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Left-handed benches – Do we need them?

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Here is a question from a woodworking enthusiast about left- or right-handed benches:

Hi Paul,

I’m just getting started in woodworking and I’m interested to hear how you accommodate left-handed woodworkers.

Do you have benches set up with vices on the right or do the lefties just learn to work right handed?

I can’t find much information online about this so I was hoping you could address my question on the blog when you have a chance.

David

Hello David,

Well, I want to open this up to other left-handed woodworkers to comment as I think their input might be a better evaluation. I do have a couple of impressions from the 4,000 plus woodworkers we’ve trained,; as an observation really.

Firstly, in every case, students have seemed well adapted to what we might call a right-handed bench, which means the vise is on the left hand corner as you face the bench from the side you work. I haven’t found anyone that stated it was better for them working at a left-handed benches when offered.
I actually feel that there may be no difference because the vise position I find most practical is not so much at the very corner but about a 30cm (12″) from the end of the bench. That at least puts you nearer to the middle of the length of the bench. Both left and right hand people can work from this position.
Secondly, the right hand position of the vise means that all tools are placed and retrieved from in front or to the right side of the vise. This will be more convenient and therefore practical.

Opening it up for left-handed input
To our left handed woodworkers I want to ask if you can you help in this. What are your preferences and needs. What restrictions do you face with vise positioning. Anything that you can add might help us all.

24 Comments

  1. Stephen P on 15 October 2013 at 8:02 pm

    I do prefer a vise on the right side as a left-handed woodworker. I just naturally set mine up that way without every really giving it any thought.



  2. Brent Peterson on 15 October 2013 at 8:10 pm

    I am left handed and I built my bench with a leg vise on the right hand side as you face it. While I like this arrangement, I don’t think I would be impeded by the opposite arrangement.

    If you are building from scratch, I think you may as well put the vise on the right side, but if you are working on an existing bench, I don’t think you will have to “learn to work right handed,” or suffer much.

    Even during the small amount of time I’ve spent at right handed benches, I’ve never had to switch. This includes testing tools on a bench with a scandinavian style vise which sticks out much further than a quick-release or leg vise.

    Other tools set up for right handers have never bothered me. Though, when I purchased a plough plane I was glad to be able to buy a new one designed for a lefty.



  3. Brandon Avakian on 15 October 2013 at 8:47 pm

    My workbench has the vise on the left hand corner as you face the bench from the side you work. I am a left handed woodworker and have found no problems with this arrangement. In actuality, I sometimes use my tools as a left hander or even how a right handed person would use them. This might just be me adapting to where the vise is positioned.



  4. Reed Robinson on 15 October 2013 at 9:21 pm

    Being left-handed, and having built a bench in a traditional orientation, I would very much do it differently were I to do it over again (and I probably will for this reason). The main problem that I have with the face vise being on the left side is that it can tend to be a little bit in the way when you’re planing, because as a left-hander, you plane left-to-right. I find that I have more control while planing when I’m not leveraging my arms across a distance, and any vise, even a PS-approved Record 45 1/2, sticks out from the bench enough to be noticed when planing past it if planing anywhere other than in the face vise itself. Like most left-handers, I’m fairly ambidextrous, but I’ve never found right-handed planing to be comfortable, and it’s certainly harder to match the feel I get when I use the plane in my proper hand. Some authors argue that planing into the vise screw should be avoided, which is also necessary when planing left to right on a bench where the tail vise is on the right, but I’ve never particularly bought into that maxim, at least not on a wagon vise like the one I have on my bench. Anyway, when I have a lot of planing to do, I actually set up a thin planing stop (not unlike the one now offered by Veritas) on the left side of my bench and plane into is whilst working from the back of the bench. This way there’s no vise in the way and I’m much better able to get as close to the work as I want while planing.



    • Alimo on 9 February 2017 at 12:49 pm

      Can’t agree more, it’s not the leg vice that makes the problem but the tail vice. Therefore we lefties should put the leg vice on the right side of our workbench and the tail vice (or wagon vice) to the left .



    • BradLee on 9 September 2017 at 6:28 am

      Good post and I (a southpaw) totally agree. Because I also plane left to right and do a lot of case work – I want my end vice on the left. That is much more important than the face/leg vice being on the right, but since you wouldn’t put both on the same end…. Face vice to the right.



  5. Ganelon on 15 October 2013 at 10:10 pm

    Mainly left handed (not for planes) with a far left vise. I like that the left side of the vise is free for sawing. I would even prefer if it was a left leg vise standing proud of the surface of the bench (not for planing)



  6. Steve Massie on 15 October 2013 at 10:51 pm

    Good question, I am a Lefty and just finished Paul’s bench this past weekend. I made it the way Paul has his set up and even double face taped some shelf liner on the front face of my Record 52 1/2 vice. I am a switch hitter ( in Baseball I can bat both left and right handed however I throw right handed. ) I can use a plane in either position but I can only saw left Handed. I eat , write left handed and also shoot left handed only. So far the little bit I have used it this past weekend I had no problems with it being set up for “right handed people”. So far I love this bench and especially the height, mine ended up at 39 1/2″, I am also 5′ 10 1/2″ tall. Oh yeah I used to Box Left Handed only so maybe that is the reason I am so mixed up LOL.

    Hope this helps some what. As Paul mentioned with the vice not directly on the corner does help me to be able to saw left handed. I am planing on drilling some holdfast holes this weekend.

    Steve



  7. Ed on 16 October 2013 at 12:49 am

    During the month-long, I picked my bench because it was by the window and had good light. It was a right handed bench, but I had no difficulties and Paul really gave us a work out. There was a left handed bench in the shop which Paul offered, but somehow I never even tried it. Ganelon mentioned liking the vise on the left for sawing and I agree completely. I’d like to try a bench with the vise flush with the left edge for sawing. Another thing to keep in mind is that hollows, rounds, moulding planes, and other specialty planes are going to be right handed. I think you will be fine setting up either way and, of course, you can always change.

    Did you know there are left handed measuring tapes? I didn’t know until Paul asked me if I used one. What makes it left handed? He pointed out that the tapes I’d been using, made for righties, had the numbers upside down and backwards for a lefty. I had never noticed. Ever. Not until he pointed it out. Now it drives me nuts if I pay attention to it. Thanks, Paul. 🙂



  8. Paul on 16 October 2013 at 8:37 am

    Maybe only indirectly related, but I’m mixed dominant, which means right hand and left eye dominant. Because the eye leads the body in every action, I struggle to saw and chisel accurately and so was experimenting with switching over to my left hand. I tried sawing and found it much easier to follow the line, except that my left hand is weaker so it would need practice with bigger tenon saws for example.

    A complete changeover to the left worked with archery where I can shoot left handed far easier than right handed. but it’s more difficult with things I am accustomed to doing for long. I was thinking about converting everything over the the left side including planing and positioning my bench vice. Have you any advice on this please?



    • Paul Sellers on 16 October 2013 at 9:43 am

      I think in your case I would suggest positioning your vise as a right hander because so many tools are right handed and for most tasks the eye is less involved than say for sawing. It makes no difference for tasks such as layout and many tasks are benchtop not vise.
      If you want to strengthen the sawing arm get your self a bungie cord and tie it to something and pull and push with your left hand as an exercise when you are sitting in the evening. That will strength the arm and hand.



  9. Philip Lorenz on 16 October 2013 at 8:46 am

    Hi!
    I think a lot depends on what you are used to. However, being new to woodworking (and working with hand tools exclusively, even to break down and dimension rough, large stock), I first depended on a loaner righty bench with a normal metal face vise in the end vise position. After the loaner became a keeper I first moved the vise to a lefty face position on the right side of the bench and immediately loved it. However, as I was planing a lot of large things, both along the grain and traversing it, I soon started craving an end vise. Being somewhat limited for cash I bought a cheap but beautifully working wooden screw taken from an old cider press (it’s huge! and the tpi is pretty nice, too) and used it to build a leg vise from leftover wood to the right side of the bench. ended up moving the metal vise to an end vise position again (this time a lefty one).
    I think this is the way to go for me for at least four reasons:
    1. I use the leg vise to hold a planing stop from Jim Tolpin’s book that has a fairly low profile and is very useful for smaller planks. Wouldn’t be able to do that if the face vise was on the other side. Of course you could fix this by putting an old school (toothed) planing stop on the right hand side of your bench or work with dogs or battens held by holdfasts.

    2. When edge planing longer stock I find that the most pressure on the board goes down and to the front as you’re walking along. I put the far end in the leg vise and use a large Jorgensen type screw clamp to hold the other edge of the board (which I fix to the bench with a holdfast). That way around most of the planing pressure goes into the vise which is much more sturdy. I tried it out yesterday after Paul posted the question and the holdfast keeps knocking free or the board slides out of the clamp. Frustrating.

    3. I agree with the point about having the mass of the bench to my left for a lot of operations. Tools are just more easily available.
    4. At least if you use an end vise (which I am aware Paul is not advocating), your left hand will be in the right position (no pun intended) to grab the handle easily without having to do some weird gymnastics. Just plain easier.

    So to sum up: I guess if you are only using your bench for joinery tasks and do the flatting and 4s on machines both positions should be fine. However, as soon as you use larger hand planes on a regular basis on long stock or want to have a low profile planing stop on the bench I’d recommend using a lefty bench. An also, there is probably a reason why the bench design has evolved the way it is today with the face vise on the left side in a righty world. That sounds like an argument that Paul is usually making when talking about age-old wisdom.

    And another point: While some gadgets for lefties are certainly unnecessary and vastly over-priced when buying them or confusing to use once you got used to the righty variety, people often build their workbench themselves. Especially since you are new to woodworking and haven’t gotten used to whichever type: Why not build one lefty and never go back?



    • Ed on 16 October 2013 at 11:59 am

      Philip- Is your face vice mounted on the left end of the bench shown in the picture and is it mounted as an end vice, i.e, mounted on the short dimension of the bench? Which vice do you use for sawing (tenons, cross cuts, dovetails, etc.) Thank you for the nice description and photo.



  10. Jeremy Buehler on 16 October 2013 at 12:45 pm

    I’m a righty who has a lefty bench. When I made my bench I couldn’t have the vice on the left due to space constraints, so I put it on the right side of the bench, but inset more than 12 inches. It’s worked out OK for me as in my new shop my most commonly used tools are in the well at the vice and to the right, and my less commonly used tools go down the well to the left. I guess it’s not that difficult to adapt.



  11. kevone on 16 October 2013 at 7:26 pm

    As a Lefty, I very much prefer the vice on the right side. I do, however, frequently have to plane right handed. Most specialty planes (for example plough planes) are designed for right hand use.



  12. Robert on 17 October 2013 at 10:15 am

    Is the location of the bench in the room also a consideration for where to place the vice? My bench is positioned in the corner of the room, with a wall on the left. For practical reasons I can’t really change that. I just got a new vice and despite being right handed will install it on the right side. The vice will be too close to the wall if I install it on the left.



  13. Paul Sellers on 23 October 2013 at 10:16 pm

    There is no need to worry about planing any direction you like IF you have a British-made or US-made vise like the English Record vises of pre Irwin descent or a Woden like those I use at the school. There is no doubt in my mind that they lasted for decades of daily use, unlike modern day makes. I have yet to find a modern vise that would last more than a few months of daily use by me or craftsmen of old. Wooden screw vises have not been used except by a very small handful of woodworkers and I have yet to meet one that uses them at all. Most woodworkers are unlikely to use one for general everyday work even though they may be pleasant or interesting to use.



  14. Dejan on 15 March 2016 at 9:12 am

    I’m left handed and i mounted a vice on a wright side.That is a lot better for lefthanded so you can put your tools on the bench in left side and also for saws to mount it in the left side of the bench allways in the reach for hand.



  15. Paul Dallender on 25 March 2016 at 12:09 am

    Well I am just about to build my own albeit relatively small bench due to the limited area I have to work in, based on the one Paul uses in his videos and being a lefty was wondering which side to mount the vice.

    After watching Paul working, my natural reaction is to mount it opposite to his on the right. This is dictated by my body positioning when planing which I would find most natural coming at it left side on. Also being very left handed I would find it more natural picking up tools stored to my left.

    I didn’t realise tools such as plough planes were usually designed specifically for righties which concerns me; since I bought a Record No 50 Combination plane from Ebay. Does this mean I can’t use it coming from the left?



    • John Devereux on 29 December 2016 at 10:31 pm

      Paul Dallender, congratulations on buying a record no 50 combination plane. In 1963 i bought the Stanley equivalent. It has seen much use and my vise is as Paul’s, recessed in from the left end of the vice. Is also stands proud of the bench edge. My first teacher was a sadist who hit pupils over the head with a wooden jack plane if he found them doing anything left handed. He never caught me. When he was facing me I planed right handed, from right to left, and when he wasn’t…. The main thing with the combination plane is to start at the end of the cut?! You are going to plane right to left so start by cutting right up near the left. Work backwards from here starting a little further to the right at each pass, the bottom of the cut will slope to the left until you can work all the way through from right to left. It’s a joy to use. There can be a problem but I use Paul’s solution. If the grain is rising up into the plane iron and tearing is likely take a tiny cut at the far left end to establish where the edges of the cut will be and then run a mortise guage to make a kind of “knifewall” for the grooving plane to travel between. Your no.50 problably has two little snecks screwed to the body of the plane and recesses either side of the plane guides. These are for housing joints, Dados, where you can cut across the grain, the snecks cut first and the plane iron takes out the waste between these lines. Lone ago I made a lot of bookcases using dados. I still have a 100 running feet of books in one.
      If you master using the the combination plane right handed you will then have potential access to wooden moulding planes which can often be purchased very inexpensively. Again start from the left end and they are a joy. They create a finish, both visually and to the touch, that no machine router can imitate. I have machine routers but many of our skirting boards were made with wooden planes. (With scribed inner corners too). Paul has videos on how to sharpen them.

      Some other L-R issues.

      I like sawing lefthanded with the wood overhanging the left end of the vice. I use benchhooks sometimes so I can actually crosscut anywhere. I don’t like left handed scissors. When I taught children I often had children (secondary ages) sent to me to be taught to use scissors. As least as many right hand children arrived as left handed. I managed then all. Right handed scissors: right handed, the thumb pushes against the handle. Left handed, the thumb pulls. Either way you act to pull the blades together as you cut. But I also refused to have school scissors in school; I’d insist on have a decent quality and keep them sharp.



  16. Ed on 6 February 2017 at 10:33 am

    No one mentioned that sometimes you hold the piece of work with your free hand to provide some stability, to catch what you might be cutting and prevent it falling etc.
    For me (left hander) this seems better to mount the vise on the left side of the bench, saw with my left hand, whilst at the same time holding the piece with my right.
    Any thoughts?



  17. Ryan Killough on 26 January 2018 at 5:33 am

    I’m a right hander. For me I don’t think much about convenience when it comes to grabbing the tools with my right hand. My thought is that when you have a long board you are joining with your plane, you want to get a good solid start with the hand plane on that board. If the vise is on the left holding the board and there is a side bench dog that the other end is resting on, then that right side resting on the dog has the potential to be flimsy. As a right hander I must start on that right side and may not get a great start with the plane if the board moves a bit. But, if the vise is on the right, that board is locked down on that side and I’m guaranteed to get a good start and finish off with a smooth even shaving. Just my thoughts on it. I know its contradicts the right hander, vise on left side.



    • Paul Sellers on 26 January 2018 at 7:40 am

      It does but the world is full of different opinions. If the majority of right handed woodworkers for 300 years placed their vises to the left of the bench when facing it one of two things happened–either there was excellent reason that the hundreds of thousands of right handers did it or they just haven’t yet worked it out as you have. I suspect they have though.



  18. Jim Thornton on 7 February 2019 at 4:34 am

    Mostly left handed. Vise on the left corner. Works for me. Easier to saw with the work clear of the bench. Wagon vise on the right. No problem planing into it. I can also go to the other side of the bench and plane left handed into a stop. I use a plane with a fence right handed. I think lefties can adapt to right handed stuff better than righties can adapt to left handed stuff.



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