Projects #1: Sometimes a Bench is a Bench

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Blog entry by TampaTom posted 03-16-2009 06:39 PM 1618 reads 0 times favorited 5 comments Add to Favorites Watch
no previous part Part 1 of Projects series Part 2: Stuff I've Built - The Fujiwhara Chest »

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.

But, 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.

That’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.

No 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.

He 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 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 2×4’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?

Sure, 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!

-- Tom's Workbench -

5 comments so far

View Francisco Luna's profile

Francisco Luna

969 posts in 3994 days

#1 posted 03-16-2009 08:05 PM

The most important thing any Woodworker should have, is judgment, criterion.
There is an entire nation doing the holtzapffel workbench …....that’s boring!
Smart conclusions.

-- Nature is my manifestation of God. I go to nature every day for inspiration in the day's work. I follow in building the principles which nature has used in its domain" Frank Lloyd Wright

View Craftsman on the lake's profile

Craftsman on the lake

3098 posts in 4038 days

#2 posted 03-16-2009 08:59 PM

I hear what you say about benches and people’s coveting of theirs. It’s understandable as long as mine’s the best. ;-)

-- The smell of wood, coffee in the cup, the wife let's me do my thing, the lake is peaceful.

View Todd A. Clippinger's profile

Todd A. Clippinger

8901 posts in 4700 days

#3 posted 03-16-2009 10:36 PM

I use my shop professionally and I wrote a blog covering my workbenches some time ago.

I love the look of the European benches but when I looked at my work style and needs, I chose not to build one for very practical reasons. I cover some of the issues in my blog and have pictures.

Just because I use my shop on a professional level does not mean that my opinion on the matter is more valid than any other opinion. What I offer is a perspective and some things to consider for other woodworkers that are trying to decide what type of bench to build.

Here is the link:

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana,

View kiwi1969's profile


608 posts in 4043 days

#4 posted 03-17-2009 03:04 AM

Good post. So many Roubo,s are being made, I think the depletion of Yellow pine is near. Mr Swartz is the woodworker of the moment and has many followers, including myself, but I can,t see a bench like that in my shop, besides I still haven,t forgiven the French for blowing up the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour.
Todds posting is great, the modern power driven workshop just doesn,t need a fancy old bench, it,s impractical and it,s no longer the right of passage for woodworkers to make their own bench any more.
Personally I,m doing things the old way so I will stick with tradition, but then my hand saws don,t need plugs and outfeed tables.

-- if the hand is not working it is not a pure hand

View Will Mego's profile

Will Mego

307 posts in 4313 days

#5 posted 03-17-2009 03:57 AM

I understand your complaint with the book, and while the things that bothered you certainly didn’t strike me the same way as they did you, you make very valid points! Might I also suggest Scott Landis’ book “The Workbench Book”? It’s as opposite of the other book (which I also love) as you can get. I think Chris’s book makes you think about the details, and Scott’s makes you inspired in the first place. I could no more imagine one without the other, and it sounds like you need a good deal more inspiration in the design of your bench than nitty-gritty things about bench hooks and such. For example, a Shaker-style workbench is like a church to me…it gets one tiny pic and a caption in Chris’s book, and a huge section of Scotts. I’d love to hear if the Landis book improves your mood, and clarifies your thoughts.

-- "That which has in itself the greatest use, possesses the greatest beauty." -

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