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Workbench Design: What Does a Renaissance Woodworker Need in a Bench?

When I first started woodworking it was like many of us. I had just bought my first home and the honey do list was growing exponentially each day. Included with the house was a rickety old workbench in the garage that reminded me of my grandfather’s shop: 2×4 legs with aprons, stretchers, and a cross brace in the back with 2×6 planks for the top. The top was about 48″ long and over 30″ deep. It rocked when you worked on it and slid all over the floor because it was so light. Even with my little woodworking experience, it was almost useless for anything other than a junk collector.

That bench was quickly disassembled and the parts reused for other small shop furniture projects. My “bench” then became base cabinets with a countertop and that served me well for almost 5 years. Then I discovered hand tools…

Good hand work relies on the woodworker’s ability to hold the work steady while it is worked with chisels, planes, saws, etc. I had none of that ability with my countertop arrangement. It was at this point more than a year ago that I started planning my hybrid woodworking shop. I knew that a bench would be the focal point of that shop, but I knew that first I had to make room for it by ditching some of the base cabinets and moving some benchtop tools from those cabinets onto a mobile base of some kind. Of course by getting rid of the cabinets I lost storage space so I was sure to add storage space into the design of all of my mobile bases. Once that was done I had an entire wall free allowing for a bench anywhere from 8 to 10 feet long. So now it was time to start designing my bench.

One of the things I like most about Christopher Schwarz’s Workbenches book is how he breaks down common woodworking operations and ranks work holding devices for that specific task. I used this model to analyze what types of things I would be building and how I would hold them for the various tasks. For the Renaissance woodworker this presents a serious challenge as we may get into a wide variety of woodworking challenges involving both hand and power tools. I started by making a list of the most common things I build.

Small Boxes
Windsor Chairs
Common Furniture (tables & casework)

I then started thinking about the individual steps to those pieces and broke them down into specific task much like Chris does in his book

Boxes: sawing joints (dovetails, half laps, etc.), face/edge planing, end grain planing, shooting, sticking, carving

Cabinets: Dovetailing 24″ and under, face/edge planing medium length/ medium wide boards, refining joinery (router plane dados, shoulder planing face frame tenons, etc), edge banding

Windsor Chairs: holding irregular shapes (hollowing seats), shaving spindles, drilling, assembly

Furniture: edge/face planing boards of all sizes, refining joinery, sawing, routing, carving, pretty much all of the above.

This breakdown was hardly exhaustive but it showed by a few commonalities that I knew I was unable to perform without a bench. Most important was the holding ability to plane on edge and face of boards from 1/4″ thick to over 1″, very narrow to 24-30″ wide, and possibly up to 8 feet long. I had no way to holding work like this other than using my Kreg bench clamp to hold a batten and even that was a shaky operation. Edge planing is almost impossible without rigging up a major appliance. In each of the projects above this was going to be necessary while working with hand tools. It was clear that I needed dog holes paired with Veritas Wonder Dogs, or a vise in the tail position and dogs for the face planing. I would also need a face vise and support system like a deadman for edge planing since I could be planing 4″ up to 96″.

The second area where I use handtools the most and the area where I want to continue perfecting my skills with hand tools lies squarely in the cutting and refining of joinery. This relies mostly on good work holding using some type of face vise or tail vise to cut dovetails in drawer sides, but would need something else for wide case work like a twin screw vise or holdfast deaman combination. A system of dog holes with holdfasts or Wonder Dogs to allow for refining tenons or dados would also be necessary.

I knew for most of the small work I do on boxes could be handled by making simple appliances like a shooting and sticking board. With the above face/edge planing ideas I could handle anything for smaller boxes too. Any carving embellishments, or pattern routing could be handled using holdfasts or Wonder Dogs.

Windsor chair issues were solved using holdfasts while hollowing out seat blanks and a simple shaving horse designed to be clamped in an end vise or face vise at the corner could solve my spindle/bow/arm spokeshaving problems.

So in total I knew that I wanted something heavy that wouldn’t move around on me that could be low enough for hand planing of all walks of life, but a compromise in height so I could do some power tool work too. As an additional bonus, I knew that I could use the bench as a work table for other tools like my lathe and thickness planer. I would need some kind of sliding vise or deadman to allow for longer board holding and wide carcass panels. For face work I could get away with dog holes and wonder dogs, but this would limit the thickness of my boards to 5/8″ and I would be working with much smaller boards when building smaller projects. So I think the best solution here is a tail vise and dog holes.

All of the above led me to the Roubo workbench because it’s simple lines allow for the addition of almost any vise and the flush legs would provide a lot of improvisational ability too. The massiveness will keep it steady and an 8 foot long top will handle any project I can throw at it. I began looking at anything and everything I could find on Andre Roubo and I saw the plate of his bench that had a sliding vise and knew this would be the perfect solution for wide board clamping instead of a twin screw vise. A little more searching and I found Jameel Abraham’s site where he was building this vise and I was off and running.

This discovery led me to Jameel’s discussions on the end vise and I was more interested in an integral vise instead of a face vise place on the end because of the strength provided and variety in clamping operations.

From here it was just a matter of determining which wood to use and sheer dumb luck led me to a sale on Ash at a local lumberyard. I still have some things to work out, but I at least know that my basic design can accomodate any changes from here so I can begin construction.

This needs analysis can be very useful whenever you design a piece. I have gotten halfway through too many projects and suddenly thought, “wouldn’t if be great if…” and cursed my lack of foresight when I realized that a major redesign was in order to accomplish that “what if” scenario.

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