Perfect Benches Revisited

DSC_0116Perfect benches do exist and usually they are made by, designed for and married to their maker. I think many longer term woodworkers have made more than one bench before finally arriving at what suits them best. I know I have. In designing and making my workbench I arrived at several junctures every decade or so along the way that made me rethink how I worked and how I wanted to work. My age, strength and work needs shifted bit by bit. I became more direct, stronger, more demanding and more precise in my work. My conclusion today leaves me with the reality that owning three benches works well for me and I enjoy the luxury of having three whenever this is possible. One thing I have also concluded is that I do not need a bench lower than 36-38″. Owning New Legacy School of Woodworking has many plusses not the least of which is that I can move around the shop as needed, pick up and use tools at each bench and take advantage of light, bench height, position and so on, but therein is another reality, which is that most of us don’t have time or space to build and accommodate more than one bench. So, in all of this mulling we most of us find a one-size-fits-all bench and suffer minor discomfort at different times during the day. My personal benches are all 38″ high and I didn’t establish it by bending my wrists or finding wrist creases, I have never found that that works at all well for most woodworkers using conventional methods and tools and equipment. Perhaps it does so for those very few who advocate one particular way of working wood with planes. Experience and teaching has taught me differently.

Vises give adjust-a-height delivery

DSC_0125Another influencing factor is whether we use vises to their maximum efficiency. The bench vise is seldom seen or should I say described as an adjust-a-height feature in the bench consideration and so this piece of equipment is seldom included in the equation. The bench height is of course the lowest point that can be used and so adding height is a question of rising above that height and this is why we use vises so much. The vise is as much for adjusting height and presentation to task as it is for secure fastening stock with speed and efficiency. I believe people are working more on benchtops now than ever before because this is mainly what they are told is the norm for planing yet throughout my life with older mentoring craftsmen that trained me, almost all work was definitely held in quick release all-metal vises. These vises replaced old fashioned vises because they were so efficient and strong. They will hold just about everything, which is contrary to the message sent out a few weeks ago in a Popular Woodworking article.

DSC_0008Using the benchtop only means you must generally work at a fixed height. In this I see a dividing line even though I use both the bench top and the vise. The bench top of course supports what will not fit into the vise and therein is the dividing line for me. Ninety percent of what I make is made up from small components as can be seen from my online broadcasts, films and photographs. It’s so infinitely practical. Thin and wide stock doesn’t work well in the vise and so it must be supported on the bench top using dogs, clamps or holdfasts. These are my alternatives when all else fails.

I have used the term ‘Perfect bench-build’ not because the bench itself is so perfect, even though I think for me and my personal needs it is, but because it can be build by just about anyone at almost any skill level using only about ten hand tools, a saw horse or workmate and two clamps. DSC_0017Most of the other benches I know of or have built have complexities to them that make them prohibitive to make and indeed quite intimidating. If there are any benefits to them I have yet to see it, but if there are, the difference would be so marginal it is not worth the massive extra to build them. DSC_0113What made my bench nearer to perfect for me was that you could walk out of Home Depot or Lowes with a carload of wood for under $80 and have a bench made in 30-40 hours. The next day you could install a vise and be working wood for fifty years with no need to change it. On the other hand you could make a more fancy bench suited to your ambitions using the joiner’s bench to do so.

9 Comments

  1. Wardus on 20 June 2013 at 5:44 pm

    Hi Paul,
    Thank you for sharing your experiences and lessons learned over your lifetime of working with wood. You are a natural teacher and explain things very well. I have recently decided to return to woodworking myself after 20 years of office work and life in the rat race. Slowing down to work wood the old fashioned way with simple tools and sweat is a little intimidating but appealing. And thanks to your blogs and videos I have gained some knowledge and confidence to give it a go. Thank you.
    Regards from Ottawa



    • Paul Sellers on 21 June 2013 at 12:15 am

      I think you will be fine. One thing I have learned in the past 64 years is that 99% of doing anything is a made up mind. The rest is purely logistics.



  2. John on 22 June 2013 at 3:50 am

    You mention the way you were trained every now and then. I’d like to know more about your experiences as an apprentice.



  3. J Guengerich on 22 June 2013 at 6:53 pm

    Paul, I’m a bit shocked by PWW putting out negative info on the QR Metal vises. I know that Bob Lang has use them in bench plans.
    I’m going to have to search of that article.
    Thank you for the heads-up.



    • Paul Sellers on 23 June 2013 at 12:54 pm

      I think that sometimes we glimpse over things writers say without really taking full stock of what’s actually said in the statement. It was another unfortunate untruth as was the one before it in the same article stating authoritatively that, “Our woodworking ancestors may have been uneducated and illiterate, but they certainly weren’t stupid.” I suppose that might depend on which ancestors he was talking about, but it seems not too far back because they are making something we are all very familiar with and using the same tools we use now, so he was not talking stone axes. Any way,throughout all of my life working wood, and working alongside hundreds of woodworkers, I never met any of them that fell into that category at all. Every working craftsman I ever worked with and under could both read and understand well and wrote legibly and with a well-formed hand too. I am not sure, but I think our illiteracy levels today are much higher than 100 years ago.



  4. Paul Sellers on 25 June 2013 at 9:23 pm

    My mistake, I was talking about the leg frames and not the laminated top. Shows you were listening! Sorry for that.



  5. Andrew S. on 24 October 2014 at 5:50 pm

    Paul,
    Your perfect bench series was such a inspiration. I have watched the dozen or so episodes many times and I recently purchased the books. I have currently building a similar bench out of line using only 2×6’s. It is very hefty and sturdy and cost exactly $90 dollars to build. I almost bought a cheap flimsy bench for $170. I am a new wood worker 23 and I’ve learned so much from your videos. Again thank you for your inspiration.



  6. David on 13 December 2015 at 4:54 pm

    Out of curiosity, about how many 2×4 strips are required for the full bench build? If I got 15 or so 12′ boards and cut them to 6′ lengths (the length I would like to build), would that be enough lumber? (I.e 30 6′ strips that I could work with for top, apron, legs, etc.)? Thanks!



  7. David on 28 December 2015 at 5:02 pm

    Disregard my response above. That said, a different question for Mr. Sellers would be, are there any specific vises or a particular design of vise that you recommend for the front vise you use? The price ranges can vary significantly between them and I have also understood that the quality of the vise can vary quite a bit as well, depending on where it was manufactured, quality of manufacturer, etc. I’ve seen different vise from a $10 Irwin of sorts to a $300 beauty from Highland Tools. I imagine there is a very good option somewhere in the middle but I am not well-versed enough in the subject matter to know the best options here… Thank you!