Jury still out on bench heights

DSC_0421From the populous comes more and more information leading to better understanding and greater levels of actual reality. Now that we have passed the 100 mark I would like to press anyone who didnt submit their details to help us with the survey toward better understanding of bench heights to help your fellow woodworkers and send in your information too. Please follow the guidelines below:
It seems that 98% of woodworkers do not use and will never use wooden bench planes for working wood but if they had them they might play around with them for a while. That may be a little sad because they are likely to never fully plump the depths of how brilliantly they work. From a practical point of view, statistically, they shouldn’t really affect the survey because people in general are NOT using them for their real work.
DSC_0453There seems something of a correlation between height for seeing and sawing vertical cuts as in joint making as opposed to overhand ripping or crosscutting lengthS of stock, which usually has little to do with workbenches per se but more to do with using saw horses. Quite distinctly separate aspects of woodworking. Short stock is easily cut in the vise held vertically and shifted up in the vise to expose more stock as you cut. Crosscut ting planed and squared stock of smaller sizing is easily done this way too, or with a bench hook if you prefer.
I have been asking students in the workshops about bench heights too. Not just now but over a number of years. It does seem that many factors affect our successfully establishing a good bench height to work at not the least of which is back work. Our backs seem often to be out of kilter. I rarely meet anyone who doesn’t have some issue with their back be that great or small. Most Americans are very used to sitting at their work too, that translates into being very near to their work. If you are used to this then you feel more comfortable being nearer to task.this confinement if you will somewhat restricts us however because much of our work is a quick interaction between close and arms length. Swing and planing are indeed good examples. It seems many advocates and teachers govern much of their advice according to what they are exposed to and not what people actually do. Going back into history doesn’t altogether help us here at all because we’ve changed and many processes once attributed to bench joiners are now done by machine and that makes great sense. Even hand tool afficionados use different machines to downsize stock into workpiecese for continued conversion and joinery at the bench. In all of this, saw horses make great sense, so there’re is only one area that seems to be somewhat in contention and that’s the act and art of planing. That being so, and some say they gain added strength for overhand, overhead planing, how much actual work do we do this way or should I say does one do this way?
As I have said, I have worked from bench heights between 36-38″ high most of my woodworking life and I have made everything from many dozens of workbenches to dining tables, coffee tables, conference tables and every conceivable cabinet you can imagine. I have also taught 4,500students at my benches which are almost all 38″ but we have a couple additional heights or adjustments for taller students. In general, students between 5’4 and 5’11” seem ver comfortable at the 38″ height and rerely do we need to make any adjustments.
Another factor I think to be important for many is age related. As we grow older and agility for many becomes less than we’d like we tend to bring things to a more comfortable position. For instance, having worked a lot with children and young adultsi notice how readily they resort to working on their knees, bending over and suspending themselves on bent legs to perform a task. Of course this is temporary but none the less tiring of folder people. Older people therefore want to bring the work closer to the eyes and to less stressful positions around the upper body that performs more of the tasks they will be performing.
An issue I have encountered is that we are generally unwilling to change and that’s extremely true of manufacturers too. It’s how we establish bench heights that seems the most iffy to me and has been the case for some time. Walking into a store and looking at workbenches always disappoints me and so too catalogs. The benches offered are always too low for me and I suspect others too. I went to one of my favourite woodworking suppliers and looked up benches in the Lee Valley & Veritas catalog. All of the benches offered seemed to start at 33 3/4″ and max out at 35″. I should be able to say confidently that Sjoberg benches, this has been an industry leader for decades if not a century or so, have it down and are giving people what they need but with thier average bench heights of 34″ I cannot do that.
I conclude that if you do buy a bench that low, be prepared to cobble on an additional block for increasing the height and don’t just accept the status quo. Question bench heights. Try them out, experimant a little. It’s your back, your arm length, they are your eyes and it’s your brain that must feel settled. More and more I come to the conclusion that under 36″ is not just a little too low for a workbench but much too low for the majority of woodworkers and I will also reiterate that there is no one-size-fits-all height workbench either.

Continued support in our survey

Once again we need your help
Here are the definitive questions we feel will help establish factual considerations. The more contributors we have engaged in this, the more accurate the evaluation.

 

Your physical height

Age

Gender

Occupation (Present or former)

Physical disabilities

General health (Scaled 1-5, 5 being excellent)

Current bench height

Satisfaction level (Scaled 1-5, 5 being perfect)

Country living in*

Nationality*

Other information that will help the survey determine more specific issues we might be missing.

 

*Optional. These questions will help us determine if there is cultural influence on height.

23 Comments

  1. Paul Sellers on 25 June 2013 at 5:07 pm

    Could you let me have your height too.
    Thanks



  2. bob easton on 25 June 2013 at 8:42 pm

    Your physical height – 6’0″

    Age – 68

    Gender – Male

    Occupation (Present or former)

    Former – 40 years as computer enginerd
    Present – happily retired, woodworking and woodcarving as much as I can

    Physical disabilities – None, THANK the lord!

    General health (Scaled 1-5, 5 being excellent) – 5

    Current bench height – two heights

    35″ – My 12′ long “English bench” was built for small boat building in which I hand plane very long material, using a variety of refurbished Stanley metal planes. The 35″ heigh (wrist high) is comfortable for that work and for many genreal woodworking activities, but NOT for fine joinery or woodcarving.

    45″ – Which led to a “Bench on bench” that I use for traditional woodcarving and for joinery that requires close precision. This 45″ height is elbow height for me and is perfect for all sorts of close up work.

    Satisfaction level (Scaled 1-5, 5 being perfect) – 5 each for their respective activities

    Country living in* – USA

    Nationality* – American



    • Paul Sellers on 25 June 2013 at 9:22 pm

      Thanks Bob, interesting points there. Higher is best for joinery seems commonly felt. Not too many advocates for lower bench heights all round I think.



  3. jerryinsomerset on 25 June 2013 at 10:56 pm

    Your physical height

    Age 56

    Gender M

    Occupation (Present or former) Current IT worker

    Physical disabilities None

    General health (Scaled 1-5, 5 being excellent) 5

    Current bench height 38″

    Satisfaction level (Scaled 1-5, 5 being perfect) 5

    Country living in* UK

    Nationality* British



  4. Jason R on 26 June 2013 at 1:27 am

    Age: 34
    Gender: Male:
    Occupation: IT Administrator
    Physical Disabilities: None
    General Health: 5
    Current Bench Height: 37 inches
    Satisfaction Level: 5
    Country: Canada
    Nationality: Canadian



  5. mladen on 26 June 2013 at 7:11 am

    Your physical height – 182 cm (cca. 71″)

    Age – 31

    Gender – male

    Occupation (Present or former) – I work in repair shipyard as technical control guy

    Physical disabilities – none (knock on wood)

    General health (Scaled 1-5, 5 being excellent) – 5

    Current bench height – 100 cm (cca. 39″)

    Satisfaction level (Scaled 1-5, 5 being perfect) – 4

    Country living in* – Croatia

    Nationality* – Croatian

    Other information that will help the survey determine more specific issues we might be missing.

    I made this bench a month ago. It is somewhat adapted design of your bench Very happy with it overall. I use wooden hand planes (rabbet, router, fore and smoother) and metal planes. They both work very well, no complaints. And i really like working with wooden planes 😀

    Only problem i noticed with my new bench is that when i use electric drill, it is a bit awkward and tiring because the drill is to high to hold and use comfortably.

    I don’t have a brace but i do have an eggbeater and when using it on the bench it is easier and more comfortable than electric drill.

    Keep in mind that i have used this bench for a very short period of time (a month) so i couldn’t notice some things yet.

    Oh, and i built a few spoons and spatulas, 2 small boxes, a mailbox, and some work helpers (bench hooks, winding sticks and similar).

    Keep up the good work you are doing 🙂



  6. Erik on 26 June 2013 at 1:04 pm

    Your physical height: 5’9″

    Age: 25

    Gender: M

    Occupation (Present or former): Woodworker

    Physical disabilities: none

    General health (Scaled 1-5, 5 being excellent): 5

    Current bench height: 36

    Satisfaction level (Scaled 1-5, 5 being perfect): 4

    Country living in* USA

    Nationality* American

    Other information that will help the survey determine more specific issues we might be missing: It is perfect for plane and chopping work, but feels just a pinch low for fine work on the bench top. I will add 2″ risers over the weekend and see if it finds a happy medium.



  7. Erik on 26 June 2013 at 1:08 pm

    Follow up question: Why would wooden planes effect bench heights? I use my wooden jack plane interchangeably with my Stanley #5, and reach more often for the wooden plane. I have found no difference in the use of it at a height of 36″. Just curious. Thanks Paul.



    • Paul Sellers on 26 June 2013 at 1:40 pm

      In actual fact that’s right. I too use wooden bench planes interchangeably without degrade from one to the other and also without thinking, “Oh, this will be hard.” But I know of two sources who make this an issue where it’s not so I agree, there is no need for a lower bench for taller planes really. At least I never saw men change bench heights because of it.



  8. David Lowton on 26 June 2013 at 7:39 pm

    Your physical height

    Age 35

    Gender Male

    Occupation (Present or former) IT

    Physical disabilities None

    General health (Scaled 1-5, 5 being excellent) 5

    Current bench height 38″

    Satisfaction level (Scaled 1-5, 5 being perfect) 5

    Country living in* England

    Nationality* British



  9. Mark on 26 June 2013 at 10:00 pm

    Hi Paul, I’m realy enjoying your Masterclasses, and love the blogs. I tought I’d give you my particulars as regards bench height.

    Your physical height 6′ 1″

    Age 50

    Gender Male

    Occupation (Present or former) Toolroom Supervisor

    Physical disabilities Chronic back injury

    General health (Scaled 1-5, 5 being excellent) 3

    Current bench height 40″

    Satisfaction level (Scaled 1-5, 5 being perfect) 3

    Country living in* UK

    Nationality* British

    Other information that will help the survey determine more specific issues we might be missing.
    I sustained a serious back injury at the age of 13 which has left me with some restriction of movement. I find lower benches a killer. With my bench raised up to 40″ I have no trouble planing, and I use wooden planes. Wooden planes seem to suit me better, more comfortable to use somehow. So much so I am even playing about making my own, sort of Krenov’ish. I also use a ‘Moxon’ type device clamped to the top when I have a lot of close work to do. I can’t get used to sitting down while working. The ‘3’ rating for satisfaction is nothing to do with the height, but with the bench design. It’s a Sjorbergs, it’s too light the top’s too thin and I don’t like the shoulder vice. Oh, and the cabinet underneath gets in the way of everything. Having set it in a frame to raise it up, the weight has increased a little. Many years ago I used to use what now appears to be called a ‘Reubo’ or French bench and loved it. Having been following your bench build however, I might give yours a try. At least it won’t cost as much to try out, I’ve already bought a Woden vice off Ebay ready for it. Wish me luck!
    Keepup the good work.
    Kind regards, Mark



  10. Stephen P on 27 June 2013 at 4:23 pm

    Your physical height 6’1″

    Age 44

    Gender M

    Occupation (Present or former) Data analyst

    Physical disabilities – None

    General health (Scaled 1-5, 5 being excellent) 5

    Current bench height – 34″ but it’s really a tabe saw outffeed table. New bench coming soon and I plan on starting at 39″

    Satisfaction level (Scaled 1-5, 5 being perfect) 2

    Country living in* USA

    Nationality* – USA



  11. Wardus on 28 June 2013 at 10:52 am

    Your physical height – 5’10”
    Age – 40
    Gender – Male
    Occupation (Present or former) – Sales
    Physical disabilities – have severe arthritis in my upper spine in my back and had a spinal fusion of 4 vertebrae in my neck 22 years ago.
    General health (Scaled 1-5, 5 being excellent) – other than the spinal issues good 4
    Current bench height – 34
    Satisfaction level (Scaled 1-5, 5 being perfect) – 1 or lower.
    Country living in*Nationality* – Canada eh 🙂



  12. Gabriele Lorenzi on 28 June 2013 at 11:44 am

    Your physical height: 6′ 5″

    Age 23

    Gender: Male

    Occupation (Present or former): student

    Physical disabilities: none

    General health (Scaled 1-5, 5 being excellent): 5

    Current bench height: 41″ 3/4

    Satisfaction level (Scaled 1-5, 5 being perfect): 5

    Country living in: Italy

    Nationality: Italy

    I work wood with just handtools and I never found a work uncofortable with my bench. The only problems that I have are my vise (self-made), not so good, and the absence of dogs. But I found this height for my bench just perfect. Never had back pain, never had problems with any works, never wished a lower bench!



  13. Paul Sellers on 7 July 2013 at 1:16 am

    Thanks for this. it is helping everyone reassess what a good and real bench height should be.



  14. Jack Collins on 19 June 2015 at 8:04 pm

    I’m 59, retired on disability, live in Ohio. I’ve had 4 heart attacks, diabetes, just lost 2 twos because of same. I started my carreer before OHSHA and have 2 torn rotator cuffs, 3 herniated discs in my neck, seeminly crushed disks in lower back as well as 2 bad knees with torn miniscus and arthritus. I always tell people if I were a horse, they would have taken me out back and put me out of my misery. I’m guessing my health is about a 3 or 4. I’m 6’2″ and about 260 lbs. I don’t really have a shop. My kids are grown and I’m divorced so the house is my shop. My bench is makeshift Keter work table with 27″ x 60″ x 1.5″ Birch top I picked up at Woodcraft and it is about 34″ high. Do to the aches and pains most sharpening is actually done laying on my side in bed. I started out with an angle jig, but have found with practice I often do just as well freehand without it. The 34″ height comes to my nuckles and is not uncomfortable for me. Although eventually I plan on building a permanent bench and am thinking of making it a bit taller, although I may make it the same height and install the hinged blocks I saw somewhere, giving me an additional 3″ to 5″. Not sure but I may have seen it on your site. I made me a portable clamp on moxon vise, all wood with 1 & 1/4″ wooden screws. My sawbench was 23″ tall but too narrow and therefore a bit unstable. I put a wider base on it and it is now 25 1/2″ high which seems to be a more comfortable height.



  15. Kenneth Berregard on 21 June 2015 at 6:07 pm

    Your physical height – 71″

    Age – 46

    Gender – male

    Occupation (Present or former) – Retired Marine

    Physical disabilities – Lower back has seen better days, shoulders are iffy at times

    General health (Scaled 1-5, 5 being excellent) – 4

    Current bench height – ~34″ (culled from sources as to what the optimal height would be…oops) before running across this blog and joining Woodworking Masterclasses

    Satisfaction level (Scaled 1-5, 5 being perfect) – with life in general – 5, my workbench – 2

    Country living in* – USA

    Nationality* – American with Danish ancestry

    Other information that will help the survey determine more specific issues we might be missing.

    I think that workbench size (W x L) might be viable information to gather as the size somewhat correlates to weight and therefor stability. My bench is 24 x 60 and while non-wobbly, it moves around too much when I lean into the work at hand.



    • Paul Sellers on 22 June 2015 at 12:58 am

      I agree that without any bottom weight and not against the wall the bench can move under pressures and ideally a bench should be a little wider. The bench I use every day is 24 x 60 also, but it is enclosed at the bottom on the ends and back face and has a shelf filled with awkward shaped equipment that’s a little bulky and it stays put and never moves at all.



  16. Justin Spaeth on 21 December 2016 at 2:52 am

    How many students do you have working at these benches at once? I am putting together a high school course on Craftsmanship and think I could put three to a bench working on small desktop projects for a semester. Would this be too many, or would it work just fine?

    Thanks,

    Justin Spaeth



    • Paul Sellers on 21 December 2016 at 9:03 am

      One per bench, Justin, just as for all adults.



  17. Igor on 26 June 2017 at 7:41 am

    Your physical height: 5′ 7″
    Age 34
    Gender: Male
    Occupation (Present or former): development Manager
    Physical disabilities: none
    General health (Scaled 1-5, 5 being excellent): 5
    Current bench height: 36″ (91 cm)
    Satisfaction level (Scaled 1-5, 5 being perfect): 5
    Country living in: Russia
    Nationality: Russian

    I made this workbench to make another workbench ) Planned height of 31 inches (78 cm is my portable workbench), but made a mistake in the dimensions in my drawing. That bench works very well for planing and jointing. If I need fine work not very often I sit down on a stool. I was thinking of sawing off parts of the legs and another workbench to do below, but after reading your articles I noticed that this height is quite comfortable for me. Thanks Paul !



  18. Tone on 22 January 2018 at 1:43 pm

    I’m 6ft. UK have lived in the USA too. Spend a lot of time at my desk and commuting by car 🙁
    My father’s old bench felt much too low (~32″ high?) for me, so I jacked it up to 38″ based on feel/comfort, it felt about right (5/5). I’ve had back & neck injuries, so am quite aware of ergonomics and the impact of inappriate working positions. As a schoolboy I used to jack-up my desk at home as I grew, so was shocked to find my significantly taller (6′ 4″), younger brother had removed all the blocks for his entire schooling! I do leatherwork at my bench as well as woodwork and a higher position helps with that too as it is quite detailed.

    I read a lot about bench heights, so that when it came time to replace Pa’s bench (due to bad woodworm all over), I made my new bench 36″, which seemed to be the highest most folk considered – before I discovered Paul Sellers! :). But I found that a bit too low. So I recently added 2 sheets of 12mm plywood to my bench 32mm-thick bench-top to:
    1. aid fitting my new Rutlands Dakota 9″ Quick Release vice (nice),
    2. raise the bench height to 37″,
    3. better support the holdfasts that I sometimes use and
    4. to allow me to reposition my holdfast holes & end-stop
    37″ seems ok (4/5), but 38″ probably better tho’ (5/5). I should have used 16mm plywood to raise it higher.

    I use hand planes from time-to-time and my longest plane is an old wooden one – it works great :). My bench is probably a little higher than optimal for the wooden plane but not so much so that it is a problem. I’m an amateur and relative newbie.

    BTW I notice that most old French benches – the ones with tops made of 3″ or more deep slabs of beech – are usually between 30″ & 32″ tall, quite low. Perhaps because they used deep wooden planes?



  19. Hayden Thurston on 4 February 2019 at 8:02 am

    I’m currently building the workbench myself, and decided to base it on the same height as what i’d had my kitchen benchtop built to when I remodelled several years ago, as long prepping time left my back an aching mess by the time I was done chopping/dicing etc. The height was determined by where my hands, back and eyes felt the most comfortable working and resting. I’ve just run a tape measure over it, and it comes out bang on at 38″ Who’d have thought.