Rules for Workbenches

Rule No. 8: There are Good Rules for Placing the Vises on Your Bench
Classic workbenches have some sort of vise at the front left corner of the bench. This is called the face vise. Why is it at the left? When we work with hand tools, especially planes, right-handers work from right to left. So having the vise at the left end of the bench is handy because you will always be planing into the vise that is gripping your work, and the work can be braced against the screws of the vise. So if you are a lefty, placing your vise on the front right corner makes sense.

So with that left corner occupied by a vise, where are you going to put the a second vise that is designed to grip boards so you can work on their faces? (The classic vise for this is a tail vise.) Well the right side of the bench is free (for right-handers) and there is no disadvantage to placing it there, so that’s where it generally goes.

Messing with this arrangement can be trouble. I’ve seen face vises on the right corner of the bench of people who are right-handed. They said they liked it better for crosscutting with a handsaw. But when and if you start handplaning, that vise will be in the way because it won’t be ideal for gripping long stock. It will be holding the tail end of the board and the plane will be trying to pull it out of the vise.

An oil-varnish blend (any brand) is an ideal finish for a workbench. It resists stains, doesn’t build up a film and is easy to apply. Two coats are all I ever use.

Rule No. 9: No Fancy Finishes
When finishing a workbench, less is more. A shiny film finish allows your work to scoot all over the bench. And a film finish will crack when struck by a hammer or dead-blow mallet. Choose a finish that is easy to apply, offers some protection and doesn’t build up a thick film. I like an oil/varnish blend (sold as Danish Oil), or just boiled linseed oil.

With your workbench against the wall, you have the wall and the mass of your bench holding things steady as you saw your workpieces. You also can keep your tools at arm’s length. And, the windows cast a useful light on your workbench.

Rule No. 10: Get a Window Seat

Try to place your bench against a wall and under a window, especially if you use hand tools. The wall braces the workbench as you are planing cross-grain and sawing. The light from the window points out the flaws in the work that your hand tools are trying to remove. (When I work with hand tools, I turn the overhead lights off. I can see much better with fewer light sources.)

For machine work, I find that placing the bench by a window helps with some operations, though not all. When power sanding, for example, the raking window light points out scratches better than overhead fluorescents.

In general, when working with power tools, I tend to pull my workbench away from the wall so I can work on all sides of it. When working with routers, you sometimes have to work with odd clamping setups so that you can rout around a template. So having access to all four sides of the bench is handy. Power tool setups thrive on overhead light – and lots of it. So being by the window is nice, but not as necessary.

How to Fix Your Current Bench
You don’t have to build or buy a new workbench if you’re frustrated with the one you have. There are ways to improve your bench so it will be more useful. Here are some strategies.

Problem No. 1: My bench is too lightweight. I chase it around the shop when working.
Add weight by building a tray below the bench and fill it with sand. Or rebuild your bench base with massive components and joints. You also can build drawers near the floor (so they don’t impede clamping things to the top). That adds weight and storage.

Problem No. 2: My bench sways and vibrates when I work, making my saw cuts and attempts at planing into a ragged mess.
Your problem is most likely in the base of the bench. Commercial benches can be too spindly for woodworking. Rebuild the base from massive components and better joints. If you can’t do that, stiffen the bench by running all-thread rod through the legs and cinching the base tight with nuts.

Problem No. 3: I want a new bench, but I’m low on funds.
Build your bench using Southern yellow pine or fir, both of which are stiff, plentiful and cheap (you can build a bench of your dreams for less than $300, easy). You will have to pick your lumber with care and let it reach equilibrium with your shop. But in the end, you’ll have a great bench.

Problem No. 4: I think I want a fancy twin-screw vise, Emmert patternmaker’s vise or tail vise on my bench. Plus something for working metal.
Before you drop serious coin on vises and put them on every corner, start with a simple face vise. Then buy a tail vise. Then decide after a year of working on the bench if you need the fancier vises. The answer might be yes. You also might forget that you ever wanted those vises.

Problem No. 5: My bench is too short in length, too wide, narrow, high or low.
If your bench is too short in length you should probably build a new top. Keep the base if you can. If it’s too wide, rip it down (removing a tool tray will help). You might need to cut the base a bit narrower as well. This is doable: Cut the stretchers on the sides shorter and then cut tenons on their ends. Cut new mortises on the legs and assemble it. If your bench is too narrow, scab on new material at the back, which will add mass as well. If your bench is too high, cut down the legs or the sled foot. If it’s too low, build a sled foot to raise it.

Problem No. 6: My bench makes it difficult to work on the long edges of boards.
First, detach the benchtop from its base and reattach it so the legs are flush with the front edge of the benchtop. If your bench has a sled foot or a trestle design, there is an easier fix. Scab on extra pieces to the legs to bring them flush with the front of the benchtop. Now build a sliding deadman or a bench slave and you’ll be in business.

Problem No. 7: My bench looks like a kitchen counter with drawers below. Clamping to the bench is a problem.
You might be stuck here. Some commercial designs allow you to remove the drawer bank (they sell them separately) and you can install it someplace else handy, such as under a table saw’s wing. If your bench is a door on top of base cabinets, consider making a new base and use that cabinet as a cabinet.

Problem No. 8: My commercial bench came with a face vise and tail vise. Both rack horribly. How do I improve them?
By throwing them in the fireplace and installing a real face vise on the front and tail vise on the end.

Problem No. 9: My workbench has a lacquer finish that looks nasty and lets the work slide everywhere.
Flatten the top of your workbench and then refinish the top with an oil/varnish blend.

You do need to be able to pull your bench away from the wall on occasion. When I am assembling cabinets, I’ll clamp them to the benchtop so I’m able to get around the bench. The same goes when I’m routing. Note how I’m harnessing the window light.

Problem No. 10: I like my bench in the middle of the room so I can work on all sides.
Perhaps you do. Try putting it under a window and against the wall and work that way for a few months. Don’t have a window? Directional compact florescent fixtures can help. Or you can save your pennies and have a window installed. I did. It was the best $1,000 I’ve ever spent on my shop.

Most workbench books begin with a grand statement about how the workbench is the most useful tool in the shop. I’m not so sure I agree with that statement as it stands. I think it’s correct to say that a well-designed, solidly built and properly outfitted bench is the most useful tool in the workshop. Anything less is only making you struggle. PWM