Workbenches: With Experience Comes Simplicity - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Workbenches: With Experience Comes Simplicity

 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Schwarz on Workbenches

For the many-hundredth time last week, I explained the virtues of simple workbenches to a skeptical audience of 10 workbench builders.

They weren’t having it. Their benches were sketched out with complex tail vises, multiple rows of dogs, twin-screw vises, quick-release vises and other assorted bench appliances. As always, I shrugged my shoulders and smiled when I finished my speech.

Woodworkers at the beginning of their career will always – and I do mean always – opt for the most complex workbench that their brains and hands can handle.

But this class was a bit different. I had a former student assisting me, and he had taken the same workbench class about five years ago.

“Wait,” Brian said to the class. “Chris is right. I was where you were five years ago. You don’t need all this stuff. I wanted it. And now i don’t use it.”

Again, it didn’t matter to the students. They wanted what they wanted. I knew it was useless to debate them further, so we got down to the messy business of moving legs and stretchers to accommodate all manner of vises.

What You Need
The upside to this awkward moment in class was that several of us who have been working for a long time at the bench discussed the topic over a beer that night. All of us (surprisingly) agreed that the single most important piece of workbench equipment was the planing stop.

My planing stop is the most-used bit of bench equipment in my shop. Mine was made by a blacksmith, but if I had to recommend one to a beginner it would be the Benchcrafted planing stop. At just $24, it is a simple and awesome addition to any workbench.

The second-most important piece of equipment: a holdfast. There are lots of good ones, but the best one for the buck is the holdfast from Tools for Working Wood. You get two for $38.95. These work with your planing stop to hold almost anything. Once you get familiar with your planing stop and your holdfast, you might not even need a leg vise for much.

I love my leg vise, but it is seldom used, except for cutting tenons and some odd applications that the planing stop can’t handle.

I know this seems counter-intuitive. Technology should make things easier. But in the case of workbenches, I think new technology makes things more difficult in the long run.

But I don’t expect this blog entry will convince anyone. The only thing that changes people’s minds is spending years at the bench.

So I’ll see you in 20 years or so.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 15 comments
  • Woodbanchee3

    With 14 comments in June of 2018 alone it’s fair to say you are at least sparking a bit of soul searching. However, I suspect that simple and serviceable will never be sexy enough for the majority of chaps once they have seen Paris!

  • Chuck P

    I built a Frank Klausz bench 28 or so years ago. It has a tail vise, and the flexible shoulder vise, or whatever it’s called. I’ve built a house full of furniture a couple times over (those first pieces were total crap) with it. I use all facets of it.

    But you’ve had your influence, Chris. Just yesterday (before I read this article) I finally got out my Festool router and drilled a hole for one holdfast. I’m gonna drill one more hole. I think the bench needs it. But it could take me a year or two to decide where!

  • lapsklaus

    I haven’t yet built my first workbench, but thanks to you and Mike Siemsen, I’ve long been planning for it to be a viseless English Nicholson-type bench. Which means I’ll disprove your statement about beginning woodworkers always craving for the most complex benches!

  • jlb5542

    Seems like there is a substantial external imposition of entropy in the woodworking world, all in the name of progress.

  • Joe Leonetti

    Three years into woodworking, I completely agree with you Chris. In fact, I’m putting a second bench inside the home (too hot in summer and sometimes I feel too isolated from my family). Only one vise, plane stop, does feet, and holdfasts. It’s more than enough in a workbench. I wouldn’t have thought so three years ago (for some reason Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure jumps into my mind). Thanks for the tip on those holdfasts Definitely the ones I will use (unless I get ambitious and take a black smith class and make my own).

  • jurgen01

    I completely agree with you. Simpler is better.

    Over the years, I have become more focused on woodworking skills than on woodworking machines. Over that same time, the benches I use have become simpler, heavier, and sturdier.

    My current bench is 6 1/2 feet long and 27 inches deep. It is heavy, with a thick, laminated Ash top and Douglas Fir legs, trestles, and stretchers. It has a single left-mounted front vice — a Lie-Nielsen 18″ twin screw vice, which is awesome. There is a plane stop mounted on hanger bolts with knobs on the vice end and a piece of Doug Fir with mortises to hold my back saws on the other end.

    That’s it. No holes. No end vise. No tool tray. Nothing else. Just a rock-solid, dead flat surface with ample space for my work and the tools I need for the job at hand. With a few clamps, a shooting board, and a bench hook, I can do anything I need to do.

    It is the simplest and best bench I have ever used — and it only took me 20 years to figure this out.

    Who knew?

  • zeeboy

    I am convinced about “simplicity”. I can always add features I “really” need, but there is no need to spend time, effort and money on those fascinating and attractive appliances that I will rarely, if ever, use. Nicht Wahr?

  • Kevin0611

    Love my leg vise for cutting dovetails. Love my tail vise for holding parts while sanding or carving. Planing stop and holdfasts are also indispensable. Ideally, one would be able to work on a bench for a while to see what what works best for him or her. I was lured by the beauty of Benchcrafted hardware and fortunately, they are great fits with how I work and didn’t go wasted.

  • Jared

    I’m pleased to share that I saw the light at the beginning thanks to your instruction, so I don’t fall into the “always” statement above and didn’t have to spend years at the bench to get there. My planing stop and holdfasts definitely are my most essential bench appliances. And since my dog holes are 3/4″, my planing stop is simply a 3/4″ red oak dowel with a notch cut out of the top. So far, so good.

  • rwyoung

    In the 7-ish years since I built my bench I’ve never gotten around to installing the leg vice. Planing stop (opted for the little pop-up stop) or some judicious use of clamps and scrap wood does the trick. Handscrew clamps are under-rated. That and “gravity is your friend” when it comes to workholding methods.

  • sarcoplasm

    Great post once again and I concur. I for one i need not to be converted when it comes to this subject for my bench vision started out as having to build a period bench. I copied the bench top of the bench found at Hancock shaker village complete with leg vise iron planing stop tail vise and dogs. Its funny after agonizing for a long time as to how to build the tail vise (this was pre internet) , and although beautiful to look, at I almost never use it. The dogs are never unused in a conventional way. I use them as side stops on occasion. The holdfast is a must and used often, and finally most of the work is performed on the first four feet of the left side of my bench……the right side?…..currently acting as tool storage…Interesting subject

  • Fedster

    Actually you convinced me more or less at the time you and Will Myers did the workbench video. The only thing I am not convinced by is the need for a metal planing stop: if I have a large square peg as a stop, what do I win adding metal teeth on top? If the board is narrow enough a large wooden stop should suffice, right? and for a wide board I need to put up a baton and keep it in place with planing stop and a holdfast anyway. As you can see I am paring stuff down even further.

  • Fair Woodworking

    I must confess, for many years I considered that kind of plane stop to be the dumbest and most “backward” plane stop ever invented. Until I used one.

    • mwkeller7

      Finding out how big a bite my no5 can take out of that planing stop was an interesting experiment. Occasional blade damage aside, I can’t imagine my bench without a toothed stop. Second most used bench accessory, right after the bench hook.

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