My work bench turns 30

Bench 1

Happy 30th birthday!

I don’t have a Roubo bench or a Nicholson bench. But I do Have two benches that have been with me for a long time. They have both undergone changes over the years,  both cost me next to nothing to build, and they are both better now than ever. So I thought I would give a quick tour of them and discuss what I have found to be the most useful features in a workbench over the last 30 years.

The way they were…

main bench at work

Main bench pre-upgrades

My current benches go way back to 1985/6. I don’t have a any digital pictures of them back then but I dug up a few to show a bit of the evolution these two benches have gone through. The picture at the left shows the configuration of my main bench when I built it. Originally it was nothing but a slab of 1 1/8″ plywood(salvaged from a office furniture makers scrap heap) laminated together to a thickness of 2 1/4″. The legs were made of the same material and the whole thing was held together with threaded rod and lag screws. It had some holes in the top and some trays under it and that is the way it remained until about 2012. That may not seem like a very useful bench but my concept for many years for a work bench was as a platform to which I could attach various jigs and fixtures. I built both of these benches in the mid-eighties when I was very interested(to put it mildly) in building musical instruments. And they performed very well as a platform for my various work holding jigs.

step bench

My 30″ – 38″ step bench. (the metal hand crank at the right is my guitar side press leftover from the old days)

I had a full assortment of fairly elaborate fixtures that I would attach to these benches. Which meant that I did not want to commit to anything in a bench design except that it be sturdy, the right height, and that it be easy to attach my assortment of fixtures and vises. It was not until I fully embraced traditional hand tool woodworking that I started to feel like my benches needed an upgrade. As I got into more and more traditional hand tool woodworking and became involved in more furniture and tool projects (as opposed to instrument making and boat building) I started to really feel the need for a more conventional hand tool bench.

The Bench upgrade of 2012

my benches

The current bench crew

By now it was 2012 and I was closing in on the end of my cedar strip canoe project. I started to think it was time to upgrade.
For example in the old days I used pipe clamps to power various vise-like fixtures on my bench. I had a pipe clamp powered end vise, and also a pipe clamp 30″ moxon style vise along the long edge of my bench. I say Moxon because that is what people call them now, but this was several years before Moxon vises or Moxon for that matter really entered the common woodworking vernacular. I simply needed a long vise to hold my case sides while I dovetailed them. If I had only known what a ground breaking (re)inventor I was, maybe I could be as famous as Chris Schwarz! (sort of doubt it 😉  So I began by purchasing a decent vise screw from Lee Valley Tools, turning my cowboy pipe clamp end vise into a more proper end vise. I also added a planing stop to the other end of my bench and bought a couple holdfasts from Gramercy Tools. If you have not tried a pair of these yet, leave this post and order them now, you will not be sorry.

Bench planing rail

Planing rail for my bench

The Planing Rail and Tool Trays

The last major improvement was to add two more legs, a planing rail, and a quasi-Nicholson styled skirt on the far side of my bench. This added a lot of weight, more width, and just generally made my bench a more solid and useful platform for all around work. Without the need to constantly change jigs and fixtures.
The planing rail is as simple as can be, just a 2 1/4″ thick by 6″ wide slab of plywood like the rest of the bench supported by a 2 1/4″ thick side skirt with holdfast holes. The really neat part is the sliding tool trays, these were designed by necessity not genius, but I have to say after using them for a few years, I would never build a bench without them now. The ability to slide them around and even quickly remove them is wonderful, it allows for easy clamping around the perimeter of the main benchtop, easy removal to prevent them from filling with chips, and finally easy cleaning. I love them.

Cleaning up the joints

Using the bench overhang

The last decision I made that I am still quite happy about is the overhang on the end of the bench. This is handy so often that it is another one of those features I would not want to be without.
In fact when I think of an eventual replacement for this bench I think I would like to build in two overhangs in different widths to accommodate various sized work holding scenarios. A wide overhang and a narrow one and then the ability to use both together for even larger things.
I have also toyed around with a shoulder vise in place of my oversized birdsmouth, but I am still on the fence with that one. It turns out when I have a lot of planing to do the speed with which I can insert, remove, check for square and reinsert material in this system is really impressive. I am quite sure that for most jobs a shoulder vise would actually slow me down.

My “Other” bench

Sharpening bench

My “other” bench

My other bench is a sort of stepped affair that most likely does not make much sense without a bit of explanation. It has two surfaces the main one is 30 inches high and the smaller one is 38 inches high. And was built entirely from an old industrial solid core door. The step design was used to accommodate molds for instruments when I was building musical instruments in the 80’s. The mold would attach to the small elevated surface and could be pivoted around 360 degrees. The lower surface would hold my tools and give me a place to work on various components of the instrument without leaving the vicinity of the mold. It worked great. Later on though it became my “fixit” bench with the smaller higher surface used for detail work that I wanted to hold a bit closer to the tip of my nose.
Lately though I am using it almost exclusively as a sharpening bench. The two heights are often quite handy for various sharpening tasks. The post vise usually just holds my strop these days.

Split top saw bench

Split top saw bench

The only other addition is my two saw benches one I made years ago and the other I talk about in detail here.
So happy 30th birthday guys!
I wish it were mine again 😉

my benches

The current bench crew

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