Year of the Workbench: Old Designs Worth Reviving
When it comes to finding better ways of working wood, it usually helps to look at the newest technology , and the oldest.
Many of the challenges we face in our woodworking have been solved before by woodworkers who are long gone. And while a degree of that wisdom is buried with them, some of it was written down. That’s why I delve into old books on woodworking, carpentry and joinery (Google Books has been a boon) to immerse myself in a time when working with wood was a common profession.
What I’ve learned is surprisingly useful in a modern shop , it’s not just hand-tool wisdom. There are layout, joinery and case-construction tricks there that haven’t been published 20 times in every darn woodworking magazine.
Recently, I’ve become enamored with a workbench design from the August 1882 edition of “Carpentry and Building” magazine, which was dug up for me by Gary Roberts, an expert in woodworking ephemera.
The dominant style of workbench design these days is the Continental style, which is what you see for sale in the catalog and woodworking stores. But the world of workbenches used to be more diverse. And the old styles of workbenches were better at holding your wood so you could cut it and shape it.
This design was submitted to the magazine by “W.A.Y” of Pierce’s Landing, Penn. The bench designer said he had been using it for three years and it had given “entire satisfaction.” After poring over the details of the bench, I can see why.
The drawing shown in the magazine isn’t perfect , I think that some of the angles are a bit off. But the text and the illustration together will give you a pretty good idea about how the bench works. Here are the construction details:
The Top: It’s 4″ thick, 18″ wide (plus a 9″-wide tool well) and 10′ 3″-long. The top is made of alternating strips of walnut and ash, glued and nailed together. The height of the benchtop is 33″ from the floor. The benchdogs are 1-1/2″ in from the front edge of the benchtop and are 3″ apart.
The Legs: These are tricky; all four are tenoned into the top. The leg behind the leg vise is 4″ x 5″. It is plumb to the front of the benchtop but it is angled in as shown. The three other legs are 3″ x 5″ material. The rear leg behind the leg vise is angled in two directions (like a Windsor chair leg). The front leg by the tail vise is plumb and square , straight up and down. The rear leg behind the tail vise is angled only in one direction.
Why are the rear legs angled in? Many English-influenced benches I’ve seen do this. It allows them to be tenoned into the benchtop and yet be flush with the back of the tool well. This allows the bench to sit tightly against a wall and (according to some sources) resist racking forces. I think it’s probably more complicated than it has to be.
But what this bench does that few modern benches can claim to do, is to make it easy to work on the ends, edges and faces of boards, no matter what tool (power or hand) you are holding. Look it over and let us know what you think. This bench offends most modern sensibilities, but I think it’s a winner.
– Christopher Schwarz