A few months ago I hit a wall in my shop. Since I began hand tool woodworking, it’s became almost an obsession to get all hand tools. A tool for every job. Even in just two years, and with my very limited budget, somehow, my tool chest, drawers and cabinets have all gotten very full.
You know what I’ve realized? I have a tool that specializes in most things, yet I still reach for the same three hand planes, two handsaws and three old chisels I bought on eBay for almost every task. I decided to start eliminating the surplus and upgrading the tools I will actually use.
Appeal of the bench hook
As I’ve been cleaning, I’ve realized that there are few jigs and fixtures you actually need to do great work. There are two that I see as absolutely crucial: bench hooks and shooting boards. In this article, we will cover the bench hook and its many uses.
Design of the bench hook
In its most basic state, a bench hook is basically just three pieces of wood attached in such a way that they are able to use gravity to hold your work still as you are sawing, planing or chiseling. Not only do these great tools improve the safety of all of those tasks, they also allow for much greater accuracy.
If you are using a western saw, which cuts on the push stroke, gravity forces the work piece against the fence of the bench hook as you saw, holding it still. You can also use the fence of the bench hook to hold your work piece as you push the plane or the chisel toward it.
When it comes to design, bench hooks can be as simple or as fancy as you want. I built my first set out of an exotic mahogany look-alike and walnut scraps. They are pretty, and I like looking at them a lot.
I used to like using them too, until I found out that there are different bells and whistles that can be added to your bench hook to make it even more versatile.
Because I am incredibly busy right now, my shop time is at a premium. So it was easier for me to pick up a pair from Bad Axe Toolworks than to spend the afternoon making another set. The added bonus was that Bad Axe makes left and right handed sets, so I could practice sawing with both hands. Since I’m ambidextrous and extremely prone to accidents, I figure I might as well learn how to do everything I can with both hands, just in case.
The Bad Axe design for bench hooks includes precut miters and a shoulder on the either the right or the left side of the bench hook depending on whether you have a right-handed or left-handed set. This had me singing it’s praises all the more, because that means I might get away with replacing my miter box that is a huge space hog.
Yet another benefit of using the bench hook instead of the miter box is that you will be able to use the full range of your saw to cut your miters, instead of wearing down only the middle 1/3 of your saw due to the limitations of the miter box.
How to use the bench hook
When making a crosscut, line up the line you are about to cut with the shoulder of the bench hook. This way, you can use the shoulder of the fence of the bench hook as a guide for your saw to help you saw straighter.
There are several ways to begin your cut — do whichever works for you.
I like to place my saw on the waste side of the line and use my thumb as a fence as I slowly pull the saw back a few strokes to get my cut started. Then, being careful not to grip the saw too tightly, I saw through the piece, paying attention to where my lines are.
To use the bench hook as a shooting board, simply place your workpiece flush with the fence and plane away. The shooting board is also a necessary shop fixture, because it is the only way (at least that I can think of) to accurately square up end grain with the precision needed for joinery.
The first few passes you make will plane away a few shavings of your bench hook, but after that, the piece of metal that encloses the mouth of the plane will stop the plane from cutting further into it. When you’ve planed your piece square, the plane will stop cutting and you will have a square end to work with.
You can also use your bench hook as a planing stop for small items and as a way to keep your hands behind the blade of the chisel when making small chamfers and other chisel work.
How to make your own bench hooks
Here’s the beautiful thing: as I mentioned before, a simple bench hook is basically three scraps pieced together. You can use glue or screws or fancy joinery or some combination. The only important thing is that the fences are square to the sides and to the bench. You can make them whatever size you want, and if you really want to work from a plan, there are a myriad of plans and designs free with a simple Google search.