Choosing Your First Workbench
The Workbench is the Backbone of any Shop.
Hand tool woodworking involves a collection of tools, fixtures, and skills. An average woodshop may be home to various saws, chisels of different kinds, and numerous planes, in addition to a slew of other items. But the most important piece of equipment in any hand tool shop is, without a doubt, the workbench. No matter what kind of hand tool woodworking you enjoy (building furniture, making cabinets, etc.), you’ll spend most of your time at the bench.
Criteria for a Quality Workbench.
Your first workbench should fulfill a few basic needs. The primary one is rigidity. Surfacing, chopping, and sawing will cause a flimsy bench to wobble or slide along the floor. To get flat boards and accurate joinery, your bench needs to stay put. For this reason, a good workbench is heavy and sturdy. It should weigh enough that it doesn’t slide in any direction without a lot of intentional effort. Woodworking benches are often made of solid oak or maple, woods with the required heft and toughness. Thick, solid legs and a well-built frame prevent wobbling. Manufacturers employ different types of joints and mechanical fasteners to make their benches rigid. They use big mortise-and-tenon joints, snug dovetails, and sometimes even lag bolts or knockdown hardware made of ductile iron.
To plane rough boards into flat lumber, you need a flat work surface. The benchtop must be as smooth and even as possible. A warped, dented, uneven top will make it almost impossible to surface material properly. Hills and valleys in the top will transfer to workpieces as you apply downward pressure with your plane. Even a quality bench from a reputable manufacturer will need occasional resurfacing to keep it flat and serviceable. Dried-up glue, mallet dents, and other deformities need to be scraped and planed away regularly. Because of these considerations, a plywood, particleboard, or melamine benchtop won’t do for hand tool woodworking. You can’t simply plane away defects in these surfaces.
Main functions of a Workbench.
Almost all woodworking tasks require some kind of clamp or hold-down. Whether you’re cutting dovetails, chopping a mortise, planing a board flat, or trimming a tenon, you can’t get the job done without first securing the workpiece. Woodworking benches offer several ways to hold materials in place. The most familiar work-holding solution is probably the vise, which is essentially a screw-driven clamp mounted to the bench. Vises come in three forms. There’s the face vise, which is meant to be secured to the front of the workbench. Another version is the end vise. It can be attached to either end of the bench. A leg vise, as you might expect, is built into one of the workbench legs.
The first two kinds of vises are usually made of metal, but wooden versions are also available. The jaws of a metal vise can mar your workpieces. To prevent this, you can screw boards to the inside of the jaws. Most vises come with pre-drilled holes for this purpose. You will probably find yourself using two of the vises in concert for a lot of your work. For example, to plane the long edge of a board, you might clamp one end in a face vise and secure the other end in a leg vise.
Dog holes and holdfasts provide lots of clamping versatility. A dog hole is just a hole drilled all the way through the benchtop. A holdfast is a clamp that fits into the hole. Most benches include two or more rows of dog holes. This solution gives you as many clamping opportunities as you have holdfasts and dog holes. You can clamp workpieces, shooting boards, bench hooks, and just about any other kind of jig with holdfasts. Just insert a holdfast into one of the holes so that the clamp rests on top of your work. Tap the bend in the holdfast with a mallet. Now your work won’t budge. To release the holdfast, strike the back of it with your mallet.
Consider Buying Your First Workbench.
There are several good reasons to buy your first workbench instead of building it. The primary one is that it’s difficult to build square, flat, and accurate projects if you don’t already have a workbench. You’ll struggle to surface lumber without a flat benchtop. Work-holding will be a real challenge. If you’re just getting started in woodworking, you might not have the skills required to build the project. You need to know how to plane rough boards into finished lumber. You must be proficient at sawing, with and across the grain. Your joinery skills must be on point— a workbench might employ several joints, including dovetails, mortise-and-tenon joints, lap joints, and others. Trying to acquire these skills while building a bench might be unwise. The success of your future projects depends on how well you do with this one.
If You Build Your Own Bench Make a Better One Later.
Although it’s difficult to build a workbench when you don’t already have one, it’s not impossible. In fact, there are several videos on YouTube from people who have done it successfully. Dimensioned lumber (2x4s, 2x6s, etc) works well for woodworking benches, and all it takes is some nuts, bolts, and washers to put one together. Still, the kind of bench you’ll build on your first go-around is probably not going to suit your needs for long. You can build a decent bench to help you while you develop your woodworking hobby. By the time you’re ready to upgrade, you’ll know what kind of projects you like to do and will have the skills and tools to build the bench that best suits your needs.
Benches Come in Different Sizes.
Woodworking workbenches come in a variety of widths and lengths. A longer bench is certainly better equipped for bigger work, so you may want to look for the biggest workbench that will fit your space while allowing plenty of room for you to move around. Almost all of your woodworking will take place at the bench. Surfacing lumber, cutting dovetails, chopping mortises, drilling, and assembling projects—you’ll do every one of these tasks here. So it makes sense to fill as much space as necessary with just this one piece of equipment. The goal is to have a benchtop that’s big enough for your woodworking projects, and to have room for all of your tools and materials. Remember that you have to store lumber, clamps, sawhorses, finishing supplies, and other items in your shop. You’ll also need to be able to get to these things easily. If you organize your space so that it’s easy to get to the things you need, your woodworking time will be enjoyable.
Check out the Benches at Local Stores.
You can price workbenches online, but before buying one, you should check it out in-person. Make sure you’ll be comfortable with the height, width, and depth. Try turning the vise screws to see if you like the way they move. Examine the fit and finish. When you have the thing right in front of you, it’s easy to tell whether it’s rigid and heavy enough to serve your needs. That’s a big advantage over shopping online. If there’s a Woodcraft or Rockler store near you, go there and take a look at their workbench selection.
A good workbench is an investment.
When you start looking at workbenches, you may be surprised by the cost. Some models can be as low as $500 or $600. Others cost upwards of $2500. The pricier benches often have built-it tool cabinets, better joinery, and higher-quality materials. But you probably don’t need a top-of-the-line bench if you’re just starting out in woodworking. If it’s sturdy, heavy, has enough dog holes and vises, and fits in your shop, it’s probably worth your consideration. Actually, there are decent benches in the $500-$1000 price range that might suit your needs for the next 20 years. If shop space is limited, a built-in tool cabinet can be very helpful. But you can add one later if your current budget isn’t sufficient to get one now.
Sjoberg (SHOW-berg) makes quality benches to fit a variety of budgets. You’ll find this Swedish manufacturer’s offerings at any Woodcraft store, and the quality of everything they make is outstanding.
Rockler Woodworking has its own line of benches starting around $500. The online reviews are good, and you won’t find much worthy competition in this price range.
Avoid benches from the big box and import stores. These products are cheap and flimsy. You can’t expect to get a good bench for $200, so keep that in mind when you see the circulars from those imported-tool retailers.
Read Christopher Schwarz’s books.
Christopher Schwarz, former editor of Popular Woodworking magazine, knows a lot about hand tool workbenches. He’s designed, built, and written about them for years. The Practical Workshop and The Workbench Design Book are two titles every hand tool woodworker should own. Before you buy or build a bench, read Chris’s work for a thorough understanding of everything workbench related.