Building a Workbench

If you’re not a woodworker, then you may think that a workbench is just about the roughest bit of carpentry which one might undertake. After all, it’s not furniture for the house, so it doesn’t need to be pretty. A woodworking workbench, however, is much more than just a big heavy table with a vice bolted on. Both historical and modern woodworking benches are typically fairly complex works of precise joinery. This is because a workbench isn’t just a table, it’s more correctly viewed as a tool. A workbench, of any design, typically has a number of unique features in the way that it enables you hold wood while you work on it. Historical examples of workbenches differ greatly depending on particular woodworking trade, a chairmaker has a different bench to a cabinetmaker, for example, and also depending on the nationality and the tool technology of the period.

After reading two books on workbench design, numerous blog posts and magazine articles, I settled on making a copy of a bench built by popular woodworking magazine editor Bob Lang.

http://www.popularwoodworking.com/article/bench

This weekend, I’ve just finished constructing the base of the bench, ready for the top to be bolted on.

Workbench Base

Workbench Base

The base is made from recycled Rimu, from an old house frame. I dressed the timber by machine, but the rest of the joinery was done by hand, making this my first big project to be performed largely with handtools. I’ve improved immensely at simple tasks like sawing a straight line, and using a shoulder plane. I heartily recommend the experience of creating fine joinery with hand tools.

The bench itself, even without a top at present, is magnificent. The first workbench I ever built was rough recycled timber held together entirely with bolts. The timbers were massive and strong, the bolts tight and plentiful, and the workbench rocked.

Tracey leaned a hand against this new workbench base, and said “holy crap”. It’s quite startling to touch because you seem to unconsciously expect a tiny amount of give or movement when you push a table or piece of woodwork. This bench doesn’t move. It sits there like the original immovable object. This feeling of solidity comes not just from it’s great weight, but also from the huge mechanical strength of the joinery. The dovetails, and wedged through-tennons are shaped to resist the slight twisting and flexing that normally occurs when two bits of wood are joined. 

Joinery Close-up

Joinery Close-up

 

The bench top will be coming up soon, and to get a nice reliably flat surface to compare my hand planing skills against, I’ll unashamedly be making heavy use of machines to make it.

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5 responses

  1. Great looking bench. I am beginning to make a bench as well and I would like to use similar joinery as you have used (all with hand tools). Did you use western or Japanese saws? Also, I like the wedge on the tenons. I had considered a tusk tenon but am not sure about cutting the small vertical mortise to hold a tusk. Does this wedge seem to be working out for you to keep the legs tight? Also, I have been told by just about every woodworker that I know that using dovetails in the legs will not hold up to seasonal expansion/contraction of the wood. How is this working out for you? Have you seen issues with this joint? Did you have a specific strategy for which joints to use for which stretchers? How did you attach the short stretchers? blind mortise/tenon with pegs?

    Thanks again! I love your bench! The wood is beautiful too! Keep up the great work!

    Jeff

    • Thanks Jeff. I used western saws. Specifically I used bow saws (these ones http://www.adriatools.com/ece/saws/bowsaw.html), which work really well for large joiner I think. The wedged tenons work well, I’ve been very happy with them. I haven’t had any problems with the dovetails, but I put a bolt through them just in case. I’ve moved towns to an area of significantly less humidity, and it all seems fine.

      I’m pretty happy with the design really. The front dovetailed rail means I can’t use a sliding deadman, but in practice the dog holes in the rails do that job fairly well, and I can use regular clamps against the front rail (I don’t have any hold downs yet), which is just brilliant.

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