Chris Schwarz's Blog

The Joinery Bench: Has its Time Come?

If I’d lived in the the early 18th century, odds are I’d be rotting by now. Life expectancy in England in 1700 was about 37, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. By 1820 it was 41, which is how old I am today.

So it should come as no surprise that though I adore my 18th-century workbench, there are times that it is more suited for a younger man. If I dovetail an entire chest of drawers, I pay for it in the back department , I’m stiff for a week. Planing and tenoning are not so bad.

I can minimize my suffering by stretching my limbs before joining my sticks, and by using a wider stance when sawing. Placing your feet farther apart lowers your torso, so you don’t have to bend as much.

About seven or eight years ago I proposed on the WoodCentral forum a bench designed specifically for dovetailing. I even got so far as to draft it in CAD. But then I got distracted by that rotter Andre Roubo.

I’m not the first guy to think of this. Other people have built smaller benches that perch on your regular bench that are designed for dovetailing , check the archives at Fine Woodworking if you’re interested. Still others have built dedicated benches that are small and tall , Drew Langsner at Country Workshops has a “chairmaker’s bench” that fits this description and has a big twin-screw vise on the front.

Now Tim Williams, a professional cabinetmaker and instructor at the Asheville Woodworking School in Asheville, N.C., has gone all the way with his design.

After a serious case of the affliction he called dovetail igoritis (what hump?), Williams built the bench shown here. It’s 38″ tall, 34″ wide and 24″ deep, with a 6″-wide 4″-deep tool tray. In addition to a few dog holes, it also has a nifty slot for holding saws and chisels at the ready. The slot also doubles as a planing stop.

The legs are LVL in an offset “X” assembly, with an 8/4 stretcher that has a couple dog holes for storing holdfasts and such.

The top is 2-1/2″ thick with a 4″ apron in cherry and white ash. The main workholding is done with an all-wood twin-screw vise that has 15″ between the screws (his regular bench has 33″ between the screws). I have 24″ in my Holtzapffel. No, I’m not jealous.

If this bench were mine, I’d put it underneath a north-facing window and against a wall. And then I’d saw like a fully erect and evolved man, instead of the Neaderthal I become after a few days straight of dovetailing.

Excellent idea, Mr. Williams.

- Christopher Schwarz

28 thoughts on “The Joinery Bench: Has its Time Come?

  1. Brian Welch

    For years I have been contemplating a carving bench that is taller than my everyday bench. The carving that I have done on that bench has been back breaking work. I figured the tall bench would be useful for carving and other chisel-intensive tasks. The other Workbench Book that shall remain unnamed has a nice chapter on tall carving benches. One outdoor version has a plywood base that the owner fills with wet sand to give it mass and stability.

  2. Jeremy

    Would this bench form also benefit from tool storage below, perhaps a couple of drawers that open to the left/right? (Obviously the cross brace would have to be changed.) This would stabilize the base with mass and seems to not have some of the negatives Chris points out in his book on "tool cabinet" benches. Plenty of space under the top could be reserved for holdfasts etc. and still have a decent amount of storage.

    It’s great that just when I think I’m finally gonna get around to building a bench, to know that I’m really going to end up with a tall detail bench as well. I guess that makes it easier to get all the "tricks" that don’t seem to fit all together in just one bench.

  3. AAAndrew

    Beautiful (because so very) functional bench design. And very well executed.

    As Mike said, "You can never have enough benches! Saw bench, assembly bench, carvers bench, joiners bench, planing bench." It goes to show that your bench really is a tool in and of itself. I used to think of the bench as a piece of furniture on which you do work with tools, but Chris’ workbench book opened my eyes to the fact that it is actually one of the most important tools in your shop. And just like any tool, you can usually get by with a good all-around design for most things, but sometimes a specialized tool that is optimized for just one basic operation (like joinery in this case) is better than one that tries to be all things for all operations. Think wooden molding planes vs. a Stanley 45.

    I was glad to hear that you had considered the different kind of forces acting on this bench. You would have greater back to front stresses, and with the taller stance, you’d need a stronger base. Generally, the taller the structure, the wider the base, but the sled feet can really help adjust this. Weight can also be an adjustment mechanism if you can afford the floor space.

    Thanks so much for sharing. I look forward to the plans.

    AAAndrew

  4. woodtherapy.blogspot.com

    Wow!!! I really appreciate the positive responses to the bench. I will tell you that it sits just next to my larger bench that is currently gathering a lot of dust lately. The taller height has really made a world of difference in my joinery, and I mean an immediate difference. I no longer have to check my baselines on the backside of my tail and pin boards. Having the piece lower in a standard bench the tendency I found is to saw more downward which meant for me hawking the scribe line on the back, no more.

    So with that let me answer some questions.
    Yes the legs are LVL which is usually mde from SYP laminations so it does look like SYP (not now thanks to some barn red milk paint ala Megan’s bench)

    I only use a handful of tools when I am dovetailing so space has not been a issue, but it certainly would not take much to fill it up.

    The X configuration is tricky. You can’t see it in the photo, but the leg angles are different. The front leg is at a steeper slope than the back causing the weight to naturally shift backwards to balance the forward extension of the vise and whatever is clamped in it.

    The benches stability is amazing from front to back which was the main focus since it’s first and foremost function is sawing back and forth. The side to side action is suprisingly stable for light to moderate planing(cleaning up drawer side edges especially.

    As far as the leg to top connection, it is bolted on with 5/16 lag bolts, in fact the entire bench is a break down design. Cross bolts (4) in the stretchers and lag bolts (4) in the leg to top connection. Five minute tear down or set up that will fit in the back seat of any car.(fits in my Honda Element fully assembled!!!)

    Working on plans for it as I think the 4" skirt needs to be 6" for a larger mounting area for the threaded vise block.(making my own wooden screws and blocks and I can hook you up.) I do have a Sketchup model I would like to post, but I will have to get with the " Schwarz Almighty" to get it on here.

    If that is not enough info let me know! I will be glad to answer any questions

    Tim Williams

    P.S Tom Fidgen: Your tool box rules!!!!(I am not worthy!!) I am going to the shop to start mine right now.

  5. Jonas Jensen

    I think this would be an excellent starting bench project, since it is smaller than the Roubo. Nice looks and a fine size for small and delicate work as well.

  6. tomfidgen.blogspot.com

    Love this design-
    I’ve been working on a few small bench ideas this winter and am so happy to this this one all put together!
    Its funny as you mention in your post Chris- designing is such a wonderful process and the use of programs and pencils are fantastic aids- but putting these ideas to the plank can sometimes be the hardest part and what a joy it is when done so well as seems to be the case with this bench!

    well done Tim !
    thanks for sharing-

    Tom

  7. Bruce Jackson

    Mr. Greene is right. As a B.A. student enrolled in a course on Ancient Greece, I heard Prof. Paul Maier (yes, the son of the fame radio preacher and himself the author of First Christmas and First Easter) suggest much the same point. Once you remove the first year from the averaging process, then the average life span approaches 70 or 80 years. There were many, many elderly people, probably many more than you would originally think if you just focus on the too-inclusive average. And it is known that during the first year of life, the baby is still developing immunity to the awful microbes which makes you sick. You wonder why folks had so many children in those days – we’re not too far removed from the concept of children as your Social Security system, something still prevalent in many "developing" nations. At least one or two children will survive to grow into a productive adulthood.

  8. Mike Siemsen

    Chris,
    It looks to me like you would want to park this small bench next to a larger one or you wouldn’t have a place to put anything. Maybe I will cut a hole in the floor next to my bench with a trap door over it. I can just open the trapdoor and step down to the proper height for joinery work. I imagine myself falling into said hole while rummaging in the dark for something, so maybe not. This is why guys like Charlie Kocourek and Noden made adjustable benches
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5GIelbvLV4#
    You can never have enough benches! Saw bench, assembly bench, carvers bench, joiners bench, planing bench. We must not forget the most important bench of all, the one you sit on in the brauhaus!
    Ein Prozit!

    Mike

  9. David Cockey

    I’ve thought about building a joinery bench since watching Roy Underhill build one during in the 2003 season of Woodwright’s shop. (Not the French/Roubo inspired bench which he built several seasons later.) Roy’s bench has a cabinet and based on plans in a book, possibly one of Hayward’s. Roy had the bench with him at WIA Valley Forge and/or Williamsburg’s Working with Wood. It has a metal vise on the front and the twin wood screw vise of Mr Williams uses looks like a distinct improvement.

  10. Philipp

    Life expancy some thousand years ago –> Psalm 90:
    "The years of our life are seventy,
    or even by reason of strength eighty;"

    What went wrong in the centuries after?

    Nice small bench! Workbenches are for planing and in my opinion not good for sawing. So, a second one is a great idea?

    Philipp

  11. Tony

    If possible, could you add a picture of the leg/top/stretcher joinery? It’s a great idea, much more manageable to do build than a large bench…just wondering about those X legs and how stable they are.

  12. Gye Greene

    Life expectancy! Heh! :) Of course, that’s probably the **mean**, not the **median** — meaning that the super-high rate of infant and childhood mortality would bring the average (the mean) waaaay down. So the "typical", median (in-the-middle) life expectancy was probably several years higher than that.

    FWIW. :)

    Still: makes ya think.

    –GG

  13. Lee Laird

    Chris –

    The "X" assembly sure looks like SYP to me?? You sure it’s LVL? Can’t tell about the stretcher. Now, is the picture playing tricks with my eyes, or is the stretch attached to the foward-most section of the lower "X" legs, rather than at or through the lap joint? Interesting.

    I’m right there with you on the age and the walking bent over for a while after cutting some dovetails. I’ve got to use one of the solutions to raise my work.

    Regards,

  14. Joe Cunningham

    I was just sitting here watching a decent Super Bowl after taking a hand tool class where the benches were short. They worked great for hand planing, but for the joinery part, esp the dovetailing, I found myself stooping way too much for my liking. And it occurred to me I could just make a small joinery bench with a shoulder vise. Then I happen to check your blog.

  15. Walter Lees

    Is time travel possible? Or did I just miss out on the publishing/blogger deadline trick. Several of these posts seem to be pre dated. This one is dated February 8 which if I am calculating correctly is several turns of the dateline away.

    Beautiful bench design though.

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