Plane Training – Bench Heights and More

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It’s an intriguing thing that theories often become established facts yet have only minimal research to back up the stats. I wanted to approach this thing called overhead planing today, hoping I could present an alternative perspective. Just another view really. Last year I did a survey  and polled our blog readers to get their perspective and to see how their benches worked for them considering core elements such as personal height, age, health and physical condition, impairments and so on. I’d like to open this up again for more current readers who may have missed it, to add their details to those we’ve already gathered. Please see list of Questions below:

DSC_0002In the past I have said that you shouldn’t really need a low bench to bear down on the board beneath the plane because a well sharpened, well set plane pulls itself to the wood. The other consideration is that the bench is used for much more at a the higher height and sub benches and equipment should not be necessary. DSC_0006We carried out tests on the bench to try to show that bench planes, in fact all planes, do indeed pull themselves ‘into” the wood as they are pushed forward over the surfaces being planes. I think this does help to see the theory proven. DSC_0011With the lightest of all practical bench planes, the #4, followed by the slightly heavier brother the #4 1/2, balanced on the surface of a board, I literally pulled the plane to see if the plane iron would bite into the wood and so pull itself to task. You can see the results for yourself:

 

Once again we need your help to determine the best bench heights. many hundreds of people reported improved health and welfare when the y increased the height of their personal benches from the recommended bench heights they had adopted or bought as standard.

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.

Please note, all questions are optional. Just fill in what you know or feel comfortable sharing. We aren’t asking for your name or email address (and we won’t try to work it out) so this will be entirely anonymous.

Bench Heights Survey

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51 comments on “Plane Training – Bench Heights and More

  1. Your physical height – 6’3″

    Age 55

    Gender M

    Occupation (Present or former) Toolmaker

    Physical disabilities none

    General health (Scaled 1-5, 5 being excellent) 3.5

    Current bench height- Started at 33″ this was 1, at 41″ now, still experimenting on height but higher is better

    Satisfaction level (Scaled 1-5, 5 being perfect) 4.5

    Country living in*US

    Nationality*US

  2. its wonderful that you keep challenging and pointing out the misinformation that i read continually and especially in high end woodworking magazines. i do notice that there are more and more articles about hand tools but like the article last year on the cabinet scraper which you challenged quite rightly. if these woodworking gurus are going to misinform us,as to what our hand tools are capable or incapable of the the new generation will become very conflicted and frustrated.

  3. Height- 6’2″, 250 lbs., no physical disabilities, good health. Current bench height is 41 inches and love it. Really had back trouble when using lower heights, probably anything between 38-41 would work for me but i really enjoy this taller setup. Country is USA. Thanks.

  4. I’m using a B&D Workmate to help build my version of the Paul Sellers workbench. I’m really looking forward to a taller bench. Slow going, working when I get the time, been at it for quite a while now. The Workmate is way too low to use for any length of time. I’m thinking if I get a foam pad for my knees that kneeling at the bench might work better.

    • Kpinvt,

      I thought I had discovered the tactic of bulldogging a workmate to keep it still while working on it but, of course, only a week ago I saw a video of Paul doing the same things. For quick jobs I’d step on the workmate with one foot while planing to keep it from walking off. If I was going to be doing more than incidental work I put two cynder blocks on the bottom shelf to help hold it still.

      That workmate has taught me three lessons very well:
      1 – I want a taller bench
      2 – I want a HEAVIER bench
      3 – I NEED a vice to get anything meaningful done.

      Like you, I’m slower than mud but I’m making progress.

      John

      • John, kpinvt,
        I finished building my own workbench just a few weeks ago. I, too, was using a workmate and stepped/sat on it to stabilise as I planed etc.

        One of the things that kept going through my mind was that I really needed a workbench to build my workbench. Progress was slow. Knowing that I would have a workbench in the end was what kept me going.

        What a sense of achievement and satisfaction I had when I fitted the vice. And I now feel energised to do more.

        Keep making that progress!

        Nick

  5. My current and first real woodworking bench was built about 4 years ago after reading Chris book on bench design. Yes, at 32 3/4 in it would appear low for my 6 ft body, but the intent was to make it lower to accommodate my planning activities (the current wisdom was lower is better for planning) It’s some sort of Roubo design: thick, stout and heavy, flush front surfaces. Record 7 in vise in the tail position and a refurbished antique leg vise of front. Work great, very stiff doesn’t flex or move, I like it. Of course because of my back problems I was a bit worry about a lower bench (my last one was 35 in) and planning on my Workmate was atrocious on my back.
    But, by using an anti fatigue mat and various helpers such as a small bench on bench (FWW design) and a Roubo vise up front for sawing, I find it about the right height. I figured it would be easier to start lower and add feet under to adjust it than to have to cut it down. In the end I let my back dictate the best position for me and bring my work to various height for my sight depending on the type of work (power, medium, finesse).
    Keep up the good work Paul, very informative and enlightening.

    Bob

  6. I generally prefer higher benches and am preparing to build a heavy variation on a Roubo bench that calls for two by six fir. I’m currently considering how wide the heavy work top should be, how tall the whole thing should be, and how long I want it to be.
    Has anyone tried using a Moxon Vise?
    Any feedback would be appreciated.
    Paul,
    You’ve been an inspiration! Thank you!

    Bill W.

  7. My previous bench was 34″, based on all the recommendations I found on the internet. It was much too low and caused back pain even when planing. After watching Paul’s bench build series I made a new one similar to his at 38″. I am very happy with the new height.

  8. I think the oiled rag in a can also helps for some odd reason. I don’t press down as much. My theory:
    With the un-oiled sole there is more resistance so you tend to push harder thinking that you need that pressure to cut the fibers, but pushing harder tends to be in both down and forward. Oiled the sole of the plane and I tend to not push down as hard, it developed the sensitivity

  9. At 5ft 9ins in my socks I find my 34ins bench height great for planing. The workpiece adds to the overall height again, which of course varies all the time. I’m a retired osteopath so backs have been of interest to me, including my own. I still do yoga as a way of keeping my joints mobile, particularly the spine. At the bench I adjust my height, without too much thought, by how wide a stance I adopt for any particular job. Occasionally the bench feels a bit low but generally I find it fine and its always going to be something of a compromise depending on workpiece size and work needing to be done. I built a new bench in August 2013 using some of Paul’s design features. Photo should be appearing in the bench gallery just as soon as I find how to get it there. I fitted a tail-vice and dog holes, something Paul doesn’t seem to favour. This was something I have lusted after for thirty years, but, without ever having had an opportunity to try one. So all based on theory. I do like it. I’m sure it gives more support to the workpiece rather than the cramp in the vice and yet Paul makes that work just fine. It adds to the cost of the bench, £59 for a second hand Record vice and I chose to buy Veritas brass bench dogs. I do find myself needing to use packing pieces between the dog and workpiece due to the length of workpiece and spacing of the dog holes. Its a small niggle.
    And a big thank to Paul for all you are doing – something quite special.

  10. Had several different benches, over the years. Even used the top of a tablesaw for a few years. Work is slow, since I run out of “wind” easily. Usually go with the “Belt Buckle Guide” for a bench height. Top of bench should be right at one’s belt buckle. That’s a normal belt buckle height, not after you pull the knickers back up. Can’t see the buckle? Due to Dunlap? Get some help to measure.

    My bench is rather a bit skinny, due to a very cramped shop. Aka: The Dungeon Shop.

  11. 6 feet, 190 lbs, 60 yrs, general good health. I have had the pleasure of building and working with several benches from 32 to 40 inches in height (the last one, a Paul Sellers version, is one of my favorites). In my twenties, I started out high 38-40. Worked downward to a low of 32 in my middle years and am back up to 36 now at 60. My next one, sometime this year, another Paul Sellers type, will likely be 38. Unless you’re pretty limber, with good eyesight, I think the taller ones are more useful. I do still have a 32 incher that I use for dimensioning rough stock and I think there is some merit to lower in that instance. If I had to pick one bench, though, I’d go higher.

    Paul’s ability as a teacher combined with his talent and experience is nearly without equal.

  12. Since I built my new bench ( Paul’s style ) where the finished height ended up at 38 1/2″ I am experiencing virtually no back pain and can work longer. I do use a couple rubber mats on the floor for my feet which helps. I am so glad I decided to go with this bench in lieu of the Nicholson which I was going to make and really pondered on it for all most a year. I also had a Record 52 1/2 vise I bought many many years ago and really like the way it works with the quick release and a piece of leather on the front face.

    Paul has truly been an inspiration for me and very glad I discovered him and his book and been following Paul for quite some time.

    Steve

  13. Great demonstration in the video, Paul. It reminds me of the Japanese planes, where pulling is really the only action used as well. Clearly, little to no downward pressure should be needed.

  14. physical height: 5 ft, 10 inches
    Age: 67
    Gender: Male
    Occupation (Present or former): law
    Physical disabilities: none
    General health (Scaled 1-5, 5 being excellent): 4
    Current bench height: 34.5 inches
    Satisfaction level (Scaled 1-5, 5 being perfect): 4
    Country living in*: USA

  15. My current bench is table saw height (35″). I am in the process of making a Frank Klausz Scandinavian style bench. The finished height will be right around 36″. Low benches kill my back and sharp planes aren’t hard to push. I prefer a higher working height on most of my machines as well. Although, the jointer is the exception. I love your opinions towards pricey unnecessary hand planes. I’ve picked up all of my bench planes at yard sales and thrift stores!

  16. 5′-8″
    65
    Male
    Sign Industry
    No disabilities
    Health 5
    37″ bench
    Satisfaction 4.5
    USA

    My bench gives me no real physical issues at 37″ height with the exception of it being a mite high for prolonged mortising (working arm angle is a little too high). A lot of course depends on what’s on the bench and being worked on. Some projects are larger and taller, and a separate lower assembly-finishing bench seems to make sense to me. I don’t think any formula can be made to suit all user situations, but perhaps this survey will shed more light on that possibility.

  17. Paul, could another factor of planning be shaving thickness? In hindsight, I think I’ve been keeping my plane setting too shallow, requiring me to bare down to get a continuous shaving. Tonight I experimented and feel that a sharp iron with a more aggressive setting pulls the plane “to task”. if the plane was dull, if I managed to start a shaving, it required brute force to continue. A sharper plane was able to coax the thicker shaving.

    • Sometimes, if you use a strop and abrasive compound, I find students pull the iron on the strop and don’t realise that they are rounding the cutting edge and altering the bevel angle with an upward motion at the tail end of the strop ping strokes. This is instead of maintaining the 30-degree or so angle. This then means they are often closer to the 44-degree angle of the bed of the plane. The iron is sharp, but the every edge of the iron is not in perfect attack to the wood.

      • I do use a strop. I’ll have to watch for that. when I’ve seen you use a strop, it looks like you put a lot of pressure on the iron. in my experience, doing that presses the blade into the softer leather, which probably does round it over. I’m probably missing something subtle.

        Thanks!

      • Paul, thanks for posting that comment. I gave that some thought and went out to check the angle of my iron. It was as you said and explains some of the planing issues I’ve had. Today is going to be a resharpening day using the correct angle. Thanks again.

  18. Your physical height: 5’10″

    Age: 40

    Gender: M

    Occupation: IT Manager

    Physical disabilities: none

    General health: 4

    Current bench height: 32.75″-ish (83cm is the standard height for German benches)

    Satisfaction level: 2 (it works for many tasks but kills my lower back for other tasks… I’ll borrow some help to lift it as it is quite heavy)

    Country living in: Germany

    Nationality: Belgian

  19. Bench height 31 and Im 5ft9. I am happy with this height but I feel could do with a bit higher one. I don’t get any back pain despite a slipped disc or any other discomfort. I only use handtools, so I plane a lot, but for chiseling a higher bench would be more comfortable.
    Norbert

    • High Norbert. That seems too low for a man of your height. Perhaps as much as 5-6″. Younger people, without the age factor to consider as experience, can indeed work at lower heights (for a season) and this may fit you, I don’t know how old you are. There is no doubt that supple muscle and sinew adapts for a season to someones adaptability. Looking then at the longer term consequences of ill-fitting furniture, chairs, stools and especially stand-up positioning at workbenches and so on, we must start to see that there will most likely be adverse consequences that will indeed result in long term exposure to poor work heights. And it’s this that can develop irreversible physiological conditions that is so unnecessary. Why not just jack up the bench incrementally and try a different height for a few days. If that works, jack up again. From my now long term experience working at benches custom fitted to my height, I have no back pain as a result of daily working and that’s six days a week without many breaks at all.
      If you would try it for me, I would like to hear your voice on how you feel after trying it out.

  20. 6′ 2″ tall. Bench at 34″. Waaaay too low for me. End up with stiff back after planing, or really just about every task.
    Definitely plan on raising it up 3-4″.

  21. I’m raising my bench from 34″ to 37.5″ That’s the thickness of the scrap I’ve got to chock it up. If my back says “that’s high enough” that’s where I will stop. Otherwise I’ll keep adding height until my back is happy.
    Interestingly, I just got an email from Axminster about, amongst other things, Lee-Nielsen benches. They are available in three heights, 35″, which they call standard, plus 34″ and 36″. Given the high standing of Lee-Nielsen, a lot of beginner woodworkers are going to listen to that and buy, or make, a bench which is likely to be too low for them. Are you going to tell them, or will I?!

    • When our findings are completed we will post what we have and then everyone will be able to make a more educated stab at what they personally want. I am afraid the jury is still very much out on this one.

  22. I’m not sure if anyone has referred to this in the past, but another semi-historical source I found was Alex Bealer’s “Old Ways of Working Wood.” He calls for a bench height that is somewhere between the woodworker’s wrist and elbow. At 5’10” that puts me at almost 40″, but since I have a long torso and short arms, most upper body measurements peg me as slightly taller than I am. I would imagine this is closer to 38 inches for someone who is a little more normally proportioned. My current bench is at 34.5 inches and comes to about my wrist. I don’t have any particular problems with it, although I do find that I would like it a bit higher when sawing joinery.

    One wrinkle that I haven’t seen you directly address is that those advocating lower benches for planing seem to go back and forth between talking about using your upper body weight to push down on the plane and using your legs and lower body muscles to push the plane forward. Since a lower bench does both of these, I wonder if they are conflating the two effects a bit? By contrast, I notice that you frequently plane almost entirely from the arms, only involving your legs if you are taking a long stroke along the length of the bench. Since Chris Schwarz and Jim Tolpin are rather spindly of arm, I wonder if that aspect comes into play? They do both advocate raising the work for joinery, just the low bench for planing.

    • I have never had an problems planing on my existing bench top. I am sure if the stuff I was planing were three inches or more thick this could occasionally be different, but the reality is that 98% of wood being planed usually fits in the vise. For instance the bed I just made had some large sections 10″ wide and 2 1/2″ thick 7′ long. The vise gripped and held everything except when I wanted to plane the flat faces which I preferred to do on the bench top. I had no problems placing the wood on the benchtop and using the planes even though the workpiece increased my work height to 40 1/2″.
      Another not insignificant factor is when I make items with larger surfaces that will subsequently need planing and scraping, tabletops and conference tables for instance, I always make the leg and apron framework first. That being the case, my glued up tabletop sits on top of the frame and I scrape or plane as needed right there. This then places the plane and scraper squarely at around 30″; the standard height for tables lies between 28-30″. Whereas I have no real problem in physically working in this way and at the lower height, I find it considerably less comfortable. But it’s more convenient sometimes to have the heavy weight at the lower height, but purely because it’s easier to leverage the tabletop and flip it at the lower height when you have say an 8′ single piece tabletop. I think that this will be the same for bench makers too, but in the everyday of life I don’t need to plane as you say using more of the lower body to empower my work because that would be an excess for most woods that we use in woodworking; woods that plane readily such as all the softwoods, cherry, walnut, oak, ash, mahogany and dozens more. I would suggest that those needing lower body positioning are specialising in some work that might need that extra push and shove their legs and torso. I also feel that in many cases people are not getting the level of sharpness that automatically engages the plane. An overset plane can raise the need for extra effort too. Remember that I am trying to help people discover aspects of woodworking they might not yet know. I am not speaking so much to experienced hand tool woodworkers so much as those trying to engage the tools more effectively.
      You rightly say that I engage more using my upper body, I think this shows that you don’t need much more than that in the everyday of life. Occasionally I need more leg or torso power.

      • Paul, I use my legs quit a bit when planing. I find myself kicking things out of the way to get a wider stance and with my legs I thrust my whole upper body with the planing motion. Reading over this blog entry I think that may be because my bench is way lower than it should be. I look forward to seeing the outcome of your survey and the suggested bench h

        • In most cases, my inquiry into this area for two years now, and longer through the past two decades, people adjust their body stance to change height and not so much to muster a lower body line of attack. This in many if not most cases supports the case for higher not lower benches that match the height of the person as an individual. In past posts I showed that the average western male is around 5’10” and women are 5’4 1/2″. People with less height should make their bench to match their height. I now have a board in my shop to raise people up to compensate and this seems to work quite well. I would point out though that most of the people asking to use it are those less than 5’4″ and usually around 5′ to 5’3″.

          • Paul, when I built the bench that I use now, I read an article that said the bench should be knuckle high. I knew that wasn’t going to work so I made mine 36 inches. I’m 6’3″ and about 210 lbs. I’m not in bad shape but my back still gives me problems after I’ve worked on the bench for a long time and I find myself sitting when I’m working on dovetails or chopping mortises so that I can get a comfortable view of my work. Do you have a suggestion for bench height for a guy my size? I’m thinking 42 inches..

          • 36″ is too low for your height I would say. The bench I built for Phil (6’2″) is 42″ and we regularly have 6’2″ guys in the classes and they love the 42″ high for their work. It’s simple to take care of. Just add a a 4×4 from front to back legs and see how it feels for a week or so of working.

  23. I’m 5’6″ and my bench is 36″ which I’m sort of ok with this, however I am building a new one soon, and that will be about 38″ because my dad’s bench is that height, and I have always found when I have worked on it feels better.

  24. Paul, prior to seeing this video, I couldn’t plane a board’s edge square to save my life. I was trying to apply so much downward pressure that I couldn’t control the plane. I would get frustrated an use a machine to square it back up. Now that I’m focused more on the push, I find that the plane works much more accurately. This is great!

  25. The bench I built for myself sort of evolved over time. When I first built it the bench was 35″ tall. I was mostly using power tools but I did a lot of GRP casting and clay work as well as woodwork. As I moved more and more into woodworking I found the height to be a bit low so I raised it to 37″ which is what it is to this day. I’m currently building myself a Paul Sellers style workbench and had put the newly made Worktop on my bench to plane down. This in effect raised the height of my bench to 40″. I’ve been working at this new height for a few days now as I make the rest of the parts for the new bench and I love it. My new bench will definitely be 40″. I’m 6′ tall.

  26. 46 yo, male 6′ 1″. I am a retired firefighter/paramedic. I was injured on the job. I had a disc rupture in my lower back requiring 2 surgeries to repair and many other procedures. I now suffer from chronic pain. I have also had several other surgeries for other unrelated musculoskeletal injuries. Sucks to be me LOL. My bench is 34 1/2″ high, and it is WAY too short. The reason I made it so low is because it also acts as a cut off table for my Delta Unisaw tablesaw. It has been this way for many years, before I was injured. I have thought about raising it for a couple years, but then I have an issue with the tablesaw. Today I bought a 4X4 and used it to raise the workbench 3 1/2″. Height is now 38″. I can only spend about 1 1/2 hours in the shop each day, because of my physical disabilities. Tried it out for a little while and I can tell it is going to be SOOO much better. I will just have to build a platform for my table saw or move it around everytime I need to cut sheetgoods. The tablesaw has a moveable base.

  27. 6’3″ – 38″ bench, but I also have a 34″ assembly bench. I do find the need to occasionally plane stuff on the saw benches due to the size of the wood. There’s really no way to deal with the different sizes of wood though other than just “dealing” with it.

  28. Hi; if your bench is too low for the work you are doing right now, you can put something under the work to boost it up. if your bench is too tall you have to work on a step ladder. low bench isn’t about leaning on the plane. it’s about accommodating a larger variety of work. Also the lower the bench the wider your stance and the less you have to move your feet. Yes a plane set up right could pull a shaving like the one you show. but that is just showing off! it’s not how planing is done by people who want to get the work done and get paid.
    K

  29. I think I remember you stating you were 5’11” tall and your bench height was something like 39 inches. At 5′ 7″ tall I think it would be difficult for me to work at your bench for very long. When I build my next one (soon I hope) I think I am going to make it somewhere between 32 and 34 inches tall. I’m trying to relate comfortable working height to belt height, not exactly sure where this is going to end up. I do know my existing 3′ high bench is a bit taller than I want.

  30. A good practical way to find the best height for yourself is to stand in a planing position with the plane in hand .Do some simulated planing and get a sense of where the top should be . Two supporting legs clamped to a horizontal plank and leaning on the wall can allow for enough experimenting . I don`t think Paul was showing off with pulling the plane as it demonstrated that downward pressure is not needed with a sharp blade. Less pressure -and more sharpness .Was he saying pull a plane with some string and make more money? Not at all .
    One thing I don`t like about benches is vibration or wobble. I make triangles right down to the floor so it all keeps still .Then use a few engineering bricks down at the floor level in the corners . I made mine from the left over wood from an old bed . Washing machines are delivered with useful bits of wood in the packing too .

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