My first "real" workbench #2: Okay. So why do I need a bench now?

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Blog entry by Kent posted 03-24-2016 03:02 PM 1616 reads 1 time favorited 5 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 1: Benches that I've owned and used Part 2 of My first "real" workbench series Part 3: The tail is wagging the dog »

If you’ve read part 1 of this blog, you know that I’ve never had a “real” workbench. With everything I’ve done in the past, I’d focused on the power tools. That’s not a bad thing, but it meant that I didn’t do ANY handwork that couldn’t be done with a machine, and that if it couldn’t be done with a machine, then I would avoid it :-0

It’s not that I didn’t want to do any handwork, but rather that the machine work allowed me to finish projects faster. I could also learn how to use machines from the many books and TV shows that existed, but I didn’t have anyone proficient in hand tool use to help me out. That and I started doing a LOT of scrollsaw piecework to both pay the bills and to buy more power tools. With this type of work and this cycle, I didn’t NEED a real workbench. Throw in a dozen moves and a half dozen different workshops, and a bench just never percolated to the top of my list of priorities.

So then I moved here, to Ottawa. I have the space to build a workshop (garage), but not the budget. Yet! So I started to tune up some old tools that came with the house while I saved up for the new shop. Lumberjocks, Youtube and the internet have been great, giving me access to resources and techniques that I would never have dreamed possible even just a decade ago.

Then I was run down while crossing the street. It took a while, but my shoulder healed well and my leg is better, although I do have a stretched ligament that slows me down some. But the worst part was the head injury! My vision was shot; my short-term memory was pathetic and my ability to problem solve was effectively reduced to making decisions like “chocolate or vanilla”? It’s now almost 2 years since the accident, and I’m getting better with treatment, but I’m still very limited. Only in the last few months have I started to be able to think through (visualise) a wood joint or a process. Even then, I’m extremely limited in how long I can be effective for.

On the plus side, I can do some work in my basement shop. Using a hand plane or a drill press is okay, but using a router or a table saw is not; I lack the focus, both mentally and visually, to react at a speed appropriate to those tools. Which brings me back to: “Why do I need a bench, now”?

First and foremost: therapy! Using a plane or a handsaw feels really good. Given my limitations, some days I’m lucky if I can wash a load of dishes by hand or empty the dishwasher. Right now I’m just planing pieces of wood flatter so that I can work on my technique, but it feels SOoooooo GooooD that I can do that much, that I know I need to do more.

And that brings me to the second reason that I need a real bench now. If I want to use hand tools, then I NEED some way to hold the work securely. Even my wounded little brain can figure out that I now need a real woodworkers’ bench :-D

It can take me days to work through what should be a relatively simple problem, so I’ll be looking for some help from you for this build. But you’ll need to have the patience of a saint, because I’ll be doing everything at glacial speeds.

My next entries will provide some of my design criteria and what I’ve already figured out.

-- If I knew then what I know now, I'd have made a completely different set of mistakes.

5 comments so far

View Mark Shymanski's profile

Mark Shymanski

5623 posts in 4323 days

#1 posted 03-24-2016 03:11 PM

Slow and steady will get the job done! I am planning on building a bench this summer to replace the Frankenstein one I cobbled together out of an old table. Some of the best things about using this clumsy work table was that I saw some things that I really want to have in the new bench and some of the stuff that didn’t work for me. I’m not sure how much I can help but I will be following your build with interest.

I agree working with hand tools can be very therapeutic and I highly recommend their use!

-- "Checking for square? What madness is this! The cabinet is square because I will it to be so!" Jeremy Greiner LJ Topic#20953 2011 Feb 2

View Kent's profile


276 posts in 2406 days

#2 posted 03-25-2016 03:02 PM

I’ve got the slow part down, thanks. The steady will take a little more effort :-D

Just before the accident, my wife & I decided to allocate a 12’ by 12’ room in the basement to my woodworking until the separate shop was built. We had moved all the appropriate junk into and out of the space, but hadn’t really set it up. Later today I’ll start (re)organizing it so that I’ll have space to build AND use a workbench. Fortunately, this just requires shuffling things around and finding a place for everything. As a bonus, I’ll unbury my “sharpening station”, which is just a block of granite for now.

Next up will be to cobble together a pair of old trestles that I’d built (for a table saw base in another shop) into a solid base for building my new bench top. This should work out reasonably well; the trestles are quite solid and about 30” high. The wood that I’ll be making the top from is recycled softwood from pallets used to transport 4’ x 10’ metal sheets. The pieces are all 3” by 3” by 7-10’ long, and I have a LOT of them. I also have the corresponding 2.5” by 2.5” by 4’ oak and birch cross pieces from the same pallets, for future use.

I’ll be starting to build the top out of the softwood because it should be physically easier for me to mill (plane) the pieces than it would be to mill than the hardwoods that I have. Also, with the larger dimensions, I’ll need to prepare fewer sticks.

Speaking of which, all the wood for this bench will be recycled pallet lumber that I salvaged a couple of years ago; I literally have a ton or two of this stuff. It will require a lot more work to true it up, but that just takes time and effort, two things that I can afford right now.

After I reorganize and as I’m working on the benchtop, I’ll get a better idea of the size and style of bench that I’m going to build. My initial idea is to build something 4-6 feet long, relatively shallow with a tool well, something like this: (Thanks, Mosquito).

I’m leaning towards a wedge powered wagon vise for reasons that I’ll explain when I get around to that part of the project.

I’m also leaning towards a leg vise and an add-on moxon vise. Fortunately I don’t need to make any decisions on those for quite a while. I’m also not too worried about making any poor design decisions; this project is about me building my skills and experience. I also imagine that building a workbench is a lot like voting; for best results, it should be done early and often.

-- If I knew then what I know now, I'd have made a completely different set of mistakes.

View Matt's profile


190 posts in 2028 days

#3 posted 03-26-2016 12:06 PM

Kent, I can sympathize the the concusion comments… I went through a rough couple of years due to a brain injury – and all I did was slip and fall in the driveway!

Good luck with the project! I’m going to restart my bench project this weekend or next, so I will be watching with interest. I’m also leaning toward a wagon vice.

-- I do this for fun.

View Kent's profile


276 posts in 2406 days

#4 posted 03-29-2016 01:44 PM

So I enlisted some help this weekend and got my shop space somewhat reorganised. As bad as this is, it is still FAR, FAR better than it was before we started

In the second photo, you can see the “facilities” that I currently have for planing and sharpening. The Record 4” metal-basher’s vise isn’t very securely mounted to the metal bench, so if something is “secured” in this vise, there’s about 5 degrees of play or wobble.
That’s why I placed the second vise where it is. This 6” woodworker’s vise is somewhat lined up with the 4” vise, so now I can place 5-8’ sticks to span between both vises. With support at both ends and with the additional weight of the router table that the 6” vise is attached to, it’s now much more pleasant to plane larger sticks.

On the floor is the very first of the sticks that I’ll be milling up for the top. I hesitate to call these 3×3” rough-sawn sticks lumber ;-)

The third photo shows where the future bench’s first permanent home will be. Looking at the space, the bench will need to be a maximum of 2 feet by 5 feet. The fold-up table, which is 2’ by 3.5’ will be going away as soon as I finish finding homes for all the “stuff” that currently lives there.

Some time soon, I’ll be interupting my bench build to finish the wall behind this table. I’ll also be adding some Tyvek to keep the sawdust in the shop and to replace the very worn movers’ blanket. Stay tuned for more, but please, please don’t try to hold your breath until then :-D

-- If I knew then what I know now, I'd have made a completely different set of mistakes.

View Kent's profile


276 posts in 2406 days

#5 posted 04-02-2016 12:50 PM

The new arrangement in the workshop is working out nicely. It’s allowing me to experiment a little to see what works well for me and what doesn’t. In Part 3 of this blog I’ll be writing more about that and how those lessons will affect my bench build.

One big bonus of the new arrangement is that I can now have one workspace set up for sharpening my tools and another for planing and cutting my wood. Since I’m still learning each of these, the ability to switch back and forth between them allows me to be productive doing one while I ponder a solution to something that I’ve encountered on the other. As an example, two days ago when I wanted to try something that I saw on a Paul Sellers' video. I didn’t need to tear down my planing setup to do this, which meant that when I got back to planing, I didn’t need to reacquaint myself with the board grain and its high and low spots. If I had had to do that, this small diversion into the sharpening task could have easily added a couple of days to the planing task. Ah, the joys of living with a brain injury…

-- If I knew then what I know now, I'd have made a completely different set of mistakes.

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