Chris Schwarz's Blog

The Self-building Workbench

From the chicken vs. egg file: Many beginning woodworkers think you have to have a workbench in order to build a workbench. So they buy a cheap workbench and suffer with it for many years until they get around to building a “real” bench.

Truth is, you don’t need a bench to build a bench.

Most of the workbenches I’ve built have been constructed on sawhorses. Start by making the top. Yeah, it’s a bit wobbly on horses, but it works OK. When the top is built, flatten it and attach one of your vises.

Now you have a benchtop with a sawhorse base.

Build the bench’s base on the benchtop. Yeah, it feels a bit like working on a car while the engine is running, but it’s totally do-able. When the base is built, attach it to the top. Flip the puppy off the sawhorses, and you are ready to finish up work on your bench.

This is the exact path I’m following with this small-scale Roubo bench I’m building this week. I finished sizing up the top on Friday, which came out to 4-3/4″ x 19″ x 67″. That’s a little narrower than a modern bench, but I’ve seen older benches this narrow (and even narrower). I will be interested to see how tippy it is (or isn’t).

Today I installed a vintage vise I’ve been hoarding for some time that looks like the vises in old French woodworking catalogs. Ooo la la. I like it. It’s a mite fussy, but it’s cool. Next I’ll install a wooden chop on the vise, drill some dog holes and get to work on the legs.

And then the much-maligned epoxy.

– Christopher Schwarz

15 thoughts on “The Self-building Workbench

  1. Robert D Finley

    Many years back there was a full page add in the LA Times (if I remember correctly). In large type it read "which came first, the chicken or the egg? There was a picture of a chicken and an egg. Then, at the bottom of the page was the answer which was…."the idea"
    I have never forgotten that and that is how I come up with my designs, good and not so good. First the idea in my head. Then I may sketch it out and then I decide what I am going to do first. Usually it is to get another cup of coffee and think it through.

  2. SteveD

    I had built my bench with a split top similar to the one found on Benchcrafted blog. After working on it for a while I had a few issues that I disliked more than the advantages. I did not like dealing with the split when flattening the top. I found myself putting a temporary filler board in the split while flattening. Also, I didn’t like narrow or small parts and small tools falling down the slot. I have since glued the two sides together and added an additional lamination to increase the width. I then drilled more stop holes along the mid-line of the bench so that I could use a planing stop when working at the face of the bench, same as I do from the tail of the bench.

  3. Carl

    I was thinking you could also start with the Shop Box System. It seems to be very stable and should make a good foundation for building a bench.

  4. Christopher Schwarz

    David,

    I didn’t split the top because it’s structural and connects the front legs to the rear. This isn’t designed to be a portable bench. Some day I’ll get around to that design idea….

  5. David

    I am enjoying the mostly hand tool roubo series.

    A few weeks of evenings toiling with a Japanese pull saw, a low angle jack, a 1" chisel and an old brace and I’m up to about half a workbench but I went with the legs first.

    Curious why you didn’t go with a split top design and leave a gap between the two top boards saving the trouble of joining them and giving the option of a planning stop/ripping slot/tool holder.

    I figure this should making moving easier (since I am in a rented place). I’m ready for more posts just worried that I now have to keep pace with the construction.

  6. Matt Gray

    Chris,

    To combat your checking/punky wood problem, you mentioned need to use epoxy. I would reccommend the West System of epoxies, if you haven’t already used them before. Easy to mix, and extremely easy to work with. Not cheap, but then again, most good things in life are not.

    Keep up the good work.

  7. www.google.com/profiles/frowze

    Nice article Chris,

    That’s exactly what I had to do as well, except I forced a spindly 8 foot folding table to be my beast of burden. The base was built directly on top of it and then flipped over to finally drive it completely home.

  8. Derek Lyons

    Marc Spagnuolo (The Wood Whisperer) gives a method for creating a stable and level work surface using sawhorses in his series on building an assembly table.

  9. Eric R

    Chris,
    I’m searching for a "twelve step plan" to battle your work bench addiction as soon as I finish this.
    Thank God you make good ones with as many as you knock out.

  10. Ed Furlong

    Chris:

    So who won in the battle between the egg file and the chicken? And when will we be seeing articles in the new PWW regarding the history and evolution of egg files, along with new manufacturers of high-end egg files that incorporate the best of Western and Japanese egg file features and their differing designs. And finally, when will you be writing the definitive article on egg-file sharpening?

    Oh, and exactly what is an egg file, and how do I use one in my hand tool practice, and how will it improve my woodworking, enrich my life, and bring me esthetic satori? Inquiring minds want to know.

    Keep up the great blog!

  11. Michael

    I’m really envious about all those benches of yours. One day, I’m sure, I’m going to build one. On my wobbly workbench.

    And thanks for all that wonderful information and experience that you’re making available here.

  12. Christopher Schwarz

    Jon,

    My plan is to push the bench against a wall. Our building (though crappily built) should stabilize it.

  13. KAS

    I built a benchtop on top of an old tavern table that compensated being way to high by being wobbly to boot. Made for some interesting hand plane work on century old oak. Glad I didn’t know enough to ask myself the question before just going ahead and doing it.

  14. Jon Spelbring

    Chris,

    If the finished top is that narrow, would angling (canting?) the rear legs help stabilize it (Like St. Roy’s bench)?

    Just wondering – mine will probably be 20-21" wide.

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