The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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I finally did it! You maniac!

IF I learned one thing over the past two weekends, I learned that I don’t enjoy building workbenches. There are some woodworkers that love constructing benches and everything that goes along with it, and to that I say ‘Whatever makes you happy’. Building workbenches does not make me happy; nor does modifying them, flattening them, or fixing them. Why? I think the main reason is because of the size of the parts you are dealing with when it comes to workbench construction. For instance, I had to maneuver my new workbench top, which is roughly six feet long, sixteen inches wide, and three inches thick, and which weighs around one hundred pounds, around my garage at least half a dozen times yesterday morning. My garage is just over twelve feet wide, and that is before you count the other stuff in it. It was a real dance getting that thing where I wanted it to go, even though I had to carefully plan out each motion so as not to drop it, or trip, or knock something over with it. I’ve found that when you are building something large, you need a proportionally large space to build it in. Of course, I knew that already, having learned the lesson several times beforehand. Yesterday morning’s lesson was just an audit of a class I had already taken.

Once and for all, I decided to add the tool tray to my workbench top and attach it to the base. It is my hope that this will not only make my woodworking more enjoyable, but also end my bitching about the topic. Yesterday morning I started early. I had a few things I needed to do to get the new top prepared for the tool tray. The first thing needed to be done was to make some Dutchmen to fill in the recesses I had on my old bench top, which is now the underside of my new top. I made the Dutchmen from some 3/8 poplar scrap I had. I glued them into place and clamped them, and while they were drying I started building the three boxes that would make up the new tool tray.

I made the center box first, because it is the largest, and also because it is deeper than the other two. I wanted a box deep enough to lay any of my bench planes on their sides without sticking out, and that meant a recess at least 3 1/4 inches deep to be on the safe side. I sized the length of the box to fit in between the back legs of the workbench. Happily, the legs were relatively square, so the tray fit if fairly nicely. The construction of the tray was simple: pocket screws and glue, with 1/2″ cleats to hold the tray bottoms. Once the first tray was completed, I planed down the two Dutchmen I had made, and attached the new workbench top to the base. Originally, the top was held to the base with some ‘L’ brackets, and four 3/4″ oak pegs. The pegs are what really gave the top stability, but yesterday I had to use the ‘L’ brackets only, as my work would possibly need adjusting. Thankfully everything fit, so I attached the top to the base. At that, I changed the top configuration a bit. Originally, my workbench had equal over hang on each side of the bench. I found that very rarely did I do any work on the left side of the leg vice, so I left only a six inch overhang, with the right side of the bench getting the majority.

The other two boxes/trays I made by measuring off the first tray. They are not as deep, only two inches with the tray bottoms attached. I plan on using those as hardware bins, though chisels also fit in nicely. Ideally, I would have made the tray all as one unit notched around the benches base, with corresponding rabbets and dados for separating the compartments. That certainly would have been the proper way to do it, as well as a cleaner build. Unfortunately for me there was nothing ideal about this project. In fact, I would go on record as saying that the trays I made are just okay, and probably represent some of the worst woodworking I’ve done in years. They are a bit too sloppy for my tastes. I could always reconstruct them the “right” way, and somebody may point out that I should have done that in the first place. I would point out that the “right” way would have cost me a lot more money than this did, which was next to nothing. I don’t usually spend the bucks unless I know for sure that it will work. If this experiment is a success, and hopefully it is, I will make all of the proper changes.

So for all intents and purposes my new top and tray is finished and ready for work. I still need to peg the bench to the base, which shouldn’t be too difficult. One other thing I would like to touch on is dog holes. When I ripped down my original top, the original dog holes were removed, leaving only four that I had near the center of the bench that I used for the holdfasts. Catching a lucky break, it turned out that those four dog holes were nearly perfectly placed, so I reused them. I will probably add another four to the same row, but for the time being I will not be adding a front row of holes, nor a tail vice of any kind. I very rarely used that front row of holes; the middle row for the holdfasts saw much more use. The same can be said for a tail vice: I almost never used it. In my experience, holdfasts work for nearly all of the clamping that I ask a workbench to do, and a planing stop in the leg vice was more than enough for hand plane use. There is probably something to be said for my theories, because in some old photos of woodworking benches that I’ve seen there was no front row of dog holes either.

There are still a few small tasks I need to complete other than pegging the bench top: attaching the board jack (or ‘dead man’ if you prefer), adding a few more dog holes, and finally adding a protective finish to the new top. Those jobs shouldn’t take too long, and in the meanwhile my bench is up and running again. I’ve said before, this is a temporary arraignment. ‘Temporary’ may mean twelve months or more, however. But what I am saying is this is not my last workbench. I have come to the realization that my next bench may be purchased and not made. I don’t have the time or patience to spend months upon months making a woodworking bench. From the research I’ve done, it is nearly as cost effective to purchase a bench from Lie Nielsen, Sjobergs, or Veritas than it is to make one yourself, and it is much, much faster. While I try not to make everything about costs and time, I am making an exception in the case of a workbench. Building a workbench isn’t the same thing as building a cabinet or an end table. We are talking a very sizeable investment of time and money. For some reason, woodworkers seem to think that they need to build everything. That may be somewhat of a healthy attitude, but it isn’t necessarily smart. For instance, I, or any fairly mechanically skilled person, could probably build an automobile given the time and money, but purchasing one is the smarter move for most people. What is the comparison? I believe that workbenches are the woodworking equivalent of a car. Just like nearly everybody needs a car, nearly every woodworker needs a bench as well, as they are one of the most used woodworking tools; and just like a car, they are often one of the more costly purchases you will make. The truth is, a good woodworking bench, either shop made or purchased, is probably the most expensive tool that a home woodworker owns, with the possible exception of a (higher end) table saw. Making a good bench can cost upwards of $1000; and purchasing one can cost even more, though it will not cost any time, which is the one commodity that all of us need more of. At that, I rest my case.

On a final note…I generally don’t offer much advice on this blog, but if I may offer some, it would be this: If you are a new woodworker and you are planning on making a workbench, make it as cheaply as possible. My suggestion would be the Bob Key good, fast, and cheap bench. Use that bench for a while, see what you like and don’t like about it, and then save your money and purchase the nearest and best bench that fits your needs. While I will be the last person to deny the need a woodworker has for a good woodworking bench, they are also one of the more overrated tools you will ever own, at least when compared to the cost and time needed to make one. You can make a lot of nice furniture in the time it takes to make a workbench, and you can be learning a lot more about woodworking while doing it. Still, if you want to be a bench builder then by all means do it, but if you want to make furniture there are other ways to go about it than spending months building a giant clamp.

I'm HAPPY to report that shavings made it into the tray!

I’m HAPPY to report that shavings made it into the tray!

Jack plane fits in on its side.

Jack plane fits in on its side.

Left side overhang is lessened

Left side overhang is lessened

The shallow trays are deep enough to hold hammers, chisels, and hardware

The shallow trays are deep enough to hold hammers, chisels, and hardware

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Why not a tool tray?

And some say that tool trays collect clutter?

And some say that tool trays collect clutter?

I find it hard to use the words “woodworking” and “controversy” together in the same sentence, let alone as the subject and it’s adjective. Woodworking, as a rule, is not a controversial topic no matter how many people try to make it that way. Of course you can find hundreds of woodworking blog posts explaining why you must do something a certain way, or why you should never use this tool, or why you should always sharpen just like this! You will then find hundreds of responses on why the post is correct, or incorrect. But lets face it, woodworking is boring. Woodworking books are boring, woodworking debates are boring. They just are, I am sorry to say. Woodworking is not the NFL. I don’t high five my wife after sawing a nice tenon. Now, I am NOT saying that the act of woodworking is boring. Woodworking is like learning to write a novel, the final result may be great, but nobody wants to spend their time watching an author learn about sentence structure. I also have a theory that woodworking books have to be boring for them to work properly, but I’ll save that for another blog post.

As it were, one of the few woodworking topics that actually stirs woodworkers from their slumber is the addition, or subtraction, of a tool tray on their woodworking bench. I can’t understand why this topic is so heavily debated, but like it or not, it is. If you happen to mention that you are adding a tool tray to your workbench, you could possibly get dozens, if not hundreds of woodworkers telling you not to do it. Generally the reasons are always the same: Tool trays collect clutter, and/or, tool trays take away valuable bench top territory. I’m hear to tell you all now that those reasons are lame, or piss-poor as my dad would say.

As I was working on my current project over the weekend, I found myself really wanting a tool tray, yet again. Because much of what I did on Sunday involved hand tools, in just a few minutes my bench top, the place where I was woodworking, became filled with tools and debris. You might tell me that I should be working out of a tool chest, which would help keep the bench top clear of tools. Well, I do work out of a tool chest, a rather nice one I might add. The tool chest does not help, if it did I wouldn’t be writing this post.

So, I’m going to take a few minutes here and debunk the top ‘anti-tool tray’ myths and point out just how lame they really are.

Myth 1-Tool trays collect clutter!

This is the big one, the Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and both Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster have more credibility. Before anybody jumps down my throat, let me explain. Do tool trays collect clutter and debris? Absolutely, positively! Does the rest of the bench top collect clutter and debris? Absolutely, positively. Does the floor around your workbench collect clutter and debris? Clutter, sometimes; debris, absolutely! Here is the deal: Woodworking generates clutter and debris, and it has to collect somewhere. If I’m at the workbench, wouldn’t I rather have a place to collect some of the clutter, tools, and other items that you need at hand, but not necessarily in the way? That, people, is where the tool tray comes into play. Tool trays keep your tools right where you need them, but out of harms way. Tool trays keep your tools from getting knocked onto the floor. Tool trays keep your tools from damaging the board you are working on. Tool trays are a good place to sweep shavings and such until you have a chance to clean them up later. Tool trays are a GREAT place to keep hardware like screws and nails and bits handy. Tool trays keep you at the workbench and not digging around your tool box. And clean up? Ever heard of a shop vac?

Myth 2-Tool trays take away too much bench top area.

Let’s, for arguments sake, say that the average workbench top is twenty-four inches wide. Let’s also say, that the average tool tray is eight inches wide. If my abacus is correct that leaves sixteen inches of useable bench top space to woodwork with. In my experience, sixteen inches is more than enough width for woodworking. When woodworking with hand tools, I’ve found that very rarely do you use more than the front twelve inches of the bench top; I can see that just by my top’s physical appearance. Every ding, dent, and smudge is located along the front half. The way I see it, most amateur woodworkers don’t work with boards more than sixteen inches wide. Even so, a tool tray usually will not affect a wider board regardless. But what about project assembly? Well, workbenches are fine for assembling drawers, or fitting small parts, but they suck for full scale assembly, and they should because that is not what they are meant for. Workbenches are for clamping and sawing, that is it. Trying to assemble a large project on a workbench is a lesson in frustration.

Myth 3-A tool tray will take away too much mass from the bench.

My current workbench is on the smaller side. It is 6 feet long, 2 feet wide, and 33 inches tall. I would estimate that it weighs in the neighborhood of 225 pounds, give or take. I am 5ft 11in tall and I weigh around 200 pounds, and I cannot budge my workbench unless I try. I’ve never had the bench jump during planing or sawing. In it’s current configuration, if I removed a portion of the bench and added a tool tray, I would probably subtract around 25 pounds of weight. That loss of mass will not affect the functioning of the bench in the least. I know that because I’ve worked on benches the same size as mine that had a tray and they worked just fine. In fact, if I added a proper maple bench top like I would like to, the bench would actually gain a good amount of mass, even with a tool tray. Workbenches do NOT have to weigh 400 pounds to work correctly. They just don’t. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have a massive bench. If you want one then go for it. What I am saying is that you don’t need a massive bench.

I know I’ve touched on this subject before, but my experiences over the weekend brought it back to mind. If we, as woodworkers, want to look to history and tradition for guidance, doesn’t the fact that many traditional benches had a tool tray tell us something? They work, that’s why they were put on benches in the first place! If I am reading the reasons rightly, the main reason to not have a tool tray is because they need to be cleaned. That is absolutely ridiculous. Woodworkers spend hours sharpening their tools, oiling them, aligning them just so in their chests or cabinets, but don’t want to take about thirty seconds to run a shop vac over the workbench top? Does that make any sense? Now again, I am not telling anybody that doesn’t want a tool tray that they are fools for not having one. However, I am saying that if you do want a tool tray, and you believe that it will be an asset to your woodworking, then by all means do it and don’t pay attention to the foolish reasons telling you otherwise.

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