Rules for Workbenches

Rule No. 2: Use Stout Joints
Overbuild your workbench by using the best joints. These are times to whip out the through-tenon and dovetail.

If you followed rule No. 1, then rule No. 2 should be no problem. Your joints will be sized to fit the massive scale of your components. If you cannot rely on mass, then you should beef things up with superior joinery. While dovetails and through-tenons are overkill for a towel rack, they are good for a bench.

That’s because you are applying racking force to the workbench with typical operations and your vises will do their best to tear apart your bench. All wooden vises need to be overbuilt or they will self-destruct when you cinch them down hard. I’ve even seen a vise rip a benchtop from its base.
Make your tenons thick and your mortises deep. If you know how to drawbore a mortise-and-tenon joint, this is one good application. Have you ever been in a timber-framed barn? Did you look at the joints? They’re massive and pegged. Imitate that.

I think benches are a good place to practice your skills at cutting these classic joints, but some woodworkers still resist. If that’s you, you should investigate hardware to strengthen your bench. Threaded rods, bed bolts, Veritas bench bolts or even stove bolts can turn a spindly assembly into something rigid that can be snugged up if it loosens. The hardware won’t give you mass, but it will strengthen a rickety assembly.

These classic European workbenches were made from fine-grained steamed European beech. Shouldn’t you do the same? Not necessarily. Choose a wood that is like beech is in Europe: stiff, inexpensive and plentiful.

Use a stiff, inexpensive and common wood to build your bench. Showcase benches made from exotic materials are nice. No argument there. But focus on the functions before the flash. I’d rather have a construction-lumber bench that followed all these rules than a beautiful European beech bench that skipped even one of these concepts.

Rule No. 3: Pick Your Wood Based on Its Stiffness, Not Its Species
There’s a lot of confusion on picking a wood for a bench. Most European benches were built using fine-grained steamed European beech. And many woodworkers go to lengths to purchase precious beech for their workbenches. After all, who wants to argue with hundreds of years of tradition?
I do. European cabinetmakers didn’t choose beech because of some magic quality of Fagus sylvatica. They chose it because it was dense, stiff, plentiful and inexpensive. In the United States, beech is dense, stiff, hard to find and (sometimes) a bit spendy. You can, of course, use it to build a bench, but you will pay a pretty penny for the privilege. And it will have no demonstrable advantage over a bench built from a cheaper species.
Other woodworkers, tacking toward the sensible, use hard or soft maple for their benches, rationalizing that it is like the beech of the New World.

And indeed, the maples have all the qualities of a good species for a workbench.

Maple is stiff, resists denting and can span long distances without much of a support structure below it. But so can other species. In fact, if you went by the numbers from the wood technologists alone, you’d build your bench from shagbark hickory, despite its difficult nature. Once you look at the characteristics that make a good species for a workbench, you’ll see that white oak, Southern yellow pine, fir or just about any species (excepting basswood and the soft white pines) will perform fine.

Here’s proof that odd workbench designs are nothing new. This Hammacher, Schlemmer & Co. bench from an old catalog is a study in tool storage. I’ve seen one of these in person and I can say this: I would not want to have to build anything using it.

After you sketch out your workbench design but before you cut any wood, compare your design with historical designs of benches. If your bench appears to be a radical design or looks unlike anything built before, chances are your design is flawed.

Rule No. 4: Use a Tested Design
I’ve seen workbenches with pneumatic face vises. Why? I’ve seen a workbench that had two twin-screw vises: One vise for the right end of the workbench that was matched to work with two long rows of dogs along the length of the benchtop; and a second twin-screw vise on the face of the bench that was matched to two more rows of dogs across the width of the bench.

Now I’m certain that there are a few woodworkers who would really need this arrangement – perhaps someone who has to work on a circular tabletop on one end of the bench and a Windsor chair seat at the other. But for most people who build cabinets and furniture, this setup is redundant and neglects some critical bench functions.

Here is how high my workbench is compared to my hand, which is hanging loosely by my side. I use hand and power tools in my work, and I’ve found this height is ideal.

Rule No. 5: The Overall Dimensions of Your Bench Are Critical
Your bench design cannot be too heavy or too long. But its top can easily be too wide or too tall. I think your benchtop should be as long as possible. Find the wall where your workbench will go (hint: Pick the wall that has a window). Measure that space. Subtract four feet from that measurement and that’s a good length for the top. Note: The benchtop must be at least 5′ long unless you build only small-scale items. Furniture-sized parts typically range up to 48″ long and you want to support these fully with a little room to spare.

I’ve made tops that are 8′ long. My next bench will be a 10-footer, the maximum that will fit in my shop. It is difficult to make or imagine a workbench that is too long. The same goes for thickness. It is the thickness that allows the top to be that long. If you make the top really thick (4″ or more), then it will offer unerring support and allow you to build your bench without any support system beneath. The top can perch on the legs and will not sag under its own weight.

The width is a different matter. You can have a bench that is too wide for a one-person shop. I’ve worked on benches that are 36″ wide and they have downsides. For starters, if you park them against the wall you’ll have to stretch to reach the tools hanging on the wall.  If you assemble projects on your bench, you will find yourself dancing around it a lot more than you should.