While working on a repair a couple of weeks ago that required some hand planing, I realized that I couldn’t stand using my overlarge, rickety bench for another day. Maybe not even another hour. I’d been planning to replace my workbench with something better suited to how I work now, and the urge was suddenly implacable. So I tore it down and threw myself into finishing the new bench.
It sounds strange to complain your bench is too large, but it dominated my small shop space, and it was large enough that there were areas I never worked on. Those areas accumulated a jumble of offcuts, often-used tools, and bending forms. And then, when I did need a guitar-sized space to work, there wasn’t one. For a table I built years ago out of plywood screwed to 2x4s, it has worked for assembly or sanding. But it wasn’t heavy enough to handle mallet blows, and if you got excited about scraping or hand planing, everything started to shimmy, including the stacks of stuff piled around the margins.
The new bench had to be:
- Easy and quick to make using the tools I have
- Neither too big nor too small, just right
- Easy to take apart to move
- Provide some tool storage for the most-used tools
I asked a number of guitar builders what they’d recommend and also found, via my local library, a very useful book, “The Workbench Design Book” by Christopher Schwarz. In this book, the author works through nine different workbench designs, from traditional to contemporary, and discusses the good and bad points of each design while understanding that different designs work well for different kinds of wood workers. For instance, if I mostly built furniture or doors, I’d need a larger table and different ways to hold the workpiece. (Truthfully, about 90% of workbench design is planning how you’re going to hold the things you usually work on.) What’s great about the book is the variety of the plans. I was attracted to the “$280 (or so) Workbench” because it was a no-frills, solid bench that can be disassembled with a few bolts. And did you catch the price?
To keep the total price down, I took Christopher Schwarz’s advice and used yellow pine for my bench. It’s very heavy and hard and available at the local lumber yard for a fraction of the price of a hardwood like maple. I started with 2x10s and cut them down to ~3″ wide strips, jointed one face then planed the other, and glued the strips up to make two bench top halves about 10.5″ wide x 2.75″ thick x 61″ long. I have a little portable planer that can handle widths up to 12″, so this was as wide a piece as I could plane easily (even if it did look pretty ridiculous sending this huge slab through the small planer). Once the slabs were thicknessed, I used a biscuit joiner to help me align the two halves, then glued them together. A few strokes with a plane and the top was good to go.
The legs were equally straightforward to build, with the short sections glued up using mortise and tenon joints. The long stretchers are attached to the end legs with a mortise and tenon joint but held together with knock-down furniture barrel bolts. I added a small chest of drawers underneath the bench top as a way to hopefully have a place for those tools I use all the time, but don’t need to clutter the bench top. It’s still to be seen if the new bench permanently reforms my bad habits.
In the short amount of time I’ve been using the new bench, the thing I notice most is the increased weight and solidity. I can use a hand plane without any wobble in the table. I can also use dogs and other hold-downs, giving myself new ways to hold the work piece. I can’t wait to try scraping down guitar bindings, a job that was way too difficult with my old setup. Oh, and when I’m done with the scraper, maybe I’ll even put it away in a drawer.