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When you look at old workbenches, it’s clear that pre-Industrial craftsmen lavished untold attention on their benches. They would use only the best materials. So the early bench was typically flawless, expensive and treated like a precious object.

After all, this was the most important tool in any workshop.

OK, if you’ve ever actually seen a vintage workbench, then you know that every single word above this paragraph is a lie. Many of the vintage workbenches I’ve inspected through the years are made with materials that wouldn’t pass muster in a commercial piece of furniture.

They have knots and odd grain. The benches are made from various species of wood, sometimes without rhyme or reason. And the benches have been beat to hell and back. Ancient workbenches were treated as carefully as we might coddle a toilet brush.

So I have been interested in trying to re-create the ancient aesthetic when building workbenches. After all, I go to great trouble when making reproduction furniture by using the right wood, hardware, fasteners and finish. So building a sapele workbench is a lot like building a curly maple outhouse in my book.

And somehow, I found nine nutjobs to play along with this crazy idea.

This week we are building workbenches using Southern yellow pine timbers that – if they were lunch meat – would be “grade D, but edible.” The class is at Kelly Mehler’s School of Woodworking, and Kelly is a good sport to go along with this scheme.

Today was the first day of the class and we dove into the machine work first – jointing and planing the rough timbers to thickness and width. Then we started working on the tops – separating more than 40 big timbers into 10 good-looking benches.

We cut all the female joinery for the mortise and the sliding dovetail that passes through the top. And then we started gluing up the tops that didn’t require nutty amounts of prep work.

And that was Monday.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 15 comments
  • tjhenrik

    I want that song

  • rmcnabb

    I would think that building a workbench for hand tool woodworking would be a good opportunity to use hand tools. And why do the legs need to be square? All they need to do is hold the top up. They could be twisted like licorice.

  • Mike M

    In the machine shop where I served my apprenticeship, if you were injured while opereating a machine and you were wearing gloves, you’d get a disiplinary mark on your records. If the result was a lost-time injury, no sick pay. Gloves aren’t to be worn while the machine is running.

    I watched a guy in the foundry pattern shop I worked in cut a thumb off by getting a glove caught under a piece of plywood he was ripping (he was not one of the pattern makers). No more using the machines for employees outside of our department.

    The benches were made of wood that wasn’t good enough to crate castings.

  • willcon

    Love the sliding dovetail ala Festool Track saw! That probably saved a few hours of hand work!

  • wklees

    Ok, I floored, infatuated and in love. Please leave credits for the musicians.

  • Steve_OH

    Doesn’t it seem a little odd to hold a class, complete with supplied materials, to attempt to reproduce an experience that’s all about making do with what you have?

    I suspect that had you been there to offer them the wood for free, the craftsmen of yore would have been more than happy to build their workbenches out of straight-grained, top quality lumber.


  • Niels

    You, sir, are a gentleman and a scholar. Even in matters of bench joinery, it’s always ladies first.

  • Jonathan Szczepanski

    Hey Chris –

    Those timbers are massive. It’s a good thing that there are plenty of people to help move them around.

    I notice that a lot of people were wearing work gloves when they were working on the machines. While I’m not a card-carrying member of the safety patrol, I am curious as to why. Whenever I have mentioned the idea of wearing them during the initial planing and jointing stage when the timbers are the most “splintery”, I’ve gotten the hammer thrown down that it is too dangerous.

    Is there another perspective on this?


  • John Cashman

    It looks like you’ve scored a bullseye with these benches.


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