Episode #21: Workbench Base

Note: All of my old podcast videos have been moved to my YouTube channel.  You can now watch this video here:


34 thoughts on “Episode #21: Workbench Base

  1. Bob,
    From the work I’ve seen you doing, I know you’re going to love the Nicholson design.

    I have one a bit longer for boat building work and can’t imagine not having it. While some people don’t like the front aprons, I find them invaluable. I use them for work holding almost as often as the top of the bench. (Lots of edge work in boat building.)

    If mine has any weakness, it was the way in which I attached the top (too soundly, have a split). So, I’m eager to see your next episode.

    • Bob,
      Thanks! I’m not even done building it and already I am really liking it. And regarding your split top, that’s another nice benefit of making the bench from readily available construction grade lumber. You can easily replace the top for about $20 ;).

  2. Another great episode. I am looking forward to seeing you complete this bench. I am really glad to see you making a traditional bench using materials that are readily available for a reasonable price. Keep up the good work bob.

  3. Nice to see the kids; I love that stuff.

    I built my work bench 20 years ago with hard maple. I agree with some of what you say but not everything. You definitely have to live with a bench for a few years to know what you really want and what you don’t. I like the weight and hardness, but slipperiness is definitely a problem.

    I would like you to comment on round vs square bench holes. I went with square and regret it. It was suppose to offer more stability. If I had to do it again, I would go with round bench holes. There is much more clamping flexibility. It’s the biggest regret I have with my table. Like I said, you really have to live with a table for a while, then build another one.

    Thanks, still learning.

    • Vince,
      I agree, you really do have to work with your bench for awhile to know what works and what doesn’t. I think that’s the reason so many of us build so many benches. This is my third one. Regarding the dog holes, in my case, I don’t like square or round :). But that’s because I don’t like tail vises and don’t use dogs. This new bench won’t have any dog holes. The holes in the top are for my holdfasts. However, I do think that in a bench that does have dog holes, round are more versatile. They can be used for dogs, holdfasts, or other accessories like the myriad ones offered by Veritas. I like square dogs for not twisting, but I think that is their only real benefit. Round are easier to make and I think more versatile.

  4. Yet another great episode. I respect that you didn’t use your old workbench. (I’ve seen too many router table builds that use another router table in the construction phase!)

    How many holdfasts will you use on the new bench? Where did you get them? All I can find in Australia are the Gramercy Holdfasts.

    Do you think the holdfasts will work well with soft timber?

    Sorry about all the questions.

    It was lovely to see your kids helping. Kids are great at that age!

    • Jeremy,
      I’ll be using two Grammercy holdfasts in the new bench (already have them from the old bench) and I would definitely recommend them. While I would love a pair of blacksmith forged holdfasts, after using the Grammercys, I can’t justify the cost. I think the Grammercys work great. And I do think they work just fine in the soft wood. I use one in a hole in my hem-fir sawbench all the time.

  5. Another great episode, Bob. I’m still trying to find some 2x12s locally, with no luck whatever. I may be forced to use 3 2x8s of some such for the top 😦

    MORE KIDS!!! You’ve been holding out on us. There is nothing better than a couple little ones helping dad.

    One thing I’ve been wondering about is the vise. While you and I have talked about the virtues of a softwood bench, I’m wondering if the same is true for the jaws of a vise. Any thoughts of using a hardwood insert on the bench face in the area of the vise?

    • Larry,
      Thanks! Have you looked at rough sawn poplar? I would expect that it would cost just a little more than construction grade stuff (I can get it for around $2-3 a bd. ft. down here), and you could get it in 6/4 or 8/4. I think poplar would make a great bench wood, and it’s so nice to work with. It would be much clearer than construction grade too. Just another option to consider.

      Re. the vise, it’s a good question. I don’t think the construction grade soft stuff is stiff enough for the vise chop, and it certainly won’t hold threads well enough for continuous use as nuts for the screws. The twin screw on the old bench had an ash chop & inner jaw and the screws were made from ash and birch. The new twin screw vise will be the same; 8/4 ash for the chop and the two nuts, and the screws (which are already made fom before) have birch shafts mounted in ash heads. I’ve been very happy with the old one so I see no reason to fix what ain’t broke. I still have some 8/4 ash left from the first vise that I’ll be using. However, in a vise where stiffness of the wooden chop is not an issue, like a cast iron quick release style, I like nice soft pine to line the iron jaws. No chance of the pine damaging more expensive woods.

  6. It’s interesting that you mention how much of a pleasure it’s been to make this workbench. If you watch this episode, really watch it, you’ll see yourself drilling, paring, hammering, and planing with aplomb and abandon, as though art and craft were things that are easy to come by. I don’t hold a candle to you abilities, but I was noticing the same thing planing some DF for picnic bench tables yesterday. I do know how to do that now, and went at it with the same kind of gusto (and crumbgrabbing assistants running around the back yard), and I think the result was good, if only because I was almost unconcerned about how it turned out, or was it that I knew now what was important and what wasn’t. Maybe it’s experience, or maybe it’s a pheromone in the DF, I don’t know, but keep up the good work. It’s inspirational and we’re all learning from your example.

    A particularly good part was how you corrected the assembly for square by dropping it on the ground. When you were measuring for square, I have to admit, I rolled my eyes. Every time I see someone do this on TV (I’m talking to you, Norm) it’s always perfect. What if it’s not? What do you do then? Norm? Well today I actually found out! I’ll bet you could do a whole episode on “What if it *doesn’t* measure like it should? How do you correct it?”

    At any rate, thanks for another great episode.

    • Jay,
      I don’t think the doug fir had anything to do with it. You need to give yourself more credit. Believe me, if I can do this, anyone can. Actually, I think doug fir can be rather frustrating to work with. It is very inconsistent throughout. The earlywood is very soft and spongy and the latewood is very hard and brittle. This doesn’t make much difference when planing it, but if you try to chop a mortise in it, or pare it’s end grain with anything but an atom splitting sharp chisel, you’ll think differently about it.

      I do think you make a good point though when you mention knowing what was important and what wasn’t. I think this is that hardest part for new woodworkers (and especially hand tool users) to understand. Contrary to what many books, magazines and tv shows would have us believe, not every part has to be six square, completely tearout free and smooth as a baby’s…well, you know. If you take a good close up look at the bench I’m currently building, you’ll see major tearout in the wide front apron, the backs of the front legs are still rough milled with major planer snipe from the lumber yard, several of the parts are still rough sawn in spots, the back apron was not planed flush to the legs, and a host of other minor, inconsequential imperfections. But the bench is still very functional, flat and square where it needs to be. If I had to six square every part of the bench, by hand, it would take me four times as long to build it. Knowing how to flatten and square your stock by hand is part of being a good woodworker, however, knowing when things have to be square and flat in addition will make you a better woodworker. And it’s not hard to figure this stuff out if you just stop and think about it before getting to work rather than just assuming you have to square and thickness every part to NASA tolerances. I think it makes for much more enjoyable work when you realize this freedom.

      As for squaring the leg assembly, I have never put together any piece I’ve built and had it be perfectly square from the last tap of the mallet. That’s why it’s so important to check and make the correction before the glue dries. It’s not hard to do and just takes a minute.

  7. I really enjoyed watching this video, as you really showed how to deal with the age old “How do I build a workbench if I don’t have a workbench?” question. I was even more happy to see that many of your strategies were identical to what I wound up doing for my workbench build. It makes me think that I know what I’m doing. 🙂

    One comment on planing on sawhorses: a very effective way of preventing rocking is to screw a 1×4 or piece of scrap wood onto the sawhorse and bracing the other end against something immobile, like the wall. I did that with my first temporary bench, and it was so successful that my “temporary” bench lasted me 8 months.

    • Wilbur,
      Great suggestion on bracing the sawhorses to the wall. It would basically eliminate all racking and shaking of the horses during planing.

  8. Hi Bob….Since finding your blog, its probably my favorite woodworking site. I am slowly migrating to hand tools and take inspiration from your work. Funny, I built a workbench from construction lumber a short time ago with power tools. It kind-of fills the need, but now that I have seen yours, it is on my “to-do” list! Would be a great way for me to improve my hand-tool skills at the same time ending up with a fine bench. Keep up the great work and can’t wait for more posts.

  9. Bob,
    Thanks for sharing your shop and techniques with us. Can’t wait to see more. What’s after the workbench? How about a rocking chair?

    • Danny,
      A set of chairs (Windsors actually) is definitely on my project list, but I have a bunch of other projects I need to check off the list before getting to those. Outside of the three or four furniture projects we need for the house, I’m going to be building a Wenzloff panel saw kit, another tenon saw from scratch, a hand cranked/treadle wet grinder, I want to make a dedicated sharpening bench (finally), I’m going to be doing a walnut pipe box (lots of resawing here), possibly a six board chest, and there are a few others in there as well. My list grows faster than I can cross things off :).

  10. Many thanks for yet another excellent presentation. Your calm, clear delivery is greatly assisting my move away from power tools, filling in some of the gaps from a number of WW books I’m reading. Mate, your bloods worth bottling.

    • Rod,
      Appreciate the compliment! Though I think I’ll keep my blood where it is for now, at least until my next encounter with a sharp edge ;).

  11. Bob, what a great episode. I found it particularly enjoyable having spent the better part of a year building (and filming) my Roubo build. Your style is such a great counterpoint to my own as I tend to overbuild and over analyze things. I think it is so refreshing to see someone tackle such an important tool like a bench with common materials and no nonsense construction. I know I over complicate things all the time and your voice is a nice gut check to me to remember to relax more. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but now I want to go build another bench. I love my Roubo to death, so having 2 benches in the shop must be even better right???

    • Shannon,
      When it comes to a bench, you really can’t over build it. If you have the space and the time, then it matters not how long it takes you to build it. However, in my case, I need to get this thing done because I just don’t have room to store an unfinished bench and my old bench (no longer my current bench ;). After I assembled the base of the new bench, as you might have seen in the video, I had to disassemble the old bench as I ran out of room in the shop. So I HAVE to get this done in order to have any bench at all. And yes, having two benches is definitely better than one. Wish I had the space for two. If I did, I wouldn’t be selling the old one.

  12. Bob, I just wanted to share my appreciation on your latest episode. I’m relatively new to the site and to handtool woodworking and will definately rewatch your workbench episodes when I have the opportunity to settle down and build one. Thanks for the wonderful website full of ideas and education!

  13. Hi Bob,

    I really like your version of the Nickelson bench. Now that I’ve watched all 3 videos I am still uncertain as to how to put together the base (leg assembly). I understand the basic building procedure. It’s the measurements I am not sure of. Would be a lot clearer if I had a cutting list/drawing/plan. For instance I know how wide the mortise is for the leg but I have no idea how far down and how far in that mortise should be. Is that a through mortise? couldn’t tell by reviewing the video.. A plan with all the measurements would be ideal.

    I have checked the other blogs but I much prefer the way your bench is put together. God help me if I had to angle the legs like in some variations of the Nickelson bench. I don’t have a large space so the simpler and smaller the bench the better. I barely have room to fit a 5′ bench due to all the other stuff I have in my small tool room.

    • Wendy,
      I don’t really have a measured plan as I really don’t work that way. It really doesn’t matter where you put the side stretchers. I think I inset them about 1/2″ from the outside edge but you could also center them on the legs and that would be fine too. The mortises I cut were not through, but they certainly could be. The bottom stretchers were placed just high enough that I could get my broom under them to sweep. Again, all relative, no real measurement. Measurements really are not that important if you build relative to your needs and your space (length, height and depth).

      As for the size, the best way is to make it fit your space. If you can fit a 22″ deep bench, then make it 22″ deep. If you can fit deeper, then feel free to make it deeper. The real benefit of working this way is that you are not restricted by plan dimensions and you can make YOUR bench fit YOU. If you want a somewhat scaled drawing, I did a sketchup drawing of the bench. You can get some ideas from it, but I didn’t stick to the drawing as I was building and I wouldn’t recommend that you build it to the drawing scale either. I really just used the drawing for ideas and modified things as I went along. The drawing will give you a starting point though (I’ll email it to you).

      Good luck with your bench build and feel free to email me if you have any questions or problems at all. I’m glad to help in any way I can.

      • Hi Bob,

        I’m after watching the video for a 2nd time and I have a few ?’s regarding the placement of the top stretcher. I can see from the video that the top of the short stretcher is flush with the top of the leg assembly. When you cut the 1/2 lap in the front leg for the 2×12 front apron.. how deep do you cut the inside leg mortise? 1 1/4″? After cutting the 1/2 lap on the front of the leg there isn’t much material left for the tenon of the short side stretcher to fit into. Looks like there are 3 mortises per leg one for the long stretcher in the front and 2 on the inside of each leg for the 2 short side stretchers.

        2)What is the length and thickness of the tenons on the 2X6 short stretchers?

        3)What size nails do you use to attach the front apron to the front leg assembly? How many are required?

        4)How long does the apron extend past each side assembly? Pretty sure the 1×8 which is nailed onto the inside of each apron to support the cross bearing boards goes from the inside of one leg to the inside of the other.

        Once I have this stretcher assembly figured out I’ll be well on my way to building a great workbench.

        PS. Thank you for sending me the moxolson workbench file.

        • Wendy,
          The stretcher mortises are about 1-1/2″ deep. This is plenty deep enough to provide plenty of strength. All of the tenons are 1″ thick by about 1-3/8″ long and have about 1/4″ shoulders. The tenons on the top stretchers have a 1/2″ shoulder on top and a 1/4″ shoulder on the bottom. The big nails for attaching the apron are 3″ long (I used 3 in each leg) and the finish nails for attaching the supporting joists are 3″ long (2 in each end) and the finish nails I used to attach the 1×8 to the inside of the aprons were 1-1/2″ long (I used a lot). The base assembly is 6′ long so the apron/top extends past the outer extents of the base by 1 foot on either end. The 1×8 on the inside of the apron spans the entire distance between the legs (on both the front and the back aprons) and there are also short 1′ sections on the outsides of the legs on both aprons as well. This in effect creates a 3/4″ deep dado around the leg to prevent any racking. THis is very different from the drawing, but like I said, I modify as I see fit as I go along. The drawing is more of an outline, not a rule. Good luck with your bench and let me know if you have any other questions.

          • Bob, Thank you very much for taking the time to answer all of my ?’s concerning the bench. 🙂

            I’ll be sure to seek your advise again if I run into any difficulties.

            I’ve noticed on some variations of the English bench that the legs are angled on one side. I prefer your bench. The simpler the better! Your twin vice and crochet don’t take up too much space. The 24″ wide bench is perfect for my tiny work space. Thanks again for sharing your ideas/plans. Looking forward to many more podcasts.

  14. I’m watching the video for about the 4th time, and I have to ask, did you plane the front of the legs? When you’re chopping the mortises, I can see some scalloping to the face you’re working on. I’m planning to build this over my christmas break and just wanted to see if there was something to it.

    • Nope. Didn’t plane them at all. What you are seeing there are very deep planer marks from the mill. They are almost like if you took a jack or scrub plane with a heavy camber and planed directly across the grain. They didn’t interfere with what I was doing, so I just left them there. They’re still there now. They don’t bother me one bit. It’s just a workbench.

      • I was wondering what would have possessed you to scrub plane the front of those boards. 😉

        Keep up the good work!

  15. Bob,

    As a left-hander, I am contemplating reversing the crochet and the face vise to the right side. If I do this, does the dog hole pattern in the face apron need to be reversed also?



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