Chris Schwarz's Blog

A Few Rules for Building a Workbench

As I built this an English-style workbench (the finish goes on tomorrow), I also developed a list of a dozen or so rules for building workbenches that really work. Allow me to share with you three of the rules that are critical.

Rule No. 1: Always overbuild your workbench. There is a saying in boatbuilding: If it looks fair, it is fair. For workbenches, here’s my 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 of 8-year-old boys.

Rule No. 2: Always overbuild your workbench. Use the best joinery that you can. These are times to whip out the through-tenon, the dovetail, whatever you got.

Rule No. 3: You must remain married as you overbuild your workbench. Every project is a strain on my everyday life (my job, plus my freelance work, teaching, plus building on the side). And whenever I build a workbench, I feel soreness in my joints and sorry for my family. If something isn’t quite right on a project, I’ll tear it out and start again. A bench has got to be perfect , like building a highboy, but in a different way.

The leg vise was the most recent handful of sand in my Speedo. Made using 1-1/4″-thick maple, the jaw was a serious piece of woodland ordinance. But when I put it into service, I had some small misgivings. It would clamp like a bulldog, but the jaw would flex more than the other white ash leg vises I’ve built. The maple didn’t crack, creak or show evidence of failure. But whenever I ask myself a question about a project, the act of asking it provides the answer. I had to remake the leg vise to be happy.

So I headed out to the lumber supplier. They wanted $150 for an 8/4 maple board that was 6″ wide and 8′ long. That’s too rich for my blood after Christmas. So I paid a visit to my personal lumber supplier (this feels a lot like drug dealing, not that I know anything about buying narcotics). He has 8/4 overthick white ash. He wants $100 total for eight kiln-dried boards that are 8″ to 13″ wide and 7′ long.

Sold.

I remake the vise jaw. I remake the parallel guide out of figured oak (which is as dense as petrified wood). The grain blows out when I poke it with holes. (To the firewood pile with you.) Two more parallel guides later, I have one that makes me happy.

On Saturday I install the new vise jaw and add leather facings to the jaw and bench , these leather liners are actually small suede scraps made by Tandy leather and sold by Michael’s craft store. I highly recommend adding the leather. It makes a big difference.

I built the shelf, and added a 3/16″ bead to the shelf’s tongue-and-groove joints using my Clark & Williams beading plane. It’s one of my favorite tools of all time. (Thanks Larry Williams and Don McConnell.) Then some inevitable clean-up. Then I had to scoot home to make dinner for a hungry family. I was expecting some dark looks because of my continued absence. But they were happy to see me. I think that’s because the bench is just about done.

– Christopher Schwarz

11 thoughts on “A Few Rules for Building a Workbench

  1. Christopher Schwarz

    Eric,

    I’m sure that the apron will move, though softwoods are surprisingly stable once they have reached equilibrium. I designed the guts of the bench so that the movement will be driven to the bottom of the apron.

    The apron is glued and screwed to the leg assemblies from the inside. The clearance hole at the top is straight. The clearance holes at the bottom are oblong. There is glue at the top of the apron and little at the bottom.

    It *should* work.

    Chris

  2. Eric Hartunian

    Chris,
    I was wondering how you control, or allow for seasonal wood movement on the front apron of your English bench. It appears that the apron rests on a shelf cut out of the face of the two front legs, and then the top rests on the edge of the apron’s top surface. Does seasonal expansion of the wide apron cause the bench top to lift up? Thanks for keeping this blog going, I love the pics,
    Eric

  3. Wendell Wilkerson

    Chris,

    I’d be interested in a comparison as well. I was debating between a Roubo style bench and English style bench. From a strictly aesthetics point of view, I would choose the Roubo bench.

    The drawings I have of the workbenches at Williamsburg (which I guess are English style also) use a twin screw face vise. Any particular reason for choosing a leg vise or a twin screw?

    Wendell

  4. Christopher Schwarz

    Chris,

    Not much to report just yet. Right now we have to get the April issue of Popular Woodworking out the door. Then I’ll get busy. I have some shelving units to build that will be a nice milk run.

    Chris

  5. Eric Paisley

    "The leg vise was the most recent handful of sand in my Speedo."

    Wow. I’m not sure I saw that one coming. Did you pick up that imagery whilst in Germany? They seem enamored with the Speedo.

    As you were jealous of my Bronze 4 1/2 L&N Ann. smoother, I am of your Clark and Williams beader. That’s a sweet looking plane.

    Keep up the great work Chris!

  6. Christopher Schwarz

    Mark,

    Thanks all around. I take all the photos for the blog. (We’re real home-grown here at the magazine.)

    And I was a camera and darkroom enthusiast as a kid. My first job was as a darkroom tech for T.P. Davis Studios. The smell of stop bath still makes me swoon a bit.

    Kind regards,

    Chris

  7. Mark Hineline

    Terrific blog, Chris — good writing, interesting projects.

    Who is responsible for the photographs? These are the finest woodworking-as-subject photographs I’ve ever seen!

  8. Christopher Schwarz

    Rusty,

    Well, I almost mentioned something at the end of that entry, but I was afraid my spouse might read it. Here’s the deal: When I brought that huge load of ash into the shop, my first thought was, "What an excellent deal; now I can re-do the vise."

    My second thought was: "Man, there is just enough ash here to make a modern English workbench, a la Robert Wearing and Charles Hayward.

    Dangerous thoughts, those.

    Chris

  9. Rusty Miller

    Chris,
    I so enjoy reading your blog. You are a normal man with the same everyday life things that we all go through. I look forward to each new addition to the blog. Keep up the good work.
    Maybe you can build another bench in your spare time!

    Rusty

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