Bench Critique: The Modern European Workbench - Popular Woodworking Magazine
 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Schwarz on Workbenches, Woodworking Blogs

The dominant style of workbench in the Western world is what we call the European form. It’s the bench that Ulmia made famous and the bench that built a million cabinets in the 20th century. It was, in fact, the first “real” workbench I ever worked on at the University of Kentucky, and I got along fine with it.

So it might seem blasphemous to point out limitations of this venerable form. After all, millions of woodworkers use this bench. They love this bench. They wouldn’t trade it for anything.

But here goes.

Please keep in mind that if you like your workbench, I’m not encouraging you to chop it into firewood and give it a Viking funeral. You don’t need a special kind of bench to do woodworking that is extraordinary. The following is intended only to make you think about what a workbench should do with ease. (If you’re interested in delving deeper into the topic, check out my eight-page article on workbench design in the June 2007 issue of Popular Woodworking.)

Each part of every workbench has pros and cons. Let’s start with the base of this bench.

The Base:
Most European workbenches have a trestle design as shown above. These bases can be massive (which I prefer) or can be spindly. The nice thing about this style of base is that it can be disassembled (by removing wedges or bolts) to be transported. The downside is that the trestle-style legs are inset at the front and therefore can’t act as a clamping surface for long boards, panels or door assemblies. You can build a so-called bench slave (a portable stand with adjustable pegs) to help perform this function, but many other simple benches don’t require this extra equipment. And, I’d like to point out, that not all European benches were made like this. Some more Germanic-looking benches had the legs flush to the front edge of the top, allowing you to use the legs as a clamping surface.

The Tool Tray: 
Tool trays are great for keeping your tools at hand , and at collecting detritus. They allow you to use less raw material when making your benchtop, but they offer less support when you are working on flat panels. You don’t have to have a tool tray to keep your tools close at hand. We use racks above our benches in our shop.

The Tail Vise: The L-shaped tail vise on the right side of the bench above is good for clamping panels for planing or sanding (I use a planing stop for individual boards). I like the tail vise for shooting edges of boards and doors. It’s a great spreader clamp. It’s superb for dovetailing narrow drawer sides. But it has demerits. You cannot work directly on the tail vise , pounding and hammering there are a no-no. Plus, I’ve worked on a lot of tail vises that sag as they wear. This sag lifts your work off the benchtop. Some woodworkers like to saw on the end of the bench, and the tail vise gets in the way of this. I don’t saw there so it’s not an issue for me.

The Face Vise: These vises are great for a lot of work on smaller workpieces. But the vise’s guide bars get in the way when you are dovetailing, and the jaws rack when you clamp using only one corner of the vise (a common operation because the guide bars encourage this). Vise blocks help control the racking, but that’s one more little jig to mess with.

The Benchtop Itself: Some European-style benches have a wide apron that bands a thin interior core. This apron drives me nuts when I’m trying to clamp stuff to the benchtop. Other European benches have a nice solid and thick top (as shown above) that is great for clamping. Also (and this is supposed to be a nice feature) many of the commercial versions of this bench form offer a handy drawer below the top. This drawer interferes with clamping and sometimes even with the operation of the dogs.

The Verdict: You can work around all of the limitations of a European workbench, so it’s a good form. But if you are considering building it for your shop, making a few small changes to the form might make your life easier.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 9 comments
  • Christopher Schwarz

    Dave,

    The sliding leg vise is something I’ve been meaning to add to the ROubo for two years now. The fact that I haven’t actually pulled the trigger tells me that perhaps I don’t need it. The leg vise and simple sliding deadman do the job.

    But boy does it look like the cat’s meow.

    The only engraving I know of is from Roubo, Vol. I. He calls it a German workbench. I don’t think you’d really need much more detail to construct it. Just make sure the groove for the sliding section is as far back in the benchtop as possible. That’s the weakest point of any sliding deadman design.

    And for shoulder vises: There are weird hybrids out there. The Lervad Bench (an old Leichtung product) has a shoulder vise that clamps on the outside and the inside of the dogleg. Totally odd. But I’ve never seen a hybrid as you describe.

    Chris

  • Christopher Schwarz

    J.C.,

    Please do send us some photos for a look. Perhaps we can post them here for others to see. I’ll be quite interested to see your nod to Arts & Crafts. I’ve actually never seen a bench with an explict Craftsman flavor. And that’s interesting as the movement corresponded to the advent of manual training.

    Good luck!

    Chris

  • J.C. Collier

    It’s fortuitous for me that you are delving into the subject just as I am building a monster of a bench. It’s made of SYP and will top out between 500 to 750 lbs before I’m through. I noticed a few years ago at my favorite lumberyard that 2x14x16′ SYP looked mighty pretty, we’re talking nearly knot free! I dragged 10 of them home and still have three left.

    It’s 35 inches tall (I’m 6′-1") 33 inches wide and just under 10 feet long. No tool tray. It also has vise screws made of solid Hickory with 2-1/2" diameter threads. My tail vise’ hardward consists of thick members made from Teak (naturally lubricious) and an adjustment system (screws set at intervals against a pressure bar which takes care of any seasonal sag/slop. I’m using wedged through tenons and dovetails and it will have a cabinet base with 3 graduated rows of drawers (13 in all) in which to keep my most perused handtools. There’ll be a sliding board jack and integral runner whose desing I ripped off from the Shakers.

    The top is just under 3 inches thick with a 3 inch thick front apron, a rear apron with tool slots and breadboard ends. And did I mention that it gives a nod to the Arts & Crafts style? Anywho, I’ll send some pics when it’s complete. I guess what I’m saying is, "Mass Rules!"

  • Christopher Schwarz

    Alan,

    Sorry for the extra posts. We’re on a new server and things are quite shakey today.

    As to twin-screws as tail vises, I’ve basically come down to the quick-release solution as the end vise for me. It’s simple. More robust than a proper tail vise. Faster than a proper tail vise. And with a big chop, it offers really really good (if not perfect) support for the work.

    You are right that we all have to find the bench that works for our work (and our wallet!), I just think that we sometimes make it hard on ourselves and try to reinvent the wheel. I know I did.

    Chris

  • Alan DuBoff

    Chris,

    You make a good point about using only one set of dogs and putting stress on a single screw of the twin-screw, but wouldn’t that be a case to disengage the chain and use only the one screw with the dog on it? This is clearly where a traditional tail vise would shine, it allows all of the force to be placed on a narrow area, such as a single set of bench dogs. But in the real world it seems the tail vise is a complicated vise to implement, and the majority of folks that have done it don’t use them nearly as much as they had thought.

    In my last comment I was going to suggest 2 twin-screws, both on the front of a bench, so that you could have both ends of a long board secured and/or allow for planing either way on the bench. That would be overkill also, but could be useful in some cases.

    And BTW, I hadn’t thought that you disliked twin-screw vises, but that you were claiming using 2 of them to not be optimal/sensible. I was merely pointing out that to me the twin-screw is a great vise in that it secures wood well without racking, if desired, and/or is nice to operate. I think you might agree on it’s operation. It’s not an inexpensive solution, but it is a good one.

    As I was working on my bench last weekend, the quick-release nut wore out on the vise I was using in the meantime. Luckily I got it from Lee Valley and they’re sending me a new and hopefully improved nut. I saw a comment in some of your text that getting a quick release vise setup is often a decent solution, and what I did to help assist me in building the bench that I have invisioned in my mind. You would probably find some faults with it, as I will most likely for the way I work over time, but at some point we all need to make a decision on what type of workbench we think will work for the work we each do for ourselves.

    Cheers, (enjoying your articles and changes you’ve made to PWW)

  • Alan DuBoff

    Chris,

    You make a good point about using only one set of dogs and putting stress on a single screw of the twin-screw, but wouldn’t that be a case to disengage the chain and use only the one screw with the dog on it? This is clearly where a traditional tail vise would shine, it allows all of the force to be placed on a narrow area, such as a single set of bench dogs. But in the real world it seems the tail vise is a complicated vise to implement, and the majority of folks that have done it don’t use them nearly as much as they had thought.

    In my last comment I was going to suggest 2 twin-screws, both on the front of a bench, so that you could have both ends of a long board secured and/or allow for planing either way on the bench. That would be overkill also, but could be useful in some cases.

    And BTW, I hadn’t thought that you disliked twin-screw vises, but that you were claiming using 2 of them to not be optimal/sensible. I was merely pointing out that to me the twin-screw is a great vise in that it secures wood well without racking, if desired, and/or is nice to operate. I think you might agree on it’s operation. It’s not an inexpensive solution, but it is a good one.

    As I was working on my bench last weekend, the quick-release nut wore out on the vise I was using in the meantime. Luckily I got it from Lee Valley and they’re sending me a new and hopefully improved nut. I saw a comment in some of your text that getting a quick release vise setup is often a decent solution, and what I did to help assist me in building the bench that I have invisioned in my mind. You would probably find some faults with it, as I will most likely for the way I work over time, but at some point we all need to make a decision on what type of workbench we think will work for the work we each do for ourselves.

    Cheers, (enjoying your articles and changes you’ve made to PWW)

  • Christopher Schwarz

    Alan,

    I like twin-screw vises. If the article came across that I don’t, then I messed up. I’ve used a Veritas twin-screw for many, many years. It’s in the end-vise position on one of my benches. And I dislike it there for many, many reasons.

    Using it like a tail vise isn’t good for the mechanism when clamping using one set of dogs (which is typical). You stress one of the screws. Then you shear the mounting screws off. Then the whole thing stops working.

    I like a twin-screw in the face-vise position. And I like a twin screw that racks, actually. (Why, is probably another post entirely). I think that two twin-screw vises is a fine setup for some woodworkers, but it is overkill for most cabinetmaking operations. That’s all.

    As to tail-vise hardware, sagging is a problem that is still faced by the best bench makers of today. In my discussions with bench makers, they don’t consider modern hardware to be better than old. Quite the opposite.

    Chris

  • Alan DuBoff

    Certainly you could pick apart most all workbench designs, and there will never be a perfect bench to complete all tasks. OTOH, one could easily argue that most all tasks could be completed on the European style bench as well, and that you could produce some of the finest woodwork on par with any craftsman. One shouldn’t expect to find a craftsman inside a bench,..I digress…

    I noted in the recent PWW that your 10 points had some interesting comments in regards to benches, and specific in rule number 4 you rat out a dual twin screw vise as not being a tested design (hi Chris Billman!;-). I would argue that the only downside I can see in having 2 twin-screw vises is the cost.

    I like the twin-screw a lot, and in fact, it got me thinking that the way we work, the way we clamp to our bench, or the way we secure our work so we can work it effeciently…it varies. The twin screw is a great vise, if for no other reason than it doesn’t rack. A non-racking vise is good, IMO. It probably operates more easily than your wooden twin-screw on the Holtzapffel bench also.

    The twin-screw seems a very versatile vise to me.

    BTW, you point out that you can’t hammer on the tail vise of a european bench. and that a lot of them sag with age, but that seems like poor hardware in the past. Is this true with all hardware today though? LN also sells what appears to be a quality tail vise in two different sizes…maybe some folks cheesed on the hardware, or should have designed with better hardware? Cost is certainly a consideration, but I think we all need to make our own decision on what cost we can live with for a workbench. It is a tool afterall.

    Here’s a wild idea for you. Well, not very wild in the sense that it was done on old Fisher Norris leg vises used for blacksmithing…but take a twin-screw and mount it sideways and create a non-racking type leg vise. Mount it mid-height of the top and floor, or use one of the chain driven twin screw type vises that LN sells which is narrower. While this probably wouldn’t be good for all stuff, there’s probably certain things that would clamp well in a non-racking leg vise. And one could say that by design a leg vise SHOULD rack, but I was trying to think of a way to elliminate the bottom pin.

    Some things just require thinking outside of the history books, err…I mean box! (wink)

    Cheers,

  • tms

    Hey Chris,

    I would add one other criticism of the traditional european bench; that it’s too narrow. My bench is the center piece of my workshop, and I like to work at it from all sides. Since I can reach the center from all sides, my bench is twice as wide as the european model. That way, it serves as my assembly table for projects as well.

    Tom

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