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Workbench and Vise—Two Core Essentials to Real Woodworking

This king sized headboard in oak is 2-2 1/2" thick mostly and is held in a Qr vise overhanging 40" to the right of the vise with no other support than the one vise jaw.

This king sized headboard in oak is 2-2 1/2″ thick mostly and is held in a Qr vise overhanging 40″ to the right of the vise with no other support than the one vise jaw.

I’ve written different blogs that lead to the point where action becomes essential to actually precipitate the starting of the work proper; this for me is  the essence of real woodworking. With that centred in our thoughts, we begin to see how the workbench, vise and hand tools predicate real woodworking. Beyond, or, I might all the more say, especially inclusive of that is the sense of entering a world you’ve may never have participated in before. If you have worked wood using other methods and techniques for some time but not with hand tools as such, then you too will get that same sensing of entering the unknown as those beginning to work wood by hand methods for the first time. Working wood with hand tools is quite radically different. The workbench, the vise and then too the ever-essential hand tools, become powerfully interactive components working with one another as each segment engages the other almost every minute of your working efforts.

On vise choice

dsc_0112The very best work vise to go for in my view is the one shown at top which is the weightier version of the quick-release (QR) type vise, but there are other vise types you can consider too.  I am prejudiced, but my prejudice is from using many types resulting in the primary use of QR vises for over 50 years. Quick release vises handle everything and anything I can imagine I need to hold in any given day and it will be the same for you. It is indeed the Joiner’s vise and was designed to that end. Not only do they work exceptionally well, they are simple to install and most likely, once installed, it will be with you for a lifetime.dsc_0059

Initially at least, you only need a workbench and a QR vise to get started in the basics of woodworking. I say that because adding other work holding options at this stage is not usually necessary. I would add that throughout my 50 years working wood I have held 95% of everything in the vise jaws alone with no added enhancement necessary. The other 5% has been using the bench top with clamping for additional holding of say large pieces such as tabletops and such. So, if I can, I might just recommend that you hold off introducing any kind of dogging systems and boring holes throughout the benchtop until you are used to the vise and bench alone. dsc_0167This includes using holdfasts of any kind too. Just relaxed and enjoy using the simple simplicity of your workbench for a month or even more. You may feel differently after you’ve gone a few months and I suggest that you might try using my clamp-in-the-vise system and other methods first.dsc_0046

The reality of workbenches is that they do evolve. Synchronising the evolution means customising the outcome to fit the user. At first you may not have this luxury and may need to work with what you have present access to. I’ve used redundant fire doors and old (and new) countertops and old potting benches too. Gradually they all got changed by additional improvements such as bracings and holding devices. Workbenches can be just about any shape and size as long as they are weighty and sturdy enough and most existing adapted workbenches can be jigged to receive a QR vise with just a modest amount of work; usually no more than say an hour or two.img_7279 p1210483

In defence of other vises, when I was teaching in Israel two months ago I used a workbench with a different vise than I was used to. After a few days a grew quite used to it, but, despite what others say in extolling its virtues, I felt that, whereas functionally it worked OK, it still lacked the qualities of grip and instancy I preferred. My 9″ wide vise extends to 11″ wide when I add the plywood or wooden jaw liners. It opens to around 12″ which is ample for everything. Anything wider can be held with my clamp-in-the-vise methods. Of course you can buy larger QR vises too and what holds a lot holds a little. Whatever size, they all work well, can be adjusted quickly, easily and readily to take most widths of stock. The one I used temporarily had 8″ above the screw mechanism required to close up the vise, but it didn’t offer more or as much as my QR. The adjustment was not as easy as a QR, nor was it particularly quick even after I understood the nuances of “the spin“. dsc_0040That said it wasn’t slow and certainly not too slow, so if you prefer installing what is a more complicated system that has perhaps a more aesthetic appeal you may want to consider these too. Also, I should add here that the quicker release QRs offer are not the only option either—you might consider just a regular vise without the QR mechanism. The screw thread on these is often a quicker acme-type thread, which means that the thread is a little steeper and therefore the take-up controlling the vise jaw for opening and closing operates more quickly by just winding. I worked at a bench with one of these for years and had no problem getting used to it quite quickly. They usually cost considerably less, at least  third less, and when you buy a reputable make, older Records are still the best, it will last for about a century or more. You can also replace it with a QR later if you want to change and use this one then as a tail vise to accomodate other work.dsc_0008

I think back to times past when I arrived at someone’s house to do work and needed more than sawhorses or a folding portable work station only to find a shed with a picnic table covered in plant pots. No room to work and an unsteady bench to boot leads always to frustration. Thankfully the tools made all the difference and my bass usually had all I need to change the situation. p1470358Adding a couple of braces changed the unsteady to steady so having a bench then leads to the next missing ingredient and that has to be the vise. Even thumbscrew securement makes a temporary holding for planing and such. Not everything has to be held. I know one thing about larger QRs is that they hold wood well enough to mortise chop in. p1470295They will rarely allow movement if time is taken to secure properly. That wasn’t really true of the vise I used in Israel. Whereas my critics often say you should not mortise in the vise, that’s far from true. many things have crept in over the decades, everything from laying your plane on its side to micro0bevel sharpening and also not chopping in the vise. Truth is we all have the capacity to create legalism that can destroy creativity and in that they creative ways we work

 

NOTE:Just so you know, Paul has a newer Workbench series. If you are interested in the updated version of Paul’s workbench please click the button down below. This page links to a cutting list, tools list, FAQS and much more.

26 Comments

  1. Dmytro on 24 September 2016 at 5:53 pm

    There’s also the opposite end of the spectrum: a viseless bench. I didn’t have a particular vise that I wanted when my bench was built, so started using it without “just temporary”. A week later 2 holdfasts were added. Here are some observations over two years of use:

    – Holdfasts are slower to withdraw when they’re hammered tight. However, often it’s enough just set them firmly in a hole, they provide a lot of clamping force. Also, if one can reach under the bench top (I can), even a tightest holdfast is released with a just light tap.

    – Wedges are great too. My simple bench dogs have a slight inclination at the top, so wedges rarely jump out. Also, I have a split top bench, so clamps are quite effective, especially quick grip type.

    – I’m not afraid of nailing battens and stops to the bench. Quite often a timber dog or two are driven into the bench to hold a piece absolutely immovable. I learned a lot while building this bench, so the sooner I drive the current to the ground, the sooner a better one will be built.

    – Edge planing log boards is just amazing, two holdfasts in the apron “noses” up keep the board very steady. The height of the edge could be adjusted any way I want – almost flush with the top or a bit higher. The lowest holes are 2.5″ from the floor (they’re in the legs), clamping a regular door is not a problem at all, not mentioning cabinet doors.

    – Chopping and mortising is done on the bench top. I rarely need clamping when chopping, so small pieces are just butted against a stop. When it’s not enough, I’m using my round by just sitting on a piece. Sometimes I stack pieces and clamp a whole stack with a holdfast (i.e. 4-6 drawer sides at once, “shifted” like stairs). Certain pieces are mortised on a small sitting bench, again, sitting on it, mostly because I can get a better light setup this way.

    Said that, my next workbench will have a vise, maybe not the model and make I wish, but there will be one.



  2. CJ Carlsson on 24 September 2016 at 6:23 pm

    Timely. I just put the well board in my bench and was trying to decide if I really needed a QR vise at $150 or if I could get away with just using the cheap Record from Home Depot that’s been attached to my “temporary” bench for the last 16 years. Since I followed your instructions to build a bench with allowance for a tail vise, I think I’ll spring for the QR; I just have to move before this blog post causes a run on them.

    Thank you, Paul, for all the effort you put into your teaching. I’m the kid who regularly flunked shop class (some 55 years ago) and just assumed I’d never have the skill to make things with my hands. You are a natural teacher and are steadily changing my mind.



    • Michael Ballinger on 24 September 2016 at 8:51 pm

      if you search back through Paul’s blog you’ll find a really good post on the old record vises and the differences with there respective model numbers. Happy vise hunting.



      • CJ Carlsson on 25 September 2016 at 5:24 pm

        Thanks, Michael.



    • Joseph Palas on 30 September 2016 at 12:23 am

      I would look on ebay for a QR vintage record vise. TIP: Visit http://www.ebay.co.uk and search for “record vice” (spelled the English way). You will find so many. Many are not available for shipping ( or cost prohibitive), but I found one (and there were others), that I got for about 85 dollars, shipped (bought using Auction, but there are reasonable Buy it Now options). I scored a 9″ 52 1/2 E QR Record vise. It was worth the time spend sifting through all the vises , or vices, that show up in the search.



  3. M Lodin on 25 September 2016 at 10:30 am

    Hello Paul,

    Regarding arriving at someone’s house to do work and vises: i find myself going to places to to do minor repairs. This could mean replacing a broken tenon in a sofa leg, me wanting to use the spokeshave, saw and drill to make a new one. And i need a sturdy vise for that. Right now i improvise something resembling “the third hand” you often speak about with clamps and a portable folding workbench. It works but often leaves me feeling there might be a better way, not knowing what.

    What are your thoughts about vises when doing work outside of the shop?

    Sincerely, Max from Sweden



  4. Justin on 25 September 2016 at 4:46 pm

    Great info as I am starting my workbench build soon. I am 6 feet tall, is the height of the workbench in working wood 1 and 2 sufficient?

    Thanks!



    • Michael Ballinger on 26 September 2016 at 4:03 pm

      Justin I’m 5/11 and my bench is at 38″. It’s a personal thing, if I were you and unsure of what height I wanted I would make it a little bit higher than you think you’ll need and pop timber on the floor to stand on to test out different heights till you’re happy. Then cut the legs down to the height you like. Easier to take wood off than put it back on if it’s too short.



    • Paul Sellers on 26 September 2016 at 7:16 pm

      I think it best to go to the search box on my blog before doing much else as I have discussed much about establishing bench work heights for different people and there is much evidence in my view to support higher is best to start out and then the posts give some excellent ways of testing for final cut to bench height that is best suited for you. Certainly don’t follow some advice I have read in books and blogs straight off. From a survey I did with over a hundred people I think we set the benchmark height that really works using 38″ for people around 5’9″ to 5’11” and then adding and subtracting inches either side of that benchmark. So, in your case, you might be better with a height of say 40″ or even 41″ and using it for a few hours doing different tasks like chopping mortises and planing and sawing. You can then cut down to suit. Even if you do cut too short you can always add plywood pads to the leg ends to jack it up.



    • Chris Cooper on 26 September 2016 at 8:29 pm

      I’m 71″, made my bench 40″. I lose a slight advantage when planing, but I don’t get the shoulder and neck aches from chopping dovetails and mortises. 36″ benches kill me.



      • Paul Sellers on 26 September 2016 at 8:58 pm

        I think there has been a move to higher benches thankfully. Mostly because too low benches do develop into back and neck pain.



        • Thomas Meade on 28 September 2016 at 12:51 pm

          I’m 5’10” (70″). When I made my bench I made it 39″ tall due to a mistake in my maths (I had intended making it to be around 36″ tall). But now I find the 39″ height to be perfect for me. Unlike when I was using cheap copies of a Black & Decker Workmate (which were only about 32″ tall), I can spend all day at the bench and not have a single ache or pain in my back and shoulders. Before I built my bench, the most I was able to spend doing anything was about 1 hour; after 1 hour my back used to be pure agony.



          • Paul Sellers on 28 September 2016 at 5:23 pm

            Thank you Thomas. Important information to correct things for others. Higher seems better for most work and certainly prevention of bad backs. You mistake became serendipitous for you and now others too. Great!



          • Salko Safic on 1 October 2016 at 6:31 am

            Low benches are much better for me as I purely work with hand tools and that’s just what I need. Many woodworkers are hybrid they implement machinery and hand tools at their bench with minimal planing that is to say not using much more than a smoother. Low benches are primarily good for heavy planing and not much more else. As for back problems and shoulder aches, I will agree with you on this but in the hand tool arena there’s not much else you can do other than build two benches to suit and I think it’s impractical to do so but if one has the space and finances to do so then one should and it is not uncommon to see a dedicated bench for planing and another for joinery and other work.



          • Paul Sellers on 1 October 2016 at 10:00 am

            Personally, and then from feedback via input from a few hundred woodworkers via my blog request for input, higher benches work better than lower benches and the methods used make little difference. Most people increased their bench heights on my suggestion to just try it for a few days and the general feedback was an overall “great improvement.” I have been at the same bench height of 38″ for fifty years and have never had back, neck or shoulder and arm problems as a result of prolonged benchwork and I doubt that there are many in the world that have spent anywhere near the amount of time I have at the bench these days, and especially those using hand tool methods. My suggestion of starting out high and lowering the height by using a platform in 3/4″ increments (plywood board under your feet and stacked for added height) is still a good method of establishing a well-suited height.



  5. Jeremy on 25 September 2016 at 11:14 pm

    Wow just what’s been eating at me. I have the single screw with two rod job. I hate it. It does open wide but it only has two inches of depth until you reach the screw and alignment rods. I have to do something else soon.



  6. Joni on 26 September 2016 at 10:51 am

    Hello Paul ! I have quick release vise wich brand is Piher. Problem is everytime I try to secure workpiece in the vise, the quick release lever starts to move up and at certain point the whole vise mechanism “Pops” loose ??
    To prevent that I have to press that lever down and tighten the vise with another hand.
    Is this kind of problem familiar to you?
    Best regards, Joni from Finland



  7. Raul Corona on 26 September 2016 at 5:38 pm

    Hello Paul,

    Why is it bad to lay planes on their sides? Also, if I’m going to put a plane on the workbench, should I be worried that the cutting iron is touching the surface? I’ve noticed that sometimes you place the toe of your planes on a small wooden piece, but sometimes you don’t.

    Kind regards,
    Raul



    • Paul Sellers on 26 September 2016 at 7:08 pm

      It’s not necessarily bad so much as old fashioned and unnecessary. Until the 1930s planes were never laid on their sides. Craftsmen placed them to hand and ready for use in the upright position. Laying planes on their sides was a way of topping schoolboys in shop class from clunking their planes down onto other tools and especially those with metal parts. It’s also a a quick way of knocking the iron out of parallel to the sole as each time you place it on its side you run the risk of jolting the iron out of the previously aligned set. Placing the plane with the sole down on the other hand protects the cutting iron from being caught by say the blade of a square or the edge of a chisel. These are more likely to damage a cutting iron than almost anything else. As you are the only one using your bench then it makes sense that you know of anything on the bench like the odd screw or nail that might be a problem to the iron. In my 50 years working wood I have never placed my plane in such a way as to cause damage to the cutting iron. The exception comes then when I am easing a door and I need to place the plane on say gravel or concrete or indeed a gritty floor. Then I will place the plane on its side.



      • Chris Cooper on 26 September 2016 at 8:32 pm

        I set my planes on a small strip of indoor/outdoor carpet (I think I saw Paul do this), just so they don’t catch on the benchtop.



        • Paul Sellers on 26 September 2016 at 8:55 pm

          Just to clarify. When I am working during the day and I am working between tools like planes, chisels and saws my plane usually just goes near to hand on the bench top. When I don’t really need the plane for repeated planing it goes to my stow area which is a thin corduroy carpet square that hold four planes i use regularly. Two 4s a converted 4 scrub plane and a 5.



          • Raul Corona on 27 September 2016 at 2:18 pm

            Thanks for the answers. It is all these little details that you don’t get to see on the videos.



  8. Erik on 26 September 2016 at 7:13 pm

    @ M Lodin:
    You could use a Workmate or this http://www.sjobergs.se/sortiment/hobby/195.php
    or this http://www.sjobergs.se/sortiment/hobby/305.php

    Regards
    Erik



    • m lodin on 27 September 2016 at 7:25 pm

      Tack erik!

      /Max från skåne



  9. Michael Bradtke on 27 September 2016 at 2:32 pm

    Thank you Paul
    I am about ready to build my large work bench and had been trying to figure out if I really needed a leg vice or not.
    I have a 9″ QR vice that I will install as a face vice and I think I will pass on the leg vice.
    Thank you for all of the good advice….



  10. B. J. Parker on 2 October 2016 at 9:27 pm

    I thought I would weigh in on the conversation, though it is mostly a repeat of what everyone else has said. I’m 6’0 tall and made my bench 40″ and absolutely love it. I have worked at low benches before (36″) and always feel like I have to lean over.

    In regards to vices, I’ve used a Jorgensen quick release at I bought off of eBay for the last two years. The roller nut recently wore out. I contacted the new owner of Jorgensen as they were recently bought and found that it would be 1-3 months before anyone could even tell me if they had parts available. I found a deal on to non-QR Jorgensen vices and simply replaced the roller nut with the standard, non-QR nut and am all set. I love my Jorgensen, but the roller nut failing coupled with no available parts was a real pain!



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