Workbenches: Rule 5 of 10

This English-style workbench (shown in Peter Nicholson’s “Mechanic’s Companion” (1831)) is uncommon today, but it is still a sound bench because it allows you to perform all of the critical workbench operations with relative ease. Benches are a triumph of function over form.

During the last 10 years, I’ve built a number of classic bench forms, and I’ve worked on craftsman-made and commercial benches of different stripes. I’ve been stunned by how awful some workbenches can be at some tasks, and I’ve also seen brilliantly realized designs.

And now, after all this work, I’ve concluded that it doesn’t matter what sort of bench you have as long as it performs a set of core functions with ease. For the June issue of Popular Woodworking (on newsstands during the first week of May) I’ve boiled down these core functions into 10 rules for building (or buying) a workbench. Below, you’ll find Rule No. 5

Rule No. 5: The Overall Dimensions of Your Bench Are Critical
Your bench design cannot be too heavy or too long. But its top can easily be too wide or too tall. I think your benchtop should be as long as possible. Find the wall where your workbench will go (hint: Pick the wall that has a window). Measure that space. Subtract four feet from that measurement and that’s a good length for the top. Note: The benchtop must be at least 5′ long unless you build only small-scale items. Furniture-sized parts typically range up to 48″ long and you want to support these fully with a little room to spare.

I’ve made tops that are 8′ long. My next bench will be a 10-footer, the maximum that will fit in my shop. It is difficult to make or imagine a workbench that is too long. The same goes for thickness. It is the thickness that allows the top to be that long. If you make the top really thick (4″ or more), then it will offer unerring support and allow you to build your bench without any support system beneath. The top can perch on the legs and will not sag under its own weight.


This early 20th-century airplane factory had the right idea when it came to workbench length. With a long bench, you can work on one end and assemble at the other , no need for an assembly bench. Thus, a big bench actually saves floorspace.

The width is a different matter. You can have a bench that is too wide for a one-person shop. I’ve worked on benches that are 36″ wide and they have downsides. For starters, if you park them against the wall you’ll have to stretch to reach the tools hanging on the wall.  If you assemble projects on your bench, you will find yourself dancing around it a lot more than you should.

But there’s more. Cabinetwork is sized in standard chunks. These sizes come from the human body; they aren’t arbitrary. A kitchen’s base cabinet is generally 24″ deep and 34-1/2″ high. This is important for a couple reasons. First: It means you don’t really need a bench that’s much more than 24″ deep to build cabinets. With that 24″ depth, you actually get some advantages, including the fact that you can clamp the cabinet to your bench from as many as three sides of your bench. That’s dang handy. A deep bench allows you to clamp your cabinets to the bench on only two sides (with a couple exceptions). Here’s the other thing to keep in mind: Kitchen cabinets are themselves a highly studied work surface. There’s a good reason that kitchen cabinets are 24″ deep. And it’s the same reason you don’t want your workbench much deeper either.

Now I’m not going to argue with you if you build really big stuff or have a bench that you share with another woodworker facing you; you might need more depth. But if you are like the rest of us, a 24″-deep bench is a powerful and right-sized tool.

On the issue of workbench height: Many bench builders worry about it and there are a wide variety of rules and advice. The bottom line is the bench must fit you and your work. And in the end, there are no hard-and-fast rules. I wish there were. Some people like low benches; some like them high.

So consider the following as a good place to start. After taking in my crackpot theories, your next stop should be a friend’s house or a woodworking supply store to use their benches and get a feel for what is right (it could be as simple as having a bad back that requires you to have a high bench, or a love for wooden handplanes that dictates a low bench).

Here is my experience with bench height: I started with a bench that was 36″ high, which seemed right for someone who is 6′ 3-5/8″ tall. And for machine woodworking I was right. The high bench brought the work close to my eyes. I loved it. And then my passion for handwork reared its ugly head.

If you get into hand tools, a high bench becomes less attractive. I started with a jack plane and a few smoothing planes. They worked OK with a high bench, but I became fatigued quickly.

After reading the screed on bench heights, I lowered the height of my 36″ bench. It seemed radical, but one day I got the nerve up and sawed 2″ off the legs. Those two inches changed my attitude toward planing.

The 34″-bench height allowed me to  use my long leg muscles to propel the plane forward instead of my arms.

Now, before you build your next bench at 34″ high, stop for a minute. That might not be right for you. Do you use wooden stock planes? If so, you need to consider that the wooden body planes can hold your arms about 3″ to 4″ higher off the workbench than a metal plane can. As a result, a wooden plane user’s workbench should be lower.

This is as good reason as ever to get to know someone who has a good shop you can visit and discuss your ideas with. It is better not to make this decision on paper alone.

But there are other factors you must consider when settling on the bench’s height. How tall are you? If you are over 6′ tall, you should scale your bench a bit higher. Start high and cut it down if it’s too high. And prop it up on some blocks of wood if it’s too low. Experiment. It’s not a highboy; it’s a workbench.

Here are other things to consider: Do you work with machinery? If so, a bench that’s 34″ from the floor , or a bit lower , can be good. The top of a table saw is typically 34″ from the floor, so a workbench could be (at most) a great outfeed table or (at least) not in the way of your crosscutting and ripping.

Of course, everyone wants a ballpark idea for where to start. So here it is: Stand up straight and drop your arms against your sides in a relaxed manner. Measure from the floor to the place where your pinky joins your hand. That has been the sweet spot for me.

– Christopher Schwarz

2 thoughts on “Workbenches: Rule 5 of 10

  1. Christopher Schwarz

    Jason,

    Workbench woods are controversial with some. I contend that you can dispense with the wisdom that only steamed European beech is acceptable. I say you can use any wood that is:

    1. Stiff
    2. Heavy
    3. Readily available in your area
    4. Inexpensive
    5. Relatively easy to work
    6. Dry

    Depending on where you live, that could be maple, ash, birch, white oak, Southern yellow pine, even fir.

    The reason beech was the wood of choice for European benches was it was stiff, heavy, inexpensive and easily found in Europe. There’s no magic to that species.

    I hope this helps.

    Chris

  2. Jason Parrish

    Thank you for the insights on sizing a workbench, especially the ergonomics when using hand tools. I’m 6′ 8" tall and am designing a bench I can detach the legs from, to store away, as I don’t have dedicated shop space and use mostly hand tools. Do you have suggested materials? I’m not too worried about weight, as I can lift quite a bit, but still want to make something that lasts.

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