In Chris Schwarz Blog, Schwarz on Workbenches

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Sometimes the best innovations are so simple it’s a wonder that they aren’t everywhere. This week, Mike Siemsen of Chisago City, Minn., sent me an e-mail about his new workbench that opened my head like a can opener.

Siemsen, who runs Mike Siemsen’s School of Woodworking, recently completed building a very close copy of Peter Nicholson’s workbench featured in the early 19th-century classic: “The Mechanic’s Companion, Or, The Elements and Practice of Carpentry,” which you can download for free from Google.

Siemsen developed the workbench with the input of period woodworker Dean Jansa. (Remember this marking gauge he built for Popular Woodworking? Let’s all encourage Dean to write more.) The bench developed by Siemsen and Jansa looks a lot like Nicholson’s , with one small upgrade that is amazingly useful.

The bench has a small gap between its two top boards. Look through the gap and you can see the transverse bearers that support the top. This gap allows you to do some really cool things with your planes and saws. By dropping a batten into the gap and onto the transverse bearers you can plane across the grain of a board (called traversing). Wedge the board against the planing stop plus a batten in the gap and you can work diagonally. You also can use the batten as a bench hook for sawing. And you can use the gap to store tools.

Is there precedence for this? Yes. George Ellis’s Planing Board (which I describe here) uses wedges in the same manner. And a Nicholson-style workbench shown in Audel’s “Carpenters Guide” shows a bench with a loose top. You could easily see how the gap could have been exploited…¦.

In any case, it works. Check it out here and on his blog.

– Christopher Schwarz

Here you can see how you can use a batten in the gap to work across the grain.

Here the batten is used with the planing stop to work in a more diagonal fashion.

Here it’s a bench hook for sawing.

And here the gap is used for tool storage. Next week we’ll show how it makes julienne fries.

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Showing 14 comments
  • Anthony

    I love the bench and it’s made me rethink my design for my next bench (likely to be built this coming spring); that being I love the top and the front/back apron/skirts; but I want only two legs (so an "I" beam in longitudinal cross-section), one at either end (sort of like the one the Marc Spagnollo’s (sorry Marc for any spelling errors) mentor, David Marks has). So it will be a trick to integrate the two designs into a single unit; but fun.


  • Christopher Schwarz

    Dean’s article was in the December 2006 issue on page 36. For some reason, that article is not in our index.

    Link here:


  • Mike Siemsen

    If I wanted to retro fit a bench top I would bore holes spaced about an inch to 1 1/2" apart from underneath partway through the top. When you run your slot part way through from the top you will have mini transverse bearers and the hamster bedding will fall through.

  • Larry Gray

    Oh, er, I forgot to mention: obviously, a thru-slot couldn’t be the full length of the bench. I was thinking of a partial-length slot somewhere about the middle of the bench’s length, maybe two to three feet long. And there would have to be some strips across the bottom, to keep the batten from falling all the way through while still allowing most of the debris to escape.

  • Larry Gray

    Re: adding this to an existing bench … yep, I thought about that right off, for my in-progress Roubo. The slot could also be cut with a router.

    One drawback: if it doesn’t go all the way through it couldn’t be used for tool storage; worse, it becomes a miniature hamster tray. Maybe cut the slot all the way through — halfway from up top, the other half from underneath?

    Hmmm, indeed.

  • Michael Dyer

    Couldn’t find a link to the french gauge at Popular Woodworking. Can you post a working link?
    Mike Dyer

  • Christopher Schwarz


    My English-style workbench was built with face-grain boards. Early workbenches were all one slab. I didn’t find it to be a problem at all (as long as it’s thick enough).


  • Ryan

    Hi Chris,

    Sorry, I was far from clear 🙂 I mean the actual benchtop isn’t the typical strips glued face side to face side to control wood movement.


  • Christopher Schwarz


    I don’t suspect it will be a maintenance headache like planing across a tool tray is….

    Also, I’ve been thinking this could be a feasible thing to do to your bench *after* it’s built. Make a deep 1/2"-wide kerf in the top of an existing solid benchtop with a circular saw (multiple passes, natch). Hmmmm.


  • Ryan

    I noticed the benchtop isn’t the typical glue up, is this a maintenance headache keeping this flat?


  • Christopher Schwarz


    I used a lot until I left it at Lie-Nielsen Toolworks during a video shoot.

    Like I said, I used it mostly when I was planing on an unreliable surface or workbench….


  • Steve Spear

    Hi Chris,

    How often do you use the George Ellis’s Planing Board?


  • Tom Knighton

    That is a very cool bench. Mike sent me the link for his bench to my blog on LumberJocks. He’s been sending it all over the place. He’s pretty proud of it, for good reason!

  • David Brown

    Very cool bench! Do you know what the double-mortise is for on the left side of the vise chop? I assume it’s a guide for the vise chop — sort of like what traditional shoulder vises have. Looking at that and thinking, a bit . . . If that is indeed a guide for the vise, visualize the similar guide on a leg vise, with its drilled holes to provide a fulcrum point.

    That guide on Dean’s vise could have similar holes drilled in it, allowing the insertion of a pin at to stop the vise from racking. What do you think?


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