The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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The lowdown.

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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