What Makes My Bench Work
A video tour of a workbench that was 30 years in the making
My first bench held up to more than 30 years of hard use, a testament to its construction. So when I designed a new bench (A Workbench 30 Years in the Making), I kept some features from the first, improving them as needed, and added a few completely new ideas.
Big top, lots of benefits
The benchtop is a bit larger than that on my old bench. I made it big enough to hold a large case piece in almost any clamping arrangement, with room for many tools. It’s thick and stiff, with beefy breadboard ends that will help it remain flat.
The top looks like a bunch of 12/4 planks glued together, but it’s actually three layers of 1-in.-thick boards.
There are a few benefits to this arrangement. It’s more handsome than a butcher-block top with many gluelines, it’s very stable so it will stay flat, and it’s an economical way to use materials. I used hard maple, yellow birch, and beech for the top, dedicating the best of the hard maple to the top layer and breadboard ends, and using narrower and somewhat lower quality material for the middle and bottom layers. Small knots, irregular grain, and other defects are unimportant in these bottom layers.
Good height for hand-tool work
At 35 in. tall, my bench will work for a wide range of tasks, from handwork to machine work to assembly jobs. But I’m fairly tall. You may have to experiment to find a comfortable height. Building the top on sawhorses will allow you to play with different heights to dial in the comfort level.
Sturdy base defies racking forces
I designed the base of the bench to hold a heavy load (the top weighs more than 200 lb.) but more importantly to be rigid enough down its length and across its width to withstand the racking forces created by handplaning. Beefy mortise and tenon joinery holds all the parts together.
The base on my old bench has a wedged dovetail joint that connects the long rails to the posts, and the rails would loosen every winter in the dry heat of my shop. A better system is a 5/16-in. steel rod with threaded ends that runs in a groove the entire length of each long rail and through the posts. The rods let me take up any looseness in the joints over time (which will certainly happen), and make it easy to knock down, if needed. For the parts I used 12/4 ash, a sweet-working, strong, stable wood.
Plenty of ways to hold work
Because I do a lot of handwork, I need surefire ways to hold workpieces. And since I do a lot of curved work, I need all the help I can get in that department. As I did on my first bench, I installed a front vise and end vise on this one. I use them in tandem with benchdogs and a holdfast.
For the front vise, I prefer a simple cast-iron model with a single screw, and I was fortunate enough to pick up a used one at a tool sale (for more options, see “14 Bench Vises,” FWW #205). The inside jaw and hardware of the front vise are inset into the bench so that I can clamp a workpiece flat against the deep front of the bench, say for planing an edge.
For the tail vise, I chose simple hardware (Woodcraft No. 144807). I use the tail vise to hold work flat on the benchtop, using benchdogs. The jaws can hold pieces of irregular shape, such as a curved chair leg, and I line them with leather so I can clamp parts without fear of damaging them.
In conjunction with the vises, I made a bunch of square benchdogs that fit in dog holes cut along the front edge and in the tail vise. For more clamping versatility I drilled a holdfast hole near the end vise. A holdfast is simply an upside-down L-shaped bar that wedges into a hole in the bench with a rap of a mallet (see “Holding Your Work,” FWW #155). Holdfasts can grip work of almost any shape flat on the bench and offer quick and secure clamping pressure. I’ll add more holdfast holes after I’ve used the bench for a while and know where they’ll be most useful.
Finally, I added a wide hardwood sliding stop at the left end of the bench. It can be set high or low and is extremely useful for planing panels, thin drawer bottoms, tabletops, or multiple parts.
A couple of storage items
I like to store important bench tools and accessories at arm’s length, so I added a till and a couple of drawers. My old bench had a till and I found it extremely useful. It’s where I keep pencils, clamping blocks, thin sticks for spreading glue, wedges, and pieces of veneer and leather. I also use it to hang a dozen or more clamps within easy reach. The drawers hold sharpening stones and an assortment of small tools, such as drill bits and indexes, pencils, and paper.
Photos: Thomas McKenna