Traditional Danish Workbench
I was thrilled to see the article by Bill Rainford in the current issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine in which he gives directions for making a traditional Danish workbench. It’s been a long time (more than three decades) since Tage Frid provided these directions, and lots of new people have taken up woodworking in the meantime. For my money, this Danish style is the most user-friendly of all workbench styles for doing woodworking because of the unique vises, sturdy construction and versatile design.
(Small point, but I believe it’s inaccurate to call this a Scandinavian style. So far as I know this style has been made only in Denmark. The Swedish company, Sjoberg, makes an entirely different style.)
When my wife and I moved back to the U.S. from Denmark in the mid-seventies, I bought one of these workbenches and shipped it with our other possessions. So my bench is 40 years old, still in perfect condition (if you don’t count the stains I’ve spilled on it and one slip of a router), and is my favorite tool. I do all my hand-tool and handheld machine-tool work at the workbench. It sits in a central location among these tools, free-standing, not up against a wall. You see it in many of the pictures in my articles and books.
I had become acquainted with this style of workbench at the cabinet shop I worked at in Denmark. Everyone employed there (16 of us) had one of these workbenches at his station. Most of the benches were over 100 years old and were black from having had linseed oil applied many times over the years.
I don’t apply any finish to my workbench; I just don’t see the purpose. And I also don’t treat the workbench like a piece of furniture, often planing or sanding the surface flat and clean like some woodworkers apparently do. I treat it as a workbench.
I can’t say enough about this workbench style. I even named my shop after it, The Workbench.
On trips back to Denmark, I became acquainted with the small, family-owned-and-run factory that made these workbenches. I even imported 30 or 40 of them (I can’t remember which) and sold them to friends and acquaintances at cost. Also, I believe that Laguna Tools imported them for a while (they don’t anymore). So one or two could show up for sale on the used market now and then.
So far as I can determine, the workbench factory, called ETA, no longer exists, and I don’t know of another Danish company making these workbenches.
Back to the Rainford article, I noticed two significant differences between his workbench plans and my workbench.
The first was the top surface. Bill uses two 12¼-inch wide “slabs.” He suggests using three boards instead of two if you can’t find these widths. My workbench is made with slightly less than 1-inch wide boards laminated to form the wide surface. Wider boards could warp over time with humidity changes and water spills. The laminated narrower boards seem to me a better idea.
(Bill uses hard maple instead of Danish beech, but I don’t consider this a significant difference. Beech could be thought of as Denmark’s hard maple.)
The second difference is the method he uses to attach the lengthwise stretchers to the legs with bolts. My workbench uses a bolt for attaching the front stretcher to the leg under the right vice to allow space for boards to be clamped. But the other three “joints” are held tight by wedges. So when the joints work loose over time due to humidity changes and wood compression (it has happened to me three or four times in 40 years), all I have to do is give the wedges a whack with a dead-blow hammer and the bench tightens up again.
I like this system. Though bolts can also be tightened, I don’t see that they are better.
One more thought. Once or twice in forty years the mortise-and-tenon joints at the top and bottom of the legs have worked loose and the workbench became lose front-to-back. To tighten them I removed the bench top, which just sits on the frame, and drove the wedges that tighten the joints a little deeper. So I don’t understand Bill’s rationale for gluing the wedges in place.
And a final, rather humorous, thought in retrospect. When I got the workbench back to the U.S. and set up my shop, I went for weeks without using it. It was so beautiful. I just couldn’t get myself to risk damaging it. Finally, I said to myself that this was stupid. This was a workbench, after all, and I was a woodworker. I could fix any damage that I might cause.
So I took a carpenter’s hammer and gave the top four or five good whacks, hard enough to leave noticeable dents. Now the workbench wasn’t perfect any longer, so I had no problem starting to use it.
I surely recommend that you build Bill’s or Tage’s Danish workbench if you have the inclination.
— Bob Flexner