The following is excerpted from Christopher Schwarz’s “The Anarchist’s Workbench” (which you can download for free on the store site; see the penultimate paragraph there for a link) – it’s Appendix A. I’m posting it because Chris gets dozens of questions about workbenches…even though he has no public email. And I get hundreds of workbench questions…because Chris has no public email.
During the last 20 years, I’ve been asked a lot of questions about workbenches. Most of these questions I’ve answered 100 times already. That’s OK. When people first get focused on building a workbench, they usually haven’t read years of blog entries or the five or six books that are available on the topic.
And so they send an email asking what’s the best wood to use. Oh, and could I also compare and contrast all the different forms of benches? You know, like, just real quick?
We get these questions almost every week.
Below is a list of the questions I am asked constantly – plus my answers. A lot of this information is covered elsewhere in this book. But this format – question and answer – seems to help some people work through their own doubts.
This chapter also gives me something to cut and paste when replying to emails and letters. Here we go.
Questions about Workbench Materials
1. What wood should I use?
There are only a few woods I wouldn’t use for a workbench: white pine (too lightweight), expensive exotics (too expensive), rotted wood (too rotted). I recommend you use the heaviest, cheapest and most readily available species in your area. In the South and Midwest, that’s yellow pine (the cheapest), followed by poplar and soft maple. Don’t worry about the stiffness and other engineering factors. If you overbuild your workbench, it will be plenty stiff and strong.
2. Should the benchtop be a slab? A lamination? Plywood? LVL? Which material works best and survives the long term?
All of these have trade-offs, and all of them work well – both in the short and long term. The choice is less about engineering (all are heavy and stiff enough) and more about aesthetics, economics and the tools you have available. You can make a plywood bench using a table saw and screw gun. A slab bench requires far more (including a forklift). But which looks better? That’s your call.
3. What’s the best glue for building a workbench?
All the common glues are strong enough – hot hide, liquid hide, PVA, epoxy. Choose one that suits your wallet and the way you work. PVA is cheap and easy to get, and it sets up fast (this can be good or bad). Hot hide glue sets up very fast (again, good or bad). Liquid hide glue might be difficult to purchase in your area and sets up slowly. Epoxy is very expensive, but it fills gaps and can have a slow or fast curing time depending on its formulation. For most woodworkers, PVA (plain old yellow glue) is an excellent choice.
4. Can I use green wood? How green?
Yes. But it’s risky. Drier is better. You have no idea how much the components will move as they dry. Benchtops, even thick ones, can twist more than 1″ at the corners. If you do receive a fresh slab and need a bench today, build the bench quickly and use stretchers between the legs. The undercarriage and the joinery can help hold the top in place as it dries, reducing its tendency to warp. Also, it’s a good idea to orient the top so the heart side of the board faces up.
5. Is it OK to include the pith in my bench components?
I don’t recommend it. No matter what your local sawyer might say, a board with the pith included (sometimes called a “boxed heart”) will split. The split might be minor, or catastrophic. It depends on the tree. Why risk it?
6. Is air-dried wood better for a bench? Or is kiln-dried OK?
Either is fine. And I can’t say that either is better for a bench. Just use the heaviest, cheapest wood that is readily available. For me, the more important question is if the wood is at equilibrium with its environment. If not, let it sit a while. Then build the bench.
7. If I can’t find Southern yellow pine in my area, can I use….?
8. What’s the best finish for a benchtop?
Probably no finish is the best. You don’t want your benchtop to be slick. You want the work to be easily restrained. If you want to make it look nice, some boiled linseed oil will do that (and give you a little protection from water spills). Or an oil/varnish blend. That will give you even more protection, but it might slicken up the benchtop a bit. Avoid waxes and thick film finishes, unless your workbench is a fashion accessory.
Questions about the Form or Structure of a Workbench
9. What style of bench should I build if I use only hand tools?
I think the easiest bench to build with hand tools is an English joiner’s bench, sometimes called a Nicholson. If you buy dimensional lumber, there is almost no wood to plane to thickness. It’s just cutting boards to length and fastening them together with simple joints, screws or nails. Mike Siemsen’s video “The Naked Woodworker” is a good place to explore this.
10. Won’t wood movement in the benchtop wreck a Roubo or Nicholson workbench?
I have never seen it happen. The top shrinks and expands, and the base contorts a little. It doesn’t affect the working qualities of the bench, and the benches don’t pull themselves to pieces.
11. Is it OK to use mixed species of woods when building a workbench?
Sure. There is no issue with strength, longevity or (realistically) differential wood movement. A hardwood top and a white pine base might be an economical way to build a bench. The only real concern is aesthetics. Sometimes a benchtop with strips of walnut and purpleheart through the middle make me throw up in my mouth.
12. What’s the best workbench for…
Probably an English joiner’s bench (aka, a paneled bench). It has the fewest joints and is the fastest form to build in my experience. However, any beginner can build a French bench or a fancy German bench. It just takes a little more time. Don’t let your lack of skills snuff out your dreams.
13. …an apartment dweller?
I would build a small yellow pine bench like the one in this book with nice vises. It would have mass because of the pine and all the features of a full-size bench. Then, when you get a bigger place, you can build a bigger bench and use the same nice hardware. The small bench could go to a friend or become a kitchen island in a Manhattan loft.
14. …a garage or barn without HVAC?
I would use softwoods, such as yellow pine, fir or hemlock. These woods move less in service than hardwoods. So, if there are wild swings in humidity, you’ll see less wood movement.
15. …a person with very little money?
A bench made with yellow pine or any heavy construction timber. Pound for pound, construction woods are the cheapest and easiest to get.
16. What do you think of a torsion-box benchtop? Or the New-Fangled Workbench? Shaker workbench? How about this other workbench that you’ve never seen or heard of?
At times, I feel like I’m being baited with this kind of question. You can answer the question for yourself if you think about it for a minute. Your bench needs mass. How easy is it to work on the faces, edges and ends of boards with the bench? Can you modify the bench as your woodworking changes by adding different vises or holdfasts? Does the joinery seem impossibly robust or one step above a slumlord’s birdhouse?
17. Should the benchtop be assembled with loose tenons?
This is an ancient way to assemble slabs (made popular by Greek and Roman boat builders). It certainly adds long-term strength. Drawboring these loose tenons can help pull boards together without clamps. If you lack clamps or faith in your glue or edge-jointing skills, this is a good technique to fix those shortcomings.
18. Can I glue 8/4 material face-to-face to make a thick benchtop?
Yes. You also can laminate a large quantity of toothpicks to make a benchtop. The trade-off is you need the equipment to do a seamless job. Or you need to be OK with a few gaps. There is a lot of surface area that needs to be glued when you laminate boards face-to-face.
19. Why shouldn’t I buy a Lie-Nielsen, Plate 11 or Benchcrafted workbench or a high-end Sjöbergs or Ulmia?
I like building my own workbenches in the same way I like building all the furniture in my house and making pizza from scratch. That doesn’t make my furniture or pizza better than store-bought. It’s just what I like to do. In fact, I cannot do things any other way because my head is that stupid. If you would rather buy a workbench and spend more time building jungle gyms for owls, do it. As always, caveat emptor with tools and woodworking equipment. I’ve used Benchcrafted, Plate 11 and Lie-Nielsen benches and find them to be great. Sjöbergs are not my favorite. And I haven’t tried a recent-vintage Ulmia.
20. Could you evaluate all the workbenches you’ve encountered in your career and explain to me the best one for my work?
Sure thing. Wait right here.
21. What’s your favorite workbench ever?
Probably the one in this book.
22. Which workbenches do you regret building?
None, really. Even the ones that were less successful taught me important lessons. The bench I miss the least is the door on sawhorses.
23. Should I tooth my benchtop like veneer?
Sure. I’ve tried it. The rough resulting surface seems to help keep your work in place, but that might only be my perception and not an engineering truth. The best reason to do it is that every time someone tooths a benchtop, the internet poops its inter-pants.
24. Is there any case where you would advocate for a tool tray?
Yes, when the tool tray is a box with a lid and three sliding tills. And positioned off to the side of your bench where all your tools are at hand.
25. What’s the best way to make my workbench mobile?
Push it. Commercial “mobility kits” don’t impress me. I’ve seen engineered solutions that are more complex than a Jarvik-7 artificial heart. Simple is best. Most benches can be slid across a floor easily. If you want to protect the floor, put a moving blanket under the feet. Honestly, I own workbenches that are almost 400 pounds, and I can move them myself with my scrawny bird-like arms.
26. What’s the best height for a workbench?
I think it’s somewhere between the historical heights of 28″ and 36″. Plus, remember that you can endure working in a range of about 3″ around your ideal. So, if you can’t decide, make the bench a little taller than the internet tells you. Then saw the legs down bit by bit until you find that your work becomes easier. Second piece of advice: Sit down at your bench to do detail work with carving tools, chisels or a router.
27. What’s the best way to make my workbench height-adjustable?
I know this sounds snarky, but it’s not. Sit down at a shop stool if you need to be closer to your work. Stand on the same stool (or a raised platform) if you need to get way above it for some reason. Adjust your height – not the workbench’s.
28. What do you think of these commercial benches that adjust in height?
I am impressed by the engineering, but I don’t see a need for them in my workshop.
30. Should my workbench be in the center of the room or against the wall?
Either works, as long as you can move the bench for oddball operations. I shift my bench all the time here and there to do different things. I prefer to have my bench in the middle of the room so I can go around to its backside to take photos. But most people don’t need to do that. One caveat: If your bench is lightweight, having it against the wall (or secured to the wall) can make it more stable.
31. If I put my bench near a window, which direction should that window face?
The classic shop uses only the beautiful northern light. The real shop will take any window facing any direction.
32. Can I drawbore a bench together without glue to make it knockdown?
You can do this once. After you disassemble a drawbored joint, it never goes back together as tightly as it did the first time.
33. How lightweight is too light?
If the bench moves across the floor during normal planing operations, you have a problem. Bolt the bench to the floor (or wall), add weights or build a heavier bench. After experimenting with commercial benches that were on the featherweight side, I’ve found the typical 60 lb. bench is too light. At about 150 lbs., things begin to work. Above 250 lbs., I don’t notice the workbench.
Questions About Workholding
34. Won’t the toothed planing stop cut me?
It’s unlikely. I’ve never cut myself after 15 years of daily use. Can it happen? Sure. Have I heard of people getting cut? Only once. Is it mentioned in early texts, which detail many of the possible gruesome injuries in the shop? Not that I recall.
35. I don’t want to cut a mortise for the planing stop in my beautiful benchtop. Are there other options?
Sure. You can fasten a moving block to the end of your benchtop. But I think that’s lame compared to just chopping a hole in your bench and doing the job right. I totally understand that some people have a mental block about some things: grinding an iron, filing the mouth of a handplane open, doing the Ruler Trick for the first time. The barrier is all in your head. Close your eyes and jump off the tire swing. You’ll be glad you did.
36. Do I have to have a face vise? Can’t I use just a crochet? Or is that a dumb idea?
Screw-driven vises didn’t show up until the 14th century. So yes, you can do excellent work without a screw-driven vise. Yet, the screw-driven vise is enormously convenient. (There’s a reason that Record never made a iron crochet – painted blue – for workbenches.) And vises are readily available and inexpensive. (But for the record, I enjoy using a crochet.)
37. What is the best arrangement/placement of holdfast holes?
Three rows. The back row is 3″ from the rear edge of the benchtop. The middle row is 10″ from the rear edge. The third row is 17″ from the rear edge. The holes are 16″ away from each other. And the holes are staggered on each row by 8″. You might have to adjust these dimensions if you have a very narrow benchtop, but this is the general idea.
38. … of dog holes?
Dog holes should be close to the front edge of your benchtop – usually 2″-3″ or so. This allows you to use handplanes that have fences that drop below the benchtop (such as a plow plane). I like to keep my dog holes close together – about 3″ on center.
39. What’s better: a wooden vise screw or a steel one?
Neither. Both can close quickly and ferociously on your work. Both can last several lifetimes if cared for. Both can be trashed by abuse.
40. What’s the best material for lining the jaws of a vise?
I like suede and a cork-and-rubber gasket material (Benchcrafted sells this as Crubber). Avoid cork alone as it’s too fragile. Some people like neoprene, but I haven’t tried it.
41. What glue should I use to affix the liner for the jaw?
I prefer epoxy. Full stop.
42. Should I install a patternmaker’s vise? In the tail vise position? The face vise position?
If you are a patternmaker, yes. And it can go in either position on the bench, according to the historical record. If you are a regular-head furniture maker, this vise has downsides. It’s expensive and a trick to install. Most furniture makers don’t need one. But dammit, I own one.
43. Why won’t my holdfasts cinch down?
Your benchtop might be too thin, so the holdfast cannot wedge itself in place. Or the hole is too big for the shaft, so the holdfast can’t wedge in place. Or the hole is not plumb. Or the shaft is too smooth. The least likely reason is the holdfast is poorly made and doesn’t have enough spring.
44. How flat does my workbench have to be?
The bench has to be flat enough so your work doesn’t spring in low spots to the point where you cannot flatten boards with your handplanes. If you work with handplanes, you will know when the benchtop is too wonky because your planes won’t do their job. If you don’t work with handplanes, flatness is rarely critical.
45. How often should I flatten my workbench?
I flatten a benchtop when I make it. Then I flatten it again when it has become disgusting from glue and abuse. Or when it stops working (as per the previous question). Some people flatten their benchtops yearly. Some do it after every big project. I ain’t got time for that. And I haven’t found it necessary.
46. What’s a vise garter? Do I need one?
Garters are a part of a screw-driven vise that links the screw mechanism to the vise’s jaw. With a garter in place, the jaw moves in and out when you move the screw in and out. Without a garter, the jaw moves forward with the screw, but must be pulled back manually when you retract the screw. Do you need one? They’re convenient but not necessary.
47. Will I regret not installing a tail vise?
The best path forward is to build a bench that allows you to add a tail vise immediately or in the future. That way you and your work can answer the question (instead of a dumb Kentucky woodworker).
48. Which is better: square dogs or round ones?
Neither. Square dogs don’t rotate; round ones do. Your work might need round dogs if it’s odd-shaped. Round dogs are easier to install. Both forms are traditional and go back centuries.
49. …steel dogs or wooden ones?
Steel dogs hold better but they will mess up your handplane as soon as you hit one. Wooden dogs don’t hold as well, but they don’t hurt your handplanes. The choice is yours.
50. What sort of woodwork requires a tail vise?
If you plane up a lot of boards that are similarly sized, a tail vise can be nice. They can also be nice for disassembling a frame that is tightly dry-fit. They are convenient for traversing wide boards with a jack plane or working diagonally with a jointer plane. We have several benches with tail vises or wagon vises. I use a tail vise once every few months.
51. Do I need a board jack (either integral or freestanding)?
These are helpful when you have very long boards (longer than 8′) or a face vise that has a poor grip and cannot handle an 8′-long board by itself. They are also handy for edge-jointing long tabletops and mortising doors. If you do big work, they are a godsend. If you don’t, they are occasionally useful but are mostly a storage facility for holdfasts.
52. Finally, what wood should I use for my bench?
Oh, do sod off.