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.