Year of the Workbench: Old Designs Worth Reviving

When it comes to finding better ways of working wood, it usually helps to look at the newest technology , and the oldest.

Many of the challenges we face in our woodworking have been solved before by woodworkers who are long gone. And while a degree of that wisdom is buried with them, some of it was written down. That’s why I delve into old books on woodworking, carpentry and joinery (Google Books has been a boon) to immerse myself in a time when working with wood was a common profession.

What I’ve learned is surprisingly useful in a modern shop , it’s not just hand-tool wisdom. There are layout, joinery and case-construction tricks there that haven’t been published 20 times in every darn woodworking magazine.

Recently, I’ve become enamored with a workbench design from the August 1882 edition of “Carpentry and Building” magazine, which was dug up for me by Gary Roberts, an expert in woodworking ephemera.

The dominant style of workbench design these days is the Continental style, which is what you see for sale in the catalog and woodworking stores. But the world of workbenches used to be more diverse. And the old styles of workbenches were better at holding your wood so you could cut it and shape it.

This design was submitted to the magazine by “W.A.Y” of Pierce’s Landing, Penn. The bench designer said he had been using it for three years and it had given “entire satisfaction.” After poring over the details of the bench, I can see why.

The drawing shown in the magazine isn’t perfect , I think that some of the angles are a bit off. But the text and the illustration together will give you a pretty good idea about how the bench works. Here are the construction details:

The Top: It’s 4″ thick, 18″ wide (plus a 9″-wide tool well) and 10′ 3″-long. The top is made of alternating strips of walnut and ash, glued and nailed together. The height of the benchtop is 33″ from the floor. The benchdogs are 1-1/2″ in from the front edge of the benchtop and are 3″ apart.

The Legs: These are tricky; all four are tenoned into the top. The leg behind the leg vise is 4″ x 5″. It is plumb to the front of the benchtop but it is angled in as shown. The three other legs are 3″ x 5″ material. The rear leg behind the leg vise is angled in two directions (like a Windsor chair leg). The front leg by the tail vise is plumb and square , straight up and down. The rear leg behind the tail vise is angled only in one direction.

Why are the rear legs angled in? Many English-influenced benches I’ve seen do this. It allows them to be tenoned into the benchtop and yet be flush with the back of the tool well. This allows the bench to sit tightly against a wall and (according to some sources) resist racking forces. I think it’s probably more complicated than it has to be.

But what this bench does that few modern benches can claim to do, is to make it easy to work on the ends, edges and faces of boards, no matter what tool (power or hand) you are holding. Look it over and let us know what you think. This bench offends most modern sensibilities, but I think it’s a winner.

– Christopher Schwarz

9 thoughts on “Year of the Workbench: Old Designs Worth Reviving

  1. Bill Zinke

    If the link above doesn’t work, start with this one:

    Then, in the upper lefthand corner, click on "NEW YANKEES AT WORK". On the next page, click on the blue arrow to find the STATE: Texas. Then Go down to either "Bill Trudy" or "Bill ZINKE". There are two different pictures to choose from.

    Bill

  2. Bill Zinke

    Thank you fellows, for all your posted and email requests about the Hybrid Workbench.

    I’m hoping the combination mobile workbench, assembly table, and storage design would be published in a national magazine because of all the needs it addresses and that it can be scaled to fit most any workshop size.

    Until then, here’s a link to "The New Yankee Workshop" where Norm and his staff have it posted on their website.

    Bill

  3. Craig Smith Lapeer, Michigan

    I think it would be a super Idea for you to build one of these. Most importan we could find out if it works as good as it sounds it would. Maybe reduce the length a bit so it could be build with common wood sizes.

    After you guys use it for a while, you could "improve" it to come up with a hybrid that would give us some plans for the world’s best bench.

    Of all the woodworking projects I’ve done, for more then 30 years I have never "got around to" building a workbenck. Sure, I have built a lot of tables to work on, but that one big project of a REAL work bench has never been tackled.

    Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to create the best woorkbench- ever- and provide us with demintioned plans and cut lists so we can build it in a weekend!

    Keep up the great work CS.

    FOM
    (Fat Old Man)

  4. Michael J. Trangaris

    I thought I might chip in here since I got a little bit of an axe to grind.LOL It amazes me that more crafts people are not aware of the abundant resources available. The are numerous books dedicated to the workbench; its history, its design and the pros and cons of each design. The above bench is reminescent of a Shaker Bench minus the cabinets and plus a tool tray. ( Shakers would have thought the tool tray messy and annoying)
    I also think we often miss the opportunity for good work. The old craftsmen would not have used really good wood for a bench. They would have used the leftovers and the poorer quality wood. With that in mind an old oak, cherry, walnut or whatever could provide plenty of wood for a good bench. Vises can be made instead of purchased and can often funtion better than the purchased vises ( less damage to the wood material).After all, are we woodworkers or not. Just a couple of thoughts. So the next time you cut that tree think "bench"; NOT FIREWOOD

  5. Bill Owens

    If I’m understanding the leg arrangement, the pairs of legs on both ends are actually the same. If they were removed from the bench and laid flat on the floor they would be in one plane, with the front leg square to the cross-brace, and the rear leg angled in at the top. But when attached to the top, the pair on the left end leans towards the center of the bench (when viewed from the front), and the pair on the right stands straight. The only difference is that the left-hand pair would need to be slightly longer so the bottoms could be trimmed to let them sit flat on the floor. Is that right?

    Bill.

  6. Bill Zinke

    Christopher,

    I enjoyed the way you presented "history" as a teacher for those of us in the 21st Century.

    In all the reading and research I’ve done while building my workbench, I found that three things seem most important and yet most common of European and Early American workbenches. First: It is Dense, has heavy weight, but includes some tool and material storage. Second: It Has at least one vise with wooden jaws. Third, it has a tool tray.

    I built my workbench using what I call a "Hybrid Design" of the three important areas to consider. You have my email address; if you would like to see my "T-shaped" hybrid workbench, let me know and I would be happy to send you a series of pictures showing the sequence of its construction.

    Bill in Texas

  7. Chuck

    You guys should build this bench in the pages of your magazine. I’d love to see an alternative to the benches I’ve seen over and over the last few years.

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