The 6 Different Workbench Builders

john_lee_vise_patent-copy

I’ve built more workbenches than any other woodworking project. I’ve taught more workbench classes than any other type of class. And I’ve written more words about workbenches than I care to remember.

During the last two decades, I’ve encountered six distinct personalities of workbench builders. These are the six little angels (or devils) that sit on my shoulders as I peck away at my laptop on my latest effort: “Ingenious Mechanicks: Early Workbenches & Workholding.”

I’d like to introduce you to them. I am quite fond of all six. But all six drive me a bit bonkers at times. Let’s start with “The Engineer.”

Workbench Personality No. 1: The Engineer
It begins with a discussion of the wood selection for the top. The engineer looks over the stock and begins measuring the angles of the annular rings on the end grain.

“This top,” he says, “will never remain flat.”

He’s done the calculations for how much each stick will move tangentially and radially. The conclusion: These pieces of wood cannot be joined into a benchtop that will move homogeneously throughout the yearly humidity changes. He wants all his sticks to be perfectly quartersawn. Or, at the least, all the annular rings should be at nearly the same angle to the true faces of each board.

I attempt to explain how flat a top needs to be for typical planing operations (not very flat), and that it has to be reasonably flat in only certain areas of the benchtop (near the front 12” of the benchtop). I take away his feeler gauges when he isn’t looking.

When cutting the joinery for the base, I implore (beg, really) for all the students to make their tenons fit loosely. The tenons should fall into the mortises – like throwing a hotdog down a hallway. This makes the bench much easier to assemble and faster to build. Drawboring will lock the joints together instead of glue.

The engineer asks: Won’t a loose fit make the joints weaker? And therefore the overall bench?

Me: Not in any meaningful way.

Engineer: Prove it.

He makes his tenons so they are .002” smaller than the mortise opening. (“That is loose” he protests.) When he’s in the bathroom I take a wide chisel and pare slightly the walls of his mortises. When glue-up time comes, he’s amazed that the bench goes together so easily.

Me: The glue is acting like a lubricant.

Gardner's-patent-New-York-Vise,-1869

We’re installing the vises. The engineer isn’t satisfied with the bushings and bearings used on the guide bars. He recommends we overnight some alternative raw materials from MSC that we could mill up the next evening. Also, he has drawn up some sketches of shielding we could construct that would prevent dust from ever landing on the screw mechanism. Perhaps they could run in a sealed oil bath.

After the class adjourns for the day I drive to my hotel to drink a beer and sleep – thrilled that a throng of engineers built my vehicle and made it safe. But I’m also hoping against hope that that The Engineer will discover LSD, marijuana and Ecstasy that evening and is going to show up to class the next day in a Hawaiian shirt and flip flops.

— Christopher Schwarz, editor, Lost Art Press
Personal site: christophermschwarz.com

Next up: Workbench Personality No. 2: The Traditionalist

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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36 Responses to The 6 Different Workbench Builders

  1. Sean says:

    This gave me my first belly laugh of the day, thanks Chris!

  2. I’m excited about the direction this is headed already, I think the posts your inner snark comes out to play are great.

  3. Mike Kolodner says:

    LoL entertainingly funny. Thanks!

  4. jcronedistinctiveottawa says:

    Chris: Thank you for this post: I almost fell off my chair laughing so hard. I teach woodworking classes too (not to the same extent you do, and only locally to my home town) and despite being an engineer myself, I believe I have cured myself of the feeler gauges. I actually think that there is one category higher than “engineer” in this case, its the machinist…

    I’ve had students whom practically had aneurysms when I helped them put a chair together and taking a chisel to a tenon to shave off a 1/16” on one side to improve the fit… “BUT… BUT… the TENON will be LOOSE!” (it was a 1” wide tenon, snug in all dimensions save one, and that 1/16” cured an unsightly visible gap.) Or wedging a tenon “but the tenon has a gap in the opening!” ‘The wedge will cause the tenon to fill the opening’
    “but there’s a gap”
    BAM BAM BAM. No gap…
    So, I can relate!
    Thanks for the evening humor.

    • Bruce Lee says:

      You beat me to it. I was helping a friend replace an 1880’s staircase and we were going to lay out the mortices on the central post, and I suggested making a simple template to rout out the holes with a hand held router. You could see the light bulb go of over his head. Next thing he had the post clamped into his milling machine with the DRO going. Accuracy to 3 decimal places, in millimetres. I tried to explain how much the local humidity was going to change things to no avail. At least he read a few old articles and wedged the treads as well as screwing them.

  5. toolnut says:

    “The glue is acting like a lubricant.”

    Can we please get that on a t-shirt?

  6. I am an engineer. I work on jet engines. .002 is loose. And I don’t want any X, LSD, etc.

    But I promise to show up in a Hawaiian shirt, flip flops, and a relaxed attitude. ( I’ll have to buy the flip flops.)

    • holtdoa says:

      I’m also an Engineer, I push electrons. Can I have his X,LSD, etc (especially the etc). I have Caribbean shirts, I don’t do flip flops (but I mix a mean hurricane), and my attitude gets so relaxed that it comes with a defibrillator…

  7. corpmule says:

    When I showed up to Follansbee’s class with flip flops, he made me put on shoes.

  8. Rachael Boyd says:

    I have worked with want to be Engineers and they make me carzy. I have had Engineers take my classes..I feel your pain

  9. bloksav says:

    Ouch, I have once in a while considered making triple lead acme thread for my vice, because I could potentially save a couple of seconds every time I had to open and close it fully.
    Somehow I have managed to not actually do it yet though.
    As an engineer I must say that a shielded oil bath sounds like a great idea.
    Brgds
    Jonas

  10. Eric R says:

    I have some engineers in my guild.
    Very special people indeed.

  11. Eric Edgin says:

    When teaching coopering classes, I have the shaving horses lined up to easily keep an eye on the students. At the beginning of the class, we go around an say where they are from, woodworking experience, and what their interest in coopering is. I find out during that who the engineer is and I put them in the middle. When the other students are getting way ahead, they begin to notice and pick up the pace. I messed up with my first few classes and would find the engineer in the corner being overly meticulous ignoring every suggestion of which potential variables that I say to ignore. Life has been easier since sorting out placing them in the middle. I still gotta master dealing with eager young buck trying to hot shot through every step.

  12. Tom Bittner says:

    Must be an automotive engineer, if he was an Aerospace engineer the tolerance would be .0002 on the tenons.

    • Kaja says:

      This is why I always use cast iron for my workbench tops. Wood simply cannot hold such tolerances. Than again, I’m a machinist, not a carpenter.

      • Somewhere there is a guy with an inspection grade black granite slab saying, “Cast iron is too unstable” 😈

        • Kaja says:

          That’s my other half. I used to work as in inspector in the aerospace industry.
          Granite is nice, but you can’t do anything other than inspection on it. You can put a magnetic drill press on a slab of cast iron and drill holes right into it if you need to. I knew someone who drilled holes right into the table of his milling machine. Part of me cringes just thinking about it…

  13. Goerge says:

    Brillant. Looking very much forward to meeting the other guys!

  14. Jonathan Schneider says:

    Life is funny but when you tell stories it’s hilarious!

  15. Goes right along what an architect I met back in the day said: If they hadn’t discovered engineering, they’d be bankers the lot of them! I don’t exactly recall what the opposite opinion was, but as I remember it, it did indeed involve marijuana, flip flops, a daycare center and other good stuff.

  16. Mark Dennehy says:

    > Also, he has drawn up some sketches of shielding we could construct that would prevent dust from ever landing on the screw mechanism.

    Hmm.

    *points at the Record 53A, the finest woodworking vice ever made by man*

    Nifty little screw cover it’s got there to keep dust out of the screw mechanism.

    Also, the idea any engineer would be sober in the shed makes *absolutely no sense*. At all.

  17. Tate Hewitt says:

    These are so great.

  18. potomacker says:

    I have only dealt with computer engineers and those guys are so grateful to be making anything of substance that they do whatever I tell them.

  19. Clark Johnson says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed this. It seems family therapists have some things in common with woodworking instructors. I look forward to the next personality.

  20. Todd H says:

    Chris great post. Can’t wait to read about the other five.

  21. Chris you are a man after my own heart. Good enough for who it’s for was a common phrase in my early working life.
    We were given a set of blue prints for installing a blast furnace. The drawings were meticulous. Beautifully drawn with anotated dimensions out to three decimal places.
    We had a good laugh. Then we chalked the lines on the I Beams and lit the cutting torches.

  22. Anthony says:

    Great start, can’t wait to meet the next five.

  23. Nirvana says:

    “Good enough for who it’s for was a common phrase in my early working life.”

    This is very applicable to engineering as well as other craft and art. Anyone can over-engineer. Exceptional engineering is a solution that is good enough for the application with a given tolerance in its simplest form.

  24. joefromoklahoma says:

    When I was an engineer, I drew roads and highways – 0.002″ was a wee bit too close. When I was a carpenter, 0.002″ was still a wee bit too close. As far as the rest of the charges – guilty on all counts (though Hawaiian shirt and flip flops is usually reserved for church). Looking forward to the rest; bettin’ I’ll spot myself somewheres in any of them.

  25. Mike says:

    A typical engineer would build a workbench with a 12″ thick top and take 3 years to do it, based on my experience with this very special class of people.

    • holtdoa says:

      I don’t think that is fair. The end result and the duration might be correct, but there would be 14 versions of the workbench along the way (including one done with a 3-D printer…which he also built)

  26. I have enjoyed the two postings so far in this series. I’m curious to see which one I will fit. It wasn’t the first two. Given how the first two have gone (very good and funny), maybe I should hope I don’t fit in any of the categories.

  27. bobbarnettpe says:

    I am an engineer. I had an architect have me change the location of a strip in a concrete wall 1/32″. I changed it because he was paying the bills but I was thinking you have no idea about how concrete is formed. Their tape measures have 1/8″ on them but they only measure to a 1/4″ if you are lucky. BTW I would not recommend that you use the tolerances in furniture building we use in concrete work. It won’t go well.

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