Chris Schwarz's Blog

The English Workbench

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?°, 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.

- Christopher Schwarz

7 thoughts on “The English Workbench

  1. Michael Gladwin

    Chris:
    Your discription and picture of the "English" work bench promped me to retrieve from the archives (piles) of photographs a very fine grained picture of wood framed aircraft being manufactured at the Bristol Aeroplane Company works in Filton, Bristol in 1910. The "fitters" are working on a bench, similar to yours, but with a center tool tray and aprons on both sides. The bench is aprox 14 feet long by 4 feet wide and is being worked on both sides by three fitters one with a rather magnificent propellor. The outfits are wonderfull with all thirty two men in the picture wearing jackets, ties and caps but with white aprons covering their suit jackets. It can get quite chilly in the hangars in Filton as I know from experience. Wooden planes (tool type) abound with one specialist metal plane visible. At the time Bristols were building French mono and bi-planes under licence.
    Keep up the good work.
    Mike

  2. Christopher Schwarz

    Dave,

    Not sure where this bench will end up. Maybe Louis Bois will be able to give us an eDrawing on it. Or I’ll clean up my CAD file.

    I still don’t think a tail vise/wagon vise is necessary. It is nice for some things, but there are lots of ways to work without it. The early English-style benches didn’t have anything like a tail vise as far as I can tell. They seem to involve mostly planing stops and don’t work between dogs.

  3. Dave Owsley

    Chris,
    I enjoy the alternative bench approaches you present.
    Are you going to publish an efile for this bench?
    IF memory serves, when you began the Roubo bench one of your questions was whether or not a tail vise was necessary. Can you comment on your opinion of the extra versatilty of the wagon vise and your choosing to use it both as an addition to the Roubo bench and this bench?
    Keep up the good work.

  4. Chris Somers

    Modulus of Elasticity! Wow, thanks for the flashback to my undergrad Mechanics class! You made me do some googling; "out here" (N.CA) I’d have to say Doug Fir is the best available alternative to SYP. Though I’ve not really tried locating the latter.

    Since this bench won’t be published in print, any chance we’ll get more details on the blog?

    Thanks,
    Chris

  5. Christopher Schwarz

    Gereon,

    I haven’t changed my mind on aprons. I actually think that the aprons on the English bench will be its biggest demerit in use. I *really* like the apron-free aspect of the French bench. I can get a clamp anywhere. It’s awesome.

    But this style of bench was prevalent for more than 100 years and then disappeared. Why? That’s what I want to find out. I have some clues, but no solid answers.

    Chris

  6. Gereon Lamers

    "Pushing designs on the reader" what blatant nonsense! I for one certainly do not tire of workbench designs, especially of simple ones… So hopefully we will see (more) pics and plans soon!

    One Question comes to mind, however: What made you change your mind concerning aprons on workbenches?

    Regards

    Gereon

  7. dave brown

    I had to laugh when I read that you get accused of pushing a workbench as an end-all design. It’s like when Adam Cherubini wrote an article on the ideal handtool workshop. The design wasn’t a concrete mandate it was a series of suggestions. The workbenches that you present to readers are similar exercises. They are adventurous experiments for you and the readers. Please, keep up the good work.

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