I am 55 and have been working with wood since I was a child getting in the way in my father’s woodshop. I have used and built several workbenches and work surfaces over the years and I have formed an opinion about the workbenches I have used.
- Old, sexy workbench designs do not work for me. I simply do not do wood working the way they did in Europe 200 years ago. I built an Nicholson Style English workbench 5 years ago and to be honest, I don’t really like it.
- Old workbench designs are fun to build, but I do not find them to be very handy. I am sure there are many woodworkers who are very happy with the old style benches or at least claim to be happy. But I am interested in knowing what woodworkers really want from a workbench in a modern shop.
- Having said that, I really like bench dogs and holdfasts.
- I prefer wide, flat surfaces for the workbench top. I need a surface for both building and assembly. I hate running to my tablesaw to do assembly work because there was not enough room on my workbench. I don’t like handling and moving material more than I have to.
- Complex workbench designs do not add any significant value for me. It is a simple work surface that I am after. The bench will get beaten up. It needs to be easy to repair. The benchtop surface should be replaceable.
- The workbench top should have sufficient overhang so I can clamp all around the perimeter of the bench. I like clamping portable tools and accessories to the workbench, i.e. pocket hole jigs and small sanders.
- I like to stick my feet a little way under the bench if sitting so any cabinets or shelves underneath need to allow for legroom. The best solution for me is to use a properly positioned shelf for a foot rest.
- I prefer one or more electrical outlet strips mounted under the benchtop. There should be easy access to the outlets, but the outlets should be protected from dust accumulation. FYI, if you only use hand tools, then you should be aware that the electrical outlets provide electricity to run the motors in power tools.
- I prefer modern materials for bench construction. Plywood is relatively light and has cross directional strength and has minimal seasonal movement. Particle Board and MDF provide flat, hard surfaces. Stack 3 boards or more together of 3/4 thick MDF and you have a nice workbench top. Stick a piece of 1/8 hardboard on top of that and you have a replaceable surface.
- If the bench is against the wall, then I want thin upper cabinets above the bench within arms reach.
- I prefer metal over wood for tools, especially for workbench vices. I don’t like moving a dowel into another hole every time I want to use my leg vice. I want to be able spin the vice handle with my finger.
- You don’t have to buy expensive hardwood for your workbench. Save the nice wood for your projects. Do what Christopher Schwarz recommends in his book Workbenches from Design & Theory to Construction & Use, use large clear Southern Yellow Pine lumber from your local home store. Buy the clear 2×12x10 SYP boards. Pick through the piles at the store. Plane the wood to 1-1/4” and cut to size. FYI, Southern Yellow Pine very hard for a softwood – 870 on Janka scale.
- Think about what you really want in a workbench, not what you are told or read somewhere. What works for you in your shop? What works best for you ergonomically? If you are taller or shorter then adjust height accordingly. Do you have back problems and require a stool? Are you hunched over often doing fine work? If so adjust your bench design to suit your needs.
Finally, my best advice for us is to design our own workbenches. Its OK to look around the web for ideas, but we must make the final drawing. If you still like the old style bench types, then consider making a hybrid bench encompassing your needs and ideas. We all spend many hours in the workshop. Each of us must have a symbiotic relationship with our workbench or the work will become pure drudgery. Only we can determine which design will work best for ourselves. I will never build another workbench from someone else’s plans or drawings again.