At our upcoming open house – 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, March 26 – you’re invited to help us build a workbench – or simply watch us work and ask questions.
We’ve been working with the Cincinnati Museum Center for a new permanent exhibit, Made in Cincinnati, that will include in the “made by hand section” an educational display about the very important 19th-century Cincinnati craftsman (and ahead-of-his-time ersatz epidemiologist) Henry Boyd. On exhibit will be one of his “swelled railed bedsteads” and a re-creation of his shop space, which is where this Nicholson-style workbench will end up.
We have been working on a book on Boyd for the last couple years – more on this exciting topic in the next week or so.
Unfortunately, we’ve been unable to find extant pictures or drawings of Boyd’s shop – but given the prevalence in his lifetime (1802-1886) of this sturdy and inexpensive bench style, it’s a logical inference that his bench was similar to the one featured in “Mechanic’s Companion.”
Join us in this build, and help us and the Museum Center celebrate the legacy of craft in our city and to share Boyd’s amazing story.
Made by Hand is scheduled to open July 1 at the Cincinnati Museum Center. Some elements will change over time, says Stacey Kutish, senior director of exhibition development, but she expects Boyd’s bed and shop exhibit to remain on display.
We have just received delivery of a new Benchcrafted Classic Bench in our shop, which replaces Megan Fitzpatrick’s LVL bench in the center of our bench room. Megan and I have been in long-running discussions about building her a new workbench sometime during 2022. But recently we decided to buy (actually, trade) for the Benchcrafted bench. Here’s why.
I’ve built a lot of workbenches since 2000, written five books about workbenches and have been hailed/derided for popularizing the 18th-century French bench for woodworkers who like to use hand tools. And when Megan first approached me about replacing her bench, I said I was happy to help build her a new one based on plans in “The Anarchist’s Workbench” (the book is free to download).
But after looking ahead at our schedule for 2022, my brain began to do the math. I can build a bench in about 40 hours of work. The hardware would be about $400. The wood would be about $500. On the other hand, the Benchcrafted Classic is $2,900. After about 5 seconds of ciphering (and carrying the gazinta), the decision to order the Benchcrafted was obvious.
First, the bench completely fulfills my dictum for a good workbench: That you can work on the faces, edges and ends of boards with ease. The Benchcrafted Classic comes with a Crucible holdfast and a planing stop (they added our planing stop by request), and the holdfast pattern is the same pattern that’s on my workbench.
The bench’s form is based on the 18th-century plan. The joints are drawbored. The raw material is hard maple. And the bench weighs plenty for handwork – 300 lbs. The craftsmanship is excellent – as good as any workbench I’ve made. The joints are tight. The vise runs smooth. And the top is flat.
The bench even comes unfinished – a real blessing. Today Megan added a boiled linseed oil finish to the bench, which suits the way we work. A straight oil finish adds a little protection and color, without adding any slipperiness that comes from a wax or varnish.
If you have been reading my books on workbenches, then you know that this Benchcrafted bench pushes all of my buttons. Benchcrafted got it exactly right with no compromises. And they made it for less than I could, at my hourly rate.
So about the payment. I was perfectly happy to pay cash for this bench. But Jameel and FJ said they were interested in trading the bench for one of my stick chairs and a Dutch tool chest made by Megan. So everyone is happy.
Megan has a new workbench with a leg vise that works perfectly. Her LVL workbench is going to live in her basement as “an expansive horizontal storage facility.”* And I’m sure it will be used as a workbench. It’s still a good bench – it has just been eaten up and beaten up by all the workholding experiments I’ve inflicted upon it.
And I have 40 more hours this year that I can use to work on other projects – chairs, refurbishing the bar in our storefront, books and new tools for Crucible.
Now I just need to figure out what to do with our Ulmia workbench, my least favorite bench in the shop. And then the workshop will be complete (cue the laugh track).
— Christopher Schwarz
*Megan here. I do still love my LVL bench, and the top remains dead flat after 11-plus years of hard use – an excellent result from our material experiment. But we also built the base out of LVL, and that was less successful. The stuff is made to compress a bit (to handle earthquakes and the like), and compress it did from the force of the leg vise against the top; the top got pushed back from the front of the leg over time – and despite many efforts to fix it, nothing worked for long.
Now, I have a scabbed-on piece of plywood at the top of the leg to bring that front edge flush…but I know it will move again.
It’s not that big a deal to me; I’m used to it and have myriad workarounds – but I don’t like it when students have a less-than-perfect experience with our equipment, hence my desire to build a new bench. But I am delighted to not build one. I have plenty to be going on with, too, and the Benchcrafted Classic is darn close to what I would have built anyway – basically a larger, heavier version of the petite white pine Roubo in my basement shop (which features an OG Benchcrafted Glide vise).
So now I’ll have two good benches in my basement shop – one little, one big. Oh – and one crappy built-in “bench” – I use the term loosely – that was left by a previous owner. It is indeed a horizontal storage facility. The two actual benches, however, will get used for woodworking. In my free time.
The following is excerpted from “Ingenious Mechanicks,” by Christopher Schwarz. This book is a journey into the past. It takes the reader from Pompeii, which features the oldest image of a Western bench, to a Roman fort in Germany to inspect the oldest surviving workbench, and finally to Christopher’s shop in Covington, where he recreated three historical workbenches and dozens of early jigs. (We’re down to just one low bench here now; it gets used every day.) – Fitz
Woodworking has changed little during the last 2,000 years. The basic set of hand tools, the joints we use and the need to hold things at the bench is the same as when the Egyptians constructed furniture. Put succinctly: Workbenches need to immobilize the work so you can work on a board’s faces, edges and ends. Any workbench from any era can accomplish this task, whether it be a Roman bench, which resembles a log with legs, to a fantastical dovetailed German bench with a shoulder vise, tail vise and series of obedient metal dogs.
The challenge when designing your bench is to make it suit both your work and your personality. If you are a furniture maker, any of the bench designs you’ll find in magazines, woodworking stores and videos will likely suit the work. As I said before, the work itself hasn’t changed all that much since Roman times. A hollow-core door on sawhorses can be pressed into service to make fine furniture.
But I urge you to find a bench that also suits your personality. If you are an engineer (or a recovering engineer), you might prefer a bench with metallic screws that move swiftly and smoothly to hold the work. If you are an apartment woodworker with little space or money, you might desire a Roman workbench that can also serve as a sitting bench at the dining table, or as a coffee table in front of the couch.
The rest of us are likely somewhere between these extremes. We might have tendencies toward gizmos. Or we might prefer bare-bones simplicity. There is not a “best bench” out there for all of woodworking, full stop.
This book exists to expand the array of benches and workholding ideas available for those who like to keep it simple. It is not a criticism of modern benches. I’ve built and used many of these. I have an early Ulmia in use in my shop. I understand their advantages and disadvantages. I definitely think they have a place in many modern shops. But they are not the end-all. Our ancient ancestors didn’t need them to make fine things.
I won’t rejoice if you read this book and melt your tail vise (unless you invite me to what would be an awesome party). Instead, I hope only to expand the range of discussion when it comes to workbenches, and perhaps give the engineering woodworkers additional options for holding the work when they don’t have a fancy bench at hand.
But before we do that, I think it’s only fair to discuss the ideal characteristics of all workbenches, young and old, low and high, simple and Steampunk-y.
Wood for a Workbench You can use any wood to make a good workbench. Except for wood that is on fire. I do not think that would work. But other than wood on fire, use whatever you have on hand.
Our society of woodworkers is still in recovery from The Great Malaise of Steamed European Beech, a period during the 20th century when beech was seen as the only sane option for a would-be bench builder. (And if you couldn’t get beech, maple was the eyes-cast-downward-in-shame option.) History has shown that Woodworkers of Old used almost any species for a bench, from white pine to purpleheart. (The earliest surviving bench we know of is made from oak.) The wood doesn’t have to be dry or knot-free. To be sure, however, there were some species that were desirable because they were cheap, heavy, strong and readily available.
So, if you lived in Pennsylvania, maple would meet those characteristics. In Hungary, beech was the thing. In France, oak. In England, whatever could be gotten off the boat. In South and Central America, the choices were incredibly vast.
Many woodworkers, myself included, like to use dense softwoods for benches because they are incredibly cheap, available everywhere and (if you choose the right softwood) heavy and plenty strong. So, please don’t fret over the wood species. Any species will do.
The Crucible Planing Stops will go up for sale on Monday in our store. The stops will be $49 plus shipping (I’m afraid they are unlikely to arrive at your address before Christmas).
These planing stops represent two years of work and almost a $50,000 investment in patterns, matchplates and ductile iron. This is our biggest-ever tool run, and we are holding our breath a little bit about how they will fare in the marketplace.
These stops are less expensive than a blacksmith-made stop, and they are quite easy to install. I’ve made a short video that shows the process here:
The stop is based on the planing stops shown in A.J. Roubo’s masterwork, with some minor tweaks. The stop’s teeth sweep slightly upward, instead of being parallel to the benchtop. This makes it much less likely that a handplane will collide with the stop.
Also, the teeth come sharp – but not too sharp. Beginners can get used to using the stop. Then, when they are comfortable, they can grind or file the teeth so they are needle-sharp, which is how I like mine.
Once we get our first volley of planing stops out the door, we will offer these to our retailers around the world. It is my dearest hope that somehow, someday, one of these stops makes it onto a Roubo-style workbench in Paris – completing a 240-year cycle.
Though I am done writing books on workbenches (scout’s honor), I am always on the lookout for interesting historical examples and clever features that I can use in the future.
This week I spotted one that was particularly interesting. I’m calling it the “Baby Deadman,” which is the most horrible name I have ever given anything in this world (including the time I tried to name a cat “Kilgore Trout”).
The bench shown above is featured in “The Cabinetmaker’s Art in Ontario: Circa 1850-1900” by Lilly A. Koltun, published in 1979 by the National Museums of Canada. Researcher Suzanne Ellison recently dug it up using her superpowers. Download the pdf here.
The paper is a biography and shop inventory of Francis Jones of Middlesex County, who made furniture (and dealt in farm implements and undertaking) during the second half of the 19th century.
The section on the workbench notes that its top is 21-1/2” x 78” and the bench is 34-1/2” high. Unusually, the bench has a tail vise, but it doesn’t appear to have a series of dog holes on the top. It does have a metal planing stop (barely visible) which is mentioned in the inventory. And a nice holdfast.
I was struck by the two sliding board jacks (sometimes called a “deadman”). The large one is typical. But the small one on top is unusual and ingenious. Here’s why: I built my first board jack in about 2001, and it’s great for holding large panels and residential doors on edge. But most of my work doesn’t need the full capacity of the jack. Mostly, I just want a movable peg that will help support boards as I edge-joint them.
This bench gives you both.
In fact, I might consider adding only the smaller Baby Board Jack (now THAT’s a better name) to one of our existing benches to fool around with it.