Building a Japanese "Workbench"

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Project by NikBrown posted 03-06-2012 12:03 AM 13407 views 25 times favorited 14 comments Add to Favorites Watch

For the last year or so I’ve been slowly sliding more into the Japanese side of Woodworking. My workbench isn’t always the most ideal work surface…. mostly due to the location of the tail vise… it aways seems to be in the way of where I want to saw. So I started researching what work surface Japanese woodworkers use.

Most japanese woodworkers, from what I can tell, just put a big hunk of wood on the floor and sit cross legged. Most westerners (including me) don’t like sitting on the floor much though.

But when Japanese do work standing up, I found a number of different sawhorse styles. During my research I found a old plan by Jay van Arsdale published in American Woodworker Jan-Feb 1990. These sawhorse seems to fit my desires almost perfectly and they are all built using japanese compression joints, wedges and no glue. They are a fun fast(ish) joinery project that gives you something useful to work off of for future projects.

I’ve only made a couple deviations from Jay’s plans, so refer to American Woodworker for all the dimensions.

Full post about this project here:

Right now I just have a SYP 2×6 on top as a work surface, and it works ok. Ideally you want to find the thickest widest board you can and put it on top. I’m considering 2 options: Getting 3 more 4×4′s or getting a 10″ wide 12 quarter piece of Ash. Either way it will be about a 6′ to 8′ long by ~10” wide beam about 3” thick. I’ll try and get something next week and make a post about adding a planing stop.

-- - Where woodworking and technology somehow get along.

14 comments so far

View Kevin's profile


562 posts in 2783 days

#1 posted 03-06-2012 12:08 AM

Very interesting, I can see how this style would be useful.

-- Measure twice, cut once, then sand a whole bunch

View a1Jim's profile


117713 posts in 4061 days

#2 posted 03-06-2012 12:12 AM

Very impressive saw horses nice work.

View Brandon's profile


4152 posts in 3435 days

#3 posted 03-06-2012 12:45 AM

Those are some very nice saw horses. I hope the bench works out great for yoU!

-- "hold fast to that which is good"

View Martyroc's profile


2712 posts in 2790 days

#4 posted 03-06-2012 02:38 AM

Great looking bench, I like the idea, couple of saw horses and a soon a solid top. I especially like the joints that use compression and wedges. Good craftsmanship.

-- Martin ....always count the number of fingers you have before, and after using the saw.

View thedude50's profile


3610 posts in 2962 days

#5 posted 03-06-2012 07:25 AM

the Japanese work is 99 percent soft woods are you going to adopt that part of their style too

-- Please check out my new stores and

View NikBrown's profile


49 posts in 3589 days

#6 posted 03-06-2012 12:17 PM

thedude50 – Nope most of our domestic softwoods here don’t have strait and tight enough grain. Especially those available in the northern midwest. I work mostly in cherry, which I love for it’s easy workability and finished look as it ages.

But there is nothing about Japanese tools or techniques that necessitate soft woods. The tooth geometry for a softwood vs a hardwood saw is slightly different, but you can get japanese saws set up with either geometry. Some of my saws are set up for softwoods and some for hardwoods. In woods like Cherry it doesn’t make much of a difference which way your saw is set up.

My japanese tools happily cut everything from Pine, to Cherry, to Oak, to Ebony, Rosewood and Wenge :) Japanese saws in particular are just a more precise tool than western push saws.

-- - Where woodworking and technology somehow get along.

View mafe's profile


12096 posts in 3573 days

#7 posted 03-06-2012 12:20 PM

Really nice horses.
And nice work you put into them.
Best thoughts,

-- MAD F, the fanatical rhykenologist and vintage architect. Democraticwoodworking.

View Mainiac Matt 's profile

Mainiac Matt

9263 posts in 2812 days

#8 posted 03-06-2012 03:39 PM

Perhaps the point about Japanese style using softwood has more to do with the type of joinery, than the cutting abilities of their saws.

I’m thinking that compression joints need a compressible wood species.

When I cut and errected my timber frame home, I had a local pro help me at a couple different points. When cutting joints in White Pine, he deliberately left the entire line on both mortice and tennon, creating a interference fit. These joints are still paper tight 15 years later.

We could not do this on the joints cut into Oak.

Needless to say, we took the tool to the stick on just about all the frame members (accept the braces) and worked on horses most of the time.

I like your Jap horses a lot. You did a very nice job.

-- Matt -- I yam what I yam and that's all what I yam

View wdworking's profile


31 posts in 2885 days

#9 posted 03-06-2012 04:35 PM

Nice job. Look forward to the rest of it.

-- Craig

View NikBrown's profile


49 posts in 3589 days

#10 posted 03-06-2012 04:37 PM

Sorry maybe I misunderstood about the comment on switching to softwood. :) I’m pretty fond of the japanese style of joinery. They have some insanely complex joints! Do all of them have a use in furniture building? No way! :)

The fundamental idea of using wedges and and pins that push against endgrain is very sound, even in hard woods. There is tons of this in Craftsman and Mission. There is just something cool to me about using mechanical wedging techniques instead of glue. Am I giving up my glue? Not a chance! :) But I’m having fun playing with some different styles of joinery. If anyone else is interested: This is a really good book: The Complete Japanese Joinery

-- - Where woodworking and technology somehow get along.

View handyrandyrc's profile


33 posts in 2788 days

#11 posted 03-06-2012 04:38 PM

My workbench project actually started as a pair of workhorses. I hand cut the tenons for the legs, only to realize too late that I did a pair of the tenons wrong (not 90-degrees from the other end). So that’s why I ended up doing a full bench instead of workhorses. I’d still like to do workhorses sometime.

Yours are gorgeous. Fantastic work!

View Kenny 's profile


260 posts in 2932 days

#12 posted 03-06-2012 09:08 PM

I really like those horses. They look extremely strong and stable.

I’m not sure about where you live, but where I am in Maine, we have a lot of saw-mills all over the place.
If I may make a suggestion, you may want to find a mill somewhat local to you and ask about getting a large straight-sided slab cut for a work surface. Smaller mills are more often willing to take special requests, as their machinery, usually being basic and not computer controlled, is easier set-up for unique one-off pieces like this.
You would be surprised just how accomodating mills can be. I know my local mill employs a crew of all genuine good guys who are more than willing to help you out.
As well, the cost of a massive pine slab is a lot less than you may think!
I pay $0.65 per/bf for pine over 4/4. Even at $0.75 per/bf, a 4” thick, 14” wide, 8’ long slab would only be $28
Bump that up to 18” wide, and your still only at $36

I know some mills will even run it in their kiln if you’re willing to wait for it.

Just a thought.

If you do opt for 4×4’s (which I can understand), it’s still worth looking at rough-cut mill stock, as it’s often much better than home-center crap, and even most stuff you find in some lumber yards.
What you need to watch out for, are veneer log cores.

Good luck with the rest of the build, keep us posted!

-- Kenny

View thedude50's profile


3610 posts in 2962 days

#13 posted 03-07-2012 09:29 AM

yes ssnvet the idea had nothing to do with wither a pull-saw or a dozuki can cut hard wood the fact is the Japanese don’t do hardly any hard wood thus they have come up with tons of great ways to joint the wood their hand planes use blades that cut soft woods very well and hard woods not so good but the chisels from japan are hard to beat I know they are among my favorite My question was more about if you love the working tools will you also adopt the joinery techniques and try using the finer soft woods here in northern ca and in Oregon we have tons of soft woods in huge quantity’s at good prices

-- Please check out my new stores and

View Tideline77's profile


102 posts in 1255 days

#14 posted 07-16-2017 12:42 AM

Great work

I plan to copy this pattern


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