Perhaps it’s the American love for excess. But no matter how many examples I cite or pleas I make, most beginning woodworkers seek to build workbenches that are entirely too wide.
Most historical workbenches are 18” to 22” wide – and they are that wide for functional reasons that I’ll explain in a minute. And yet, sawyers I know who cut slabs for benches are regularly asked for 32”-wide slabs (or wider). In my travels I regularly encounter benches that are 48” wide.
So I’ll try to explain the historic rationale again.
Let’s say you decide to build your own automobile from scratch. And you decide to make it 11’ wide so three people can sit in the front row instead of two. I think you can see the problem with your plan. The car won’t fit into the standard-sized lanes on the road. You won’t be able to enter a parking garage. Good luck going through the drive-through to get a burger or even getting into some gas stations.
Workbenches are like that. The historical width matches the standard sizes of casework, chairs and component parts to make it easy to work on them.
Let’s say you dovetail a carcase and need to level the joints with a plane or sander. If your bench is narrow you can simply sleeve the carcase over your benchtop and do the work without any fussy work-arounds. If your bench is too wide for this, you’re going to have to jig up something awkward. Drawers for dressers work the same way – they sleeve over the benchtop so you can plane them up.
Chairs are another good example. When I post photos of my chairs that I’m working on the blog, I usually get a comment that says something like: “Wow, your benchtop exactly matches the depth of your chairs. Did you plan it that way?”
Again, the traditional width of the workbench is at work. With a narrow bench you can place a chair at the end of your bench and work all around it. You can clamp it easily to the benchtop from a variety of angles.
Another advantage of narrow benches: Your tools won’t roll out of your reach.
I am sure there are some specialty applications where an over-wide workbench is an asset, but I have yet to encounter that situation in my work.
— Christopher Schwarz