this area would fill up with dust and chips pretty easily as well.

  7. I very rarely assemble on my bench, having a separate plain bench for that purpose. Considering the size of the bench, the owner probably had enough shop space to afford the luxury of a large secondary bench for assembly.

  8. richmondp says:

    This bench would never work for me. My bench is almost always crowded with flotsam and jetsam of various kinds, so I would never be able to lift such a back lid. My first reaction: if you can put up with a hollow top, and don’t mind the hassle of walking around the back to retrieve a tool, how about shallow drawers opening off the rear?

  9. I have used a similar bench since my beginnings in woodworking a couple of years ago. It is not a flip-top; instead I have four panels, each about 12″ wide, made of 3/4″ MDF that lay flat and unattached over a tool well. That is five feet long – thus, there is always one space that is open so that I can reach down and grab a tool. At either end are MDF panels that are screwed on, so that the “loose” MDF panels never slide off. I also have a separate top alongside this part that is solid, with places for dog holes and a sorry little face vice.

    It works okay for me. If I need a tool that is in the well and my workpiece is on top of the bench, I can still get it easily. Suppose the workpiece is a small side table – then I can reach between the legs of the side table, into the well, and grab the tool. If I need to, I slide the MDF panels to the side (underneath the piece) to get at the tool. Each MDF panel has a finger-sized hole that lets me grab it and move it quickly.

    I built the well shallow (just 3.5″) so tools tend not to pile up.

  10. Hi Chris, I (confused from Africa) had some e-mail contact with you in the past. My bench (which was designed using the discussions in your two brilliant books on the topic) has another angle on this particular topic. You might (or might not) find it interesting to look at. Here is a link to the post I wrote on my website that has a number of photos showing my solution to this problem:
    Let me know what you think.
    Have wonderful day.

  11. shopsweeper says:

    I got off the bus at 44″ wide. My teacher taught me that a workbench you can’t reach across is wasting space (and he has great, hairy, long arms). Maybe 44″ was across the vise only…

  12. Niels Cosman says:

    I like the idea of a segmented lid in this design.
    I seem to recall seeing some benches that had removable and reversible (when flipped over they could serve as a bench surface) tool trays in split top and trestle benches. A similar concept idea could be applied to several removable lidded trays framed by a heavy rear member. You could still access some of the tools not covered or remove those bins that would be covered. Those bins could be made to function as stackable tool totes to transport small hand tools around the shop or out into the world.
    …Or you could just avoid the tool tray/dustbin concept entirely.

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