Arguably the workbench is the single most important tool in a woodworking shop. In my opinion, a bench is essentially a conveniently elevated and flat clamping jig. Large, long and heavy is best if you do not require mobility. I find 84-inches long by 24- 30-inches wide a serviceable size for my work. I have worked on smaller surfaces and have found it frustrating. I prefer to have attached vises rather than stops and hooks, but I would have nothing against adding those items to my bench.
A tool in your hand is an extension of your thought; a mediator between your focused intent and and the chosen material. With the simplest tools, the tools of risk, wood may be worked quite freely where it has fallen; crooks in branches, stumps and quickly fashioned wedges may all act as the clamp or the bench of the “green” woodworker. For those of us in our wood shops handling dried lumber, benches can run the gamut from butcher block to operating table to altar, depending upon the person standing at it. Appearance aside, reliability is key; flatness and solidity, no wobbling, rocking or bouncing while you try to work, or sliding along the floor as you use the hand plane. Once the work is clamped to the bench, it should stay that way until you release it. The tool and the wood meet between the abstract mind and the bench top; if the tools are an extension of the mind, the bench is an extension of our body with which it is in constant interaction, as a sort of choreography.
You’re reading this on-line, so you are well aware that much has been written and presented regarding woodworking benches. Over the years I have found that folks are pretty loyal to the benches that they trained up on and will enthusiastically point out all the advantages of their designs. Well, I’m no different, though I would like to think that I am open minded. Whatever design you may choose it should enable your style of work to the greatest extent possible.
When we are driven to create something we make do with what’s at hand; that’s fine for a one off, but if you’ll be at this for any length of time, get some sort of bench. The constant bench conundrum “you need a bench to build a bench” can be quite frustrating if you’d like to build even a basic traditional version. From the ever-useful Workbench Book by Scott Landis, comes a simple, practical and relatively inexpensive “Bench and Anvil” design* by Sam Manning. This style would eventually be refined for indoor work by Josh Finn. The Manning and Finn system is easily set up or taken down into four components; the base, comprised of a pair of sturdy sawhorses upon which are clamped a single or pair of what Manning describes as an anvil, or a box-beam work surface. Luckily, it is not too complex to build the four essential components** with modest material outlay. These four elements may be arranged to suit a number of tasks and may free up workspace currently dedicated to set-up or feed tables. It does rely upon a number of clamps to use it effectively, but you should have a lot of those anyway if restoration is your task. This helpful bench also provides you a sturdy surface to build a more formal bench upon if you wish, and afterwards remains practically useful in your shop as a set-up table, a very helpful and I would say necessary adjunct to your main bench.
The traditional workbench has a companion: the stand-alone bench-jack sometimes called a bench-slave or bench-servant. When you clamp one end of a long board into your face vice for edge planing, you need to support the opposite end from being pushed downward by the force of the planing work; the stand-alone bench-jack has a vertically adjustable support that will hold up an end of the board at a variety of heights. The “board jack” is a built in feature on the front of some workbenches that does what a bench-jack does in that position. I prefer the bench-jack (to the board-jack) since it is mobile, and I am able to use it to support work held in my end-vise, when that vice holds the work (such as a drawer for repair) at a right angle to the face of the bench; or I can move it off to the left of the face vice (I do not have a shoulder vise) to support work that would otherwise hang out in mid-air.
There are numerous bench-top accessories, many easily shop-made, such as shooting boards, bench hooks, miter jacks, really dozens of clever appliances to aid specific tasks in hand-woodworking. These have been made largely redundant by machinery, but if you’re a committed hand tool enthusiast you’ll want to explore these add-ons. Robert Wearing’s book: Making Woodwork Aids & Devices*** is an excellent introduction to the subject.
* The Workbench Book by author Scott Landis, A Fine Woodworking Book published by Tanton Press ISBN: 0-918804-76-0
**Fine Woodworking magazine #202 Tools & Shops issue for 2008. Taunton Press
***Guild of Master Craftsman Publications, ISBN-10: 1861081294
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