The workbench is the most important woodworking tool in the shop. Here we’ll examine the requirements for a workbench suited for general woodworking and furniture making.
Start with mass
A woodworking workbench that budges while you are working will thwart your efforts and drive you nuts. Serious weight and nonslip contact with the floor, employing fasteners or blocks if necessary, will keep the bench reliably in place.
The mass of the bench, along with quality joinery, helps to dampen vibrations. This produces a feeling of solid dependability under your tools and enhances your working confidence.
Various formulas and rules exist that supposedly can determine an individual’s proper bench height. I suggest instead try common sense testing. Stack and clamp boards on any reasonably stable bench or table to create different heights. Trial the activities that will occupy most of your time at the bench, namely planing with bench planes, sanding, sawing joints, chopping, paring and planing with specialty planes.
Keep in mind that thick pieces and pieces projecting from a vise will effectively add to the working height. Go with what feels right. The top surface of most stock workbenches is about 35″ high. You are more likely to want to add to this, which fortunately is easy, than subtract from it, which is usually difficult.
It’s all about holding the work
Let’s systematically consider the major requirements in a woodworking bench for holding work pieces. As an instructive example, I will show how these are fulfilled by my workbench, which is a classic continental European joiner’s bench.
Of course, there are many other styles of benches that also meet these requirements! The point here is that when you are considering buying or building any workbench, think about how it will perform the tasks described below.
Holding wood to work on its edges
The jaws of the front vise primarily grip a piece of wood on its faces so that work can be performed on it edges. The board can be held horizontally for work on a long-grain edge, such as planing or shaping, or vertically for work on the ends, such as sawing dovetails.
The front vise with a wooden jaw shown here, like that of most benches, is constructed using metal hardware that makes it an integral part of the bench. However, an all-metal vise with a convenient quick release feature can easily be attached to almost any bench. Note that the front vise is placed on the left side of the bench for right-handed woodworkers.
A single-screw front vise is prone to racking when a work piece occupies only one side of the jaw. This is remedied by inserting a spacer at the opposite end of the vise, as in the photo above. Another solution is a twin-screw vise. These provide outstanding clamping width while the balanced grip of two large screws eliminates any racking of the jaw.
A very long or wide board and large subassemblies such as doors create special holding requirements. While the left end of a long board is held by the front vise, the right end is supported by a device called a “deadman.” This is a vertical rack near the right end of bench (some versions slide into position) with holes that hold a peg at the correct height to support the board.
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The version shown above, which I developed and published in 2007, employs a toggle clamp that slides in a T-track. I also installed T-track on the front edge of my bench top. A toggle clamp moves on a small sled into position in this track where it can grip the end of a medium length board, as seen below. This allows wide boards to extend below the level of the vise screw and thus be held at a comfortable working height.
Holding wood to work on its faces
For planing or sanding its surface, a board must be gripped at its ends or sides and supported on a flat bench top. The versatile tail vise and bench dog system handles this. One dog is inserted in a hole in the bench top and another in a hole in the vise. They are adjusted below the surface of the work piece where they grip as the vise is tightened.
Similar to the front vise, the tail vise shown here is fully integrated into the bench, but a narrow metal vise, easily installed at the side of the bench, can perform a similar function, though with some loss of versatility. There are other good systems, notably the wagon vise, that use a travelling dog within the bench top itself. I would, however, caution against wide single screw vises at the end of the bench used as part of the dog system. These are subject to considerable racking.
Like most woodworkers, I’ve strategically placed additional holes in the bench top that have several uses. They can accommodate additional dogs to provide lateral restriction of wide work pieces. They also can hold simple stops, like in the setup shown below, that allow a board to be planed without the use of any vise.
The holes also are used for holdfasts. These nifty tools hold work tightly down on the bench top for tasks such as chopping joinery.
Putting it together
Good brands of workbenches include Lie-Nielsen, Hoffman and Hammer, and Ulmia. I usually recommend getting the largest bench you can afford and fit in your shop but good work can be done on a modestly sized high quality bench.
If you are considering building a bench, plans and books on the subject abound. The most daunting job would be installing traditional vises. All-metal vises are a simpler option, as mentioned above. Then too, building a heavy bench top may be difficult without a decent bench to work on but fine quality pre-made tops are available. I suggest saving the trouble of including elaborate storage cabinets in a bench. Tool storage is not a prime function of a workbench.
Ultimately, the specific capabilities of your workbench must match the type of woodworking you do but the information here is a useful general guide that will hopefully get you started in woodworking.