After studying the topic of workbenches for years, it’s clear that – like automobiles – they’ve gotten much more complex since the heyday of the 18th century cabinetmaker. The vises do amazing tricks, cabinets below the top store an entire arsenal of tools, and there are accessories and clamps that allow you to hold any piece of wood in any orientation.
But that doesn’t mean that workbenches have gotten better.
As benches have become complex, some designs have discarded simple features that early woodworkers thought were essential. The tops became shorter and wider. This increased width makes it more difficult to clamp some work to the top and prevents you from working on long pieces (early workbenches could be up to 12′ long!). Aprons were added below the benchtop so you could use a thinner top. This apron gets in the way of some clamping operations.
The top was extended out over the legs, preventing you from clamping long boards, panels or doors securely to the front of the bench.
The handy storage cabinets below can interfere with basic clamping and jigging. Some vises, while more versatile, were made entirely of iron, which can damage your tools.
Among the myriad modern accessories, some have proven to be useful advancements while others are merely more expensive (but interesting) solutions to clamping problems that were once fixed by the humble and boring holdfast. The height of the bench was increased to get the work closer to your face, but this made some hand and power operations inefficient or unnecessarily tiring.
When we designed a workbench for Woodworking Magazine, it was on the principle that it should be only as complex as necessary, and no more. It had to hold our work for a wide variety of hand and power tool operations. And it had to be inexpensive, easy to build and easy to modify.
As luck would have it, that bench already exists. It was drawn by Andre Jacob Roubo in his landmark book “L’art du menuisier” (1769-1775) (Originals of this four-volume set are expensive. You can buy a reprint here: http://www.archambault.ca). So we gathered up all our old books and began sketching out the cover project for the September 2005 issue. Here’s what we’re thinking today: $32 in hardware, dimensional pine and traditional joints.
– Christopher Schwarz