In Letters, Shop Blog

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I was planning to make a. . .good, fast, cheap workbench, as I think Bob Key called his design some years ago: fir or pine legs and top, Record face vise, and. . .well, some sort of end vise.  Then, after I used it for a year or two, make another bench with hardwood, perhaps a poor man’s version of the Frank Klausz bench, something with a shoulder and a tail vise.

But your Roubo bench has me confused–in a good way.  I want to work almost exclusively with hand tools, and I have loved the look and idea of a leg vise since the first time I saw one (a photo).  I cannot, however, out here in California, find yellow pine, and I am not thrilled with fir as the top of a bench (too splintery).

Do you think an older woodworker should make a cheap bench first?  If not. . . ?

– Mark


Bob Key’s design is quite good. In fact, I tried to get him to publish it with us in 1999. Then he kind of fell off the map.

I like softwood benches. They don’t move much one they are acclimated. And they are easy to flatten. So I have no qualms about the design or the material. It might be your last bench after all.

I built a fir bench years ago while working in California. I actually liked the material. The only problem I found was that fir is sometimes sold fairly wet at home centers. We got soaked while cutting it, and it rusted some tools.

One thing you might consider: Buying fir 4x4s for the top and legs. There would be far fewer glue-ups than if you bought 2x material.

Hope this helps.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 9 comments
  • Dave C.

    Apologies, sir. Apparently I’d selected something other than what I thought. Rechecking the eDrawing gives me 70 and 110 degrees for the included angles with the bottom of the apron as it should.

    Next question – would making a series of stopped grooves through the top of the apron to provide for clamp jaws materially weaken the edge?


  • Christopher Schwarz


    1. Where are you seeing 37°? I just checked the illustrations in the book. Everything is drawn at 20°.

    2. I think either construction is fine. I’ve seen both in the wild. I did it the way shown in the book because the “cutaway” was easier to make when laminating the legs. Big angled grooves are an invitation to error.

    Hope this helps.

  • Dave C.

    Mr. Schwarz,

    I’ve got some questions about the Nicholson Bench.

    1. Your book states the legs are set at a 20 degree angle. As drawn, the legs are closer to 37 degrees of rake. Which is correct?

    2. As set forth by Hayward, the apron serves two functions, first to stiffen the top front edge, and second to prevent "racketing" ( wracking ). In support of this Hayward’s drawings show the apron grooved to fit around the full depth legs. Your bench has the legs cut away to fit behind the aprons. Which construction offers the best support and best prevents wracking?


  • Adam

    I just posted about how I’m approaching some of the same problems that he has.

    Bob, I love your bench, if I only had the room…

  • Al R.

    I built Bob’s bench about 7 years ago using whatever I could find at Home Depot. Built it using a workmate for a bench with 90 pounnds of cast iron strapped to the bottom to hold it down while I worked on the bench’s joinery.

    The bench lives in my damp basement and has only needed to be flattened once. I use it almost daily.
    Works great! The only thing I may do later on is build one the same way with nicer wood and no tool tray.

    FYI – instead of the little record style vice bob put on the front of his, I went even cheaper and just bought a screw from Lee Valley hardware and built a leg vice. I put a little record style vice on as the end vise a while later, but it rarely sees any use.

    Just be sure that you design yours so that the front of the legs are flush with the front of the bench top.

    Good Luck.

    Al R.

  • Casey Gooding

    FWIW, Bob Key got out of woodworking several years ago. I happened to pick up some of his tools and his smaller Klausz inspired workbench. It’s well made and it has been a pleasure to work on. I had no idea it was a "famous" bench.

  • David Gendron

    Here we can find 3×12 in 16 feet DF rought. It is sold for trailer bed on big trucks if you go thrue the pile, you can find some that are prety clear… and that make for only one glue joint!

  • Keith Mealy

    In most circles, this is known as "bootstrapping." You need a bench to do good working, including building a good bench.

    In addition, you are bootstrapping your skills.

  • Bob Easton

    Like Mark, we folks over here in New York can’t easily find SYP. So, I used Doug Fir from the home center. It’s not pretty … unless you harken back to the days when knotty stuff was in vogue for the paneling in the den (now called family room). The Doug Fir here is plenty knotty, but fortunately not too splintery.

    As for older woodworker, I’m one of those too. I will likely live long enough to build a more expensive bench, but I really don’t think I’ll need one. I’m having way too much fun with the one I have now. Go for the cheap one Mark. Of course, taking guidance from Chris’ Workbench book is highly recommended.

    See my "cheap" bench here:


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