Woodworking in the great white north.

Workbench redesign – analysis of the bench

This is my workbench as it stands today.  I accept that my workbench has no resemblence whatsoever to anything you will find in a book by Chris Schwarz or Scott Landis.  This bench has evolved over time and is now approaching the point of needing to evolve again in order to support my ever changing woodworking behaviour.  This will be the first in a series of posts about how I plan to evolve my workbench, the actual changes that take place and my experiences with the workbench throughout the process.

First, a bit of history.  My workbench didn’t always look like this, at various times it was a very long narrow bench, an L shaped bench and even a U shaped bench.  These all served their purpose at the time and I chalk up the mistakes I made as part of the overall process of finding the right bench.  In fact, if I go back far enough, my bench was a Black and Decker workmate.  The current bench has worked very well for me for the two main purposes that it was intended to handle:  multiple projects and power tools. 

My need to have multiple projects on the go at the same time has a couple of root causes.  The first being that I often have my buddy Adam over working on a project at the same time I am working on a project.  Two woodworkers sharing a small bench just doesn’t work.  The other reason is that I am a chronic project starter.  I love starting a project and sometimes get ahead of myself and start a project before I have finished the last one.  This usually happens during the ‘finishing’ stage where I have to wait for finish to dry or glue to set up while I start laying out the next project.  This is the main reason why the bench is as big as it is.

Power tools!  I grew up watching Norm and dreamed of having a dedicated mortising machine and a biscuit joiner.  I have neither, but I do have a full complement of other power tools, many of them benchtop, that wag their tails at me whenever I go to use them.  Much of the way this workbench was put together was with these benchtop power tools in mind.

How is it built?  The base consists of two fairly large laboratory cabinets (these are old, heavy, solid wood cabinets) that have been around since I was a kid.  The top is a 2″ thick lamination of various man made sheet goods.  The whole thing is incredibly solid.  It won’t budge at all.  I have a small face vise on one side and a machinist’s vise on the bench top to hold things.  On one side, where I have a void under the bench top, I created a cutout with a shelf on the bottom and a removable section of the bench top that can either sit flush with the rest of the surface, or be inserted into the cutout at a lower height to allow a benchtop tool to use the bench as wings or extensions.  This works great for my chop saw and my router table.

I once had visions of my bench being on the cover of Wood magazine because it was such an ingenious design that allowed me to have such versatility that I could do almost anything.  Almost would be the operative word!  If I never picked up a hand tool, I think I would be ok to leave the bench as it is, it works great for power tool use.  I even have integrated electrical outlets and once had a dust collection system piped into it with great effectiveness.

So, what works for me? 

  • As an assembly table, this bench is great.  I can put pretty much anything on it without fear of things teetering over an edge. 
  • As an outfeed table, I can rip long or wide boards on the table saw without a second set of hands. 
  • When I use my router table or chop saw in the cutout, it works great.

What doesn’t work for me?

  • The cupboards underneath have great potential, which I have not tapped into yet.  
  • The actual bench top has been abused quite badly and is really showing it’s age. 
  • The machinist’s vise is positioned perfectly to smack my elbows when I’m not thinking and it gets in the wayin other ways from time to time.
  • The face vise is rather small and can really only handle small pieces effectively.
  • Even with a larger face vise, nothing is set up to support long boards for things like planing an edge joint.
  • The lack of a tail vise and bench dogs to hold boards in place is rapidly becoming my biggest regret.
  • I know that many people hate hamster traps, and I’m not entirely sold on them, but having a place to put tools that is handy, but out of the way would be nice.
  • I learned recently that my bench is not entirely flat and level.  No wonder things are coming out all cockeyed!  (yes, I blamed my tools)
  • Moving benchtop tools on and off the workbench in order to use them is not really ideal, they need somewhere that they are set up more permanently.

What are my priorities?

  • I’ve got to get this bench hand tool friendly.  I want to do more hand tool work, this bench is sorely lacking for support of that.
  • With the exception of the router table, I can keep benchtop power tools off the bench.  I need a way to handle the router table still.
  • I have purchased a large face vise and a tail vise.  I need to get them incorporated effectively into the new bench.
  • Better utilization of the cupboards.  I’m keeping them, but I’m willing to modify them significantly to support the new workbench.

I was like a man possessed at Woodworking in America examining every single bench in every room and at every vendor’s stall.  I bought Chris Schwarz’s new book on workbench desing and I’m working on taking from it what I can.

So, you guys asked for my dissertation on why my workbench no longer works for me, there it is.  I’ve got a lot of ideas, and I’m likely going to rig up some things in a trial modification of the existing bench in order to figure out what works and doesn’t work.  I’d love to get feedback from anyone on what they like and dislike about their benches and try to get some concrete things to try out.  I will try things out and if they work, they’ll go into the final design.  I expect over the next few months I’ll get the key changes nailed down and then start making those final changes to get the next iteration of my workbench up and running.

Thanks in advance for participating in this with me.

15 responses

  1. The first thought that comes to mind seeing those cabinets is a Shaker-style bench, using the lab cabinets as the base.

    Check out the Benchcrafted site (http://benchcrafted.blogspot.com/) for their info, along with Konrad Sauer’s blog (http://sauerandsteiner.blogspot.com/) – he recently rehabbed a Shaker bench.

    November 22, 2010 at 11:04 pm

    • Steve, you may be on to something with the whole shaker bench idea. I just read about Konrad’s shaker bench refurb and I was pretty impressed by it.

      My only question is what the heck do you put in all those tiny drawers???…other than renting them out as mouse condos? 🙂

      November 23, 2010 at 11:13 pm

  2. Ian,
    First, nice existing bench. For the purposes it was designed, I think it looks great. I especially like the section that moved up & down to accommodate the miter saw & router table. Very smart idea.

    As I ponder your request for suggestions, my first is to ready Schwarz’s first workbench book if you haven’t already. Use his middle section that describes how all the different bench accessories and designs work for different tasks. Compare that to the tasks you now fine yourself doing (or wanting to do) and incorporate those features.

    The next thing I thought of was a one page sheet Chris handed out last year at the Northeast Woodworker’s Association show in Saratoga Springs, NY. It boiled all his bench design rules onto a single page. I’ll dig though my bench design binder (yes, I have one) and share the list if I can find it.

    Finally, I’ll share what I’m doing. I had a great conversation with Kari Hultman over the weekend about bench legs and stabilizing them with panels. I’ve been designing my bench since then and I plan to begin blogging about my bench design & build as soon as I can (tonight, maybe). It’ll be a long process, but if you’re not in a rush I’m hoping it’ll be helpful.

    Whichever modifications you do make, good luck and keep us posted.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    • I’d love to see that ‘list’ Dyami, there’s a summary of the cardinal rules of workbenches in Chris’s new book, almost all of which I violate in the extreme…but who knows, maybe I can be reformed.

      A buddy of mine has his first book on workbenches, I’ll have to borrow it and see what he says.

      November 23, 2010 at 11:15 pm

      • Ian,
        I’ve looked for the list I got from Chris at his History of Workbench class last year, and so far, no luck. I’ll keep digging though, and I’ll let you know if and when I get it.

        As far as Chris’ first workbench book, unless you’re into stealing from your friends, go buy it. If you borrow it you’ll never give it back. It is that good.

        November 24, 2010 at 7:27 am

  3. Ian,

    The next live session in The Hand Tool School will be about this topic exactly. It sounds like you already have a solid head start and I hope you will share some of your thoughts during the session.

    November 23, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    • Excellent…I’m looking forward to it. Quite frankly I was rather stunned when I got back from WIA and realized just how difficult hand tool work is with my current bench design. Woodworking is woodworking right? Norm never talked about his bench design… :-p

      November 23, 2010 at 11:18 pm

  4. Muddleheaded WW


    My random thoughts on your workbench (not in any order except as they come out through my fingers) – agree or disagree as you see fit:

    1. While we say that a lower bench is good for hand tool work, what we really mean is that it’s good for hand planing – cutting joinery is easier with the work higher up and ripping and cross-cutting is easier on a saw bench. So if you are going to stay with power dimensioning, don’t worry about the height of the bench.
    2. Try to keep the features that you have already (eg the router table/mitre saw recess) – you never know when you may want to go back to it.
    3. If you are going to do some hand planing, is there a way of adding a 12″ wide planing bench at the lower height to the existing bench? Maybe on the back of the lab cabinets? Attach one side of the planing bench to the cabinets with cleats and support the outer edge with thick square legs a la Roubo – you can use the LH leg to add a leg vice, which should help with the work-holding issues and you could even put an end vice on the other end and add dog holes. If you wanted to you could make the planing bench detachable from the lab cabinets.
    4. For the worktop that you have, how about gluing a layer of tongue & groove floorboards on top of your existing top and then plane that flat?
    5. I don’t like tool wells. Unless you put removable trays in them, they just turn into ratholes and if you are using a removable tray, why not just make a box and sit it on your bench and put your tools in that as you go along? That way you keep the biggest flat area that you can – you may need it.

    As you can see, I don’t believe in building new workbenches (sorry Chris, but I just don’t). I think that you are best doing as you have done already and change the bench that you have got already in an incremental way to suit what you want to do next. A corollary of that is that anything you do should either not eliminate useful functionality that you already have or be readily reversible.

    I admit that this may mean that your workbench is as ugly as hell and never finished. But what is the virtue in making a beautiful bench if it doesn’t do what you want? And if you have the perfect bench does this mean that you have stopped developing as a woodworker?

    All the best


    November 23, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    • Wow, Jeremy, this is one aspect of this whole thing that I was hoping to get…the perspective view. I fully expected a bunch of suggestions to build a Roubo bench using nothing more than a penknife and a picture of Roy Underhill to keep me motivated. What I wanted was to get as diverse a set of views as I can find, to keep me grounded and on the right path.

      You make some great points about not losing something that works for me. It is definitely something I need to give more thought to.

      If I can get enough time and practice using sketchup, I’m going to draft up a few ideas and I’ll include yours in there too as I think it’s got good merit. Thanks!

      November 23, 2010 at 11:23 pm

  5. Kyle

    I have you had the chance to watch Bob Rozaieski podcast on his bench?


    He brings up some interesting ideas on hand-tool use and bench design.

    And don’t forget about my bench: http://thewoodwhisperer.com/kyles-lvl-workbench/
    (blowing my own horn, lol)

    Keep up the good work,


    November 24, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    • Kyle, that’s great, thanks for the link to Bob’s videos. Just going through the first one, really impressed with the content so far.

      I had not seen your bench before, but I like it. I know that Chris Schwarz has concerns with the depth, but I personally see a lot of benefit to a bigger bench. I actually really like Bob Lang’s 21st century bench, do you find the tool trays are effective? That’s one aspect of the bench that I’m really on the fence about…I wouldn’t mind having a hamster trap…but I’m not sure how the pros and cons weight out in the end.

      November 25, 2010 at 10:56 am

      • Ian,
        To reply to your tool tray comment, I like them too. I’m also considering building Bob Lang’s 21st century bench, though I plan to bastardize it quite a bit.

        November 26, 2010 at 3:55 pm

      • Kyle

        Yes, I really like the tool trays. I can put my layout tools, hold-fasts, etc, there within easy reach, but still below the top of the bench. That way they don’t interfere with anything clamped to the bench top. They’re also easily removable so I can clamp items from the middle of the bench or use a saw (hand, circular or jig) in that space.

        November 29, 2010 at 12:12 pm

  6. Ian,

    I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with. My “workbench” is much like yours a large out feed table. Problem is, it is no where near flat! it also just takes up to much space.

    I’m looking to build a functional workbench that will sit behind the table saw and still act as an out feed table, but I am thinking of keeping it simple. A recent issue of shopnotes had a torsion bench top, but I’m worried it will be to light. I like the “so you still don’t have a bench” build that the getting started in woodworking series over at finewoodworking.com did.

    keep us posted on your progress…

    November 24, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    • One thing that I was considering was reducing the depth of the outfeed bench and putting the handtool bench on the back end of the outfeed…not sure if I’ve got room for that, but that would give me some good ‘feng shui’, table saw on one end, hand tool bench on the other. 🙂

      November 25, 2010 at 10:59 am

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