Being the self-educated woodworker that I am, I would like to discuss the tool I feel has become the most important tool in my collection and that is my workbench. It is a great place to start when developing a shop of your own. I know there are many who will disagree. In fact, I once was one of these folks when I used to think the DeWalt 12” sliding double bevel mitre saw was the most important tool in the collection. At the time, the mitre saw was about the only tool I couldn’t live without. If you’ve ever installed interior architectural millwork (or trim as many like to call it) than you would probably agree. The only tool running a close second place would be the nail guns/air compressor.
If your like me though (artistic, creative, a bit romantic when it comes to the art and history of traditions found in most skills, woodworking included) sometimes power tools and the dust they create get to you. Whether it is the dust they create or the loud noises that they emit, or the fact that they could take your finger off in the blink of an eye, these modern marvels sometimes just don’t fit the bill. They are all amazing advances in technology, don’t get me wrong. And I still use my electric mitre saw frequently, along with an entire array of electric tools. Even as attracted to the traditional methods as I am, it’s hard to turn your back on the power tools especially if you own them. Can’t say I’ve ever surfaced an entire board by hand. I guess I’ve always been married to the old motto I picked up when first being introduced to construction, I think it was working on a concrete crew, yes, and the motto was “Work smarter, not harder.” While nothing in concrete comes easy, nothing better could be said about the traditional woodworkers workbench either.
We all have to start somewhere. Some of you might have learned from your parent, or grandparent. Others, it might have been shop class. For those like me, it was on the job training, learn as you go, sink or swim sort of thing. On those job sites, the tools were always the same and they are mostly power tools. They get the job done quickly, and time is money, so it’s no wonder why things are the way they are. I remember the first time I saw a veteran finish carpenter pull out a handplane. I probably laughed at first until I watched him clean up a cut more efficiently than any of the power tools I owned could have ever done it. I wasn’t laughing anymore. It was one of those rare moments, when you feel like you’ve just uncovered secret knowledge.
When you are brought up through woodworking as I was, you miss out on all the training that probably came with the traditional woodworking apprenticeship. You miss out on the awesome simplicity of a tool like the handplane, because everyone in your uneducated circle would have you think that if it doesn’t have a cord leading out of it, it probably is of no modern day value. That is flat out the wrong way to think, especially in an ancient art form such as woodworking.
My guess is that there are probably a lot more woodworkers who come from humble beginnings similar to mine than that of the kind who were able to find a traditional apprenticeship or some other wholesome education of the trade. I know this because I met a lot of fine craftsman along the way, and I don’t remember meeting one who had attended a woodworking school or an apprenticeship. Which is also a sad truth, something that I hope someday will change. It is probably for these kindred spirits who I know all too well that I dedicate this post to. Because once I learned the ways of the wise old woodworker, the traditional methods, there was no turning back, and there were plenty of things I realized that were far more efficient to do through traditional means than by plugging in. And for some jobs, the last thing you want to do is load up every last electric tool in the truck, for something that could have been done with the contents of a small tool tote.
Quickly after discovering the beauty and genius of the handplane I was off and running. I bought a little Stanley block plane from the local hardware store and started trying to find ways to put it to use on the job. Of course, some would laugh as they saw me reach for it, or make a comment about how we had an orbital that could do that job. And they were right, but could that same orbital do the job as well? That was something I wanted to know the answer to, that many of them had no desire to learn at all. We are all guilty of resisting change from time to time, no exception to that rule here. But I did learn the truth, and that was there were somethings the plane was better at than the orbital, and now I’d say the plane is better at most things.
None of this knowledge came without a price though. For starters, in my professional woodworking career, I hadn’t had a clue how to sharpen a blade. Most of the chisels we used were fairly blunt, and if we ever needed a circular blade sharpened well we shipped those out. Looking back, I can’t help but to laugh at the fact that not one guy on the four or five crews I worked with had the slightest clue of how to hone an edge on a chisel, let alone a plane. I was one of them. But that changed, I read up on anything I was falling short on, I learned myself how to on all the basics I take for granted now like parts of the plane, how to sharpen and hone, how to hold the plane while cutting, what direction to orient the wood while cutting. And on and on, it was a hefty price to pay that not many of my counterparts were willing to engage in. But it was all worth it, I can say that now with 100% assurance. After all, how can one call themselves a woodworker or even a carpenter who has never sharpened a blade, ha, it made me sick with myself to claim that is what I was, yet had so little understanding of how it all got started in the first place.
Sooner than later along this journey, I had come to incorporate the handplane and card scraper into my arsenal on the job. It was pretty easy to whisk away the table saw kerf marks with a plane or scraper on a board where I needed to show an exposed edge. And it didn’t round the edges like the orbital sander would, nor take half the time. Anyway, this is where the story leads us back to full circle and why I’m going on about all of this anyway. You see, my best attempt at a bench that could be used for planing while on the go from house to house, was setting up a sheet of plywood on a couple saw horses and place this setup in the corner of a room where the corner of the room would resist the pushing from the planing motion. As for the vise, I would use two wooden jaw hand-screw clamps, one clamping the other to the sheet, while the other would hold the work. One thing I learned pretty quick about this setup though is you can only plane away so much wood on a bench made of portable saw horses and plywood so long, before it drives you to madness that your work is NOT being held properly. That is what drove me to build my bench.
That is how I started my way in woodworking from the end, and worked my way back to the beginning. Once I realized the potential of a nice woodworking bench I just had to have one of my own. And so I built one (see photos) and my life as a woodworker has not been the same. I really don’t want to imagine working without one again. There really are a thousand and one uses probably of the bench. I couldn’t begin to explain them all here. But I will tell you when that old plane you own gets in touch with a piece of wood being held on your sturdy bench, well no sweeter music can be heard.
Of course the bench is no portable device, it will pretty much stay put, you don’t want to be trying to move a bench like this from house to house. If you enjoy trim carpentry, you may not want to build one of these. You might just never want to build anything away from your shop again. That is what happened to me. As soon as the bench was in my arsenal I saw a direct shift in my attention to what I wanted to build. So I found I wanted to build things I had no experience building but now that I was armed with holdfasts, front vise, bench dogs, end vise, planing stops, bench hooks, etc. I could do it. I now had more potential as a woodworker that I did not have before.
So that is why this tool, this asset is of the up-most importance to me and why I wanted to share this story with you. They say success is not a destination, it is a journey. That applies to this tale. Though I might have started from the end and worked my way back to the beginning of the technology and technique of woodworking, the journey towards that success in craftsmanship has been one of a lifetime. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, every last surprise, every lesson learned from a silly mistake. I’d say now that I own a solid traditional workbench I am working smarter, not harder.
-- Peace be with you!