In Chris Schwarz Blog, Schwarz on Workbenches

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I wish there were a simple test to separate a good workbench from one that should live the rest of its life as a plant stand. You know, something simple like an instant pregnancy test, but without having to drag your bench into the lavatory.

I started developing such a test for my forthcoming book on workbenches and I got to try it out Saturday on a group of about 25 woodworkers during a four-hour seminar at Lie-Nielsen Toolworks in Warren, Maine.

You never know how these things will go. Sometimes the audience listens eagerly, sometimes they fall asleep, sometimes I pass out. This particular group of woodworkers was an interesting mix. First, I had Thomas Lie-Nielsen, plus two members of his crew who build workbenches for him. Add to that Dave Anderson, a very knowledgeable woodworker who runs Chester Toolworks; James Watriss, a recent North Bennett Street School graduate; and six students in the 12-week intensive course at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship. As I was going to be critiquing a bunch of workbench designs and hardware (including ones made by Lie-Nielsen Toolworks), I was a mite concerned that this would be a feisty bunch. They were feisty, but it was in a good way.

During the first couple hours I reviewed a bunch of traditional (and forgotten) bench designs, I delivered my rant (which I didn’t intend to come out like a rant) on hardware. Then after eating some chicken curry wraps and oatmeal cookies (yum), I explained my test.

I call it “The Kitchen Test,” but I need to come up with a better name for it. In a nutshell, here it is: Pretend that you have three pieces of woodwork in your shop and you need to secure them on your workbench so you can work on their faces, edges and ends.

One piece is a kitchen cabinet door that measures Ã?¾” x 18″ x 24″. The second is a kitchen drawer that is 4″ x 18″ x 18″. The third is a piece of baseboard for the kitchen that is Ã?¾” x 6″ x 48″.

Now pick two (or 10) workbench designs and pit them against one another. Which bench would grip these three pieces of work in each of the three positions (for working the faces, edges and ends) with the greatest ease?

Some benches require a lot of extra accessories (bench slaves, bench hooks etc.), and some don’t. But it really is quite surprising how a lot of benches fare in this test. There are significant differences. During the seminar we went through about a dozen designs. Some designs could handle all nine operations. Some could easily accomplish only about half.

At the end of the seminar, I braced myself as Thomas Lie-Nielsen walked up to my bench with a very tall and muscular man. I briefly thought that this might be my last visit to the Toolworks (better buy that mortise float!). But Thomas was pleased. And the muscle behind him? That was the manager of his workbench department. He asked me to sign his wooden motorcycle helmet. That’s either a good thing or a sign that I should always look over my shoulder when I’m running by the side of the road in Maine.

– Christopher Schwarz

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