Workbench Personality No. 5: Frank Sinatra

Village_carpenter,_making_plows,_mat05920sr

I call this type of workbench builder the “Frank Sinatra” because they always do it “My Way.” In other words, a Frank Sinatra workbench is entirely disconnected from tradition and – at times – human reason.

Is this bad? Shouldn’t workbenches be a “I’m OK and You’re OK” kinda thing? If it works for you it’s right, right?

While I don’t seek to poo on anyone’s parade, there are certain guidelines for building things that are related to the human form and the work. If someone came to you and said: I’ve just rethought the idea of the chair – I’ve made the seat 24” deep so there’s more room to relax! Isn’t that great? More, more, more!

Me: Doesn’t that cut off the circulation of blood to the legs?

Designer: Hey, it works for me.

The following descriptions of my encounters with the Frank Sinatras are not an effort to quash innovation in workbench design. Instead, this is a look at what happens if you build a bench without knowing how benches are used.

How it Begins
To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever met a Frank Sinatra in person. Instead, they are the people who read my blog entries and then send me photos of their workbenches with a note that says something like:

“Saw your Rubio bench. Thought I’d show you what a REAL bench looks like. I designed this one myself – an ORIGINAL design. Want to do a story on my bench? It’s awesome.”

The first Frank Sinatra I encountered had made a U-shaped bench that was 12’ wide and 16’ long (yes, 12 feet x 16 feet). It was comprised entirely of kitchen cabinets that were bolted together and then covered in 4×8 sheets of plywood. Imagine a giant “U” covered in plywood. And there were vises every 3’ or so.

Me: Do you run a school? Is this for your employees? Or are you Catholic like my wife and have a lot of kids?

Frank Sinatra: Nope. It’s just me. But it’s the best damn bench I’ve ever seen. Better than your Robo bench for sure.

lumber-truck-accident_1937

Your Bench is for Pansies
Like many bench builders of the last 2,000 years, I like a bench to have some mass. You can work with a lightweight bench – we’ve all had to do it – but mass makes things easier.

Some people, however, take mass to a ridiculous level. One day I received an email from Frank Sinatra with photos of a bench “that makes your benches look like church picnic tables.”

I opened the attached photos. It was a French-style bench that was made entirely out of 2x12s. The top was all 2x12s that were face-glued (the top was 11” thick). The legs? 2x12s that finished out at 11” x 11”. (Elephants would be jealous.) The stretchers? 2x12s.

In all honesty, it looked like a cartoon sketch of a bench. But I wanted to be diplomatic. After reading the stats provided by the Frank Sinatra (it weighs 575 lbs.!), I asked a simple question.

Me: Bench looks beefy. How do the holdfasts work?

Frank Sinatra: Don’t know. Haven’t used the bench yet. Just finished it last weekend.

Malden-auto-accident-lumber-truck-1951-01

Suckier Workholding
It’s a simple note via email: You don’t need vises. No one needs vises. Take a look!

The bench in the photos is a 4x4x8 box made of plywood. Every foot or so is a vacuum port. They are on the benchtop. On the end of the box. On the front face. The bench is powered by two large compressors, which, through a venturi nozzle, provide the vacuum power.

Now there is no need for vises. Place your work on the vacuum port and it is immobilized. Cutting dovetails? No problem! The work is held immediately upright, ready for sawing! Planing? Put it on the benchtop and the vacuum ports hold it fast. No planing stops. No tail vises. No nothing.

I ask a question: How does it hold rough stock? Stuff that is fresh off the sawmill?

To this day, I still haven’t heard a reply.

Torsion or Tension?
Many times the Frank Sinatras come at me with their torsion box designs – “The T-Box Rules!”

So instead of a simple slab of wood, the T-box designer wants to make a benchtop from thin skins of plywood that cover a baffle system of thin components. This is a great way to make a lightweight tabletop that has a lot of visual presence. But a workbench top?

Me: How will you get holdfasts to hold in a torsion box?

Frank Sinatra: Those areas will be solid wood, surrounded by air.

Me. What about the dog holes?

Frank Sinatra: Same answer. Solid wood in the areas for the dogs.

Me: Don’t you want some mass? This benchtop weighs only 17 lbs.

Frank Sinatra: I’m going to fill all the cavities between the baffles with sand.

It’s Not a Bench. It’s the World
A common Frank Sinatra affliction is to add endless functionality to the bench. A table saw is integrated into the benchtop. A planer is in the base. There is tool storage galore. A fridge. A router table. And Bluetooth.

But does it work? Outside of your mind? Outside of a piece of paper?

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

Next up: Workbench Personality No. 6: The Undecider

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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28 Responses to Workbench Personality No. 5: Frank Sinatra

  1. Anthony says:

    Oh the troubles I’ve seen. I pity your having to respond to these.

  2. Mitch Wilson says:

    Shouldn’t you have called this workbench personality “little donnie trump”? After all, Frank Sinatra had class and knew how to do things right.

  3. jonfiant says:

    I laughed my head off. Thanks Chris, best laugh I’ve had in a month of Mondays.

  4. Aaron says:

    I knew a torsion box would make its way in here somewhere!

    Well I’m sort of guilty of this one… I made my bench before I was really established in terms of a working style. Based on White’s new fangled design, but with a fuller, laminate beefier top. It works great, but I would go in a more basic traditional (probably English) direction were I to do start it now…just no need for all the gizmos. they work, just not that efficiently and were silly to construct.

    So what is this, some sort of religious take on self reflection for entering the holiday season? “who among us can say they are not guilty of the sin of cheapskatedness? Of pretensiousness? Of..” though lol

    • artisandcw says:

      My first great workbench was a small torsion box (size was limited by the space I had to occupy) and it has become to treasured to me over the last 30+ years I often refer to it as my third child. It’s got an Emmert K-1 in one corner (if you do not have one don’t get one now because you will be black-and-blue from kicking yourself for not getting one earlier), a 48″ twin screw face vise on the back side, and yes the base serves as a lumber rack to add the necessary mass. It is still the centerpiece of my workshop to this very day, residing alongside my 600-pound 9′ oak Roubo bench, a rebuilt Sjoberg detail bench I retrieved from the trash, an 8×10 SYP planing beam, a Studley-esque bench with piano makers’ vise, an 8′ Nicholson…

      So yeah, I’m willing to think outside the (torsion) box and sing along with Sinatra.

  5. Some of these sound pretty funny. I want to see a picture of the 2 x 12 bench and the vacuum vice contraption. I once watched a YouTube video of a guy who filled a bench top with concrete between two skins of plywood. Sure you can do it, but why?

  6. Larry says:

    Your bench doesn’t have. Bluetooth?

  7. tpier says:

    You have seen way too many Paulk benches.

  8. Scott Elmore says:

    Chris,

    Hilarious post and much appreciated! I’ve built several benches and always thought I should stick with what craftsmen developed and honed for hundreds of years instead of thinking I had a “new” design.

    I have a German style bench in the shop but for job sites I’ve just purchased a Festool MFT. I’m interested to see how it performs and if I like using the thing. It seems like a great “new” idea and I keep wondering if something similar is adaptable to a “standard” cabinet maker’s bench. I’m pretty sure no one needs holdfast holes on a 96mm grid, but the precision placement could offer utility.

    • Bruce Lee says:

      You will probably want to put some sort of cross bracing on the MFT if you are using it for hand planning or similar tasks. Festool sell (or used to sell) a set of cross brace legs for the MFT but you should be able to cobble something together with bits from the Big Box store, and unless you are ambidextrous you really only need one brace not a pair in an ‘X’

  9. Hi
    No coment; but where is the first picture taken? Where does he come from and what is the date it was taken?
    Best regards
    Tore

  10. Noel Hayward says:

    Chris, you were a little hard on the guy with the 2 x 12 workbench, think of ghe joy he gave the timber yard that sold the wood, at last we have gotten rid of that load!!

    Or it might have been that 2 x 12 were cheap that week and he bought a stack of them and had to do something with them. It is a bit like you see a house a hideous shade of puice, that colour must have been very cheap that week.

    It was just a pity he had to inflict you with pictures of his crestion.

  11. studioffm says:

    Chris, you have seen our benches at Rowden , we have experienced every bench making personality you describe. They made me smile and laugh out loud. We shouldn’t let them get to us but this is human beings at the most diverse. Just beat them with a long length of 2 by 1 till they do it right.

  12. Frank says:

    Based on my experience, I believe a lot of these folks must be commercial architects

    • Larry says:

      “Based on my experience, I believe a lot of these folks must be commercial architects“

      Or residential designers…

  13. Brian Miller says:

    Bravo !

  14. nrhiller says:

    There is coffee all over my keyboard, dammit.

  15. Mark Dennehy says:

    A fridge under the bench? That’s absolutely stupid, totally ridiculou…..

    …waitaminute. That means a cold beer *at the bench*.

    The man’s a genius. I need to find a minifridge…

  16. toolnut says:

    “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison

    Viva innovation!

  17. Eric R says:

    Hey !
    That’s my uncle Mock-Mood !!!

  18. Tom Moore says:

    Wonderful article.

    I haven’t returned to Thomas Stangeland’s shop since 2008 (when the photos in the link below were captured,) but Thomas may have been the fellow with the huge U-shaped bench you mentioned. The 2008 version would be considered his “starter set.”

    Link to Chris’s PopWood blog of yesteryear.
    http://tinyurl.com/yc8horhu

  19. celine says:

    This was a very interesting write up, Your writing skills are wonderful, you brought a pleasant smile on my face in utter loneliness as I was reading this. Thanks for this smile.

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