Workbench – idea/design thread

It’s time.

The time has come to get started on a real workbench. While I’ve started also planning for a saw till and a hand tool cabinet, the truth is if I want to do either of those any justice, I need to have a bench truly capable of doing hand work. I need a bench capable of holding work in a vertical position while I cut dovetails or tenons. A bench capable to clamping a door together. A bench capable of holding stock for planing.

Now I’d like to point out that my current bench has done a quite admirable job. For $20 I built a workbench that has served as a construction area for my kid’s projects, a sharpening surface, somewhat of an outfeed table…it’s been just about everything I could have asked it to be. I can remember the days where it and it’s twin were the only things not covered in stinky carpet or junk from my house. The first project for the (used to be) shed. Only the Craftsman toolbox and a really old corded B&D drill I no longer use are older residents in the workshop.

The early days…like when I thought my workshop was actually 144 square feet. (It’s 136)

It’s twin got relegated to outside the shop long ago, and is still doing yeoman’s work as a junk depository and bike shelter at my house. For being regular 2×4 studs and a precut sheet of regular plywood, I’d say I got more than my money’s worth out of both. But its time to grow into a big boy woodworking bench. Eagle eyed readers noticed the drawings under the chisels in the last post, I was doing a quick little sketch of what I think I want.

First, the essentials. I know it needs to be about six feet long, with a little bit of room allowed for a vice on the end. It needs to be about two feet wide. I could go about 27″, but that’s about the extent. The surface is going to be somewhere around 32″ high. The entire thing is going to be made of southern yellow pine, for budget concerns. The legs and stretchers will be flush with the front of the top. But beyond that, things are a bit up in the air. I had thought for the longest time I would build a Holtzapffel workbench, and you can get the general idea of the design with this link. To summarize, it’s a laminated top with a huge twin screw front vise in the left position, and a quick-release vise in the end position. It’s a wonderful looking bench, and the widely-considered expert on workbenches today, Christopher Schwarz, has expounded it’s virtues. I bought into it completely. One day, when I have more room, I’ll build it.

As it is, I have a major problem in building this bench: the wall it will abut. This is probably the best render I have that shows the work space:

That’s the Holtzapffel there. The vise on the end isn’t a problem, but the one on the front is. That kind of vise is best for clamping something narrow between the screws, such as a drawer side or back. Perfect for dovetailing. But it wouldn’t be for me because of how close it is to the wall, what with myself being right handed. Another disadvantage of that particular vise is that it doesn’t clamp long items well. For instance, say I wanted to rout a mortise in the side of a door for a hinge. Best thing to do would be to put it on it’s opposite edge, secure it, and go at it from above.. I can get a very small bit of it clamped with the twin screw, but I have to make sure the vise doesn’t rack, so I’d be using a vise block in the vise to distribute the pressure. For items of varying size, that’s a pain. It also doesn’t hold long boards on their sides well either, as they have to sit on the screws, potentially raising the piece significantly above the table and the optimal working height. Or, we run into the racking problem.

I’m pretty well set on the fact I want a shoulder vise in that position instead of the twin screw. The advantage a shoulder vise has is that it puts the clamping pressure directly on the piece, no matter what size the piece is. Tall and thin? Got it. Long and wide? Got it (with the help of some dogs in a deadman and the other leg). Thick like a post? Done. Now, it does have the same limitation against the wall the twin screw does, in that I’m too close to the wall. But I think with the help of an auxiliary clamping system I thought of today, it won’t be an issue. It’s basically a sheet of plywood with spots for lots of little clamps that move that tall and thin board away from the wall while still giving it a sturdy spot to be worked on. I’ll have to explain it once it’s built. A sliding deadman is like an extra leg with dog holes that can slide along the width of the stretcher between the legs. Gives extra support for longer pieces that might not be long enough to reach the dog holes on the right leg. Hard to explain just in words, here is a good visual.

That’s probably enough to start this series out. Now I have to decide if this is the very next project, or I want to do some more of the walls first. After all, I don’t want the carpenter ants around here to find this bench. I may just attempt the walls (or at least, one wall) next because it will probably be easier to move things around. I’m hoping the bench project doesn’t take forever, but I’ve seen some people take well over a year with it, with much bigger shops. This will certainly be my biggest challenge yet, and will rival being the most expensive thing in the shop. But, it needs to be done. So many of the projects I want to do depend on having a bench like this.

I’m hoping I can get some preliminary Sketchup work done on this next week, and I’ll talk about a potential major problem with the shoulder vise.

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