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
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