Rules for Workbenches

When it comes to building or buying a bench, most woodworkers get wrapped up in what form it should take. Should it be a continental bench popularized by Frank Klausz? A Shaker bench like the one at the Hancock community? How about a British version like Ian Kirby’s?

Copying a well-known form is a natural tack to take. After all, when woodworkers buy or build their first workbench, they are in the early stages of learning the craft. They don’t know what sort of bench or vises they need, or why one bench looks different than another. So they pick a form that looks good to them — occasionally mixing and matching bits and pieces from different forms — and get busy.

That, I believe, is the seed of the problem with workbenches today. Many commercial workbenches are missing key functions that make work-holding easier. And many classic bench forms get built with modifications that make them frustrating in use.

What’s worse, the user might not even know that he or she is struggling. Woodworking is a solitary pursuit, and it’s rare to use someone else’s bench.

This rig serves as the assembly bench in the Popular Woodworking shop, but if you put a vise on it somewhere, it probably could serve as a workbench in a production shop. It is simple and allows great flexibility for clamping. But some basic operations with this setup would be tricky.

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. I’ve boiled down these core functions into 10 rules for building (or buying) a workbench. As long as your bench obeys these rules (or most of them), you will be able to hold almost any workpiece for any task with a minimum of fuss. This will add speed and enjoyment to your time in the shop and reduce the amount of time you fuss with setups.

This French-style workbench weighs more than 325 pounds. The top is 4″ thick. The legs are 5″ square. All this mass absorbs vibration and makes every cutting operation smoother.

Do You Even Need a Bench?
Before we get to the rules, it’s fair to say that a lot of the best commercial woodworking today is done on benches that disregard many of these rules. In production shops, it’s rare to find a traditional bench used in a traditional manner. More often, a commercial woodworker will have something akin to a clamping table, or even a door on sawhorses. And they can turn out high-quality work that will blow you away.

In 2006 I was teaching a class in hand work at a school where Thomas Stangeland, a maestro at Greene & Greene-inspired work, was also teaching a class. Though we both strive for the same result in craftsmanship, the processes we use couldn’t be more different. He builds furniture for a living, and he enjoys it. I build furniture because I enjoy it, and I sell an occasional piece.

One evening we each gave a presentation to the students about our work and I showed an image of the enormous French workbench I’d built the year before and discussed its unusual history.

Thomas then got up and said he wished he had a picture of his workbench: a door on a couple horses. He said that a commercial shop had no time to waste on building a traditional bench. And with his power-tool approach, all he needs is a flat surface.

It’s hard to argue with the end result. His furniture is beautiful.

But what’s important here is that while you can build with the door-off-the-floor approach, there are many commercial woodworkers who still see the utility of a traditional workbench. Chairmaker and furniture maker Brian Boggs uses more newfangled routers and shop-made devices with aluminum extrusions than I have ever seen. And he still has two enormous traditional workbenches that see constant use. Before Kelly Mehler opened a woodworking school, I visited his commercial shop and got a chance to inspect his vintage bench, which saw daily use.

The point is that a good bench won’t make you a better woodworker, and a not-quite-a-bench won’t doom you to failure. But a good bench will make many operations easier. It’s simply a tool: the biggest clamp in the shop.

Spindly workbenches are nothing new. This anemic example from the early 20th century is too small and lacks mass. Sadly, there are modern ones that are even worse.

Always overbuild your workbench by adding mass. There is a saying in boatbuilding: If it looks fair, it is fair. For workbenches, here’s a maxim: If it looks stout, then make it doubly so. Everything about a workbench takes punishment that is akin to a kitchen chair in a house full of 8-year-old boys.

Rule No. 1: Always Add Mass
Early Roman workbenches were built like a Windsor chair. Stout legs were tenoned into a massive top and wedged in place. Traditional French workbenches had massive tops (6″ thick), with legs that were big enough to be called tree trunks. Later workbenches relied more on engineering than mass. The classic continental-style workbench uses a trestle design and dovetails in the aprons and vises to create a bench for the ages. The 19th-century English workbench uses an early torsion-box design to create a stable place to work. And good-quality modern workbenches use threaded rods and bolts to tighten up a design that lacks mass.

Many inexpensive commercial benches are ridiculously rickety. They sway and rack under hand pressure. You can push them across your shop by performing simple operations: routing, sawing, planing. If the bench looks delicate or its components are sized like a modern dining table, I would take a closer look before committing.

A big thick top and stout legs add mass that will help your work. Heavy cabinet saws with lots of cast iron tend to run smoother. The same goes with benches. Once your bench hits about 300 pounds, it won’t move unless you want it to move.

Think big when cutting the joints for your workbench. The small tenons are 1-1/4″ thick and 2-1/2″ long. The larger tenons are 2-1/2″ thick and 2″ long.