Every piece of lumber has three kinds of surfaces: edges, faces and ends. A good workbench should be able to hold your lumber so you can easily work on these three kinds of surfaces. Any bench that falls short of this basic requirement will hold you back as your woodworking skills advance.
It took me 30 years or so to finally come to this conclusion , 30 years of frustrating fits and starts, observation and , eventually , success. And though this maxim above sounds so obvious when written down, it eludes many woodworkers who set out to build their own benches and many manufacturers of commercial workbenches.
I’ve built more than my fair share of benches, and now I’m attempting one more. For me, these workbenches are like building a terrarium and watching how things blossom or rot based on the design. It’s one of the reasons I build workbenches out of Southern yellow pine. The expense (and therefore risk) is pretty low. Plus, if you look hard at the data on the species I think you’ll uncover the gift of this species. Here’s a hint: E value.
This latest workbench is what like to call an English bench. It is different in many respects than the French-style bench I built in 2005 based on Jacques-Andre Roubo’s drawings. And it’s also markedly different than what is commonly called the Continential workbench, which has many variants.
The English bench, which shows up in Peter Nicholson’s “Mechanic’s Companion” (1831), is essentially a torsion box in design. It uses a minimum amount of materials (about one-third of the wood required for a same-sized Roubo bench) and a lot less glue. The top of an English bench is thinner and is made stiff by the wide front aprons and interior ribs. The Roubo bench relies on mass. My Roubo-style bench has 25 boards in it and used up a half gallon of Titebond. My English bench (which will need very little more glue) has used up less than half of one of those little bottles you get at Lowe’s.
My bench isn’t a blatant copy of Nicholson’s. The legs are angled at 20Ã?Â°, a feature I found on a number of vintage benches I’ve had the privilege to examine. (The legs are not angled to resist planing forces in my opinion , more on that later.) And I added a wagon vise (surprise). This might be a mistake. Or, more likely, mere excess.
The workbench illustrated in Peter Nicholson’s book.
I’ve logged every minute I’ve been working on this bench and the big chunks of time all deal with the vise plus its square and angled dog holes. If I had to do this bench again…¦. Well I hope I do not have to do it again.
I get accused sometimes of pushing each bench design on our magazine’s readers as the end-all in workbenches. If it comes off that way, I apologize. My intent is only to show one of the many ways I’ve discovered to make a bench that will actually work and will not suck up a year of your free time. (By the way, this bench will not be published in either magazine. It’s for my workshop at home.)
For what it’s worth, this English bench (even with the wagon vise) is the easiest workbench I’ve ever built. Well, except for the one I built that was a door screwed to two sawhorses. I’m looking forward to putting it to work, but right now it looks like a stranger in the shop.