How do you build a saw bench…without a saw bench? In The Naked Woodworker, Mike Siemsen shows how to begin with a length of 2 × 6 and a pair of 5-gallon buckets. It would appear that 5-gallon buckets aren’t really a thing in Ecuador, as I haven’t been able to find any. I did manage to purchase a couple of reasonably sturdy buckets, but they’re shorter than I would like.
While it may be feasible to build a saw bench without a saw bench, I think even Mike Siemsen would have trouble building one without a saw. The only saws that I brought with me were joinery saws, and so aren’t suitable for rough cutting lumber to size. As I mentioned in my previous installment, the saw that I bought at the Mega Kywi looked passable but not that great. As it turns out, I was being optimistic. After a few cuts (in pine), I decided that I wasn’t going to get anywhere unless I sharpened the saw. As delivered, the saw was filed punched straight across (no fleam), with a rather aggressive rake angle. So it actually rips softwood decently well, albeit with so much set in the teeth that the cut wanders like an Amazon tributary.
There are plenty of instructions and videos available online (and also in The Naked Woodworker) that show how to file a saw, but they all involve two things that I don’t have: (1) a saw vise, purpose-built or makeshift, to hold the saw during filing, and (2) a bench upon which to mount said vise.
I spent a full two days pondering the question of how I was going to file this saw without these two crucial tools, but finally hit upon a solution: I removed the handle from the saw and sandwiched the blade between two 2 × 4’s held together with a pair of screws, passing through two holes in the blade. I didn’t yet have anything to mount this “vise” onto, but at least it was substantial enough that I could hold it down on a table top with one hand while I filed with the other.
The vise ended up working pretty well, if not the most comfortable way to file a saw. It took me three passes of jointing and shaping the teeth until I was reasonably happy. These passes were straight across; I then took one more pass to add some fleam. The goal was to end up with a hybrid rip/crosscut saw, having a negative rake angle of about 1:4 (14°) and a fleam angle of about 1:5 (11°).
The saw crosscuts decently now, and the steel is hard (maybe a little too hard for easy filing), so I think it will work. It still has far too much set, but I don’t think there’s much I can do about that without risking damage.
Ripping is still a chore, but the saw was cheap enough that I might buy another and set the pair up as dedicated rip and crosscut saws, which should help. I’m expecting some visitors from the U.S. in about a week and a half, and I’ve arranged for them to bring down a couple of good saw files, which should ease the pain.
This particular saw had an interesting little feature that I hadn’t noticed when I bought it: a specialized bloodletting tooth at the heel of the blade. As I already donate more than enough blood while woodworking, I decided to defang my saw and remove the tooth.
In related news, my first trip to Aserradero San Morita (aserradero = sawmill) was productive. I neglected to take any photos while I was there, but I will try to do so next time. The place is pretty big, and I only saw a small part of it, but there were piles and piles of boards in all shapes and sizes. It was in many ways a scaled-down version of Midwest Woodworking in Cincinnati, and I got the impression that they do similar kinds of things that Midwest used to do, selling some lumber, doing custom millwork, etc.
Even though walk-in customers are clearly not their main focus, the guy I spoke with was patient enough with my meager Spanish to help me out. It was there that I learned that my interpretation of colorado as being synonymous with quebracho (“axe breaker”) was incorrect, and that in Ecuador, at least, colorado is Eucalyptus grandis x urophylla, better known in the U.S. as Lyptus®.
Lyptus has a mixed reputation. Some people claim that it is unstable and therefore unsuitable for furniture and the like, while others say that it is great to work with. The difference in opinion may at least in part be due to differences in origin, as it is known that Lyptus from different plantations can have significantly different appearance and working characteristics. (You can even buy single-origin Lyptus from Uruguay, if you’re willing to pay the premium.)
I bought two boards, about 1 1/8″ thick by 9″ wide, and just under 8′ long. Both boards have some end checks and the like, but they’re straight, clear and show no signs of warp or twist. The price worked out to $2.50 per board foot, about a third of the cost in the U.S. In addition to the Lyptus, which seems to be the favored wood for furniture and cabinetry in Ecuador, I saw some seique (known as tornillo in the U.S.) and some pine that did not look like P. radiata. They clearly had other kinds of wood in stock, but I didn’t want to take up more of their time than I had to; I’ll do some exploring later.
The first time I met Chris(topher) Williams was in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport (CVG). I can’t remember why I was dispatched to pick him up on his introductory visit to the States (maybe there was an author reading going on?), but I was, and I had no idea what he looked like. Arrivals at CVG come up a long escalator, so I hung out at the top, peering down for someone who looked Welsh. I don’t, however, have any preconceived notion of what a Welshman looks like – maybe a strong bow arm? But I spotted a tall man with curly hair in a polo shirt, pulling a large bag (he’d packed a chair in pieces, along with his tools), who looked slightly bewildered and awfully tired of traveling. “Chris?,” I asked, as he stepped off the escalator. Yep. (Must have been the adze arm, not the bow arm.)
On the drive back to the shop, he was fairly quiet. I chalk that up to exhaustion; that was the last quiet moment in his delightful company. Most of the time when I’m with him, he’s making me laugh…or I’m making fun of his penchant for claiming “the Welsh invented that” (the Welsh apparently invented everything).
And after three two-week (or so) long visits, I’ve now spent a fair amount of time in his company either shopping, drinking, driving to a “must-see” site or listening in on his Welsh stick chair classes. Chris is a great deal taller than the average man in Wales, so every time he’s here, I take him shopping at Carhartt’s so he can stock up on his favorite pants with 34″ inseams (apparently he can’t get his beloved long-length Carhartt’s overseas). And Chris loves his red wine; he decimated the supply of Revolution Red at Crafts & Vines, a delightful family owned wine bar that’s around the corner from our shop (I think we’ve ended up there every day it was open during his visits). The owners – and Philip – miss you, Chris!
And I miss Chris, too. He was scheduled to be here in early September to teach a Welsh stick chair class before we all drove out to Amana, Iowa, together for Handworks. I was looking forward to hearing “the Welsh invented basketball” as we rolled through Indiana. Here’s hoping we’ll be able to hang out together again soon.
John Brown had a vast tool collection – a whole chapter could be written about the tools that he amassed over the years, but I will concentrate on his core chairmaking tools. The majority of these tools were of a good vintage but, interestingly, several of his favourites were new. If a particular tool has an intriguing story, I’ll tell you about it.
No. 8 Jointer Plane For jointing boards for chair seats, his favourite was a Stanley No. 8, which had been “stuffed” like an infill plane. Not dissimilar to a Norris or Mathieson plane in appearance to the layman. In truth, he had two of these, one stuffed in mahogany, the other in yew. The one in yew was his favourite as it had been “stuffed” by his son Henry. John loved its huge mass for shooting “the perfect edge” whilst thinking “flat.”
Jack Plane This was used for roughing out chair parts and, in particular, for making chair sticks and legs into octagons.
Two Block Planes JB had a real affection for his Stanley No. 6-1/2 low-angle block plane – this was a vintage one fitted with a Hock blade. He’d use this plane for shaping sticks and in particular for creating the 5/8″ and 1/2″ tenons on the stick ends. I believe whilst teaching at Drew Langsner’s Country Workshops in North Carolina in 1995, the students pooled their money together and bought him a small bronze Lie-Nielsen block plane as a thank you. A few years later he was gifted a Lie-Nielsen No. 60-1/2 low-angle block plane by a friend. During my own time with JB it was these two planes that were never away on his bench. He particularly liked the weight of them in his hand, which he felt was always an advantage in a one-handed tool. Although the plane is typically one for use on end grain, that didn’t bother him, he used it without too much thought. Other makers now wax lyrical about having a spare blade honed at various degrees to eliminate tear-out on long grain. The minutiae of this subject would have no doubt infuriated JB. The tools’ function was to make beautiful chairs not to beautify the grain of the wood. His dumbscrape (more on that later) would sort any tear-out later.
Stanley No. 53 Spokeshave The No. 53 spokeshave was a definite favourite. JB couldn’t understand why modern tool manufacturers didn’t copy its simple design. He felt that the adjustable throat was a huge asset. You can close its throat up tight to take the slightest of shavings. Its raised handles were always a huge positive to him as the No. 53 was used after the scorp (aka inshave) as a surrogate travisher. I’ve talked elsewhere in the book about its use in seat stock preparation. John Brown had several of these and his favourite had been fettled for a Hock blade to fit. Travishers are now de rigueur and although he had a homemade one, I personally can’t recall him particularly using them as a matter of course. The No. 53 was the important tool here.
Braces His brace and bit collection was one of the first things that I noticed when I met him at his workshop. There were several hanging on a rack, each with a different auger bit. The reasons were tenfold, he would often glue up chair seats from two or three boards. The jointed edges required a dowel to strengthen the joint (in his opinion) this needed a 1/2″ dowel, so a brace was allocated for this, which included a Stanley depth stop permanently fitted to the 1/2″ Jennings bit.
Next was an oversized sweep Millers Falls (I believe) brace fitted with a 1″ auger for drilling the leg mortises. He liked the extra size of the sweep whilst drilling the leg mortises
Then a brace fitted with a 5/8″ bit for drilling both the mortises for the sticks that entered the seat and for the mortises in the doubler on the arm, this also included the mortises for the short sticks to enter the arm, and finally the mortises in the legs for the stretchers.
Next, a brace with another 1/2″ Jennings bit for drilling the mortises into the comb and medial stretcher.
Finally, an electrician’s brace with a small sweep. This was important because it allowed him to drill out the mortises for the short stick that is closest to the long sticks in the arm without the brace hitting the back sticks. You must bear in mind that the arm was at this point already fitted over the rear long sticks. The electrician’s brace was fitted with a large 5/8″ auger, which had been extended to reach down through the arm mortise, thus being able to drill the mortises for the short sticks.
This being JB, something had to be different, the bit being 5/8″ was in his words “a smidgen smaller,” which allowed it to penetrate the already-drilled mortises in the arm for the short sticks without enlarging the already-drilled mortises in the arm. There was method in his eccentricities…. I personally did the same for years, but as you can see in the chapter on building the chair, I now use an extended bit in a battery-powered drill. The augers he used were both Irwin and Jennings pattern.
Saws Saws were a subject close to JB’s heart. He realised early on his journey that a good saw was essential to master both in use and maintenance. He owned boxes of them, too many to discuss here, so I’ll tell you just about the relevant ones.
Gent’s Saw A 12″ gent’s saw was used for general workshop use. The tasks included crosscutting sticks to length, cutting the V-groove on the swan neck detail on an arm bow, but probably more importantly it was used to cut the kerfs in the legs’ tenons. The saw bottomed out on the brass back at approximately 1-3/4″, which is an ideal measurement for the length of the kerf.
Bowsaw or Turning Saw These he made himself from oak. Its blade was cut to length from a huge roll of band saw blade that was coiled up. Its use was to cut out arm bow stock. I witnessed this personally, which was a joy to watch. Later on he used the band saw for this grunt work so the bowsaw was used mostly to cut coves on the swan neck detail of his arm bows.
Crosscut and Rip Saws I’ll discuss JB’s favourite crosscut saw here for a few reasons of interest; he wrote an extensive article in Good Woodworking magazine about this saw. It was 26″ long with six teeth per inch. I watched him once crosscut an elm board. Firstly he placed his pocket watch on the board and started sawing. He had previously worked out that if he had correctly set and sharpened the saw and worked to 66 strokes per minute, it took 140 downward strokes to cut through the board. On several occasions I had to study the end grain of a board to witness the marvel of correct sawing.
Etched on its blade is Harley, Old Maymarket, Liverpool. Its fruitwood handle has a medallion which reads J. Tyzack and Son, Sheffield. It was a conundrum to John why the medallion and saw plate had different names. When JB retired he asked if I’d like to choose a saw from his box as a gift – I did and I’m now the custodian of this fine saw for another generation, my name along side J.H. Buchanan, M. Leigh and John Brown on the handle.
The saw intrigued me for some time, so I put a photo of it onto social media and asked for information. Shane Skelton of Skelton Saws contacted me to say it was made by John Harley of Liverpool between 1882 and 1902. John Harley would apparently later become a mechanic. Another person contacted me to ask if I realised what another mark on the saw demarked? I didn’t. It transpired that it was a “Daisy Wheel,” an apotropaic mark that comes from the Greek word for averting evil. The marks were meant to protect from witches and evil spirits. If only a saw could speak.
Adze, Scorp & Drawknife I’ve grouped these three tools together as they were made for JB by his son Matty Sears. John spoke highly of these tools and was proud to own them. Matty is a great craftsman and understands wood and metal in equal proportion. This benefited JB as these tools were immediately user friendly – so many tools are not.
I have seen lots of beautiful adzes that couldn’t chop a chair seat. An adze needs to be made intuitively and become intuitive to the user. This is where the maker’s skill and experience comes into play. The ergonomics of an adze are difficult to describe – the haft has to be the correct shape as does the head. Matty mastered this and he’s developed a technique of forging the head so it can be removed from the haft on a sliding dovetail. This makes maintenance easy, yet the clever part is that whilst being struck, the haft and head tighten. I coveted JB’s adze for years. Now, more than two decades later, I own one. Sentimental? Maybe, but it’s without doubt the best I’ll ever use. And its provenance? I couldn’t ask for more!
The drawknife and scorp I believe were also made by Matty from a leaf spring from an old Land Rover (an iconic British 4×4 vehicle, in case you’re not familiar). Again, both tools were an important part of JB’s arsenal.
Dumbscrape I never asked JB why he called his curved card scraper a dumbscrape. I’ll let John Brown explain it as he did in “Welsh Stick Chairs.”
“God forbid that I should ever have a fire in the workshop, but if I did, and had to get out in a hurry, I’d make sure my dumbscrape was in my pocket. This is a magical tool. Called a cabinet scraper in the tool catalogues, it is sharpened to have a wire edge with a burnisher of hard steel. It cuts like a plane – see the curly shavings on the seat. When they come from the shop they are oblong, four-sided. For this kind of work the edges need grinding to a gentle curve. It is a most pleasing business using a scraper.”
I can remember making one after reading this quote. Back in 1990s I bought a new Sandvik cabinet scraper from my ironmonger and fettled it to shape. There wasn’t a photo of it in WSC so I just made what JB describes. It is without any shadow of doubt a must-have tool for chairmaking and woodworking in general. Its uses are endless. I’m not suggesting that I’ve ever opened a tin of wax polish with one, mind you…woe betide anyone who was reckless with JB’s.
Hammer In “Welsh Stick Chairs” there’s an iconic photo of JB hammering a leg home into the seat. It’s a piece of real theatre, and although I wasn’t present to say for sure how hard he was hitting the leg with the mallet, I can honestly say that I never personally witnessed anything like that. In my experience he used a 16 oz. ball peen hammer to drive legs into seats and sticks into their mortises. Well, at least in retrospect it looked approximately 16 oz. to me. In my own personal experience with JB, the seat stock was thinner. So more of a close fit was needed whilst making tenons fit into their mortises. Particularly if anything other than elm was being used for seat stock.
Mechanic’s Vice The mechanic’s vice was instrumental to John Brown and in particular with how he developed its use for chairmaking. Its use was twofold. One, its being at a suitable work height for sculpting an arm bow (for example). And two, in holding stretcher stock up and away from the bench. Its metal jaws were lined with oak so as not to mar the work. I have described its use in the build section.
Folding Rule A boxwood folding rule was always used instead of a tape measure. It is large enough for the dimensions involved in chairmaking. I’ve discussed how JB disliked measuring things too much; the eye was the important tool for making chairs the John Brown way.
Workbenches John used a few varieties of benches through the years. He wrote some wonderful articles for Good Woodworking on the subject with detailed plans. I’ll briefly discuss two benches.
Workbench No. 1 John made the bench from pine which was readily available PAR (planed all round) from the local builders merchants. He’d dress the edges and laminate the leg stock to roughly 4″ x 4″. The top was glued up from three 9″ x 3″ boards. These were dowelled on the edges – the same way he joined chair seats. Tenons were worked on the ends of the legs, and these were mortised and pierced through the benchtop and wedged.
Stretchers were put around the circumference of the bench low down. He made several benches of this style, and my personal bench is exactly the same. I guess you could say it was more French than British in appearance, particularly in that it didn’t have the typical deep apron that appears on a British Nicholson-style bench.
John always used to make a tool rack that sat to the rear of the bench and ran its full length. This worked fine but it’s one thing I personally dislike; when chopping a chair seat the cacophony created by clanging tools infuriated me. Making chairs should be a peaceful pursuit.
For the purists, the bench measured approximately 6′ in length by 26-1/2″ wide. Lots of benches measure 24″ in width, which is fine for cabinet work but is slightly narrow for a full-blown Welsh chair with its eccentric leg splay. A quick-release vise was used as an end vise.
Workbench No. 2 JB also wrote a great article on his designated chairmaker’s bench. This measured approximately 4′ 6″ long by 27″ wide. It was made from various materials. The top was laminated from plywood, which was then sheathed with oak. Narrow dovetailed aprons then sheathed all of the edges of the ply and oak benchtop.
He made the undercarriage much the same way as mentioned on the first bench, but with much deeper stretchers – 8″ x 1-1/4″ wide rather than 4″ x 2″. This added mass and eliminated racking. The top sat on the legs with only stub tenons instead of the through-tenons of the previous bench. The aprons on the benchtop sat proud of the legs all the way around. A dowel located both through the apron and leg tenon secured the top to its undercarriage.
Three vices were built into this particular bench. One was a standard big Record quick-release. The second was a homemade leg vice, and the third a Veritas twin-screw vice, which ran on a chain. I believe that the bench was inspired after JB saw Drew Langsner’s chairmaker’s bench when he taught at Country Workshop back in the 1990s. And for the bench nerds, it measured 34-1/2″ in height. I used this bench extensively for a number of years and it worked incredibly well – yet with me being 6′ 4″ tall, it was too low. I raised it on 4″ x 4″ timbers to suit me. (Heaven forbid this book should start a debate on the subject of bench height; I mention it purely for posterity.)
Lastly, both of the workbenches’ undercarriages were decorated with paint in JB’s favourite drab green. There was no “Welsh Miserable” involved whatsoever.
Hand Grinder JB was a proponent of the hollow grind and honed his freshly ground edges with oilstones. He wrote quite a lot about its use and was even instrumental in helping to promote a grinder made in Eastern Europe. It was simply attached to what I would loosely describe in appearance as a bench hook. This was held in the mechanic’s vice and by being well up and away from the bench, the hand-cranked handle could be turned without encountering any part of the bench. JB made a simple oak tool rest, which was adjusted with a wedge to attain his 30° degree preferred grinding and honing angle.
A Favorite Chisel I’ll finish up with one chisel in particular – a 1-1/4″ bevel-edged paring chisel. This was never far from him. It was used broadly – and yes, it was struck at times. What more can I say? It’s just a chisel. As I said earlier I could have written a book on JB’s tools. He loved tools. We all must not forget: Tools are necessary to the making of something tangible, to get to the glory of the form, and to one of beauty that John Brown deemed to be “A Chair.”
The following is excerpted from “Country Woodcraft: Then and Now,” by Drew Langsner. After more than 40 years, Drew has revisited this long-out-of-print and important book to revise and expand it to encompass what he has learned since “Country Woodcraft” was first released.
The result is “Country Woodcraft: Then & Now,” which has been expanded by 100 pages and has been updated throughout to reflect what Drew has learned since 1978. Among many other additions, it includes greatly expanded sections on building shavehorses, carving spoons and making green-wood bowls.
The original book’s text is intact, and the old photos are in black and white. Throughout the book, Drew has added text, which we set in a slightly different font, to explain what he does differently now after 40 years of daily work on the North Carolina farm he shares with his wife, Louise.
In many ways, the book is a delightful conversation between the younger Drew, who is happy to chop down trees with a felling axe, and the older Drew, who now uses an electric chainsaw and band saw to break down stock to conserve energy (and likely aspirin). New illustrations and color photos throughout show how Drew works now.
Before screw vises and clamps became common, woodworkers used a variety of holding devices to secure their material. Some country craftsmen never had manufactured vises. The woodland craftsmen had their brakes and shaving horses, many of local design and all made in the workshop. Craftsmen also had a variety of devices for securing work for planing, chiseling, boring and sawing.
Old workbenches often had a variety of dog holes in the benchtop, and sometimes on the face of the front legs. These holes can be round or square. One or two dogs, set very low, can be stops to hold a board for planing (a). Another pair of dogs can be located at right angles to keep the work from side-slipping. A dog might have a steel cap with teeth cut in it to hold the work better.
A bench hook is a simple device to hold wood for sawing (b). This consists of a wide board or a pair of narrow boards with cleats at each end, but on opposite faces. The cleats are set against the front edge of the workbench. The piece of lumber to be sawn is placed across the bench hook, against the rear cleats. The wood is then held firmly in place with your left hand – if you saw with the right.
A hold-down (c) is used to secure wood on a benchtop for chiseling or mortise work. Made by a blacksmith, it resembles an upside-down L-shaped piece of steel. The leg is dropped into a mortise in the benchtop with the foot pressing hard against the workpiece.
The hold-down leg fits loosely in the benchtop mortises. It tightens by jamming as the heel is hammered against the workpiece.
It’s possible that the first hold-downs were a forked tree branch. Dave Fisher has posted a short video on YouTube where he’s using a naturally grown wooden hold-down. It was very interesting to see this.
Furniture makers and cabinetmakers have different types of miter guides used for sawing boards at precise angles. A simple miter hook (d) for sawing square and 45° angles can be made by screwing a small block, cut at the precise angle needed, onto two stepped boards. A variation is a miter box (e). Three flat boards are glued and/or screwed together to make a channel. Carefully sawed cuts at 90° and 45° angles are made through the box walls straight down and slightly into the base board. An aid in making these cuts perpendicular to the sides is to tack a small piece of square stock on top of the channel to act as a saw guide. These are used by holding or clamping the work against the backboards, then sawing within the slotted guides.
The task of planing panel edges to a right angle can be simplified with a shooting board (f). This is a flat plank with a narrow, thinner board glued on top, and a (third) straight back-up board glued onto the thin middle board. The piece to be planed is held on top of the middle board. A plane with sides that are square to the sole is placed on its side, then automatically guided at a proper angle by the bottom board. Shooting boards are nice to use where flat edges are joined together – tabletops, bucket bottoms etc.
The common adoption of vises is quite recent. Development depended on the screw, which requires precise thread making. Skilled craftsmen could carve a screw and the corresponding nut from wood. Others used a die, similar to the kinds used for threading pipe, only much larger, and with a wooden body. Expert turners could also make a screw on a lathe. A round column was turned. The pitch was marked out at four points with a ruler or divider, and penciled in, spiraling around the column. Next, a shallow saw kerf was made following the penciled lines. The piece was set in the lathe and a skew chisel was used to cut the threads, following the saw cut.
I once heard a story about an Appalachian woodworker who turned large screws used for cider mills. This man set a small log between two spindles, wound a rope around the log, then commanded his mule to pull the rope as he worked on the rotating log. Maybe this is similar to the tale about being chased by a rolling snake. Eventually, steel screws could be bought from industrial manufacturers. There’s also a needed nut to match the screw. The nut may be even more difficult to make by hand.
A leg vise – basically a variation of a blacksmith’s vise – has the outer vise jaw extended into a leg which rests on the floor where it’s pinned to a guide board acting as a hinge and keeper. As the vise is opened, the guide board is adjusted by relocating a second pin passing through a bench leg. The advantage of this vise is that the jaw can carry a great load, or take heavy pounding, without the screw being damaged or the vise being ripped off the workbench. With this design, the screw is fitted somewhat loosely, which is advantageous for clamping irregular work.
A leg vise is easy to make and handy to have around a farm shop. Vise screws may be purchased from several sources, or parts may be salvaged from an old vise or piece of machinery. It may be possible to adapt the screw from a trailer jack. The wooden parts are usually common lumber. Modern bench vises use a central screw flanked by two spindles that serve as guides for the jaw and a support for the work load. Older vises of this pattern were all wood. The screw might be 3″ in diameter, with two 2″-square guides.
Some deluxe factory-made vises have a ratchet-thread half-nut that can be instantly released for quick repositioning. The solid steel spindles on large vises are a full inch in diameter. On newer vises, the jaws are machined iron castings with wooden liners. Some vises also have a sliding dog built into the outer jaw that can be used in conjunction with another dog inserted into one of the several mortises on the benchtop. These large vises are an investment, but they will provide long, reliable service. Quality vises are marked by massive screws and spindles and generous iron castings. Deep jaws are needed to support heavy or long materials. The wooden liners allow you to work close to the jaws without risk of damaging sharp edge tools.
An interesting built-in vise variation is found on some workbenches in Scandinavia. The design is quite old, and Estonian woodworkers were using similar vises toward the end of the 19th century.(1) Conceptually, it’s a conventional vise turned inside out. A fixed elbow extends from one end of the workbench. The screw and spindles pass through this piece. On the inside a pressure plate and on the outside an end plate maintain alignment. The advantage is that the screw and spindles don’t obstruct the jaw. This results in great holding power for large vertical pieces and for some carving and furniture work. It’s also evident that it’s impossible to hold large material horizontally. The design is excellent for a few woodworkers, limiting to others.
(1) Ants Viires. “Woodworking in Estonia.” Reprint: Covington, KY: Lost Art Press, 2016.
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. — Fitz
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….? Yes.
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… …a beginner? 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.
The most important thing the bench does for you is hold a job whilst you work on it. (I remember my early days without a bench, struggling to hold work with one hand whilst cutting with the other. I am amazed I came out without more damage to my digits. The opportunity to saw off part or all of my hand was a daily event.) The bench is just a giant, flat holding device that allows you to get into the correct position to do the work properly. You are then free to concentrate on balance and being in control. That’s what matters – control.
There are a few things a cabinetmaker’s bench has to be. It has to be heavy. You will be exerting horizontal and vertical forces on it, and you don’t want it moving around – so spend some money on timber and make it heavy.
Make your bench to suit your height. This is critical. Many benches I see are very low. The bench height we suggest has rewarded us with strong, undamaged backs. It’s a high bench surface set up for general planing. To determine the right height for you, stand alongside a bench. Bend your elbow. Extend the forefinger and thumb of your left hand. Touch your thumb to your elbow. The point of the forefinger is where your benchtop should be. This will do for almost all work. In case you do need to get on top of a job, keep a small “hop-up box” stored beneath the front rail.
The bench has to have tool well. This is the place to gather the tools in use for a given project. The working surface of the bench should be kept as clear as possible at all times. The benchtop is for the job at hand – nothing else. We know that this game is about skill with speed, and speed is about organisation and picking up and putting down tools fast. Thinking ahead, not being slowed down by a lost chisel in a pile of shavings, is key. We go nuts about such professional practice at Rowden. At the end of day, we put tools away sharp. I know you are tired, but sharpen your tools, sweep the benchtop, sweep the floor – then go home.
Benchtops need to be swept down regularly to keep them free of dust and shavings. Christopher Schwarz sent me this brush as a memento of our visit to Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. Just look at the design and workmanship! The ends of the bristles thin down to fine strands, and at the bottom they form not a straight line but a gentle arc. Perfect for this job. Look at the binding wrapping elegantly in groups of three, then a gap, gathering more with the movement of each group of three down the handle. At the base, the full handle is bound with an inexplicable hanging hook, coming from the centre of the binding. How did they do that? This, Chris calls a Turkey Wing, I call it the best bench brush ever to have been made.
You can go a long way with great bench, a bag of good, sharp hand tools and good bench light. As my eyes have dimmed, the number of bench lights I need has increased – but you will likely need only one, a good one that can be moved around all over the place.
The tool well collects everything from shavings to dust, tea mugs to half-eaten sandwiches. That’s what it’s for. The bench surface is golden territory – keep it clear and clean; do it no damage. When making this surface, you will respond to the timber that you actually have available. But don’t be tempted to make the bench surface too wide. You need to keep this surface flat, and if it’s very wide, you will need very long arms to flatten it…and the task will be tiresome and not done as regularly as it should. There will come times, usually when developing third-scale prototypes, that you use this bench surface as a datum reference surface – so it’s important to keep it spot on. Our practice is that at the end of every big job, the surface is dressed lightly with a bench plane. Just a shaving all over gets it clean, flat and new – ready for the next job.