Hand tool workbench build #1: Introduction and goals

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Blog entry by SauceMan posted 12-29-2017 06:24 AM 2721 reads 0 times favorited 3 comments Add to Favorites Watch
no previous part Part 1 of Hand tool workbench build series Part 2: Wood selection -- and the verdict is: »

Hi all!

I’ve got this crazy idea that I’ve been hinting at which is to build a workbench entirely using hand tools. I have a number of power tools, including a table saw, a jointer and a thickness planer, but I’m thinking that I’d like to try to make this project by hand.

My goal is to share my progress through an overdue youtube channel I created. Here’s a link to my channel where I go over some of the information you see in this post:

Here's the link to the video that goes along with this post.

For those of you who have followed my posts in the past, you see that I’ve finished a couple of projects but still have a long way to go with respect to woodworking skills. I hope to use this as a learning experience, both from “on the job training” as I do it, as well as from getting feedback from folks through this blog and my youtube channel.

If you have a lot of woodworking experience, please post some advice but remember to be kind—I’m learning here!
If you don’t have a lot of experience, please follow along in my adventure. You may learn something as I do, or perhaps get the courage to do a project of your own—after all, if I can do it, you can too!

So let’s start with the obvious question: What is my goal in doing this entirely by hand?
1. I think of it as a rite of passage. I’d like to be able to prove to myself that I can do things by hand, even if I don’t necessarily choose to.
2. I’ve found that as I build things with power tools, I almost always end up finishing them off with hand tools. What better way to learn than by on a project like this? A workbench will get beaten up anyway, so it’s ok if it’s a little rough around the edges.
3. It’ll be a daily reminder of my successes and failures. I certainly hope it will be more success than failure!

I’m looking at building a split-top Roubo style workbench, following these plans Not sure yet what I’m going to do for vises, the ones at that site are a bit pricey!

First step is to figure out what tools I’m going to use. I’ve got a round-up of tools ready to go:

Above you’ll find the round-up of most of the tools I plan to use (clamps didn’t make the shot). I may allow myself one power tool, and that is either my drill press or my hand drill. That’s mostly to make nice, clean and square dog holes on the bench top. I could go for a bit and brace, but in that case I’d be building a skill that I wouldn’t really apply anywhere else. All of these other tools, from hand planes to chisels to saws, are tools that I may use in my regular woodworking projects. But with cordless drills as convenient as they are, I see little reason to use a bit and brace.

I’ll need a number of tools for jointing, planing and smoothing my wood. On the right you see the five hand planes that I've posted about earlier, as well as two other planes (a Lie Nielsen #4 and a Veritas router plane) that I scored for Christmas. My first attempts at using the router plane were abysmal, but the #4 smoothing plane is gorgeous right out of the box. I aspire to be a good enough woodworker to deserve a plane like that.

You’ll also see a mallet I built as well as some winding sticks, inspired by Paul Sellers’ videos.

Other thing I’ll need to figure out is how to cut my lumber. I’m particularly nervous about ripping 6-7 foot lengths of wood, but I’m sure, like everything else, practice will eventually make, if not perfect, at least less bad. I have a set of Disston saws I bought from eBay and also two inexpensive Japanese hand saws. Between the two I have more experience with the Japanese ones, but I’m concerned about their flexibility—I see myself accidentally folding the blade as I pass it through the wood and then being stuck until a replacement comes. That being said, the little I’ve tried the Disstons have shown me that I have a lot to learn with traditional push style handsaws and their kerf is much thicker than the Japanese saw.

Please share any help or advice below. The Japanese saw, so far, cuts like butter, but I see people raving about Disston saws. I’m sure I’m doing something wrong, so any advice would be really welcome.

Last but not least there’s the question of wood selection. The contenders are ash and hard maple for now. That’s based on a fair amount of research and also checking the prices at my local hardwood supplier.

Benefits of ash:
  • Hard maple costs 50% more, so it’ll make the project cheaper
  • Being softer may make it easier to work
Benefits of hard maple:
  • It’s considerably harder than ash that may make for a durable workbench
  • I hear that ash may splinter. The thought of rubbing my hand across the benchtop and filling it with splinters is not appealing

I decided to buy one piece of each and trying to work it. I wanted to see how hard it would be to manipulate the different pieces, and, based on that, choose the wood.

My next videos will be working with the different wood and deciding based on that which of the two I prefer.

I hope some of you will follow me on this adventure, I’ll be as verbose as I have been on my previous projects—if not more—because my goal is to document this exercise for others to learn from my learnings and to avoid my mistakes. At the same time, I feel the more I say, the more folks can chime in with some advice to course correct me if I’m going wrong somewhere.


3 comments so far

View HokieKen's profile


11981 posts in 1739 days

#1 posted 12-29-2017 01:35 PM

Good luck Sauce. I finished my bench build earlier this year. I didn’t really plan to do it with only hand tools but for the most part, that’s how it worked out. I used large Oak beams and between the weight of the wood and the size of my power tools, it ended up being easier to just use hand planes. I can say that I recieved a hard-won and very thorough education on flattening large surfaces with them. The winding sticks will be INVALUABLE to you!

Here is my blog on my build. You may find some things of interest. Also, I am tickled to death with my vise hardware and have less than $100 invested in the hardware for both of them.

Let me know if I can be of help!

-- Kenny, SW VA, Go Hokies!!!

View SauceMan's profile


57 posts in 1009 days

#2 posted 01-03-2018 02:37 AM

Here is my blog on my build. You may find some things of interest. Also, I am tickled to death with my vise hardware and have less than $100 invested in the hardware for both of them.

Let me know if I can be of help!

- HokieKen

Hey Ken,

Thanks for the post. I see what you did for your leg vise, looks cool!

So your bench is actually done now?

As for me, I need to update my blog here and trim some videos, but I’ve roughly dinebsioned 3 pieces for the top and 8 parts for the legs. Doing rip cuts take about an hour each or more… I’m not doing it right clearly!


View HokieKen's profile


11981 posts in 1739 days

#3 posted 01-03-2018 06:02 PM

Well, I have to admit that I didn’t make a single rip cut by hand in my build :-) For the top, I just 4-squared all the pieces and used them at whatever width they ended up being. When I ripped the legs to final width, they were small enough that I could manage them on the tablesaw so that’s how I did those. Like I said, I didn’t really set out to do a hand tool build. It just ended up that hand planes were easier than power jointer and planer and chisels and hand saws were better for M&T joints than routers and tablesaws. I used whatever did the job efficiently. That just happened to end up being hand tools most of the time :-)

My bench is “sorta” finished… It’s fully functional. I haven’t gotten around to putting a shelf on the bottom or making the french cleat tool rack system I have planned for the back. But other than that, it’s fully functional and been in full use for several months. Eventually I’ll “really” finish it but for now it suits me just fine :-)

-- Kenny, SW VA, Go Hokies!!!

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