The Question of Bench Heights

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This question occurs often enough for me to want to help with. When I owned a walking cane manufactory, every medical organisation took the crease in the wrist as the ideal height for all people to determine the best length to cut the cane to when the person was standing upright. This generic formula worked well for most people walking with a cane who had some physical agility, but customising the cut was the best of all. The problem was that once the cane was generically cut it could be long enough for a refit or too short for the custom fit. Physical abilities affect bench height and it may have nothing or everything to do with age, gender, dexterity, fitness and more. It’s often said that we can gauge height by knuckle-brushing and that we need ‘over-the-bench’ upper-body posturing to plane surfaces, which I find untrue in general. As a Mr-Average of 5’10 to 5’11, all my benches are 38” to the bench top. DSC_0222At this height I can plane and saw and chisel just about anything. My students seem to work without any problems even when they are at 5’4”. but when they exceed six foot they find it uncomfortable. We have more people over six foot in our UK classes and have two bench spaces to cater to this.

This student above and from Holland was 6’2 and liked using the 42″ bench alongside a fellow student who was 6’4″. Both seemed very comfortable.

11 year old Isaac in the top photo is working at my bench in New York. He made one of the bowsaws a couple of weeks ago in an evening workshop and did it entirely on a 38″ high bench.

How did I establish 38”?

Most planing is planing small components or sections of wood. Rails and stiles, box sides, lids and almost everything is fairly small even on large pieces of furniture and is best held in the vise or by the vise in some way. DSC_0036At 38” I find everything can be planed comfortably near to the working corner of the bench and even large tabletops can be planed perfectly across the bench too. Using the clamp-in-the vise dogging system I wrote of here means I can plane a 4’ wide tabletop 7‘ long at the most perfect height I have found and so too the students in my classes. Does this mean there’s a one size fits all? No, not really, just that you should start tall, try it for a few hours and then cut to height incrementally to match the bench to the person. If the bench is a multi-person use bench, then 38” fits the average person but may not work for shorter people. In that case simply have a floor board called a duck board to gain two inches. Ten 6’ strips of 1″ x 2 1/2” screwed to three or four battens with a 1” gap makes a good shelf under the bench and can be withdrawn and used as a duck board as needed.

It’s what students tell me

Through about three decades I worked at different bench heights in the shops of other people. My own bench when I was at my tallest of 5’11” was 36”. My eyesight was 20/20 and that’s still the case now two decades later. (I wear bifocal readers so that I don’t have to take my spec’s off when I demo and lecture or work in general at the bench or on the machines. The top part is non-magnified.) So getting closer to my work was not really an issue. DSC_0126Working at workbenches belonging to others made me realize that the benches were not so much benches for making but for assembling the components they made on machines; There is a big difference. Though they looked like workbenches, their functionality was quite different. It soon became obvious that the general woodworking workbench had been decommissioned as a maker’s bench and then commissioned in the absence of hand tool work by machinists who needed to assemble machined parts into sub-units and then final assembly for glue -up and clamping. So, with the different functions in mind, and no need for the third hand to hold work being worked firmly to the bench, low benches devolved more as hybrids until hand tools were finally ousted and machinist woodworking replaced them.

Take care not to cut too low

Some recommend benches 30-36” high, and I know that varying lower heights may well suit shorter people well, but for me, now an older man, and the more general majority, these low benches do cause great discomfort, even severe back pain, because knee-bend cannot sustain and support the upper body for prolonged periods of bending and so the pressures are transferred to the lower back and upper arms and neck to compensate. DSC_0114I have used 38” as a standard bench height for about 30 years. The more common complaint is too low and not too high. In fact, I have never had anyone tell me the bench was too high at 38” and students seem quite content in every operation including sawing, planing, chopping and paring, regardless of plane type, tool type or action. I do think that in the absence of anything to compare with they may be limited in judgement, but I also think they are capable of making suggestions and there has, as far as I can recall, never been occasion where someone has hinted the benches to be too high.

What do you say?

I would be interested to hear from readers who have an opinion, provided they are hand tool users in the majority of the work and not machinist woodworkers. The needs are to different for comparison and so would be of minimal value otherwise. Please give your height, age and physical restrictions if any.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NOTE

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17 comments on “The Question of Bench Heights

  1. When I followed your YouTube workbench build, I worked on a low benchmate to do my planing and it absolutely destroyed my back. It was definitely too low. Now, I work on a 38″ bench and my back is fine, but sometimes I find my right elbow doesn’t respond well to a lot of planing. I don’t think this is a height problem so much as technique. 5’11, 40, able bodied.

  2. I am 62 years old, 6’2″ and have no physical restrictions. I followed the “pinky” test and the recommendations by US handtool experts that a low bench is best when I made my beautiful Nicholson bench. It now sits up on 4″x 6″ s and is 38″ tall; it is the minimum height I consider usable. My back hurt and I couldn’t work well without stooping over. I have no difficulty planing.

    I have tried to give these experts the benefit of the doubt and understand their position. I think that if you were using wooden planes to prepare rough stock all day long a bench this low might be optimal for many woodworkers, though not for me. I am really puzzled. These recommendations obviously came from somewhere, but I don’t understand them.

    I now have the creative challenge of making some sort of “feet” for my bench that will look good and raise it up to 38″. This week I gave a presentation to local woodworkers and I strongly recommended that they make their benches “too tall” and then cut them down if necessary. I agree that 38″ should be the starting point, even higher for taller woodworkers.

    • Actually, with regard to wooden and metal cast plane differences, I haven’t needed to make any changes in almost five decades. The difference between plane thicknesses is offset by the lightness of use and friction less grab between metal and wood. metal planes suck to the wood many times more than wood and so it takes less effort to use a wooden plane once you are used to using them. This is not expressed elsewhere so I am expressing it here. The thickness of planes makes little difference to bench height in my experience. If it were so, then so too the thickness of a door or a tabletop, a table leg or a drawer front. We humans adapt to task pretty well, but there is stil an optimum height that will minimise hurting our bodies.

  3. This is a perfect topic for me! I haven’t build my bench yet. And I’m
    researching, trying to decide what I’m going to do, including how high
    to make it. I’m very interested to read everyone else’s input. Here’s
    mine.

    I’m currently using saw horses with a solid core door
    laying on top of them. The height is about 31 inches, which puts it
    just below my wrist when I stand next to it. I’m 5′ 11″.

    When
    I’m doing an extensive amount of planing, I experience some discomfort
    in my lower back. And operations like sawing are uncomfortable because I
    have to bend over too much.

    Yet, when I build my bench, to build
    it somewhere between the current hieght (31″) and 38″. Because I’m
    also considering multiple work surfaces (benches). What I mean by that
    is, a planning bench, a couple of small short benches just below knee
    height, which can be used as saw benches, and for mortising. And a
    “joinery bench” at about chest height.

    All that might be a bit
    overboard. But, I’m thinking, there is not one single bench that is
    absolutely optimal for every operation. And having various work benches
    could help with that. But then again, I’m just a beginner and, I
    could be wrong. It’s happened before. 🙂

  4. 49, 5’11”, physical restriction of too many years typing and sitting. I find lower benches exacerbate wrist pain. For me, the lower the bench, the greater the bend in the wrist that is pushing the plane and this produces discomfort. I squat a bit with my legs so that I can have my forearm almost parallel to the floor, allowing me to push with a straight(er) wrist and reduced pain. If the plane is sharp, downward pressure never seems to be an issue and I don’t feel a need to be “over the plane.” Also, having the plane higher up (closer to my shoulders) lets me push with my legs more effectively. I’m looking forward to building a higher bench.

    • Thank you for this Ed. This is really proving very helpful and so too your answer gave insight to problems not so obvious before today. You made mention of a sharp, sharp plane. Many woodworkers don’t realise that with planes, and spokeshaves too, regardless of bevel-up or bevel-down, the sharpness critically affects the plane’s presentation to the wood. A sharp plane forces the plane sole to the wood and therefore needs only minimal downward pressure. That being an absolute, the artisan need only forward pressure provided the tool is indeed sharp and maintained as closely to a new-sharp level; as possible. Forward thrust, then, keeps the plane down with minimal effort from the hand and arm and so bench height is better higher than lower. In fact, low benches are less practical than we might think. As I said, 38″ is ideal for all planing for those of average height. Now low benches are not too good for sawing either. Better on saw horses or saw benches that can be custom built and fitted to individual need. We can discuss saw horses and benches, assembly benches and so on later. tradition actually doesn’t help too much there either. Oh, by the by. Scraping too seems best at a higher level than say 30-36″. Again man-height is a serious consideration and matching bench to person is critical.

  5. I’m 5’10” and my bench is 38″. I’ve tried several different heights throughout the years, all lower. While working, the bench was always on my mind. Since building Paul’s style of bench at 38″, my mind is focused entirely on my work. Since I no longer give my bench any thought, I’m convinced that it is the perfect height for hand tool work and me.
    Thank you Paul!

  6. Thanks Terry. Sometimes at the schools, esp in Britain, we get more taller men than we have benches for. When that happens we have some 2x4s we jack the benches up with. We have to use two 2x4s sometimes. That takes the benches up by 3″ (75mm). It’s interesting because usually the students are not conditioned by their own benches because they are ‘fresh’ to woodworking. In almost all cases people seem better disposed to taller not shorter workbenches.
    I wonder, in your case, though, if you prefer to be lower or sitting , that the lower bench might be better suited if standing is a problem. Sitting clips off a good 18″ of work height.. Perhaps two benches?

  7. hi paul .i built the bench from your book .i am 6’2” and started the height at 42” which i found very uncomfortable especially for hand planning i drop it to 40″ for a while and then to 39″ which i feel is just perfect for my height.i,am 39 years old ,Irish,and work as a ornamental plasterer in good physcial health

  8. I’m 5’8″, 52, in good health, and sit at a keyboard all day. I originally built my bench at “knuckle-brushing” height, but have added slip-on feet to bring it up to my wrist crease, 34.5″.

    Especially in the last 2 years, my back gets sore from leaning over. Even just a little planing at the original height caused discomfort. The higher surface helps a lot; I may bring it up even more. For some detail operations I use a mini bench-on-bench to raise the work up to the point where my forearms rest on it.

    The argument that I’m familiar with in favor of a lower bench for planing is that it preserves your arms so they don’t wear out quickly. However, that needs to be balanced against the lower back stress, especially as we get older.

    Even when I do a project entirely with hand tools, I’m not doing hours of planing, so my arms hold out long enough to get the job done. I’ve adjusted the bench height to favor my back over my arms.

  9. I am mr average 5’10” and built a bench to your spec and 38″ height. It is very comfortable to work with so I am very pleased with your guidance. I thought it would be too high but thought I could always take a bit off the bottom later, but that is not necessary.

    • I am glad it has worked for you. I know that the answers I get may be from those favouring a taller bench and those who built shorter benches for overhand pverhead work may not be responding, but it does seem from the resutls thus far that taller seems to suit more people than shorter. I haven’t seen any other work comparing this so it is interesting to see what people on the”shop floor” are doing with regards to their working heights, health. personal height, strength and so on. I hope people will keep on letting us know what is working for them.

  10. Paul,
    I am 6’4″ tall. I built a roubo style bench about 2
    years ago. I am finding that I am bent over when doing joinery work. I want to
    build a new bench following your videos. Figuring I should start on the high
    side and work down, what would you recommend for a starting bench height?

    • The important lesson we are learning now is that whereas there is no one size fits all, for hand tool traditionalists who use a higher percentage of hand tools and benches to progress the constructive work of planing, sawing and joinery work we can make the bench we work at match our personal height, age and health needs. By process of elimination we can add or subtract height in a matter of minutes, try out the various heights and settle on what we need after a short experimental process. Because I work at a bench 38″ high and I am 5’10 1/2″ tall I tend to think that is a perfect height for most people. I am 63, in good agile health with excellent eyesight. Someone with a slight variation from this, perhaps me in three years time, may need a higher bench or a lower bench depending on eyesight and agility. This then means that what seems perfect to me is not perfect for others. Customising is what makes it perfect. My thoughts lean more and more to making an adjustable bench height (simple enough) or have two or even three bench heights to work from depending on the work in hand. That would be a luxury, but from the response to the bench height questionnaire it does seem that 38″ suited most woodworkers if average height around 5’10” and actually suited a wider height range of between the height of 5’8″ and 5’11”.
      It’s obvious that assembly work, where machinists complete almost all work except assembly by machine, need a much lower bench to glue up components, clamp and then belt sand and apply finish. I think that they obviously benefit from a vise to hold parts for clean up, minor finessing and such, but that is so minimal I would think that a bent back for a few minutes will be of little concern.
      My suggestion would be to extend your existing Roubo-style bench by adding blocks to the ends of the legs for a few weeks use and try it out. I think that pads of 3/4″ ply could be screwed into the end grain and then subtracted at will.
      You don’t say what the height of your existing bench is and I would be interested in what the height is and what influenced your decision to work it to that height. Double sided carpet tape between the plywood blocks and the bottoms of the legs will work too. Phil’s bench (the one we built for him in the video series on YouTube) is 44″” tall and he too is 6’4″ tall. He loves it and has eliminated problems since he switched from 38″ to 44″.

  11. Late to the post, but if the data point is useful . . . .

    My bench came with my house, and I’ve used it since 2001. I’ve done most everything on it from auto restoration to hand planing and been quite happy with its height. Honestly it never occurred to me to measure it. It was there so I just started using it. I measured it for the first time just now and it stands exactly 37″ from the floor, end to end. (Which surprised me, I didn’t expect it to be level.)

    I had 6 hours of air travel this week, and used it to read that well known pair of books about classic benches. I read the “pinky height” advice, as well as the admonition to keep my weight over my work while planing, and to use the legs more than the arms (neither of which I had ever done before).

    Upon returning from my week long business trip, fresh with no (physical) stresses of any kind, I did an experiment . . . .

    I took an old table top and knocked up some fairly stout legs for it to make it the height of my pinky joint, and clamped it solidly to the front of my existing bench. I wasn’t observant enough to measure that height, but I’d estimate it was about the same as my inseam, 31-32″.

    I then set to planing a pair of oak sides of a small bureau I’m restoring….

    Using the “pinky table” I was in fact able to stay over my work far better, and was certainly able to use my legs more. Again failing as a scientist, I didn’t think to plane one of the panels at 37″ and the other at pinky height, which would’ve allowed me to observe any difference in results. But I don’t think the lower height had an impact in the outcome as far as the work was concerned. (I’m a mediocre hand planer at both heights.)

    What I will say is that I was certainly able to use my legs more while planing . . . but I definitely noticed my lower back starting to cramp up fairly early . . . and went to bed extraordinarily stiff and fatigued. I will continue to experiment just because I enjoy experimenting, but after round 1 I have to say 37″ seems to make more sense physically for my 5’10” frame than 32″…..

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