Like many folk, I struggled with a flimsy, inadequate commercial workbench for a couple of years. I use hand tools almost exclusively and although I did manage to build and carve on the bench, any moderate to heavy planing was particularly far from fun. It was a good learning experience, though: when the time came to build my own I knew what I wanted exactly.
There are many resources out there if you consider making your own bench. I looked at Paul Sellers’ videos and articles, one of Christopher Schwarz’s books on workbench design, articles in woodworking magazines and Richard Maguire’s video series. In fact, there is so much information available that it is very easy to get confused very fast. What is the best route to take? Do I need a quick release vice? End vice? Tool well or not? French or English? Scandinavian or Moravian?
Some people seem to get really fancy in their designs and material choice, and obviously there is a market supplying all sorts of gizmos and devices to fit to your bench. I just needed a solid build and enough functionality to allow stock dimensioning by hand while still keeping the thing as simple as possible. I also wanted a sense of continuity with the woodworking tradition I have been studying. What this meant for me was: out with the end vice, exotic timbers, space shuttle technology, storage cabinets; in with the aprons, planing stop, holdfasts, softwood.
I went with the so-called English (joiner’s) workbench design. The bench will serve my stock dimensioning, joinery and furniture making needs. For carving and detail work I will make a separate raised working platform.
With limited space, I decided my new bench will be a little over 5 foot long (1.5m). Most of the things I make are on the small side, anyway. Despite the modest length, it will already be 6″-8″ longer than the old one; combined with 5″ more of width, the dimensions will give me quite a bit more real estate on the top to work and keep tools safe while working there.
There are several issues that seem to attract heated discussion among woodworkers; I generally do not get involved in those as I have a lot of life to live, and a lot of wood to work. However, there are some practical aspects that are genuinely difficult to work out when you are new to woodworking. Among those, I find workbench height is an interesting one, and there has been a heated debate or two in the blogospheres about this one…
Power tool and machine users might perhaps pay less attention to height or indeed type of workbench they use; if you bought a commercial one you probably did not get much choice of height, either. As a hand tool woodworker who set out to make my own workbench this became a particularly important issue for me.
The bench will be relatively low, around 30″ in height. I find 32″ is about as high as I would ever want to go. Some measure the distance from the floor to their pinkie, wrist or another point on their body, and let the measurement dictate the height; I never tried that. Through some experience of actually hand planning at different heights I found the height to be ideal for me (not sure if this is scalable with height but I am 5ft 10in or so). I genuinely find the lower the bench, the more my body is engaged in the planning and that’s a good thing. No, it has nothing to do with bearing down on the plane in use like some people seem to automatically assume.
Consider traditional wood carving. Working with tools sharpened well, in an easy wood like lime (Tillia Vulgaris), you could make cuts with just your hands supplying the necessary force; it carves very easily. There is a constant tension in carving where some muscles push the tool and others pull it at the same time. Assuming you are able-bodied, this is naturally divided between your hands. The truth is though that true control is achieved with the whole body making one big coordinated move after another, each consisting of different muscles, in different parts of your body, working in unison, and against one another as needed, to account for the push and pull forces needed. None of this is because the tool requires an extraordinary amount of sheer force or weight applied to it, or that your technique or tool sharpness is lacking and you compensate for it. Quite the opposite, you allow your whole body to become the extension of the tool and thus gain incredible levels of control. It is almost as if you were no longer carving with a chisel or a gouge, nor indeed with your hands, but carved with your body itself.
I find a similarity between this and what happens when I hand plane. Admittedly, the simultaneous push and pull of traditional carving is not replicated here and body mechanics is vastly different, but as long as you are planing low enough, your core muscle groups become engaged. Your hands steer but you start planing with your whole body. Suddenly, this gives you a compounded level of control. It is not an easy thing to explain but once you have experienced it, it just clicks, and somehow things make greater sense. They did for me.
There are situations where low bench height becomes a hindrance, rather than an advantage, though. In my experience and in the woodworking that I try and do, this relates to two instances. One is detail work, including any extensive detailed layout – where you simply want to be close to the workpiece. Over any prolonged period of time this puts too much strain on my back. I find kneeling down or crouching by the bench helps and is sufficient for me. The other instance is carving. As mentioned above, body mechanics is totally different to planing, and it generally tends to be a form of detail work, anyway. For carving, however, I prefer a higher position. A carving platform (a bench-top mini-bench of sorts) is my preferred solution and I will be making one after completing the workbench build.
Next time, I will look at some of the design aspects of the bench, and the thought process behind adopting them to my build.