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.