Rules for Workbenches

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.

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.

Rule No. 6: Benches Must Hold the Work in Three Ways
All benches should be able to grip the wood so you can easily work on the faces, the ends and the edges. Many commercial benches fail on this point.

Submit your bench to what I call the Kitchen Cabinet Door Test. Imagine a typical kitchen door that is 3/4″ thick, 15″ wide and 23″ long. How would you affix that door flat on your bench to level its joints and then sand (or plane) it flat? How would you clamp the door so you could work on the ends to trim the top rail and tops of the stiles so the door will fit its opening? And how will you secure that door on edge so you can rout its hinge mortise and plane off the saw-blade marks without the door flopping around? Does your bench pass this test? OK, now ask the same questions with a door that is 3/4″ x 15″ x 38″. And then try a board that is 3/4″ x 12″ x 6′.

How you accomplish each of these three functions is up to you and your taste and budget. To work on the faces of boards, you can use a planing stop, a grippy sanding pad, a tail vise with dogs, clamps or hold-downs.

To work on the ends of boards, you can choose a shoulder vise (especially for dovetailing), a metal quick-release vise, a leg vise or a twin-screw vise. And you can use all of these in conjunction with a clamp across your bench. The vise holds one corner of the work; the clamp holds the other corner.

Working the long edges of boards is tricky with most benches. In fact, most benches make it difficult to work the edges of long boards, doors or face frames. There are a couple ways to solve this. Older benches had the front edge of the benchtop flush with the front of the legs and stretchers so you could clamp your frames and long boards to the legs. And the older benches also would have a sliding deadman (sometimes called a board jack). It would slide back and forth and had an adjustable peg to support the work from below. Another old form of bench, an English design, had a wide front apron that came down from the top that was bored with holes for a peg to support long work.

Here’s another historical bench that shows some difficulties. The drawers will interfere with clamping things down to the bench. With no dogs or tail vise, this bench could be frustrating to work on.

Rule No. 7: Make Your Bench Friendly to Clamps
Your bench is a three-dimensional clamping surface. Anything that interferes with clamping work to your benchtop (aprons, a drawer bank, doors, supports etc.) can make some operations a challenge.

We had a phase at Popular Woodworking where we tried to design a cupholder into every project. It started innocently with a deck chair. Who doesn’t want a cool beverage at hand? Then there was the dartboard. What goes better with darts than beer? I think we came to our senses when designing a series of cupholders into a Gustav Stickley Morris chair reproduction. Do you really need a Big Gulp-sized hole in your Morris chair? I didn’t think so.

The point of this story is to illustrate a trend in workbench design that I personally find troubling. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to a common American complaint: We don’t think we have enough space in our shops to store our tools and accessories. And how do we solve this problem with our workbenches? By designing them like kitchen cabinets with a countertop work surface.

This design approach gives us lots of drawers below the benchtop, which is great for storing the things you reach for every day. It also can make your bench a pain in the hiney to use for many common operations, such as clamping things to your bench.

Filling up the space below the benchtop also prohibits you from using any type of holdfast or holddown that I’m aware of.

If you build drawers below the top, how will you clamp objects to the benchtop to work with them? Typically, the banks of drawers below the benchtop prohibit a typical F-style clamp from sneaking in there and lending a hand with the setup. So you can’t use a typical clamp to affix a router template to the bench. There are ways around these problems (a tail vise comes to mind) but the tail vise can be a challenge to install, set and use.

You can try to cheat (as I have) and install the drawer bank so there is a substantial space underneath the benchtop for holdfasts and clamps. Or you can give your bench a large overhang to allow clamping (as some Shaker-style workbenches did) but then you have to start engineering a way to hold long boards and assemblies on edge.

Place your vises so they work with your tools. Vises confuse many workbench builders. They’re bewildering if you’ve never spent much time working at a bench to develop a taste for the peccadilloes of all the idiosyncratic forms. There are a lot of weird configurations in the world, from a table with no vises to the bench with a vise on every corner.