The Problem with Contemporary Workbench Designs

A recent post by Chris Schwarz on the Woodworking Magazine Blog prompted me to write this post because it really hit home with my own personal experiences regarding workbenches. By this time, we’re all aware that the workbench is the most important appliance in the shop for doing hand work. As someone who has transitioned to doing all of their woodworking with hand tools, I’ve grown to appreciate the workbench designs that were used by 17th and 18th century craftsmen. At first glance, they may seem like nothing special. But after you work mostly with hand tools for some time, you realize that these benches were really well designed tools, not the furniture like art forms that more modern workbenches have sometimes become. They were designed to complement the tools that were used with them but they were also designed for the tools used to build them. So for the modern hand tool user, it’s nice to see these designs becoming popular again.

roubo_bench

There continues to be one problem with the contemporary designs/plans for these benches though. They are designed in the spirit of the original drawings and descriptions in the historical texts, but they tend to employ a method of construction (lamination of the top from narrow strips of wood) that is far from cooperative with the tools that they are designed to be used with. I think it somewhat ironic that a workbench designed to be an ideal workplace for using hand tools requires the use of machinery in order to construct it. Believe me, I’ve built two workbenches to date with laminated tops. I had the help of machines for one (and it still was not fun to do) and the other I did completely by hand (can you say masochist). I can honestly say that I am not a better woodworker for putting myself through this exercise. I do believe that laminating those tops, even with the aid of machines, was the most painful experience I’ve ever had while woodworking and it is something that I will never do again.

moxon_bench

I completely understand the perceived need to construct workbench tops from laminated strips. Traditionally, the tops of workbenches were made from a single wide, thick plank of well seasoned, air dried wood. Today, it is very difficult, to damn near impossible to find the wide thick planks necessary to build a workbench top in the traditional manner. In addition, if you do manage to find a suitable slab, you’d likely need to take out a second mortgage in order to buy it. The lack of quantity and the high price of wide, thick boards caused the commercial bench manufacturers to turn to laminating their tops in order to be able to manufacturer them inexpensively from common, narrow, 4/4 and 8/4, flat sawn, kiln dried stuff.

The marketers of the manufactured benches of course convinced every one that the laminated tops were far more stable and this belief has held today. So the contemporary solution has been to laminate the top. And while there may be a [very] little truth to the claim of greater stability of the laminated tops, the difference is minimal in my experience. A laminated top is still going to move and need occasional flattening, jut like a slab top. In my opinion, laminating the top is hardly worth the effort for the home woodworker; and it’s an exercise in self torture if you want to build your bench using only hand tools. A much easier, and subsequently faster solution is to find two or three thick planks and edge glue them together. So I was really excited to read Chris’ blog post about building a Roubo style workbench the “traditional” way, by hand, using two wide thick planks.

See, I’ve had this idea knocking around in my head for awhile now (here we go again). I’ve wanted to make some updates to my current workbench, which currently has a list of inadequacies that I talked about in Episode #9 of the podcast. I originally had every intention of just making modifications to my current bench, however, certain things (like the hardwood construction) simply wouldn’t be able to be fixed without complete replacement. So instead, that’s what I decided to do. This would also allow me to make the bench a foot longer, several inches lower, and provide for more storage space underneath by making the base longer.

nicholson_bench

So last weekend I went out and started the process by buying the supplies. I decided to make the bench from locallly available kiln dried construction grade lumber. This makes the bench affordable to build (I spent about $100 total), and easy to find the materials for. “Ahh” you say, “but what about the thickness? Won’t you still have to laminate parts if you use 2X stock?” Well, that is where my traditional workbench and Chris’ will differ.

While Mr. Schwarz will be building a bench based on the one in Andre’ Roubo’s “L’Art Du Menuisier”, mine will be based more on the benches described in Peter Nicholson’s “The Mechanic’s Companion” and Joseph Moxon’s “Mechanick Exercises”. A Moxolson bench if you will. However, what both benches will have in common, is that they won’t just be designed for using hand tools, they will both be designed to be built with hand tools. There will be no laminating required.

I know I’ll be following Chris’ build closely. My own lumber is curently getting happy in its new environment in the corner of my shop (which shouldn’t take long as it has been kiln dried and stored in a climate controlled retail store for several weeks at least). Construction is scheduled to begin right after completion of the tea table. I can’t wait!

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15 thoughts on “The Problem with Contemporary Workbench Designs

  1. Hi Bob,

    I am currently (it seems like interminably) in the process of building a bench with a laminated top. Like many people a Roubo Type bench based on the second bench in the Schwarz book

    I totally agree that the lamination process was an absolute pain, however I found that the process of flattening each board for lamination was much easier done with hand tools than with a jointer (This was surprising to me).

    I found the biggest problem with laminating the top was not having a bench heavy enough to do the planing without having to chase the board/bench across the floor.

    How do you plan to secure your bench from wandering if not using a heavy slab or laminated top?

    By the way love the blog. I’ve learned tons about a hand tool only shop to which I aspire.

    • Chris,
      I expect that the new bench will be at least as heavy as my current bench. I don’t think it will wander. The most important thing to keep the bench from wandering is a sharp iron. If the iron is digging and not cutting cleanly, causing the bench to wander, the iron needs sharpening. I have found that a sharp iron can solve most bench wandering problems. I also typically glue some rubberized cork to the bottoms of the legs/feet to provide a little extra grip on my laminate floor. This helps to aleviate any wandering problems as well.

  2. Hear hear! The lamination process for my Roubo was a bear and took a lot of time to get through. I used machines and still had a lot of trouble based on the size of the lumber needed for an 8 foot bench. I had to hit it again with a plane to get it really flat since my jointer bed is not good for 8 foot stock. In reality, you could still build a bench by laminating the top but get 6 or 8″ wide boards and only have 2 or 3 glue lines. Not everyone has this kind of 12 or 16/4 stock but it is a lot easier to find than a 20 or 24″ board in this thickness. If I were to build my bench again, I would go for a 3 or 4 board top any day.

  3. This sounds like a very exciting build! When I built my bench I laminated the top from 4 old barn beams. Instead of gluing them together, I put in beefy loose tenons, that are pegged. This saved me a lot of work, though I got a friend with a power tool shop to cut and joint the pieces. This power tool process took about 20 minutes.

    • Bug,
      Sounds like a good solution. I found the most challenging part of laminating using machines to be the length of the jointer and planer bed. The short bed machines that most hobby woodworkers use just aren’t designed for 8′ long stuff. I had to cut my boards in half and thirds and build up the top in a bricklay pattern in order to get the stock sufficiently flat using the machines.

  4. Does this mean you found good 2×12 joist stock for your bench top? My thoughts are leaning towards a Nicholson-style bench with a slight gap between the planks that will accommodate planing stops. But when I looked at the local 2×12 selection I came to a screeching halt as the stock was horrible.

    • Larry,
      Yep, found some decent 2×12 stock. It wasn’t the doug fir I originally wanted to use but the 16 foot hem-fir I found was surprisingly clear and alarmingly flat so I decided to go with it. It’s only slightly less stiff than doug fir and from my experience building my lathe with it I am confident that it will serve the purpose just fine. As for the Nicholson style with 2×12 planks for the top with the gap between them (ala Mike Siemsen)… ;).

  5. I built a similar bench using only hand tools. I found it to be a rather painless process. As to the matter of the bench sliding across the floor, I found that if I made the base heavy enough I had no problems. I used syp 4×4’s.

    • Jerome,
      I agree, it is certainly possible to do it (I did it twice), I just don’t think you really gain anything from it. If one doesn’t mind the effort it takes, then it certainly produces a heavy, thick top. I just found it to be a lot of work that I did not find enjoyable or particularly beneficial in the end. I think it would have been much easier, faster and just as functional to use three 8″ wide 12/4 boards and edge glue them together.

  6. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

  7. You’ll really like the Nicholson style bench. I love my 12 foot long Nicholson bench. The torsion box structure makes it very rigid, and more than tough enough for almost any punishment we’ll give it.

    While some will lament the top is too thin, I disagree. Mine, made of some really ugly Borg Doug Fir, is plenty strong enough. No flexing of any kind.

    The only advice I’ll offer is probably something you’ve already planned. Use a doubler strip under the area(s) where you might use holdfasts.

    … and show us pictures as you build it.

    Mine are here: http://www.bob-easton.com/blog/?p=223

  8. Look forward to seeing your bench build! I hope you’ll do a pod-cast on it. I am in the process of building a Nicholson hybrid. Pretty much all Nicholson except for a twin screw vise on the front. Mine is 7 feet long (longer would’ve been better), 24 inches wide with a 1.5″ gap in the center, 31 inches high, and has 11 inch aprons. Just need to find time to finish the twin screw vise(wooden screws using the beall threading system), planing stop, and drill some hold-fast holes. Really enjoy your blog and your pod-cast. Keep up the great work!

  9. I couldn’t agree with you more Bob! So many work benches are built like furniture or altars to sacrifice wood on that people are afraid to use them. Shiny hard tops that the wood slides around on and are harder to flatten. The Nicholson takes a long weekend to build with a handsaw a brace and a plane for the most part.

    Mine stays put very well, sometimes when I take it on the road and work on a slippery floor I put squares of the stuff that keeps rugs from slipping around under the feet. I can easily build a laminated top as I have a 16 inch jointer and a 24 inch planer but I see no point in that for the average home woodworker. I do also have a Holtzapfel style bench that I like because the top is removable and the base knocks down. I doubt my Nicholson would fit down most basement stairs.

  10. Hi Bob,

    For appliances and gadgets around the shop that needed gluing I’ve been using “No More Nails”. I know, rank heresy, but the stuff works and fits do not have to be perfect.

    If a person wanted to glue up a thicker top from 2 x 12 planks, a bit of experimentation with one of the polyurethane construction adhesives may be worthwhile. If the planks were skip planed to get them reasonably flat on the facing surfaces, this type of glue should do the job.

    Rather than clamping, drive doubled-headed (scaffolding) nails through pads of scrap plywood, and pull them 24 hr later.

    An alternative, if a person is near a sawmill, is to buy the rough planks used to make stair treads – they are 3″ x 12″, and the mill resaws them to get the full thickness for the treads. Locally they would be spruce or fir and the local mill will happily sell the ones that end up short – but are good bench lengths.

    These observations are rather late in the game, but someone may find them useful.

    Cheers – Miles
    Enfield, Nova Scotia

    PS Do you know just how much your bench resembles the one my father built? His wasn’t as finished, as it was knocked together in the building of his first house – but it was English style and survived 4 moves. I was using it as a teenager.

    PPS Really refreshing to see a bench built of wood I can find – if one were to use SYP in Nova Scotia, walnut would not cost that much more. 😦

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