Workbench 101: Take your time and build it right.

When one job turns into ten, you end up building a new workbench. A couple of weeks ago I began to make a basic wall cabinet to hold some small items, mainly my marking and measuring tools. It was nothing fancy, purely a functional piece to encourage me to stop cluttering my bench top and also create some space by using timber from my tool chest.

In the process of making the wall cabinet I realised my workbench wasn’t flat and the back panel (that held some shelves) was causing me more headaches than providing benefits. But…┬ábefore I started that I thought a workshop clear up would be in order to make the workbench adjustments easier. Well, this clear up never really happened and my workshop became an obstacle course of proportions not seen since the TV show “The Crystal Maze”.

In amongst the clutter I began to rebuild my workbench, but having committed to using timber from my existing bench to make the next instalment I was soon at the position of needing to dismantle my bench for timber, yet still requiring it for further construction. One need had to give way and we were soon working on the floor.

Thankfully, the weather was set fair and I was able to use space outside for temporary storage as I got to work.

The simplistic workbench setup above was quite an eye opener. I’ve seen Japanese woodworkers work on the floor and with similar work surfaces that they sit on but to experience it was something unique.┬áThe first day was extremely uncomfortable. Usually when I’m at the workbench for a day or so my back suffers but not when working on the floor. Initially you feel it in your legs and feet as you struggle to find a position to rest, but as the days wore on it became more comfortable and the only thing that hindered me was my Western style of woodworking. Try it you may be surprised.

One of the benefits of having no vice to hold your work is that you soon realise if you have a poor technique or that your tools aren’t sharp. Unless you clamp the piece down or sit on it, the propensity for it to move around is far greater. I found that I’d shove and grab the work with the saw or chisel, which was initially frustrating but in truth it was giving me great feedback. In a day of working on the floor the deficiencies in my sawing technique had almost been completely eradicated, simply because Control has to go up and Force has to come down. All of a sudden my saw did the cutting, my body remained relatively passive and I expended less energy doing simple tasks.

The legs went together without incident, just a fair amount of test, chisel and re-test went on to get them fitted. The next step was to decide how I was attach the legs to the top. Luckily I had Christopher Schwarz’s “The Workbench Design Book” to offer some suggestions and in the end plumped for a large dovetail with a healthy sized shelf at the back. This open joint meant marking and aligning the corresponding mortices on the top was much easier, as was paring the joint for a tight fit.

A test fit provided pleasing results and all that was left was to Drawbore each joint (click for video link) and glue the top to the legs.

Part of the reason this whole project began was because I’d realised I didn’t really use the last 18 inches of my bench, and in a small workshop that amounts to a whole lot of space. However, chopping off that much would leave me with a rather unstable bench that wouldn’t sit well on the uneven floor so I opted for 9 inches. I can honestly say that removing that small amount has realised so much space that I feel I have to walk across my workshop rather than lean to one side to fetch a tool. Some items are even out of arms length!

With the workbench finished I can get back to cleaning up, and then once that’s done I’ll finish the wall cabinet but before then I’ll reward myself with a bit of this…