The quest for the perfect workbench begins…

Workbenches.  Anyone who works with wood (or metal or plastic, or just about anything really) will tell you having one makes a huge difference in the quality of your (insert-your-medium-of-choice-here)-working.  Or does it?  And how does one define what a workbench is?  Or what shape and size it should be?

To get some of those answers I read a few books my wife got me for Father’s Day and perused thousands of websites and forum posts to try and come up with a design that would be right for me.  And by right for me, I mean one that is the right size for the space I have You see, after living in a rental house for the past year we had barely enough space to have 2 cars in the garage, let along a workbench.  However, now that we’re in a house with space for a workshop in the garage, my better half and I came to the conclusion that we’re going to need space to work on projects around the house.  This is a bigger house, an older house and it is filled with lots of wood (oak doors, solid wood closet doors, oak trim, oak floors…lots of stuff to upkeep).

Back to the bench quest.  I first turned to The Schwarz (Christopher Schwarz, fomer-editor of Popular Woodworking Magazine).  Over a year ago, when the dream of having a workshop took root in my head (and I got approval from my CFO after years of lobbying) I began to read the woodworking magazines out there to get acclimated to “craft”.  I read all the usual suspects, Popular Woodworking, Wood, Woodsmith, and Fine Woodworking…those are the big boys.  Then there were the websites for the respective magazines, and the invaluable forums.  It’s a never ending stream of information and pictures and ideas and tips that’s just an incredible resource.

Popular Woodworking stood out above the others, for a few reasons.  First off, Wood had the better project notes and jig ideas, but the magzine is so full of them that without a shop or lumber to work with right away, I lost interest.  I’d still read it, but it quickly lost it’s luster.  Likewise with Woodsmith.  Great tips and tricks, even product reviews, but without anything to work on or space to do it, I was discouraged.  Fine Woodworking is fantastic for dreaming of a time when you have the $4,000 mortice machine or a $10,000 workbench, but until I get to that point, FWW is better for seeing how the well-off work wood and trying to find a way to do what they do on the cheap.  Lastly, PWW offered a nice combination of plans, jigs, and tips, with a a healthy dose of things for the average Joe to accomplish with an average shop (maybe even on in a garage!).

To ice the deal, PWW had The Schwarz.  I would flip to his column every issue and devour every word.  By the end of his column, I’d more than likely have learned something really cool, picked up a tip, recieved a history lesson and had a good chuckle to boot.  When began to venture into the online wilderness of woodworking forums, I noticed I was not the only one thinking The Schwarz was bees knees.  He blends together a love of hand tools (which I came to realize is a HUGE benefit to a stay at home dad with two little ones who take naps and don’t like to wake up to the grating sound of a circular saw) with a love of history (okay, he had me with the first column I wrote that began by mentioning some guy who had an idea in the 1600s…SOLD!) and a knack for writing with a fast paced and witty, tongue-in-cheek style.

So when I found out he wrote an entire book on workbenches (Workbenches: from Design and Theory to Construction and Use), I nearly fell over backwards when my wife announced she got it for me for Father’s Day.  I read it cover to cover over the course of a week (and 3 times since).  I also read the seminal work on the subject from the 1980s, The Workbench Book by Scott Landis.  I began to come up with an idea of what I wanted in a workbench.

I love the idea of the continental workbench, with tail vise, leg vise, dog holes, the whole nine yards.  But, for starters, I don’t the cash to purchase one, and it’s nearly as expensive (if not more) to make one. So that is right out.  That left the something simple like the ever-popular Roubo bench.  The Schwarz, conveniently enough, is perhaps the most well-known proponent of Andre Roubo‘s idea from 18th century France.  (Yes…I know.  France??  I’m not a fan of the country in general, past or present, but I do have a lot of respect for two Frenchmen, at least: The Marquis de Lafyette and Andre Jacob Roubo).  In its simplest form, it’s a big heavy slab of a top, big heavy, solid legs, and solid stretchers between said legs.  Add a planing stop and a few dog holes and a vise and you’re done.

Turns out, a lot of people like the design and have adapted it to the poor man’s budget.  Instead of using a huge slab of Maple or Beech, many out there are making a top out of laminated 2x4s (including Paul Sellers and Christopher Schwarz).  I had my design.  I could make it heavy (a laminated 2×4 top will be plenty solid enough, especially when affixed to laminated 2×4 legs) and I could make it simple, and I could make it for less than $100.

The space I have, under a window on the south side of the garage (half of the 2 car part of our 3 car garage) will hold a 6′ table just fine, with plenty of space for the miter saw (which will be on a rolling cart, more on that idea later).  I plan to make it 24″ deep, so that I can put it flush against the exterior wall and hang tools on the wall (which is not insulated and bare studs right now) and still be able to reach across comfortably.  Since I’m 6’2″, I decided to make the bench 36″ high to give me a comfortable height for hand tools  and power tools.  I thought about following Paul Sellers advice and making it 38″ or so…then I thought about The Schwarz and considered 34″…and everything in between.  What forced the decision for me was the fact that during our initial move-in to the house, I had a Craftsman (plastic) folding workbench with a 24″x48″ plywood sheet clamped on top to serve as our temporary workbench while we working on some minor projects.  This bench, while incredibly wobbly (had to have my dad practically lay across it while using it to trim the bottom of doors in the house after we tiled some floors) is 36″ and I have come to love this height.  I can lean over just slightly and put a lot of force straight down on hand tools (not that I could use them, because just trying to make one swipe of my hand plane, the bench wants to torque itself across the garage) but it’s still plenty convenient for me to use power tools with confidence and control.

I will make the top out of 2x4s from the BORG, on edge and glued together.  After trimming 1/2″ off one edge of the studs to create a flat, sharp edge (top), the top will be 3″ thick.  The legs will be 3 2x4s (each) cut to length and glued together with gaps in the middle section for the stretchers (more 2x4s).  This will create ready-made mortises and be a lot easier/faster than trying to carve my own.  I’m still up in the air on this and may end up using 4×4 posts for legs and cutting mortises.  St. Roy is begging me give it a go…The Schwarz would recommend it as well.  It just depends, I guess, on how brave I am once I have that pile of lumber in the garage and the tools start calling to me.  I’ve never chopped a mortise before and I don’t want to screw up the workbench, my first REAL project.

Time will tell.  We have a punch list of little tasks to accomplish around the house before I get clearance to retreat to the garage and play for a few weekends…I’m hopeful in the next month or so I’ll be able to start construction.  In the meantime, I’ll keep tweaking the design.

For now, here’s what the bench looks like in my head…


About Steven M. Vaught

A native son of Delaware, now living in Illinois, Steven is a writer, family historian, amateur astronomer, sometimes-gardener, woodworker, father to three wonderful children, husband to a wonderful wife, and caretaker of one cheeky vizsla.
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