Questions answered – more on benches and heights

Here is an email I received and it’s not the first but one of many along similar lines. I think I have answered them in past blogs but less specifically and so I thought that this blog might help other to understand what I feel about benches and heights and where I might rest my thoughts.

Hi Paul,
I just had a few quick questions regarding your noble quest to find the right bench height.
-Is your favorite 38″ inch high bench design (the one you made an instructional video series about) based on a workstyle that uses mostly pre-sqaured stock?
You seem to work around brutal planing in your videos by using lubricant and a nimble, well tuned plane. Ingenious really.
-Do you ever use a jointer? You also seem to have an excellent face vise to be able to do things like hand-mortise in it.
In your blog entries you seem to say that the roughest work of stock has been relegated to machines, and so benches need not be so massive and low. The hand-tool woodworking gurus we generally bow to in the U.S. (Roy Underhill, Chris Schwarz, Peter Follansbee, and so on) advocate the use of low benches to enable the processing of rough stock by hand. This obviously comes at the cost of the back when it’s time to dovetail something, but seems to be necessary. It’s hard work doing getting enough oomph into the work with my 33 inch bench as it is! Anyway thank you for challenging the status quo the way you do! You offer a refreshing and enormously helpful perspective.
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My personal experience with benches, working at them and building many dozens of them spans 50 years. This work has been daily working six days a week and mostly 10-12 hours a day on average. Since the days of my apprenticeship I have never heard of anyone else who has done this, but I know they are there. I suppose my perspective has a little substance because I have been standing within six inches of a bench corner and its vise for that length of time.

I worry at how quickly we look to others for expertise, mostly because they hold special positions and are in some measure gifted speakers, writers, presenters and so on. People question me on many issues avery day and I respect them for it. A background researching old books, making films, even making benches doesn’t always qualify us to advise people. I am careful with my answers because they have long term effects on others. I think most of those giving advice generally care that they offer quality advice too. So here are my own thoughts for what they are worth.

I think that benches were lower for many reasons not the least of which is lifting large frames, chests of drawers, boxes and such during construction to work on on top of the bench. This raises the work height for subsequent tasks such as planing and sawing on the the project, inlaying it, trimming it out and carving it; all good reasons for a lower bench to work at. The vise too is used for more than just joinery. When you plane a frame’s edge it can be positioned to almost any height in the vise. With a sharp, well-adjusted plane, you need only minimal downward pressure but accurate forward thrust. This is so for planing square stock and board edges. You can move these items in the vise to suit you and your personal comfort-height at ranges infinitely variable. You see, if you give the impression that the majority of woodworking is planing rough stock smooth and flat it affects your opinion. Most woodworkers don’t do this very often if at all, so the reasoning that lower benches meets the needs of woodworkers today could be more outdated or even archaic than reality. On the other hand, let’s look at the height of men in the 17-1800s, or even only a century ago. It does seem that the average height for males is now 4″ taller than 100 years ago. The average European and American male is 5’10” or thereabouts. A man 4″ shorter would feel comfortable at 34″. It makes sense then to assume that shorter men needed lower working heights so a typical male working at 34″ would likely feel what we average men of 5’10’ feel today. If a man were six foot plus I would question the long term impact on his back and neck. It’s interesting to see the hundreds of emails from people who shifted from 34″ bench heights and lower to 38″ in the last few months. There’s a lot more to this than we think and I am so glad my bench height matches my back, neck and eyes.I suppose we should all at least consider where, when and whether we should think for ourselves and question what’s behind the authority and especially so if it directly affects our personal wellbeing or those we are involved with.

Yes, I do like to use jointer planes and even jointer machines too. I like them for certain work, but what I like also is to give people what will work on a limited budget and space. I know this all too well. Craftsmen of a hundred years ago didn’t have the luxury of stowing long planes. They had a functionality and purpose and so they had them as I do to work on different bench tasks. I advise woodworkers to buy all the range as they need them and not to feel that they are inadequate to task if the don’t have them all at once. It’s fun acquiring your tools over a number of years, especially with eBay and other secondhand venues.

12 comments on “Questions answered – more on benches and heights

  1. Paul, I copied the bench you built in your back yard, this past summer. Mine is 40 inches high. Woodworking for me is a hobby and my hobby should be fun, which it is. If however my bench were 30 inches high my back would be killing me and that’s not fun.

    I’ve never understood why some people think everyone should have a bench the same height as someone else.

    • Thanks for sharing the work you did. I think that, more and more, people question the work we do and how and why we do it and I think that there have been the Norm’s followers because there was something mesmerising about what was presented that gave the impression handwork was hard work and the machine resolved all problems without realising that machines can be squarely placed where they limit creativity and yet provide a positive service to us. When jigs take longer to guide the machine than it takes to make what we make we have a tail-wagging-the-dog situation. Bench heights are a similar thing. There is a bench height that will suit mister averages like me at 5’10”. Lower benches made my back ache and the reasoning behind them for planing made little if no sense, especially the planing-rough-stock theory because I knew one in ten thousand woodworkers that would plane rough stock by hand in any quantity that would warrant a permanent low bench to support the work. I also knew that a sharp plane pulled itself to task by virtue of the pure physics. That being so, I needed something that gave leverage for me and not against me. Since then I have worked out what I need and I think people are working out their needs too.

    • Richard, ,may I ask what your height is without shoes please? I also think a bench should be higher than advised elsewhere especially considering that planing stock is more about lateral movement.

  2. “I’ve never understood why some people think everyone should have a bench the same height as someone else.” – Richard Olson

    I couldn’t agree more.

    I’m 5′ 6″ tall, with an inseam measurement of 28″ – squat, if you will.
    My bench height is 32″ which allows me to fully extend my arms for heavy chopping and planing. Higher benches place the cutting edge above my center of gravity and lead to fatigue. Chopping mortises at 38″ was excruciating.

    I managed 16 in local 6/4 white oak over a weekend, home at the 32″ elevation.
    Mechanics matter, particularly for occasional woodworkers.

    Few of us are sufficiently conditioned to manage the rigors of a busy shop.

    I would be very curious to see the correlation between inseam (inside leg) measurements and bench height. I would guess that the most comfortable height for most of us is slightly below the navel, about the belt line.

    • Jim, hi. I think that there are many disproprtionate elements to the human form and by this I mean that some people do have extremely long torsos. I know a fiend who has a 28″ inseam and yet he’s 6’1″ tall. Another friend is 6’2″ and has extremely long legs. We worked through bench heights for them and ended up with 38″ for the taller and 42″ for the shorter. Strange really. If you look through the series I wrote on bench heights and some of the comments too, you will see that most people seem to favour the changes to a taller bench. With one student we experimented and added a 2″ floor board to lift him for some operations. He was 5’4″ working at a bench height of 38″. His difficulty was chopping mortises. The 1 1/2″ made all the difference to his comfort levels.

      • Understood.

        You’ve got to have a standard for the instructional setting.
        I believe the solution mentioned, elevating the student is sound.

        The variable (beyond the biometrics mentioned) for people like myself with poor vision is the optimal distance for viewing a task.

        Consider the distance at which most hold a newspaper –
        that’s roughly where I must position a workpiece in order to see what I’m doing, as I fumble along. It’s also the distance at which my arms are almost fully extended, and larger muscles can be recruited to handle repetitive tasks.

        This may be a rare case, as I have failing eyesight.

        To make the most of handwork at a bench, finding a neutral posture is one of the limiting factors. There are ranges of fitness
        among us and we maximize the hours when we are neither stooped over nor contorted.

  3. This topic is of great interest to me as I’m about to build a bench after I make my final move after retiring from the Army. I’m disabled having minimal arm strength and a limited standing time. I have a commercial 36″ bench I got for maintaining our cars and it seems just about the right height.

    One question though: I see you using your saws on your bench when you trim up stock, do you always use your bench for that or do you have a low saw bench like others demonstrate? *I break down all my stock by hand as I don’t own, want machines.

    • I do use he bench and vise more than sawhorses. It’s generally quicker and more secure this way. The sawhorses come into there own for longer boards. Most wood shorter than say 3 feet can be awkward on sawhorses though not impossible. I have used sawhorses throughout my life and always have a pair wherever I am working.

  4. Thanks for responding to my email so completely. (And everybody else’s!) You’ve saved thousands of backs and general confusion on the matter. At least by my vote you’ve changed the entire bench ballgame, and consequently the entire hand-tool revival ballgame. I agree that most people are wave-slaves to a few popularized figures that were not necessarily hand-tool artisans. The issue is that these are the only sources many people (especially full-time students like me) have access to. So it’s pretty nice to have this blog for a change of pace. I would certainly think somebody who manages to actually use up plane blades would know what works.
    If you weren’t on the other side of the planet I’d give you some baked goods and a firm handshake but in the meantime: “thank you.” -Matt Luedtke

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