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Question on Workbenches – Are they Becoming Fanciful

Q:

Paul,

I think what you have written here about workbenches in general is very much so. The hype about workbench design, looks etc. is a bit over the top. In the end of the day the bench need to do what you need to get done. Meaning holding workpieces securely so that you can do the work – whatever it is: planing, sawing you name it. With the hype around benches comes the unavoidable question of which wood you have to take and I think it is very bizarre that everyone is talking hardwoods here. One feels like “2nd class woodworking” if you even mention softwoods… BUT I much prefer having a dent in my workbench instead of the dent in my project piece when I accidentally slam something against the bench… good luck with your hard maple benchtop… I suppose those thinking that way are building workbenches not to use them but to show off a beautiful piece of “workshop furniture”.
Anyways, as much as I like your design (I started laminating the tops this weekend) I am curious to know your opinion about other designs like and especially the Roubo. I can generally see both benches being as functional as the other with the slight difference of a more difficult built of the Roubo. OK, it has no tool well (the reason why I chose your design) but besides this what are your thoughts?
Thanks in advance for bringing some more controversial opinion into the woodworking community Paul, which I much appreciate and like! Keep this attitude and mindset up!!!

A:

I suppose my views on workbenches have been scrutinized by many through the years. Functional benches of old are now receiving more polish and smoothness than ever and at shows and so on draw much attention if they look like a man’s dining table or a new ‘man’s den’ piece. I think some times that they are just enjoyable to make and that’s probably nearer to the truth. Eventually that wears off when the saw catches and the chisel slips. We ultimately end up with a real workbench and that’s what matters.

Though very low, I think that this Shaker workbench at the Hancock Shaker Museum is quite lovely to look at

DSC_0006Over the years there have been many changes and woodworkers of every type talk of their reliance more on bench mass that delivers sufficient weight and stability to give resistance to the many pressures of lateral push and shove, pull and twist work necessary to withstand their impact via plane work and sawing. Fact of the matter is that, in general at least, we no longer need such mass in most of our joinery and benchwork exercises because much of that bulk and mass work once necessary in the 1700’s (when Andre Roubo kept the notes surrounding his workbench) has been redirected; relegated to the machine. Massive tenons for doors and structures are most often cut on tenoners, machines that will hold a 9” x 9” oak section 10’ long and produce a perfect tenon to exact dimensions in under 20 seconds. The same machine will deliver oak rails 2-3” thick by 12” wide and four feet long to the bench top with or without tenons. The Roubo bench itself is a fine looking bench, the question is, do lightweight benches offer the same advantages and the fact is, for the main part, I think that they do. To describe hard maple as tough and resilient would be a true statement, but again, the reality is I would defy anybody to say that pine and spruce are any the less resilient for the task they perform and the tasks we perform on them than hardwoods. It does seem that we live in an age where we keep coming out with sledge-hammer mass and weight to crack the proverbial nut when smart work beats hard work any way you slice it. I think that it is true to say that some engineers complicate what is really quite simple because they like a particular concept. This presents woodworkers like me with something of a battle because the complexities surrounding certain aspects if woodworking are often based on the views of engineers and not woodworkers. This was and still is my battle with the #4 Stanley smoothing plane versus the heavyweight planes now being produced on the three different continents. At first I was very impressed with the Clifton bench planes. They seemed really fine and indeed they really are finely made planes. After a while of using them though I realized that they took a much greater amount of energy to use them and that because of their weight they were less versatile than the Stanley or Record counterparts. Ultimately I concluded that the Stanley deserved recognition as the best plane ever made because of its wonderful nimbleness no matter the opposition. I gave fair play to the heavyweights from all three continents in that I tried them all and worked with them for extended periods and concluded them to be lacking. I felt that it was time to extol the real values of owning a good old Stanley #4 bench plane. The same is true of very heavy benches made from hardwoods. Those that want a heavy bench can buy or make one without criticism from me. They will be nice benches I am sure. The problem lies more in the fact that they are beyond many new woodworkers to build straight off when they indeed need a bench to get started. The bench they can readily make with so little experience should be the one they stay put with because it has real value to them. I like that.

To conclude

I find quick release vises with a sash or bar clamp for dogging beats any and all stock holding devices I have seen develop through the years. They are fast, expansive and hold stock solidly with single-handed movement. I like aprons to my benches and I have seen many people alter the Roubo bench to incorporate aprons and quick release vises to their benches, which is how benches evolve and, for the main part, improve. Some people like authenticity and some like functionality, a rare hybrid. The well in a bench is really a no brainer for me. The tools are safe and out of the way for the main part. Wells work well!

12 comments

  1. David Kirtley says:

    I am put in mind of the saying I heard about fishing lures. Fishing lures are not made to attract fish as much as fishermen.

    I understand where people would feel that a beautiful workbench can add an aesthetic compliment to a work area. Most of the people making these are hobbyists and the feel of the environment is more important than just a pure utility bench would provide. Many years ago, I built one myself. It was a nice experience.

    Now days I lean more towards sheet goods and torsion boxes for shop furniture. My only current woodworking workbench is an inexpensive pre-built that was on sale. Not much to look at, but it is functional.

  2. Mike Webb says:

    I like what you say, Paul. I’m very much a beginner and have felt the hype and “pressure” to build one of those Roubo’s, but it’s way above my current skill level. Your points are reasoned and well-made. I find you exert a calming effect on the ‘newnesss’ effect that urges me to spend-spend-spend. I’m new to your site and blog and am already re-thinking my approach. I need to slow down and really think of what I’ll use the workbench for so I can go from there.
    Not to go off on a tangent, but the tool well; I don’t understand their purpose. What advantage does it offer over just using the table-top to put my tools down on?

    • Paul Sellers says:

      I am lost without the clear space my tool well gives me. 99% of work is right in front of me and within one foot of my vise. More likely within a few inches of it. My vises are heavy and strong enough to chop in and plane and saw in so my work very much surrounds the vise area. My benches are generally two sided with the well in the centre so large work spans the well and gives me extra surface are for things such as frames, drawers and so on. This means I have tools down in the well and can access them for most if the time. In other words the tools are rarely in the way because they are down an yet they remain convenient for most of my work throughout the day or throughout a project.

  3. I agree, each mand and woman should enjoy what they build and what they use. I like the simole fact that people from every walk of life are in fact building workbenches. I counter when some one tells someone else that there is only one bench to build and it has to have houndstooth dovetailed jaws and weight in at a thousand pounds. I actually don’t think that the bench i recommend is so much simple but very doable, inexpensive and as functional as any other bench I have seen. Inspiring others is what this is more about than condemning anyone. Emails, blogs and forum interaction has a way of conveying more harshness rather than reality. In my case, I think Roubo benches are quite lovely as are all the other benches of that era. If I seemed harsh to anyone then I apologise. That was not my intent.

  4. You know, I have worked a lot of planes and the handles may seem logically to be the same size when in fact they are not. I do often find plane jandles too small for my hand and so i take a rasp to the bottom internal corner where the outside of my hand hits hard and rasp off as much as I need to make it fit. This takes about ten minutes to rasp and sand and feels wonderful when done.

  5. Dave Bennett says:

    I think the idea is spreading as I’ve seen a Chris Schwarz post where he is going to present a “big box store’s softwood” workbench that is inexpensive and as functional as the Roubo. ☺

    • J Guengerich says:

      I received that notice too. I believe that he is going to use modern power tools to construct this bench. I can see his reasoning, many use those tools but still desire to learn to incorporate hand tools.

  6. McGlynnOnMaking says:

    As hobbyests I think that whatever is functional and pleasing to us is just fine.

    I’ve been working with a commercial “cabinetmaker’s bench” for a year that is wholly inadequate, and I can tell you there is little that is more frustrating and limiting than a bench that can’t clamp and wobbles.

    I believe Christopher Schwarz’ basic philosophy– who has probably written more about workbenches than anyone — is pretty sound. Basically, make it stout and heavy enough to not move around, make it in a way that it suite clamping material for the kind of work you do, and make it a comfortable working height. He’s built probably a dozen different benches and tried working on them so he can report on the pros/cons of each. Most were out of big-box construction lumber. For myself, I’ll be glad to just finish building my new bench, I keep getting distracted building projects from your book.

    The bench I’m building is a “roubo” type, not because of hype as much as I want a solid, heavy bench. I’m making it out of recycled douglas fir, with just hand tools. In fact, dimensioning the 6×9 timbers for the top lamination was my first significant experience with hand planes. If I can do it…

    I’ve seen some beautiful benches at shows like WIA. Kudos to the folks that built them. Personally I want functional right now, but I don’t think we need to rally against anyone that wants a showy bench. Find something that works for you and doesn’t delay making projects you’re interested in. If making beautiful shop furniture is your passion, that’s cool too.

    Paul’s design looks pretty good and very approachable, and it clearly work for him. If you build a bench and something about it doesn’t work for you, you can change it. You’re a woodworker after all. Or in my case, a metalworker, as I strapped a 150 pound machinists angle plate to my cheap bench to keep it from moving around.

  7. jmpurser says:

    I stumbled across “The Paul Sellers Experience” thanks to your workbench videos. A space had opened up in our garage and I knew I had to move fast to claim it and I wanted a “real” workbench as opposed to the old kitchen table that had been serving the purpose. Google led me to youtube which showed me LOTS of plywood top workbenches put together with “just a few basic” power tools that I didn’t have, didn’t want, had no room for, and could not afford. Finally I stumbled across this guy building a laminated (my definition of “real”) topped workbench is his back yard. Bingo! It clicked. THAT’S what I meant by a bench and THAT’S what I meant by “woodworking”.

    And that I think is the key here. We’re each looking for what strikes a chord within us. Paul’s ideas seem clear and rational TO ME. I see his work including the projects, the educational material, his involvement with the community, and find that it strongly appeals TO ME. And probably most importantly TO ME the first project, building the bench, is in the sweet spot between my current reach and my grasp.

  8. I think often we woodworkers seek validation by what we make and what woods we use. Because pine is considered a cheap wood, in the sense of it being low grade, insufficient in it its own right, we eschew it in the same way we do with certain tools, people and the cars we drive. Prejudice is still alive and thriving everywhere.

  9. Walter says:

    I am almost done with my 5′ long, about 38″ high work bench made with White Wood (they say it is actually Spruce) from a big box store. I am a beginner at woodworking. All I can say is I would not have done it if I had to spend too much or know more than I do as a beginner. As the project progressed and I began to actually use the bench even in its unfinished state, I am very excited and optimistic that the experience is going to be better than I imagined. Thanks Paul.

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