Sometimes a bench is a bench

I’m sure there are one hundred ways to build a work bench, and all of them are correct if they meet your needs.

…………………….– Danny Proulx, Building Woodshop Workstations

You wanna brew up an instant argument? Find a group of woodworkers and ask them their opinions about brands of pick up trucks.

For the record, I drive a Toyota Corolla. I chose this car because it gets me from point A to point B with a modicum of comfort while using as little gas as possible. It has a reputation for reliability. The fact that it also happens to be able to hold my entire family is a bonus. Other than that, I really couldn’t care what make the car is.

A traditional benchBut, when you drag Ford, Chevy, Dodge, Nissan, Toyota and other manufacturers into the mix, people become defensive about their trucks. Boastful. Arrogant. “My Ford will tow your Chevy to the junk yard when it dies.” “My Dodge is a beast and will out perform both of your toy trucks.” This conversation can drag on for hours while people go back and forth essentially over what is a utility vehicle designed to carry a load of items.

In much the same way, woodworkers have a tendency to look at their workbenches and compare how they stack up to others. Whether a woodworker believes a huge steamed beech bench modeled after some European standard is the only way or a solid door on sawhorses is their preference, a great deal of personality is invested in the decision.

I have been looking at my workbench recently. Sure, Big Ugly still answers the call without a whine or whimper each time I go into the shop. She serves me well. But, I’m thinking it might be time to do some upgrading.  Some extra features.  A little more heft.

Workbench by Chris SchwarzThat’s where I’m getting stuck.

At the recommendation of many woodworkers, I recently picked up Workbenches, the first book written by Popular Woodworking Editor Chris Schwarz. The book has been touted as a seminal work, required reading for woodworkers of all levels of experience.

I’ve got to hand it to him. I think Chris has written a very well researched book on the topic of workbenches. Besides old photos of woodworkers actually using their benches from bygone ages, his book is replete with drawings, block prints and ads from tool and bench manufacturers from years gone by. This really helped me get an idea of just how these specialized shop tools has evolved from the first flat rock to today’s high-tech offerings.

Chris offers outstanding plans with measured drawings and step-by-step instructions in exacting detail. Chapters devoted to stock selection, bench accessories and the best methods to accomplish certain tasks make this book an invaluable reference for any shop. It’s written in a style where – yes – I didn’t want to put it down.

But, I do have a quibble with the author on a few points.

Workbench drawingNo doubt Chris is imminently more qualified than I to write about all things woodworking. He’s worked with the best. He’s held some of the most expensive tools ever manufactured in his own hands. He’s perched in an enviable position from where he can monitor the latest developments in the craft. When he speaks, his voice carries with it a great deal of authority.

For some reason, his book hit me the wrong way. Chris makes excellent points about the shortcomings of many bench designs. He validly points out that many benches today are glorified kitchen counters – with no access to clamp materials from below – or overgrown dining room tables. However, the way he belabors the point seemed to set uneasily with me.

Frank KlauszHe speaks about other designs – some of which he designed for Popular Woodworking – as if they are somehow beneath a serious woodworker. “Build it like that, and you’ll be terribly disappointed,” is a common refrain. Perfectly serviceable benches such as the 24 hour bench and the $175 bench are dismissed as ‘starter’ benches, perfect for customizing as you would an old Volkswagen Beetle.

What iced me from the book was when he pointed out the shortcomings of the benches found in the shops of Tage Frid, James Krenov and Frank Klausz. There is no question that these men have built incredible works of craft – and art – from their modest benches. While maybe not the ‘perfect’ forms, the quality these men have produced speaks volumes for their ability to use these benches effectively.

And, that’s without saying a word about the Japanese masters such as Toshio Odate who create their masterworks without even touching a western-style bench.

Chris at his benchChris describes his first exposure to the French-inspired Roubo workbench as a near religious experience – divine inspiration into the perfect form and function of what a bench could become. In some ways, I wish he would position himself as less of a Zealot when considering bench forms. Unfortunately, there will be many starting woodworkers who will walk away from this book thinking that any workbench – other than those recommended by Chris – would be a waste of time. Indeed, I can see many up-and-coming woodworkers stymied by the impression that they MUST build a Roubo before they dare touch a tool.

Listen; there are dozens – closer to hundreds – of published plans out there to help you build a workbench. From ultra-quick, ultra-cheap weekend benches knocked out a few 2 x 4’s and some plywood all the way to the could-double-as-an-altar-in-some-minor-woodworking-religion uber-benches – there’s something out there for everyone.

Before you go out and build your bench – consider doing what I’m doing. Look at plans. Lots of ’em. Ask yourself some questions. What am I going to use this bench for? What’s my budget? What skill level do I have? How much space is there in my shop?

An old bench with stories to tellSure, you can’t plan for any eventuality. I could hit the lottery next week, quit my day job and woodwork full time. Of course, my kids could need glasses, braces and piano lessons too…

What kind of bench you work on is a personal decision you will have to make. Ask around. Take all of this input with a grain of salt, understanding that everyone will offer his or her opinion based on what works for them.

Then, go boldly, build your bench – and get back to the fun stuff – woodworking!

By the way, here are some resources I’ve already checked out:

16 thoughts on “Sometimes a bench is a bench”

  1. Tom,

    I couldn’t agree more on the overhyping of certian workbenches. I’m a begining woodworker who does his work in a two car garage that stores two cars and am in the begining stages of building my first workbench. I chose to build the new 21st Century Workbench by Popular Woodworking (with a couple tweaks for cost and skill issues). I chose it because it’s easy to break down into parts I can easily store and it’s modular design should allow me to upgrade a piece at a time over time as I see fit.

    Good luck in your decision process. Let us know what you go with!


  2. Hi Tom………I couldn’t agree with you more. I believe the “aura” placed on the workbench today hinders entry into the hobby for some. That old Black and Decker Workmate….is a wonderful bench to start on.

    Found your “bench zealot” term interesting, the quality of goods I’ve been a part of coming off of 2 saw horses and a sheet of ply has always made me question this high regard by many on “the bench”. For me. it’s the production off the bench that has always held precedent over the aesthetics of a shop.

    Interesting read, thanks………Neil

  3. Woah, taking on The Schwarz! I haven’t read his book yet, but I have to say that you’ve made some excellent points. I’m thinking about making my bench, and am leaning towards a Japanese-style bench. Part of me still feels guilty, though, for even considering forsaking Roubo, which just shows how pervasive The Schwarz’ influence has been the past few years.

  4. Remember, I have nothing but respect for the Power of the Schwarz… I just think his focus got a wee bit too narrow in that book. I was just at the library checking out a few more books – believe me, when I get to building this bench, it’s gonna be very well researched! 😀

  5. My 2 cents is… do not have to have an “all out” bench if you are new to woodworking the idea of a B&D Workmate would be a good place to start. Who knows you might even not like wood working so don’t invest in a lot of expensive materials to build a large bench.

  6. Good write-up Tom. You made me see this book through a different set of eyeballs. At this point in my woodworking career, I really enjoyed reading the analysis of the common workbench designs. There may be a degree of over-analysis in this book, but what would you expect from someone who eats, drinks, and sleeps woodworking? lol We have to rely on some people to take their studies to the extreme, so that at the very least, a filtered version of their message trickles down into the general consciousness.

    As someone who already has a workbench and who could probably write a few paragraphs of his own on its shortcomings, I found the book to be very informative and will certainly help guide my next workbench build. But I suppose for someone just starting out, the book could very well induce paralysis by analysis. I don’t know about you, but I find that it is very easy to get in that trap where you place so much importance on the design that you never get to the building phase. Your knowledge of the importance of the perfect design actually prevents you from committing.

    I think Chris’s analysis is solid and has changed the way I look at workbenches. But you definitely made some valid points Tom. A great take home message is that you DO NOT need a perfectly-engineered workbench to do fine woodworking. Many folks can attest to that.

    But I have a question for you. Chris introduced some ideas that were “Duh!” moments for me. For instance, having adequate clearance under the bench for clamping and having the legs and apron flush at the front, with no overhang. I can’t really find any justification for doing otherwise. Will you include features like this in your design? And if not, do you have a specific reason?

    Great job Tom. Peace out!

  7. Oh, Marc – sure, there were at least a dozen times during the book I slapped my forehead and said ‘duh, that’s elementary!’ The point you made about allowing clearance under the bench is critical – especially due to the fact that I use those hold downs from Jorgenson. And, without a doubt, my next bench will have a built-in planing stop. Heck, I just put two of the toothed models on my wish list over at Lee Valley.

    However, I wasn’t completely jazzed about all of his analysis. I have been able to overcome the flush leg mandate with an easy, elegant and CHEAP alternative that ends up giving me a great deal of flexibility.

    In this article:

    I showed how I use a shop built ‘appliance’ – basically two pieces of southern yellow pine – roughly dovetailed together. The ‘face’ piece is planed to the exact thickness of the face vice jaws, and it can fit in any of the dog holes along the front edge. Using that, I can clamp one end of any board in the vise, and the other to the appliance. I use it for dovetailing, edge planing – the works. Replaces the need to build a complicated sliding deadman…

    As I said during the review – the book is awesome and well worth the read. I’m also checking out the Workbench Book by Scott Landis from my library to see what he has to say – and I also went through my decade spanning magazine collection to grab any and all plans for benches I could.

    Oh, I’m gonna research this one well – and, since I have been approved for two weeks off between Christmas and New Years, well, I think I know what I’m going to be building then… 😀

  8. While I don’t think I’ll be building a straight up Roubo, I do like several things about the bench.
    David over at The Folding Rule was building a bench not too long ago that had some cool features, as well. I’m with you, study up and pick the features that best suit what you want to accomplish. I’ve gotta say, I really enjoyed the book. Schwarz is a good writer.

  9. Interesting observations. Nothing but respect for the Schwarz here, but I have to agree on some of the views that educators are passing along these days. What is worse is that these opinions are amplified by their minions. With the online forums it can get to be a serious bandwagon approach to education of new woodworkers.

    I like the truck analogy. Very good parallel there. As another WW’er in the process of putting together a bench more in tune with woodworking I find myself going back and forth a lot. Too much. It can easily turn into a case of “paralysis by analysis”, wherein nothing actually gets done. When I start to bog down I just go into the shop and remind myself that I have been getting by on 2 clamp on vises just fine, so any more sensible approach will be adequate.

    I think the Woodright’s thoughts on industrialization apply here too. With so many people chiming in that a nice twin screw vise is the thing to get people forget that there are other ways. In contrast there is a user over on sawmill creek “harry strasil” that has great utilitarian benches. No vise, no problem just drill some dog holes and use wedges for holding on the bench top. There are many ways to skin a cat, just choose what works for you.

    Sounds like you are enjoying the design and research phase.

  10. Doug – I’m reading you loud and clear. I may go out and sketch my own plans, borrowing from some of the more interesting ones out there.. but, I’m keeping my eyes opened.

    What has really helped me is reading the Scott Landis Book on workbenches. A real eye-opener. So many different forms of benches out there… Some with totally different outlooks on design and functionality than were put forth in the Schwarz book.

    Fer instance, where Chris vehemently advises against putting any storage under the bench, Landis went to several Shaker museums and found most of the benches had full cabinets under the top. I doubt anyone will claim that the Shakers appeared to be handicapped by the design.

    The process is slow, but I’m in no hurry – after all, I have taken two weeks off in the Christmas/New Year holiday period, and I’m looking forward to building the bench during those days. Actually, I’m kind of enjoying sketching out different features and toying with different ideas…

  11. My bench would embarrass most folks, but fits my space perfectly; it’s six 2×6 boards, heavily jointed on the edges to 2×5, and then splined together into a solid 2×30 tabletop. Added two battens underneath, and a vise to the front.

    I hinged that off of the wall with industrial-strength door hinges, then prop 4×4 posts under the front when it’s propped up, and remove the posts to swing it flat against the wall. It’s not super sturdy, but it’s never let me down, and frees up an enormous amount of room in my small shop for other tools and projects to fit in.

  12. Well, just to give my two cents. Sure even the cheapest of workbenches can get the job done, as well as I could walk to work everyday! But no I chose to buy a car, which is much faster and more convenient than walking. Its not a Cadillac, although it may have some of the same features that I needed or was willing to pay for. Long story short, I always want to know what is the absolute best out there is, with anything for that matter. Therefore I can choose what I need, or what I could replicate myself. There are just too many options out there. I’m quite sure since writing his book, Chris himself, has made improvements to his own bench. That’s the one great thing about our passion. There is no one way to do it, and no one will ever master it. Good Luck!!

    And Great Woodworking to everyone!!

  13. The Roubo craze is getting a bit old. You’ve seen one Roubo bench, you’ve seen them all, lol.

    I like Chris’ book. I learned tons from it. I think I’m still going to build a shaker styled bench, because that’s what I want to look at when I head to the garage. The style certainly worked for several generations of Shaker woodworkers who produced copious amounts of furniture on these benches, dovetails and all.

    For someone starting out, I’d definitely still recommend Chris’ book. However, I’d then say, take the parts of it that were useful and go build the bench you want. Which is probably what Chris would say as well.

  14. James – if I had to build my bench over again, I’d build the Nicholson he had in the book. I dunno, but I like the look of it. But, again, yes there’s a lot out there about Roubo designs. I guess because it’s so big, so simple and a classic. It just seems a tad overdone now…

  15. My issue with “Cadillac” workbenches is that I’d far rather spend money on nice wood that I’ll use for furniture building. I’ve waited about a year, but I’m finally ready to build my bench. I’ll be using big box dimensional lumber that I’ve carefully selected and milled. I’ll also use epoxy to create a flat, durable top surface. Yes, there may be expansion issues, but lots of glue and clamps will look after some of those issues.

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