Your bench is the largest tool you will own and it is very important to your shop. What ever you end up using to work on, it directly affects the results you are going to get. You don’t have to work on a masterpiece of craftsmanship, but there are several features that I feel are essential to a suitable bench. It should be heavy, have a flat, stable top, a rigid base and a face vise that will securely hold any thing you put in it (within reason).
I am of the mind that what’s on your bench is more important than the bench itself. This is not to say you can’t have a really nice bench, but when you have to use backing boards to avoid scratching the surface of the bench things have gone too far. For me the bench is the backing board. I don’t mistreat my bench, but it has its place in the order of things.
There are also many stops and fixtures that are part and parcel to how I use my bench and in the following paragraphs I will go over them in more detail.
The top of my bench is a big hunk of wood that stays put. It is made of Douglas Fir 2 x 4’s glued face to face so I ended up with a bench that was, at one time 3 1/2″ thick. Initial and periodic flattening has reduced this by about 3/8″.
I prefer a softwood bench as it is a little easier on dropped items and Douglas Fir is not as “slick” as a hardwood bench. Another plus is that Douglas Fir is extremely stable.
Just how big to make your bench top is a matter of personal preference. My bench went through an evolution of sorts, being cut down in length and width several times to accommodate changing work habits and different shops. I eventually ended up with a 73″ x 27″ work surface. And while I am happy with the width, at times I wish it were a bit longer. If I ever get a larger shop, I will probably make a new top that adds a foot or so to the length.
I keep the top of my bench well oiled with the same oil and wax mixture I use on my furniture. I wipe the top, once or twice a year, with leftover oil from furniture projects. This keeps stains and dirt from embedding into the surface and the wax in the oil keeps glue that drips onto the top from sticking.
Keep It Flat
Your bench top should be relatively flat but it won’t stay that way. No matter how well it’s made, your bench is going to move with the seasons. Check for flatness at the same time each year or you will find yourself chasing the movement. Also make sure to check it after it has a chance to stabilize to a new shop.
Flattening a bench is not difficult. For the most part it is just a large exercise in planing. When planing check frequently with a straight edge and winding sticks so you don’t compound an existing problem. See the chapter on Handplanes for more on winding sticks and how to flatten a surface.
The base of my bench is built solidly to prevent rocking or any other motion. It is made up of 4×4’s that have checked pretty heavily due to the fact I used green lumber and did not allow them to dry properly. But this doesn’t seem to have had any effect on it.
The base is an integral part of how my bench is used. There are holes drilled in the legs that hold fixtures and dowels to make many jobs easier and more efficient. And along these same lines, if you use a pencil quite often you will find the back of a front leg is an out of the way and convenient place to keep a pencil sharpener.
Remember to build the base as a separate assembly from the top. The legs should never penetrate the surface of the top. I found out why, the hard way, when I first made my bench. Changes in humidity will shrink and expand the thickness of the top while the end grain of the legs stays stationary. The legs will first rise above the surface and then go below it. Depending on the material of your top and your weather this could be a major nuisance. And needless to say I eventually made a new base frame that corrected this problem on my own bench. Mistakes teach lasting lessons….
The height of your bench is important. Don’t think bench manufacturers have the perfect height worked out either. You have to find a comfortable working height for your work habits. I set the height of my bench by standing up and measuring from the floor to the back of my wrist. This put my bench top 34″ from the floor and I haven’t found the need to alter this in the thirteen plus years I have been using this bench. Experiment to find what works for you. Don’t be afraid to alter the height with blocks or a saw.
One thing that has been a great time saver for me is the type of vise I have fitted on the front left corner. It is called an instantaneous bench screw and takes it’s name from the fact that it only takes a quarter turn of the handle to lock or unlock. There are no threads and it has to be seen to be truly appreciated. About the only way to get one is to haunt the junk shops and yard sales. I got mine in a trade from a friend more than fifteen years ago. Come to think of it, it may have been the first tool I obtained.
Screw type vises are entirely suitable; just make sure you get one with a quick release feature. The quick release will save a considerable amount of time.
The other type of vise I have fitted to my bench is a twin-screw face vise that is actually on the back side of my bench. This vise is made up of two pieces of threaded rod, a few nuts and washers and a 4 x 4. The threaded rod is fastened through the back edge of the bench. Two holes in the 4 x 4 allow it to slip onto the threaded rod and two large nuts attach it to the bench. The 4 x 4 serves as one jaw of the vise and the bench serves as the other. Primarily I use it when dovetailing carcase pieces. There is 28″ between the rods so it will hold any carcase piece I am ever likely to put into it. Since it crosses the full width of a carcase side, it keeps the workpiece from rattling around when sawing on the end grain.
I learned to make things without a tail vise so I do not have much use for one. I think they are given an unearned place of importance, but I would not remove it if my bench were fitted with one. For the one time I do find a tail vise helpful, I came up with an alternative made from a couple of blocks and a pipe clamp. This vise is quick to set up and easy to store when I am done with it. See the Carcase Joinery chapter for a drawing of this set up.
I use a variety of different stops on my bench. The one I use the most is just a small piece of Elm that slides in a mortise through the top of my bench. The Elm is tough as nails and the mortise is cut a little small so the stop gets tapped with a hammer to move it. I prefer wood stops over metal because sooner or later you are going to plow into that stop and I would rather hit a chunk of wood with the plane or blade than a metal stop.
For wide boards, panels or carcase sides I use a panel stop. My panel stop is made from a thin slat of maple screwed to a 2 x 2 block. The block gets clamped in my face vise and the end of the slat is C-clamped to the back edge of the bench top. This creates a stop that crosses the full width of my bench. Clamp a couple of stops on the back edge to prevent sideways movement of your workpiece and you are ready to start planing.
Screw type hold-downs are helpful for attaching stops and blocks to aid planing and lastly a large screw run into the top of the bench right next to the edge. This screw/stop enables me to work on boards right along the edge of the bench, mostly when I cut rabbets.
I have several fixtures for my bench. A bench hook is a must have. I just knocked one together from scrap I had laying around. It gets used for cutting small pieces to length, cutting shoulders on tenons and as a substitute shoot board for small pieces.
A support board fitted with dowels that fit into the holes in the legs of my bench is mostly for edge planing, but has other uses as well, such as setting hinges or drilling edges of boards. A board jack sees it’s share of use supporting long boards and a small vise mounted bench is handy for planing small workpieces.
The Workbench Book by Scott Landis will tell you more about workbenches than you ever want or need to know.