Build a 'Test' Bench

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Forum topic by AgentTwitch posted 05-31-2012 03:27 PM 3290 views 1 time favorited 12 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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631 posts in 3700 days

05-31-2012 03:27 PM

Topic tags/keywords: bench work bench lumber test bench

LJ Community,

I have been tuning and using hand tools since I really got into woodworking about 10 years ago. My collection of stanley user planes continues to grow as well as saws and other shaping tools, But I have never had the most important hand tool: a decent bench. I have used my table saw’s 4ftx4ft outfeed table (which has about a 4” apron) to clamp boards for chopping dovetails and planing operations. It tends to rack when hand planing. Not the best…

My question is should I build a “test” bench with the features I think I will need, at the recommended height to see if I like it? I use it for a period of 2 years and make mental notes of what I would change.

My rationale for this approach is that I have read time and time again of woodworkers who have made significant changes to their benches or scrapped it and built an entirely new bench based on a few years experience with it. Do I want a wagon vise or a tail vise, do I want round dogs or square dogs, do I want a leg vise or a face vise, do I want the legs to be flush with the apron, or do I want a little overhang for getting clamps on the table, do I want a cabinet under the bench or a simple shelf, do I want a huge bench top, or a more narrow version…you get the idea.

I can build my ‘test’ bench from stable, 2×12 dimentional KD lumber and thoroughly put it through the paces. Based on the experience, I build a bench out of maple that I have been holding on to to build the new bench, using all of the lessons learned during the 2 year break in. Or, if I like my ‘test’ bench as is, I keep it and use the maple for something else.

I have my bench hardware and lumber ready to go.

Perhaps every workbench is a test bench of sorts…

-- Regards, Norm

12 replies so far

View ITnerd's profile


263 posts in 2803 days

#1 posted 05-31-2012 03:41 PM

Thats what I did – all Quarter sawn SYP from 2×10s and 2×12s, except for the vise faces.

Weighs a ton, and a good learning experience. Takes a beating too. Still changing, but without a doubt its made all my hand tool work much more enjoyable and accurate. I was using a Jawhorse before this (tragedy).

Sketchup and the Cutlist plugin made it easy to tweak before building. I kept buying straight, knot-free lumber from the big box stores a few at a time, and seasoned them for a year while I worked on the design (and other projects).

Best of luck,

-- Chris @ Atlanta - JGM - Occam's razor tells us that when you hear hoofs, think horses not zebras.

View waho6o9's profile


8525 posts in 2781 days

#2 posted 05-31-2012 03:48 PM

Good idea. Maybe build it modular style and add or take away what doesn’t work well for you.

I like this knock down style bench as well.

View Smitty_Cabinetshop's profile


15701 posts in 2822 days

#3 posted 05-31-2012 03:49 PM

Norm, very reasonable thoughts and the answer is of course up to you. I’d start with another question: Are you the type of woodworker that stresses over even the smallest changes to finished projects? If so, test bench is the route. If not, build what you think you want/need now.

You’ll likely get a bunch of responses that tick off each of your questions, you know. I’m resisting the urge to do so myself. :-) One thing I will ask about is overhang and clamping. Assuming the bottom isn’t filled completely with a cabinet, ala: shaker style, why not flush and still have the ability to clamp? I’ve heard this asked before and I’m confused by the either or. I did a lower-profile cabinet that keeps plenty of open space below the top for holdfasts and clamps; flush front is too important to sacrifice for clamping that has other ways of working.

Good luck!

-- Don't anthropomorphize your handplanes. They hate it when you do that. -- OldTools Archive --

View lysdexic's profile


5256 posts in 2827 days

#4 posted 05-31-2012 04:16 PM

Depending on your free time, building a bench can take weeks to months to complete. I am building what I think of as my final bench as my first bench. I, personally, am not going to do this again any time soon. I have other things I want to build.

Building a “test” bench is probably the right and proper approach but practically I don’t want to spend alot of time and resources building multiple benches.

-- "It's only wood. Use it." - Smitty || Instagram - out_of_focus1.618

View Rileysdad's profile


110 posts in 3482 days

#5 posted 05-31-2012 06:33 PM

Sure, build a test bench. But do so knowing it will be with you for a very long time. Build it a little on the tall side and when you wonder if it should be a little shorter, hack an inch off of the legs.

As for materials, dimensional lumber is fine (after all, it just a bench). I’d look into LVL for the top. It might be less expensive.

On a personal note, I’ve just built a split top Roubo bench out of Ash and I’m about to start another in Douglas.

-- Measure twice, cut once, buy extra stock.

View AgentTwitch's profile


631 posts in 3700 days

#6 posted 06-01-2012 02:07 AM

Thanks everyone. All very good points. I will build the bench as though it will be my only bench, perhaps slightly taller than i think it should be and will take it from there. I will stick with the 2×12 fir.

As for the features, i had made up my mind to build a shaker style bench with a cabinet of drawers in the base, square dogs, face vice, traditional sliding tail vise and also a benchtop bench.

-- Regards, Norm

View lysdexic's profile


5256 posts in 2827 days

#7 posted 06-01-2012 02:47 AM

Norm – if that is the bench you are building then I sure as hell wouldn’t do it for practice. Maybe if you were going to construct a simple Roubo but not a shaker with a cabinet.

-- "It's only wood. Use it." - Smitty || Instagram - out_of_focus1.618

View rockindavan's profile


299 posts in 2840 days

#8 posted 06-01-2012 03:01 AM

In my opinion, if you are going to spend the time to build a bench with all the fixings, why not splurge for a maple top. I understand that some people can afford to set aside that kind of money to build a bench, but if you can, why not? I have been building my workbench for over a year and have thought through every detail. Because of this I buy the best hardware and such I can because I know I would regret it 15 years from now. For all the people who say a bench isn’t fine furniture, why can’t it be? Yes it will get dinged and dented, but when you look at it, you will see the marks of all the things you have done in the past. You can build fine furniture with a cheaper bench, but a bench that inspires you can do wonders for those days where you feel unmotivated. I believe that if you put all the time and consideration into your bench, and don’t take shortcuts, you will not take shortcuts in the work you produce on that bench. A bench is more than just a work surface, but a reflection of the quality of your work.

View AgentTwitch's profile


631 posts in 3700 days

#9 posted 06-01-2012 02:06 PM

The plan that I found is a ShopNotes plan, free on their online preview magazine. It calls for fir anyway. I was debating the use of maple instead.

Smitty_Cabinetshop – You make a very good point. I may alter the plan to shorten the height of the cabinet and flush the front apron with the legs. I think the sliding tail vise could also benefit from being positioned near the front leg like on the new Lie-Nielsen bench.

rockindavan – Buying something right the first time is always a good idea. There are many mixed opinions on the top. Some people have gone from a hardwood to a softwood because it dings their projects, others ‘upgrade’ their benches from softwood to hardwood. It seems like its all a matter of preference. Preference that I have no experience with.

Lysdexic – I hear you. I dont intend to build the cabinet right away, it will be constructed after the bench is on the base. Phased approach to see if I need it and allow me to use the bench itself with drawer construction.

-- Regards, Norm

View Smitty_Cabinetshop's profile


15701 posts in 2822 days

#10 posted 06-03-2012 03:38 AM

Norm- you’re welcome to check out thoughts in detail and the project build of a certain bench cabinet. Food for thought, hope it’s at least entertaining. :-)

-- Don't anthropomorphize your handplanes. They hate it when you do that. -- OldTools Archive --

View jaidee's profile


51 posts in 2983 days

#11 posted 06-04-2012 03:42 PM

No matter what you think you need now, it has been my experience (personal and listening to others) that your needs can and will change over time. Either because you move in new directions or because you acquire new tools that have new needs, etc. The only constant in life if change. Embrace it. Some of the most wonderful discoveries in life happen as a result of change. Good luck with whatever you decide and post your experience here so we can all learn from it and participate.


-- I used to be all thumbs......'til I got a tablesaw!

View AgentTwitch's profile


631 posts in 3700 days

#12 posted 06-05-2012 12:51 AM

Smitty_Cabinetshop – your cabinet came out great! I appreciate your effort in that blog series. Very informative

JD – this is very true and i am looking forward to it

-- Regards, Norm

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