When I first started woodworking I was aware of two things: I needed tools and I needed a workbench. And later I found out that it was easy to go astray when choosing both. Like everything nowadays, I started my search for these necessities on the internet. Because of my inexperience, I knew little about which tools to choose. I didn’t really know the difference between a home center chisel and one from Lie Nielsen, but I did have an idea what a woodworking bench should look like.
When we first moved into our house it had a workbench in the garage. It wasn’t a woodworking bench, it had no vices, dog holes, or even a flat top. What it basically functioned as was a place to hold paint, joint compound, and assorted tools and other junk.
My first act of woodworking valor was to attempt to replace the top of the table with new 2 x 6 stock. At this time I had no intentions of getting into the woodworking hobby or building any kind of workbench. But the top was so old and stained that I had no choice but to fix it. I soon found that the bench itself was so poorly made that it was unfixable, so I went to Lowe’s, grabbed a dozen 2 x 6 boards, and cobbled together a table. I even made two drawers for it. So I guess you could say that the bench was my first woodworking experience. Still, I had no intention of using it for woodworking. It was just a nicer, slightly more stable place to hold the paint, spackle, and tools we were using to fix up the house. And for whatever it was worth it seemed to fit nicely in the garage setting. So I patted myself on the back and called it a job well done.
Five years later the bench was still there, doing what it did best, and I was considering making a bookcase. It took about 3 minutes to realize that the bench was absolutely useless for woodworking of any kind. It was nobody’s fault, that wasn’t what the bench was supposed to do. So I built the bookcase on a pair of sawhorses I had made while we were remodeling. The sawhorses were at least servicable, I had made them following plans in a home improvement magazine, and they were flat. But I knew that if I was going to perform any serious woodworking I would need to have a bench. And the next project I had planned, a six foot tall shelving unit for our bedroom, needed a flat and stable place to be built, and I would need some way to clamp it down. So, as I said earlier, I turned to the internet.
My first search led me right to the Lie Nielsen web site. Then I knew very little about Lie Nielsen. I knew they were known for making woodworking planes, but my knowledge ended there. I went to the “woodworking benches” tab on the site and found several beautiful workbenches that all looked the way I thought a workbench should look. They were also a bit pricey(not that they aren’t worth it). I knew then and there that if I wanted a bench I would probably have to make it. So I turned my search to “building a woodworking bench”
This is where it can get dicey, you will find many plans on the net that call themselves woodworking bench plans, but many of them aren’t. Most of them are 2×4 work “tables” not much different than the table I had made. But then I found a link to a page called “Bob and Dave’s Good, Fast, and Cheap Woodworking Bench” Here, a fellow named Bob Key, and his son, demonstrate how to make a real woodworking bench, using construction lumber, with hand tools! That sold me because the only power tools I had at the time were a cordless drill, a borrowed circular saw, a rotozip, and a pretty decent quality miter saw. And to top it all off the photos of his bench looked like a workbench should. So I printed up the plans and prepared to build the bench. Then, something happened.
Right after I completed my first project I subscribed to Popular Woodworking Magazine and I received my first issue. In the magazine was an advertisement to their book club with an offer to purchase 6 books for the price of one. Knowing that I would need some guidance I took the offer. One of the books was Christopher Schwarz’s Workbcnches: From Design and Theory to Construction and Use. That book, along with the others, arrived just before I was going to build my Bob Key bench. I read the book and it changed some of my ideas about building a bench, mostly in a good way. So I took some of the ideas from Bob Key, and some from Chris Schwarz, and made my first bench. It turned out pretty well. It is heavy, strong, has lots of clamping options including a monster leg vice, and maybe most importantly; it looked like a woodworking bench.
I will give both Key and Schwarz a lot of credit. They both say the same things in different ways: Your workbench should function as a giant clamp. And mine does. I have little to complain about with my bench. In fact, my only complaint is something that I plan to fix.
In order to get my bench up and running, and because of my lack of a surface planer at the time, I made the benchtop from laminated, edge glued panels. These panels worked. They are flat, and stable, and three stacked together gave me an instant top 6ft long, 2ft wide, and just about 2 1/2″ thick. That top has held up for a year and a half. But I plan to make a more tradtional top with a tool tray, probably this fall. This will allow me to change the placement of the dog holes and add a tail vice. I use a Veritas wonder dog now, which does a good job, but cannot do everything that a proper tail vice will.
With my new workbench built a new world of possibilities opened up for me. I was able to clamp boards to the bench and do more delicate work. The hand cutting of dovetails, tenons, and other joinery became possible. I was able to make larger projects, and I enjoy working on it. And I think that is the most important thing about a good bench. Like a good car begs to be driven, and a piano begs to be played, a good workbench begs you to work on it. When I see my workbench top with nothing on it, I feel like there’s something wrong. It’s almost as if the bench is inviting me to build something. If your bench doesn’t do this for you, then it’s not the right bench. The woodworking bench should be like a blank canvas, your tools should look like they are home when they are on the benchtop, and it should inspire you to build something.
I won’t sit here and tell you that my bench is perfect, it’s not. In fact, I won’t even tell you that it was fun to build, when it comes down to it I would rather be making furniture. If I had the money, then and now, I would have purchased one of the Lie Nielsen benches and gotten on with my woodworking life. But building the bench was another important woodworking experience, and it helped to have guidance, so I probably wouldn’t change a thing. One of these days I may build my “dream” bench, or maybe I’ll buy it, though that option isn’t likely at the moment. But I know that either way, a good bench is like a friend in the shop, a helper, and an inspiration.