After 3+ years of woodworking, I think I can speak with a little bit of intelligence and experience concerning woodworking benches. I can hardly call myself an expert. I can’t claim to have worked on dozens of different style benches with tons of different work holding options. I only have the experiences using my workbench and the workbenches I’ve used at the few woodworking classes I’ve taken to pass any kind of judgment. But I do like to think I know a little bit about ergonomics, which I feel is just an important topic as work holding options are when it comes to a woodworking bench. I’ve been discovering that many woodworking benches, even the so-called nearly-perfect ones from centuries past, aren’t as “ergonomically correct” as a good tool should be.
At my previous job I worked on an industrial printing press. It turned a flat sheet into a finished carton, printed, cut, folded, glued, bundled, and ready to ship. It was actually a pretty interesting process. The job had two major drawbacks: there was no climate control which left the building sweltering hot in the summer, and there was a lot of heavy lifting involved. We had many back, shoulder, and neck injuries on the job, too many. In fact, there were so many that an insurance company came in and for two weeks filmed us while we worked without our knowledge. After all was said and done we had a few meetings with consultants skilled in work efficiency and ergonomics and they presented their findings. On average, we were told that a press crew member lifted between 35,000-40,000lbs per shift. The lifting wasn’t necessarily the bad part, but the way the lifting was performed was. Reaching overhead was one problem, and over reaching forward was another, but the real issue was bending and lifting. We were told that on average we were bending over and lifting 30-70lbs nearly two hundred times per shift. And on top of that, the “bend and lift” way too many times involved material weighing more than 100lbs. Obviously doing this every day 45-50 hours a week was a good way to destroy your back and shoulders. The ergonomics experts suggested that much of the heavy lifting should be performed between your knees and shoulders, meaning don’t lift anything heavy that is above your shoulders or below your knees. We were also told that bending over in any sense is really not so good for you, especially when you are lifting. The same was true with activities such as repetitive over-reaching. Again, I’m no medical doctor, and I can’t claim to be any type of expert on the subject, but all of those points sounded like good advice, then and now, and I try to woodwork following those same guidelines.
In my experience I’ve found that workbenches really only excel at one task, and that is holding/clamping a board to be hand planed. In fairness to workbenches everywhere, from what I understand that is really their main function, and at one time were called “planing benches”. Benches can do a decent job of holding a board for using a jigsaw or router, if you use those tools. Workbenches are okay for sawing dovetails and tenons, and they do a pretty good job of holding a board for removing waste with a chisel, or pounding out a mortise. They are miserable to use for assembling anything larger than a box, and they aren’t much better when it comes to cross cutting larger/wider stock with a hand saw. The problem with a standard, traditional workbench is that its height is not adjustable. A workbench at the perfect height for planing is often too low, or too high, for many sawing tasks. Nearly all workbenches are at least a foot too tall for most assembly work. I know this has probably been said before, and a traditionalist will argue that workbenches really shouldn’t be asked to do more than hold a board to be hand planed, or the occasional joinery/chiseling task. I agree with that logic and wouldn’t argue the fact. But my issue is the “cost” of a workbench, both monetary, and the space it takes up. You can either spend a lot of money purchasing a good quality woodworking bench, or spend less money but a lot of precious shop time building one yourself. Either way you look at it the investment is quite large for what is basically an expensive clamp, and a clamp that in many ways isn’t ergonomically correct.
Another issue I have with workbenches is their recommended size according to most experts. For me, the ideal workbench would be 2 feet wide, 33 inches tall, and 8 feet long or longer….IF….the workbench was situated in the center of my work space. The problem for most of us is that our benches aren’t centered in the shop, as much as we would like them to be; most of our workbenches are placed against a wall where they usually stay put. We are told that a 2 foot wide bench, give or take, is a great width because it minimizes reaching and makes the bench easier to walk around when clamping things to both sides. Again, those points are spot on and that is good bench-making advice if your bench is at the center of the shop. If it isn’t at the shop center and instead placed against a wall, a wider bench would serve much better in my opinion. You can extend the width, possibly to 3 feet, or at the least extend it as wide as you can comfortably reach, giving yourself plenty of additional bench top space that would be a great place to keep tools out of the way, yet near enough to use, and also keep stock close at hand. The extra width could also be a stock staging area and, in theory, give the workbench more mass.
I think my main issue with woodworking benches is using them for any type of project assembly. We are told that workbenches can be used for assembly on most projects, but I’ve found that assembly on a traditional bench can be difficult to say the least. Even a “lower” bench between 28 and 33 inches is still too tall for a good deal of the projects that the average home woodworker attempts. My current two tables project is a prime example. Assembling a table on a workbench is not as fun as it sounds. For instance, using a mallet to tap some of the parts in place is very difficult when the piece is higher than eye level, which nearly any project of size will be when you have it on a typically proportioned workbench. On the other hand, many times using the floor for assembly is just as frustrating unless you feel like doing some deep knee bends. In my opinion, a dedicated assembly bench, maybe 3ft or 4ft square and 18-24 inches tall is much better option for assembling most furniture made by a home woodworker. It would keep nearly all projects you are working on between your knees and shoulders, which as I was saying, is the optimal level on which to work on an object. On that token, I’ve never seen a woodworking book recommend building an assembly bench even though there are quite a few photographs of benches similar to the one I described being shown in old shops. If emulating the old style workbench is so important and in vogue with proper workbench construction, why is this obviously important bench being ignored? Every woodworking book I’ve ever read recommends using your workbench for assembly, which I think is a terrible idea most of the time.
Sawing is another area where workbenches fall too short. For small parts and smaller joinery like tenons and dovetails a workbench will do fine. But for any ripping task, or cross cutting a wide board, you are much better using some kind of saw horse or saw bench. This is nothing new, and many woodworking writers recommend making and using a pair of them. The truth is you can make a pair of saw benches or saw horses for around $20 in just a few hours. Yet, when we are considering the costs of either buying or making a proper workbench, I just don’t think it’s worth the time, money, or combination of either, that we put into acquiring them, especially when you take into account the minimal costs laid down for making a pair of saw horses and a low assembly bench, which you can probably build for under $100 or at least in that ball park. When you are plunking down $2000-$3000 for a good, commercially sold bench, or building one yourself for around $1000, it should really function as more than a planing clamp in my opinion. Yet for the most part that is what we are getting. Would any of us spend $2000 for a table saw that cross cut boards but couldn’t rip them? Or purchase a router that only held one or two bits? Maybe some people would but I sure as hell wouldn’t.
I’m not writing this post as an enemy of the woodworking bench. I think a good bench is essential to a good workshop, in particular if you are using hand tools of any kind. But looking back I don’t think they should be the first piece of shop furniture made. A bench really functions best if used along with saw horses and an assembly bench. Otherwise they are nearly a specialty tool, a good specialty tool, but an expensive one at that. To use the tables that I am currently making as an example, I probably could have done much of the construction using a pair of saw horses, but the assembly phase would have gone much, much easier if I had some kind of dedicated assembly bench. That is a lesson that took more than three years to really learn. But that is the way it has to be I guess. My next project, a new top for my current workbench, is born from those lessons learned. I know it’s not going to be the complete solution. Yet I think that my advice here can really help a new woodworker who may be planning a bench build. After all, I was that new woodworker not so long ago.