Chris Schwarz's Blog

The Best Work; the Simplest Benches

Editor’s note: Because it’s “Workbench Week Internazionale” I decided to tie up a loose end from my book: “Workbenches: from Blah, blah blah to Yadda yadda yadda.” On page 57 I discuss Thomas Stangeland’s bench and point out how the best woodworking I’ve seen has been built on the most minimal of workbenches.

Helpful reader Tom Moore visited Stangeland’s shop recently and snapped the above photo of the bench. Below is the story that goes with that workbench.

In 2006 I taught a class in handwork at a school where Thomas Stangeland, a maestro at Greene & Greene-inspired work, was also teaching a class. Though we both strive for the same result in craftsmanship, the process we each use couldn’t be more different. He builds furniture for a living, and he enjoys it. I build furniture because I enjoy it, and I sell an occasional piece.

One evening we each gave a presentation to the students about our work. One of the pieces I showed was an image of my French workbench. I discussed its unusual workholding devices and how the bench was a bit of a Thor Heyerdahl experience.

Thomas then got up and said he wished he had a picture to show of his workbench for the last decade: a door on a couple horses. He said that a commercial shop had no time to waste on building a traditional bench. And with his power-tool approach, he just needed a flat surface and some clamps to work.

It’s hard to argue with the end result. His furniture is beautiful.

But what’s important to note here is that you can get by with the door-off-the-floor approach, but there are many commercial woodworkers who still see the utility of a traditional workbench. Chairmaker and furnituremaker Brian Boggs uses more newfangled routers and shop-made devices with aluminum extrusions than I have ever seen in a shop. And he still has two enormous traditional workbenches that see constant use.

The point here is that a good bench won’t make you a better woodworker. And a not-quite-a-bench won’t doom you to failure. But a good bench in any shop will make many power-tool operations easier and open the door to permit you to try many hand-tool operations. The bench is simply another tool. It’s the biggest wooden clamp in the shop.

As Thomas was wrapping up his part of the show he showed an interesting slide of an enormous and thick slab of an exotic wood he had been stashing for years and years in his shop.

“I just need to find the right project for it,” he said.

“Hey Thomas,” I heckled, “that slab sure would make a great benchtop.”

He laughed. Next slide, please.

– Christopher Schwarz