Chris Schwarz's Blog

The Mistakes of First-time Bench-builders

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If you’re about to embark on building your first workbench, you might want to read this blog entry. I expect you to discard every piece of advice in it (most bench-builders do) and build the crazy contraption you’ve planned out in your head.

Here, in my opinion, are the most common missteps woodworkers make when they build their first workbench.

1. Too many workholding devices
I’ve built workbenches with more than 100 students. In every class, there’s one guy who wants to put a vise on every corner of the bench. Not because it’s a partner’s bench for two people. Just because he wants it that way. While I support your freedom to choose, I also don’t want to spend two weeks installing complex tail-vise hardware on your bench when we could be building furniture instead.

At most (most!) you need a face vise and a tail vise. My current bench has only a face vise. I never, ever wish for a patternmaker’s vise on that back corner with a vacuum-actuated sliding leg vise on the deadman. Those discussions just wear me out.

2. Too many dog/holdfast holes
If you have a tail vise, you need a row of closely spaced dog holes up near the front of your benchtop. If you use holdfasts, you need about eight holdfast holes (I’ve written about this topic more here). Many first-time bench-builders plan an array of dog/holdfast holes that would make the top look more like a colander or monster pegboard.

Having lots of holes doesn’t really weaken the bench, but they are a lot of work to execute, and you don’t need them unless you have some special operation in mind. Start with the minimum; add more as you need them.

3. Over-agonizing the species used
Any wood (even plywood) can be used to make a bench. The material should be cheap, easy to get, heavy (if possible), dry-ish and heavy (if possible). After a few years of use, your bench will look like every other used bench – beat up, broke in and awesome.

4. Over-agonizing the height of the bench
Stop it. Really. I mean it. Pick a height between your thigh and waist that seems right. You’ll adapt. Don’t worry about your back. You’ll adapt. If you are really uncertain, make it a little taller and then cut down the legs. After a decade or so, your work habits will put a magic number in your head. You’ll have built enough furniture that you will know your number. Until then, pick a number.

5. Making the bench do crazy tricks or store an arsenal of tools
Your bench is not a pneumatic lift for holding sheet goods. It is not an extension for your jointer table. It is not a carver’s bench that is adjustable in the X,Y and Z axis. It does not have a second benchtop embedded in the center that rises up using scissor lifts to create a second higher benchtop. It is not an air-hockey table.

It is a single work surface that should be flat and solid.

And if your tool-storage cabinet below the benchtop interferes with holding your work….

6. Building the bench too deep
There are many reasons that workbenches aren’t 48” deep. The workbench is a lot less useful if it’s that deep. Here’s a hint, the benchtop should be less deep than your casework to make it easier to work on the casework.

7. Choosing the wrong tools to build the bench you designed
If you are going to laminate a benchtop out of 3/4”-thick material, you should probably own a powered jointer and planer. Doing it by hand is masochistic. If you have a giant slab for a top, you’re silly if you rip it into 6” strips to get them over your powered jointer. Get a jack plane.

Different designs suit different tool sets.

8. Worrying too much about wood movement and benchtop flatness
Wood moves, but obsessing about it while designing the bench wastes more energy than dealing with it after the bench is built. Your bench will go out of flat. When it becomes a problem, you can fix it in less than 45 minutes of work.

And, in general, your bench only has to be super-flat along the front 12” of the length of the benchtop. After five or 10 years, your bench will hardly move at all.

9. Trying to re-invent the wheel with a new bench design
Woodworkers love to tinker. And we get ideas in our head that we just can’t forget about until we build them. That’s OK. We’ve all done it. But ask yourself this: Do I want a good bench, or do I want to try to outsmart woodworkers from the last 3,000 years? Either answer is fine, by the way.

10. They make it too nice
Even the nicest bench I’ve made is more homely than the ugly stuff I made when I was right out of college. When I make a workbench, I focus on making the vises move sweetly, the benchtop flat and the joinery stout as heck. Tear-out doesn’t bother me. Nor does a harmless check or knot.

If you think I’m saying you should do a crappy job, you’re not reading me right. Focus your energy on what’s important with a bench. The other stuff is secondary.

If it’s worth anything, I have made every one of the mistakes listed above.

— Christopher Schwarz

Would you like a LOT MORE of my workbench advice to ignore? ShopWoodworking carries a lot of my books and DVDs on workbenches. Click here to see some of the best-sellers.

31 thoughts on “The Mistakes of First-time Bench-builders

  1. rickangers

    I understand this question is asked all the time, so I’ll rephrase it; Is there a limit as to how hard a wood to use for a workbench? I’ve cut some trees for friend, mostly Blacklocust and Osage
    Orange, here in Ks., Ok, its called Hedgewood, but it is VERY hard and heavy, ie. I have a 12″ long limb that cut down to 3×3 and it weighs an easy 5lbs if not 10lbs but dulled my carbon tipped saw blade. Would that be a bit overboard? Or would I be better off using the not quiet as hard Blacklocust?

  2. Brian

    Chris – 2 quick questions. (I just discovered this blog today, and its been somewhat of a revelation, as I had only been familiar with your books!)

    1. In this post, you kindly remind us not to make it too deep or worry too much about the height. I presume you still believe a bench cannot be too long or too heavy? I’m with you — just asking if that’s actually still your opinion, since the bench above appears to be yet another six footer. (If longer is better, why don’t you build an 8 or 10′ for your home shop?) TYIA – remember, I’ve bought all my lumber to start my new bench, but I haven’t milled anything yet, so you’re really helping in an immediate way here!

    2. What bench is in the picture above? Is that the one of your prior Ruobo-inspired, or another modification you’ve tried since the second book was published? The absence of a tail vice and beefier leg vise chop look unfamiliar to me.

    1. Megan Fitzpatrick

      Brian, that’s his “French Oak Workbench” — built almost exactly like the one in Roubo’s Plate 11. He wrote a lot about it on his Lost Art Press blog. The first entry is here:
      http://blog.lostartpress.com/2013/07/15/french-oak-roubo-project-day-1/

      And if you type “French workbench” into the search field on that blog, you can read all about it, start to finish.

      I don’t recall the exact length, but I think it’s longer than 6’…but sized to fit across his shop. Heavy as all get out.

      1. Brian

        Thanks Megan! Unrelatedly, my wife’s a big fan of the “deadwoman” you created. As professors, we both try to write “her”stories into our histories, and we need more craftswomen like you who do the same. Thanks again!

  3. BrianC

    Thanks Chris! I found this page while looking for a link to your e-mail address. I recently finished your erudite volumes on workbench design, and am about to embark on my own bench inspired by your take on the Holtzapffel design. As my vices and planer arrive, I’ve been agonizing over whether to use SYP or rough maple for the top. I don’t have a big budget, so all-maple is not an option. But after reading your ten tips here, I’ll stop agonizing — all SYP it is! This is, after all, my first of what I hope are at least several handmade benches. Your scholarship and craftsmanship are truly inspiring.

  4. metalworkingdude

    I am *so* building a bench with a pneumatic hence-on-bench that is recessed into the surface. I’ll incorporate that feature into a split-top Roubo that has two halves that have screw adjusters like a giant Workmate. And maybe add in a router setup that can double as a bench dog.

    Or not. I followed your advice and built a bench out of what was available cheaply and locally (reclaimed doug fir 6×9 timbers). It’s rock solid, flat and dead useful, and I haven’t regretted it ever.

    http://mcglynnonmaking.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/img_1021.jpg

    1. smoker54

      Hi Metalworkingdude, WOW, what a great bench! I just got all my power tools read to use and am getting ready to build my first bench myself. I don’t think I am anywhere near talented to build anything like you built though. I do want to have a “thick, heavy and stable” bench though. I just do not know were to start. So, wish me luck!

  5. James3one

    I like the idea of re-inventing the wheel. I choose to believe that while others may have considered these improvements, they just never got around to trying them out. Brain gets bored with status quo. So, I try to keep Brain happy with the occasional foray into uncharted territory. And I must say Brain has had some really good results. Thanks, in part, to you, and the Roy. You never know where a good idea might come from so I’ll check in once in a while. That and make sure to build it in Sketchup first.

    Good list, by the way. I would suggest a qualifying statement: Start simple, you can always add more later.

  6. jlwoggy

    Chris I blame you for all these altars that are being built today and now you thinks we over thinks ‘em–huh. You whipped the masses into a frenzy— now Woodworkers are trying to out pretty each other–out wood species each other –out Rube Goldberg each other. I made 2 benches in 30 years neither had a through dovetail but many were made on them and I have no idea but I would bet a dollar that neither weighed 280 pounds but they both had tons of wood on them. If you want the bench as a destination god bless but it was intended as a mean. Thats my rant I could be wrong

  7. amoscalie

    You are absolutely right on your advise. When I was agonizing over how to build a workbench my good friend turned me on to your book on workbenches. I was planning on having an overhang until I read your advise about building a workbench and not a table. So the entire front and rear surfaces; top, legs and bottom shelf are all in the same plane to clamp my work to. The addition of a sliding dead man was also something that I would have never thought of on my own. Thanks again for your advise.

  8. deric

    I made my version of a Roubo bench over 20 years ago. According to the latest bench rules it is too tall, too wide, has too many vises (I use both sides of my bench and that might be a no no, not sure ), and has far too many holes. Did I mention that I have a double row of dog holes with a user made dual row wagon vise? I had no idea they were called a wagon vise back then. Being a tool maker and tinkerer at heart I just made a vise that I thought at the time was an original idea for the main side. Couple of dowels in a piece of wood straddling the two rows and I have a bench stop, or a different variation gives me a 3 point clamping system. If that isn’t bad enough it also has drawers on the bottom to store seldom used tools and supplies. Maybe if it had taken me a few weeks to drill all those holes and mount a few vises I would only have one vise and 8 holes too. I dunno

    Even with all of those faults my only regret is that it is too ugly. I didn’t take the time to make it more visually attractive as I was eager to get right into making beautiful furniture instead. Twenty years later the furniture is still beautiful (or not) but I go out to the shop and look at a drab uninspiring workplace. Yeah, nothing wrong with having a visually inspiring workplace in my opinion. All that shop furniture I slapped together years ago with no concern about aesthetics is getting replaced bit by bit. Why should my shop be downright ugly when it is one of my favorite places in the world to spend my time? I see no reason for that, but that’s just my opinion and as we all know everyone has their own one of those… Sadly, no one pays nor reveres me when I offer mine. bummer, I could be a rich egotistical maniac if they did coz I sure offer it enough. ;)

    Ok, I’ve had my morning coffee and now it’s about time to get out to the shop to see what I can do to make that bench a little more pleasing to my eye. I like that Craftsman flair idea. That was my intent at the time I built it, too bad I got lazy and rushed the job. It’s not like I was going to make hundreds of benches for someone else and would never see it again. I should have taken the time to make it the way I wanted it to look. This could keep me entertained for awhile. I see major surgery in the forecast! Gotta plan it all out just right.

    Happy bench building folks. I hope you make it your own and not worry too much about what someone else thinks it should be. Use the rules as a guideline, they have validity, but make it your own in the end. If the rules fit you that’s great, if they don’t quite fit you then make it to fit yourself. It’s you using it, not some guy making a nice living off of telling you how he thinks you should do it. One size does not fit all. Never has, never will.

  9. Thomas

    So Chris, are you saying don’t use an Emmert for an end vise? I started to build a Roubo and found a nice Emmert pretty cheap. I was thinking that with two built in dogs, it would have extra directional stability for clamping on top of the bench. Thanks for all of your overflow of knowledge.

  10. Matt_Rob

    I thought my first wood working bench was great.A heavy c channel metal frame with a recycled maple floor top with a guick release 7 in vice on the side.It is about 40in by 54in and can hold a hemi no problem. I waxed the top till it was nice and resistant to whatever was dripped on it. Only problem is I was thinking like a gear head not a wood worked.Work piece would slide and no decent clamping on the sides. I figured if I wanted to get somewhat serious about this woodworking thing I needed a real bench not a table with a vice. I read the books and with so many choices I chose a Roubo split top from Benchcrafted it would let me use it for both power and hand tools. I just finished it a week ago and it is nice not to have to chase my work across the bench. I couldn’t find a clear answer for a top coat for the bench I chose to leave the soft maple nude. So I guess I have a bench tbat has a lack of modesty.

  11. sawdustdave

    I’m building my second bench. I built the first years ago with wood from old machinery pallets – mostly oak and maple. Mortised the legs into the base, and pegged ‘em with 1″ dowels. Of course, the legs warped a bit, but that made everything tighter and stronger. The top is 2″ thick Ash, one board cut in half and joined side to side. Wrapped a maple apron around the top, and I think I screwed the top from underneath to the leg braces. Solid. Over time, built a cabinet under for 3 drawers and a small cabinet door. Works for me.

    The new bench will be more spare, from Menards Doug Fir 4×4’s for legs and top. Leg vise will be added, and some bench dog holes for my holdfasts. And lower than the old one. I’ve learned that planing requires, for me, a lower bench. But I’ll be keeping the old bench. It’s been a good friend for almost 20 years, and has served me well.

    The new one is being built because someone who shall remain nameless got me into using mostly hand tools for my work. Wanted a bench dedicated to that process. So, along with the Dutch tool chest that nameless person suggested, I’ll spend more time quietly in the shop and the tablesaw will run less…

  12. BLZeebub

    My bench is MY BENCH. In other words, it’s a thing of evolutionary beauty. I built the top 10 years before deciding on and designing the base. I spared no absurdity. It is supremely stout and the much maligned drawers are accessible from either side. The larger drawers have dust lids and can be extended to provide support for large workpieces or as a step for climbing on top of the bench. The top alone weighs more than most Roubos. So NYAH! Did I mention that I designed it to fit in with the Arts & Crafts vernacular? Who said you can’t build your bench to be furniture? Beautiful as well as useful shop furniture? Just sayin…

  13. deric

    Does this mean we can finally put to rest the infamous 2014 War of 38″? Or are there more pounds of flesh to pay and verbal jabs to be flung back and forth?

  14. jpoirier

    I was given a slab of granett. It 1.5″ thick 27″ wide and 8′ long. I have the tool to make dog holes and hold downs and to mount vises. Now I’m not a wood worker for making big things I’m a carver. What do you think of making a top of granett? At least I don’t think the bench will walk on me. :-)

    Jerry

  15. Sawduster

    Thanks! Great information. As an advanced novice worker, I finally decided to build my first bench a couple years ago. After reading several of your blogs knowing full well mortised dove tale leg joinery is yet beyond my capability, I elected to build Robert Lang’s “21st Century Workbench”. I also chose his VERITAS Twin Screw Vise in the face vise position. Used an old Craftsman face vise in the tail vise position. Constructed of laminated 9/4 x 31/2″ Pecan and 60″ long because of my small crowed shop. Super happy to this point. As I mature in woodworking I may live to construct one of a different choice at a latter date, but I’m 73 so we’ll see. Thanks again for the advise.

  16. apbeelen

    Great advice. May I add #11?…if you’re left handed (like me), build a left handed bench. It sounds obvious, but when I made my bench, I had looked at all the pictures in my books, laid out plans for a nice, traditional bench, built it, then realized my front vise should have been on the other end (I have no tail vise). I plane from left to right, and the front vise is always in the way.

    1. visualj

      Yes, make sure you do this. I grew up in the shop with my dad and his bench. I could never get things to work easily with the vise on the left. I was constantly having to jury rig some way to hold things so I could work on them.
      Then I built my bench with the vise on the right and a tail vise on the left. Everything from cutting to planing works so much simpler.

      I almost feel sorry for the pain my grandson will be going through when he gets into the shop… (hopefully)

  17. jfkriege

    You have the two workbench books, and I was looking to pick up at least one of them before starting my bench build. What is the difference between the two books, and is there one you would recommend if I am only going to pick up one of them for now?

    1. Jim McCoy

      Well, the blue one is a tad thinner than the maroon one, so it is probably a tad lighter too. So you won’t tire yourself out as much when you pick it up. (c;

      Seriously, they are both great books. If you are building a French or an English bench then the blue one is a good choice. If you want information on those plus a few other styles of benches the maroon one has more choices. Either one will provide lots of good general information on building a good solid bench so I don’t think you can go wrong with either one. I haven’t regretted buying either one and if you can afford it I recommend both because, while they share a lot of common information, they have different levels of detail on different things. If I could only have one of them I guess I would choose the maroon one because of all the extra information on vises. Hope that helps.

      Jim

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