The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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The lowdown.

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This morning I did something which I rarely do; I read my own woodworking blog. I’m not sure exactly why, but I decided to check out some past posts. I guess I was looking to see if I had changed any regarding my woodworking philosophy, and the answer to that would be both yes and no. I might add that I actually really enjoyed most of what I read. I’m not sure if it’s proper to say that but I said it anyway.

One of the things I had noticed in the photographs of myself was that if I was standing at my workbench I was sort of craned over the bench looking a lot like the guy on the cover of Led Zepplin !V. I probably don’t have great posture, but I also don’t slouch anything like the guy in my woodworking “action” photos. The clincher came when I was looking at woodworking photos on Instagram and noticed the same thing among most of the woodworkers I saw. It led to the question: Are woodworking benches too low?

My bench is a shade under 34 inches high. When I’m not craning over my bench I am just over 5ft 11 inches tall, which I would consider average height. The conventional wisdom of the day when I built my bench was the lower the better. So I made my bench 33 inches tall, which fell into the height to bench height ratio that was recommended by the “experts”. Later, when I modified the bench top, it left me with my current workbench height. The new height is slightly more comfortable in my opinion, but here is what I noticed: the muscles in the middle of my back are often sore after I am at my workbench for a few hours. Here is something else I noticed: When I am at the work table I made for my job, which stands at just over 36 inches high, my back feels much better.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that the conventional wisdom of 5 years ago sucked. It made the mistake of copying a workbench that was made for the style of an 18th century woodworker who was also likely shorter in height than the average man today. A low workbench may be optimal if you use it to dimension thick boards by hand all day long using a large, wooden bodied plane, but it does not work for sawing, chiseling, carving, shaping, or just about any other hand tool task I can think of. I can only speak for myself, but I rarely dimension boards by hand, and I never do it with a large, wooden bodied plane, and even if I did it wouldn’t be an 8 hour long task. The other hand tool tasks I mentioned happen nearly every time I woodwork.

While I am not going to make any attempt at modifying my bench, if I were to make a new one I would probably make it at least an inch taller. Just around 35 inches tall seems like the perfect height for a guy my size. That added height would make sawing and chisel work easier, and shouldn’t really effect any hand plane work, in particular edge jointing. If you don’t believe me maybe you should check out Paul Sellers theory on workbench height. He is 5ft 10 inches and uses a bench 38 inches tall and that doesn’t seem to bother him in the least. I’ll take his word for it. What I won’t do is let somebody else do the thinking for me ever again. That never works out well.

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19 Comments

  1. Dyami says:

    Good post. I think I’ll go for a higher bench also.

    • billlattpa says:

      Thanks Dyami! I never thought much of it until I looked back at the pictures on my blog. When I made a new, higher top for my bench it also seemed to make a difference, though it was minor. I made the mistake of following a trend rather than common sense.
      Bill

  2. theindigowoodworker says:

    I’m at 40″ and about to raise it another inch or so. But I have 4″ on you in height. My bench started at 34″. I raised it roughly 20 years ago, long before Mr. Sellers came up with 38″. I simply hate a low bench. Like you I don’t spend all day long dimensioning rough lumber. Even planing for an hour or two straight which I’ve done many times my arms don’t wear out like purported and I don’t have a back ache either. The back ache was constant with the low bench. I’m not however telling anyone else what height to make their bench. Merely relaying my experience. To each his own is my motto.

    • billlattpa says:

      I think most woodworkers usually work with boards 3ft or less for the majority of their work. If you are handplaning those boards, even dimensioning, you are mostly using your arms and shoulders.

      The way I look at it, if you are getting tired, it’s not because your bench is too high, but because you are lacking upper body strength. Once again, woodworking is not exercise, and though using a hand plane does take a little physical strength, you would need to do it for hours on end to gain any real benefit from it. Most hobby woodworkers, even hard core hand tool guys, will only plane for minutes at a time. My point being, if a woodworkers arms are getting tired, it’s because of lack of conditioning, not a bench that needs to be lower.

      My original bench was only 31 1/4″ high, that was a back pain nightmare. I just can’t see the need to have a workbench that sits so low that you need to slouch to use it.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  3. Greg Merritt says:

    I followed Paul’s advice and built my bench at 38″. I’m 5′-10″. In truth a fully believed that I would end up cutting it down to a little. But 38″ has worked out really well for me. Like you mentioned, most of my bench work is layout and chisel work. The vast majority of my planing is finish planing and doesn’t require a lot of power. Anyway, I like the extra height of my bench.

    • billlattpa says:

      For the foreseeable future I’m not going to make any bench modifications. But one day I will probably make a new bench. I like many of the aspects of Paul Sellers bench, including the wedges to hold front/back cross stretchers, which is ingenious. If I were to make a new bench it would be a hybrid of several different designs, but mostly true to the “English” form, which I think is the best workbench design out there.
      Did you make the Sellers bench? If so how do you like it? It looks to me to be a great workbench that can handle anything. If he uses it, I have to imagine that it does the job better than most.
      I did a little “ergonomic” testing last night and I estimate that my bench could easily be 1-3 inches taller which would put it 35-37 inches tall. We also tend to forget that most of us woodwork wearing shoes or boots which can easily add a few inches to our height, making a lower bench even more uncomfortable.
      Long story short (no pun intended), IMO a low workbench is most of the time completely unnecessary.
      Thanks.
      Bill

      • Greg Merritt says:

        Yep, followed the plans in Paul’s book. I’m completely satisfied with it. It’s very stable and has handled every task that I have thrown at it so far. It really shines during layout work. No more stooping over and no more aching back. I can work at this bench for hours at a time with no problems.

  4. dzj9 says:

    A lower bench is OK if you do a lot of work with wooden planes, otherwise a bit taller bench is better.
    As for posture, better Zeppelin IV than ‘Zeppelin V’. 🙂

    • billlattpa says:

      I can’t imagine any situation where a low bench is better suited than a “high” bench for the average woodworker. If you’re under 5ft 8inches and you do nothing but hand plane using traditional planes then I can see the need for a bench under 32 inches tall.
      BTW, I have to admit I’m not a huge Zepplin fan. They have some great songs, but my criteria for band greatness is that I have to be able to put in one of their records and just be able to listen to it front to back. I thought Led Zepplin II and Houses of the Holy were great albums, but other than that I can take it or leave it.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  5. Alex A. says:

    My current “bench” (a bench-top on some sawhorses) is 34.5 inches tall and I am 6’3″ which I think is about right for planing however, I am the first to admit that I have the arms of an Orangutan.

    I did find that using a moxon vise when sawing helped a lot as the extra 6 or 7 inches of height helped by sawing posture and for chisel work I tend to sit down on my saw bench bringing me closer to the work.

    Since I am about to put the legs on my bench finally I think I am going to start at 36 inches and see if I decide to make it shorter in the future.

    • billlattpa says:

      Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I’ve found my tolerance for slouching, stooping, and bending to be very low. At my former job we had an insurance company film us working to see why so many injuries were occurring. The long story short was that they recommended work be performed between your waist and shoulders for optimal comfort. To put that in perspective, my waist height is 39 inches. Yours, at 6ft 3in is probably in the 43 inch range, yet according to the “experts” my ideal bench height is around 31 inches, which is approx. 7 inches below my waist. That is far too low in my opinion.
      In fact, I can remember a time when it was in vogue to have an extremely low bench, as in 28 inches. Even for a person of average height like myself that is ridiculous, let alone somebody in the 6ft 3 range. To me those heights were a knee jerk reaction to an old text that was automatically assumed to be absolutely correct in every aspect.
      Thanks.
      Bill

      • Alex A. says:

        Ergonomics is key, especially at work. I’ve got a repetitive stress injury from work.

        Yeah that seems super low, my bench is already a few inches above what Chris Schwarz recommends in his workbench book . It really seems like we need two benches, there was an article in fine woodworking a while back which was a mini bench that went on top of your bench for handling close work which might be a good compromise for improving your situation

      • billlattpa says:

        I loved CS’s first workbench book. It’s one of my absolute favorite woodworking books. That book, among other sources, was the reason I went with the slightly lower bench than I probably should have made, though I did go higher than the recommendation.
        Ideally, a hand tool workshop would have 3 benches: an assembly bench approximately 18-24 inches off the ground, a planing bench, and a joinery bench. Obviously all the benches would be subject to the height of the primary user.
        Unfortunately most of us don’t have that kind of room, and because I use my work bench for joinery much more than plane work I prefer the higher set bench. However, I would love to make an assembly bench or table that sat around knee high. One thing about a high workbench is that they are absolutely awful for assembling larger furniture.
        I saw that article in FW and I like the concept, but I admit that I am too lazy to actually build one. 🙂
        Thanks.
        Bill

  6. Good post.
    I’m still using my first bench I made when I was about 17, I made it extra high I thought, for the time. I’m glad I did, it’s about 38inches (I’m 6’2″).
    I’ve often thought of building a new one like Paul’s but would rather be going on with more interesting projects using my current bench that I’m used to and don’t really mind if I scuff the top occasionally. I think if I made one too nice I’d be reluctant to use it, I’ve also made so many modifications to my current one that I don’t want to throw all that work away and start again.
    Have you thought about maybe just extending the legs on your current one? Or even have some flip down blocks of wood that lock in somehow and make the bench higher while still being rigid and making good contact with the floor? I’ve added some fold down casters for mine, best thing I ever did when it comes to moving the bench, not that I do very often but when you need to they are great. Plus they fold up away so the bench still makes contact with the ground as if they were never there. Paul mentioned them on his blog then I found the same ones here in Australia. Best thing I ever did to my bench.
    My advice, modify your current one then get on with more fun stuff.
    If you don’t like the new height you can always remove the blocks and go back to the old height for tasks like saw sharpening etc.
    I sometimes use a stool at my bench to avoid hunching over, I also feel I have more control for things like fine dovetailing with a chisel, I use my elbows on the bench for certain tasks as well, more stability and control of your hands. I’ve got used to working like that and hate standing upright for these things now. A lot of woodworkers will disagree and say you should never use a stool but hey, I don’t listen to them. Although if Paul came out and said never to use a stool I might listen to him 🙂 Would still have trouble changing my ways though.

    • billlattpa says:

      Thanks! While my bench is a bit lower than I would like, the only modification I would make is to laminate another 3/4 or 7/8 thick pine panel to the bench top. That to me is the easiest solution and not very costly (those panels usually run between $30-$50 at my local lumberyard). They are flat, stable, and easy to work with.
      I also use a stool on occasion if I am sawing a joint, but I do prefer to stand (just not slouch). I like the casters idea, and when I built the bench I considered adding them, but the design I came up with didn’t really allow them. That being said, if and when I make a new bench, I am going to incorporate foldable casters into the design.
      Also, I have to let you know that Waltzing Matilda is one of my absolute favorite songs of all time. One of my go to “whistling songs” at work.
      Bill

      • Andrew Wilkerson says:

        Ha ha That’s funny. I’m suprised you even know the song let alone whistle it and love it so much. It’s not like we all walk around singing it down here in Australia. I don’t even think I can remember all the words. Some say it should be our national anthem. We used to be forced to sing the Australian anthem and God save the queen at school so I can probably remember most of those words. The kids don’t sing it at school these days though. Those days are gone. Not sure if that’s a good or bad thing though.

  7. billlattpa says:

    At school we did the “Pledge of Allegiance” every morning, and the National Anthem was saved for assemblies or sporting events. It is still the same way for the most part.
    Believe it or not Waltzing Matilda has a great tradition among the US Marine Corp. During World War 2 the US 1st Marine division was involved in brutal fighting at Guadalcanal, and spent many months in direct combat. The were finally relieved and sent to Australia to recuperate. Being Marines, they liked to gamble, drink beer and whisky, and sing songs. The Aussie troops, being of like mind, enjoyed the same things so naturally they got along great! So the Marines of the 1st division instantly took a liking to Waltzing Matilda and it unofficially became a marching song. Later, it became the official song of the 1st Marine Division and to this day it is played anytime the 1st division ships out.
    While I was in the Army and not the Marine Corp there were Marines stationed at my base because it was the field artillery headquarters. They would often sing the song when they marched so it grew on me. Being that I am something of a history buff, in particular American History, I researched the history of the song and learned the story.
    I admit that I don’t know all the words myself, but I do know the first verse and chorus!
    Thanks.
    Bill

  8. Kinderhook88 says:

    I built a “workbench” several years ago at 36″ and I love it. That’s standard countertop height, btw. It just seemed like a good idea at the time. And if I ever get around to building a real workbench, that’s the height it’ll be.

    • billlattpa says:

      I have a theory that a workbench should be roughly half your “wingspan”. Though I am just over 71 inches tall, my wingspan is just under that, so my bench height should be 35 inches according to my theory. I’m not saying it is scientific, but it feels correct. A person who is thinner may have a bit of a longer span for their height, but you get the idea.
      I made a work table for the warehouse at my work that is 36 inches high and it feels just about perfect. It has a beautiful butcher block countertop from Bally Block company that would make a great woodworking bench top, unfortunately it isn’t mine to make that decision. But it was using that work table that made me realize a low workbench isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
      Thanks.
      Bill

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