Height Of Hand Woodworking Benches Disputed

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Forum topic by OleGrump posted 06-15-2019 09:23 PM 1503 views 0 times favorited 27 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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581 posts in 1593 days

06-15-2019 09:23 PM

Topic tags/keywords: workbench height for handtools

The debate about how tall one should make their workbench has been in progress since we moved from using actual knee-high benches to the more “modern” higher bench. Many are of the belief that benches used for hand tool work have to be low, due to the nature of the work. As much as I respect, admire and enjoy “Mr. Roy”, I can’t understand how the hell he can work at those short little things that fall somewhere between a coffee table and an end table. It’s a wonder he doesn’t walk like Quasimodo from all that stooping. If I did it, I’d wouldn’t be able to stand upright for a week.
I found a complete leg vise at a flea market a couple of years ago. The seller said she didn’t really know what it was for (she thought maybe saddle work :-) but if I was interested I could have it for $15. (I was and DID). One of my axioms is that “Life often interferes with LIVING”, so the leg vise has sat in the shadows since then, unused but certainly not forgotten.
Long story shortened, there was a move about two months ago. The process of building a new workbench has begun and will incorporate the hardware from the antique. (The entire vise cannot be used in this design, but I will keep the original jaws) The feature of this vise I want to point out is that it is a full 36” high. It was NOT a wainwright’s vise, which would be above the top of the bench. The original bolt holes for securing the vise to the main bench are too close to the top. The bench to which it was attached was therefore three feet tall.
In reading the chapter on the Ruobo Bench in “the Workbench Book”, the maker of that bench says that his bench is taller than many others, but he finds when he planes, his legs and upper body do all the work. The user of the Shaker Bench in the same book says that leg vise, at 32 1/2” high is a few inches too short, so he sometimes has to pull up a stool to work on small items. It appears that shorter is not always “better” or even historically accurate when it come to hand tool woodworking. (I have to wonder how many legs have been cut down due to moisture wicking up into them and causing rot…..?
I don’t know that there is a “real” answer to the question. I DO know that the original vise was 36”, and at 6’ tall, it works for me, so the new bench will be 36”. I know I will appreciate not having to curl myself into a human question mark to use the bench.

-- OleGrump

27 replies so far

View JayT's profile


6434 posts in 3460 days

#1 posted 06-15-2019 09:43 PM

Whatever works for each person is up to them. All I know is that at 5’9”, my first workbench was too short at 35-1/2”. Built my current bench at 38” and am much happier.

-- - In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.

View therealSteveN's profile


8911 posts in 1823 days

#2 posted 06-15-2019 09:51 PM

I have always found that to your ring finger, backbreakingly low for a bench where work is to be done. I have always said build it to suit yourself, it is after all, your bench.

My thought is my TS is 36.5” tall on it’s rolling base. I really like that height EXACTLY on a workbench with those wheel sets that can roll, or be completely withdrawn. Like these.

I can roll the bench around, and use it as additional on, or off feed for the TS, support for the TS, and if you get smart and witty you can set a Drill press, Band Saw, and other tools that height to support long, awkward work pieces.

IF you think you want to do some hand cut Dovetails, that bench will break your back, but you can place a Moxon vise, or worktable (mini bench) on top of the bench, and bring the work to whatever height you want it to be.

The rule book belongs to you, as you are the only one who needs to be happy with your shop. Anyone says otherwise, you know what giving a raspberry is, right…... Pfffttttttt at em.

Live well, have fun, and make things.

-- Think safe, be safe

View therealSteveN's profile


8911 posts in 1823 days

#3 posted 06-15-2019 09:55 PM

I was typing when Jay posted. Case in point right there. I am 6’ 2” and have a shorter bench than he does, to each there own. I’m pretty sure The Schwarz started all that ring finger BS. I worked at his bench one weekend, and it darn near broke my back. Trying to cut DT’s they were so far away from my eyes, I could barely see my lines.

-- Think safe, be safe

View BlasterStumps's profile (online now)


2134 posts in 1688 days

#4 posted 06-15-2019 10:02 PM

I would say build them to fit the user. When you clamp something in the face vise for edge planning, it most likely isn’t going to be the same height off the floor as your bench top but that doesn’t prevent one from planning away. Or how about when you are smoothing something like a box or drawer, it is surely going to be higher that the bench top. For the times when I need to get my face closer to the work, I found that a bench top bench is good or I sit in my chair at the bench. Works.

-- "I build for function first, looks second. Most times I never get around to looks." MIke in CO

View MrRon's profile


6188 posts in 4492 days

#5 posted 06-16-2019 12:18 AM

This is an interesting question. The standard height for workbenches and power tools in general has been set at 36”. It may be ok for some, but certainly not for everyone. If a bench is within an inch or 2 of being the right height, people “adjust” to that height even though it is not the ideal height. When building a new bench, it is difficult to know what the right height should be for a comfortable working height. Obviously once the bench is built, it is “set in stone”. A change in the bench height is not something that can be easily done without a lot of work. That is why I say most people will just “adjust” to the bench height, whatever it be and live with it. Only when a new bench is in the works, can you decide the best height. You may have to live with your bench for many years, and if it is not at a comfortable working height, your back may suffer. I have thought about this for a long time and have come up with an adjustable height workbench that has a 12” range of adjustment; from 30-3/4” to 42-1/4”. It was designed to be movable on casters and had to be strong and stable to withstand the punishment given to benches. The design uses 2 scissors jacks tied together and activated with a cordless drill. There are many details and parts that need to be machined, so it may not be a candidate for a DIY project. I wanted to actually build this bench for my own use, but now at 84, I doubt that I will be able to. If anyone is interested, I have a complete set of drawings that I can post, once I figure out how to do it.

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Craftsman on the lake

3882 posts in 4686 days

#6 posted 06-16-2019 01:37 AM

Build to suit. I have a bench that is a large assembly table and suffices as an outfeed table. If I were a big hand tool user with lots of planing I’d probably build it a bit lower. Do whatever works best for you.

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

View SMP's profile


4849 posts in 1154 days

#7 posted 06-16-2019 04:34 AM

Whatever works for each person is up to them. All I know is that at 5 9”, my first workbench was too short at 35-1/2”. Built my current bench at 38” and am much happier.

- JayT

Thats the height Paul Sellers recommends after his research. I made mine about 34” for dimensioning by hand, but now wish it was taller, so making some leg extensions with hanger bolts to raise it to 38.

View opticsguy's profile


11 posts in 1144 days

#8 posted 06-16-2019 05:20 AM

Depending on the type of work I am doing, I need a variety of work bench heights. I often find myself on a place that is 42” to 48” high for close up detailed work and sometimes I need my projects low and use a different location at around 24”. My big workbench is higher than what most people might use if they have only one bench.

The answer is only correct for each user and type of work and projects they are doing.

View JADobson's profile


1449 posts in 3359 days

#9 posted 06-16-2019 05:22 AM

I was typing when Jay posted. Case in point right there. I am 6 2” and have a shorter bench than he does, to each there own. I m pretty sure The Schwarz started all that ring finger BS. I worked at his bench one weekend, and it darn near broke my back. Trying to cut DT s they were so far away from my eyes, I could barely see my lines.

- therealSteveN

I’m pretty sure Chris says “disobey me”. Not exactly one to get caught up on an exact number or hard rules. He might give a recommendation or his opinion but rarely (if ever) more than that.

-- No craft is very far from the line beyond which is magic. -- Lord Dunsany — Instagram @grailwoodworks

View SMP's profile


4849 posts in 1154 days

#10 posted 06-16-2019 05:35 AM

BTW, Paul Sellers shows that if you are finding it hard to plane on a taller bench and putting in too much effort, your plane is not sharp. Interesting video to watch on this topic here:

View bondogaposis's profile


6048 posts in 3600 days

#11 posted 06-16-2019 02:17 PM

It all depends how you work. For me a 36” bench would be way too tall. If you take 6” board and flip it on edge to plane an edge. The work surface would be 42” high, that would be too high for me to plane comfortably. I’m 6”0”, and I built my bench at 32” and it is just right for hand planing. It is a tad low for dovetailing, I built a Moxon vise, and that makes it perfect. Everyone should build the bench that suits the way they work, one advantage of a tall bench is that if don’t like it you can always make shorter.

-- Bondo Gaposis

View bigJohninvegas's profile


1100 posts in 2710 days

#12 posted 06-16-2019 03:30 PM

I think JayT says it best. What ever works for you is the right height for your bench. I am 6’-5”, and do more power tool work. My bench is at 36.5”, and is way to short for me as good hand tool bench.
Due to shop space I needed my bench to double as an outfeed/assembly table too. And this height works for me, for this purpose. I can do finish sanding and assembly work for hours with out back pain.
When it comes to hand tool work, it sucks. lol.
I have intended to build this little benchtop bench to help out with the hand tool work.
I plan on a version of the 2008 link, but just found the 2014 version, so I added it too.
And on the subject of how tall it should be. I have not worked that out yet, but I bet it would be in the neighborhood of 8” to 10” tall. Now that would give me an overall height of 44” to 46” tall.
Since I do more power tool work. My hand tool jobs tend to be little detail stuff. such as setting hinges into a box, or some sort of small inlay work. For a 8’ roubio style bench, maybe that’s a bit tall even for me. but still, I bet I would build that at around 40” or 42” tall for my height.
My jet 16X42 lathe is on 4” blocks, and my drill press is on a 6” tall platform.
At 6’-5”, I got to make things fit me. lol. I think the only correct answer is to make your world fit you.

-- John

View Manitario's profile


2818 posts in 4131 days

#13 posted 06-16-2019 04:05 PM

I think my hand tool bench is ~34” high. I’m 5’10. I find the bench slightly too high when hand planing and a bit too low when using a chisel. I have a moxon vise for sawing dovetails which helps immensely. I’m not sure that there is one good height for a bench!

-- Sometimes the creative process requires foul language. -- Charles Neil

View MrWolfe's profile


1669 posts in 1372 days

#14 posted 06-16-2019 04:22 PM

I like the ability to change my work height too. My bench is the same height as my table saw… 36 inches. I’ve built a moxon that i can easily move to different benches in my shop. It is another 6 inches and I also have a few risers that are another 4 inches or more. I use different heights for different tasks but I am finding that with handcutting dovetails and some hand planing the higher the work surface the better for me. Not all handplaning though, jointing, and thickness planing is better for me at a lower level. Smoothing seems to work great on small or medium size boards at a higher level. Whatever works for you and keeps your back and body from aching and your eyes from straining.

Picture of my moxon set on my tablesaw/assembly table with the 4 inch risers. Also shows a level change in my shop floor that easily lets me step down and bring the work surface another 8 inches taller.
Not great for everything but perfect for dovetails for me.

Here is the moxon on my bench without the risers.

and here is the bench without the moxon or risers.

View OleGrump's profile


581 posts in 1593 days

#15 posted 06-16-2019 05:22 PM

The bench under construction will have the leg vise at the front left and an end vise on the right end. For edge planing, the leg vise and a board jack (or dead man” will hold the edge at the desired height. There will be an auxiliary, portable twin screw vise for dove tails and the like. The TS vise being clamped to the bench top or held between dogs will bring it up to a nice height. I like the idea of having it made this way, so it can be quickly attached when needed and stored away when not in use.

-- OleGrump

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