Workbenches and Our Work

The workbenches we use shape and influence the type and quality of work we are able to do more than we may realize.  My first workbench was a light-weight, portable, foldable Black and Decker Workmate.™  With this bench, a few hand tools, and a skill saw I was able to build a much needed bookcase which has survived to this day and and now houses my wife Judy’s collection of sewing books.  The Workmate ™ was a vast improvement over working on the floor but it was very limited when it came to learning how to finer joinery like dovetails.

After working on a couple benches made in the “half sheet of plywood and framing lumber” category, I moved on to my first “real” workbench which was a Scandinavian style bench based on plans in the classic woodworking set “Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking.”

Building this bench was at the time a very challenging, but also very rewarding project.  Although somewhat short and lightweight, this bench (along with Tage Frid’s books) gave me the opportunity to explore better joinery and other techniques associated with fine woodworking.

I must confess to being more or less a book addict, and one book always leads to another.  One of these other books was Scott Landis’ “The Workbench Book.”  I remember clearly the day this book arrived and I sat staring at the Hancock Shaker Village workbench featured on the dust cover.  I remember thinking “This is the workbench I want to work on – no questions about it.”  For days I pondered how I might be able to make a bench as large (meaning expensive!) and complex as this one. I began to ponder that pile of “junk” cherry (leftover from a whole-lot purchase) and whether or not it might be workable for the frame.  I also had a very large old maple counter top that just might work for the top.  After much planning and consideration I concluded that I could sell Scandinavian bench to fund the required vises and purchase any additional lumber needed “as funds permitted” (which, of course, always means, “as soon as possible!”)

Although I scaled down the original bench to a more manageable 9‘ long x  34” deep bench, it was still rock solid and weighed about 450 lbs.  To my delight it handled items from small to large with great ease and greatly facilitated improving my skills as a woodworker.

First Shaker-style Workbench

This Shaker style workbench and I developed a long-term and very productive relationship until the year when we moved to a different location where my shop space was less than half the space I had become accustomed to having.  After much frustration over working space, I opted to build a smaller bench. The Shaker style bench found a nice home at a nearby woodworking school, but even as it was being disassembled for transport, I knew I would be building another one sometime in the future.

Traditional Workbench

The new bench I built was a very traditional woodworking bench.  Its design and size were derived from numerous sets of published plans and woodworking articles in various magazines, and like the Shaker-style bench, it too proved to be a very functional bench which I used for about 5 years – but the older bench was never far from mind.

After our oldest son Tristan was in college and when our youngest son Brendan reached college age, my wife and I began discussing preliminary plans for a retirement house even though it would be several years away.  Our current Bow-roofed cape has been a great house to live in, but from the beginning we recognized it was designed for raising children, not for retirement.

Given the present costs of construction, utilities, etc. it became clear that we should think along the lines of “small is beautiful” and begin to plan accordingly.  This prompted me to start thinking about a future shop from a much different perspective, and also resulted in my making significant changes in my current shop. (But that is a story that deserves a separate post some day!)

As I thought about a future shop, the longing for another Shaker-style bench became too hard to resist.  Plans began in ernest for re-building the Shaker-style bench and last Spring I began construction of the new bench.  Like the first bench, the completion of this bench was dependent on the sale of the traditional bench (which eventually found a great new home in a Connecticut shop).  The new bench was completed earlier this Fall and has been in constant use since then for some personal work (but not yet for any clients – see Woodworking and Hibernation.)

New Shaker-style Workbench

Working on this bench has been like renewing an old friendship, but with improvements.  The new bench incorporates some features like full extension drawers on heavy-duty slides, a thicker top than the previous bench, and higher quality vise hardware.  I think it must weigh over 500 lbs loaded, and it is ideal for hand-planing and other hand work.  It will probably be the last bench that I will ever build, but I know it will be a joy to work on in my “improved” current shop and in any future shop as well.  Like the other benches, I’m sure this one will facilitate me in growing further as a woodworker.

About Stuart Blanchard

Cabinetmaker
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7 Responses to Workbenches and Our Work

  1. Al says:

    Stuart,
    Thank you for sharing. Your traditional bench has indeed found a comfortable and useful home here in Connecticut. I saw your new bench in process…One of these days I’d like to venture up your way again and see you new bench and your latest projects. I’ll drop into yrou blog from time to time to see what’s happening. All the best. Al

  2. Joel Bigelow says:

    Do you have construction drawings for ether the first or second bench?

  3. Esteban says:

    I’m not sure where you’re getting your info, but great
    topic. I needs to spend some time learning more or understanding more.
    Thanks for great info I was looking for this information for my mission.

  4. Pingback: The Best Laid Plans… | Stuart C. Blanchard

  5. mark davis says:

    would love to see a few pics of the underside and the area around the leg vise. How did you attach the cab box? And was there a void between the frame and the box sides?

    • Thanks for the inquiry about the workbench. I do not have any plans for the bench and not too many additional photos, but I have responded to several other inquiries so I’m going to cut and paste the various comments below. To answer a couple specific questions not addressed below, the cabinet portion is simply a separate unit built of plywood (think typical good quality kitchen cabinet approach) which slides into the frame of the workbench. It leaves some void space on the ends, but almost none at the back. The void on the left is needed for the leg vise screw. The cabinet is held in place by just a few screws near the front and friction from when the frame is tightened around it. The main frame of the bench is essentially held together by bolts and captured nuts with short tenons to hold things in position. This construction makes it possible to disassemble the bench. The top is supported only by the frame of the bench, not by the cabinet.

      I’ve wondered from time to time if this bench might not make a good article for Fine Woodworking or Popular Woodworking, but I’m sure that would involve re-building the bench to show all the details, and to be honest, I don’t have the time to do that presently.

      Here are some comments sent to few other people asking if I had plans for the bench:

      _________

      The original Shaker bench was largely made from recycled lumber (so I really didn’t have much invested in it) and was sold under special circumstances to a friend for about $450. My current bench is essentially the same as the first one but with better lumber, hardware, full-extension slides, etc. and although I didn’t track all of the costs, I think it would have a commercial value of at least $5000 and maybe a lot more due to the amount of work in it. (Part of the complexity is that it was more or less “timber-framed” and can be completely disassembled if need be in the future.)

      If you are thinking of finding or building a large Shaker style bench, don’t let that figure discourage you. This bench, and the way I built it, and the materials I used were somewhat of a gift to myself. The original bench was just as functional, and probably could have been rebuilt with adequate lumber and hardware for much, much less.

      After building my current bench I ran into one posted at
      http://benchcrafted.com/Gallery.html. It uses Benchcrafted hardware (very high quality) and would be reasonably easy to build. They have posted the plans at
      http://benchcrafted.com/PDF%20Files/Shaker%20bench%20plans/Benchcrafted%20Shaker%20Notes%20Preview.pdf

      I think it catches some of the flavor of the original bench in a nice way, but much easier to build and move.

      __________

      Also, there are a number of comments and responses on my website (but unfortunately the thread started and continued on a page not all that related to the workbench.) Here are the direct links to those comments. The first one especially has some rough measurements.

      __________

      https://stuartblanchard.com/2011/11/03/stuart-c-blanchard-woodworking-and-hibernation/

      https://stuartblanchard.com/shaker-style-workbench/

      ___________

      And some additional comments in another e-mail regarding the leg vise:

      Thanks for the request for info on the workbench vise. If you have access to “The Workbench Book” by Scott Landis (still available through Amazon:http://www.amazon.com/The-Workbench-Book-Workbenches-Woodworking/dp/1561582700/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1364646326&sr=8-1&keywords=The+workbench+book) he describes the leg vise in detail in the appendix.

      The only difference is that the original used a wood bench screw, whereas I used a metal one from Lie-Nielsen (http://www.lie-nielsen.com/catalog.php?sku=lssv). On the bottom, I used an acme screw with nuts and a pin to hold it in place on the front leg. It is more or less “loose” in the bottom hole of the bench, and the pin on the leg holds it fairly loosely. I’ve tried to find the place where I got the acme screw, but can’t locate the paperwork. It should be available from many suppliers if you search via google. Reid Supply athttp://www.reidsupply.com has some, their largest being 7/8″. Mine is 1″ so I know it didn’t come from there. On the old bench I actually used a 3/8 or 1/2 inch threaded rod from the hardware store, but adjusting it took way too many turns on the adjustment nut.

      If I were to build the leg vise again, I would take a serious look at the “criss-cross” vise by Benchcrafted (http://benchcrafted.com/Crisscross.html). When I first saw it, I didn’t like the thought of having the circular handle (not very authentic looking on a Shaker bench), but when I visited their site today I found a photo at the bottom of the page that uses the more traditional handle. Having seen that, I may have to reconsider… The criss-cross vise would be a lot more convenient in daily use.

      Subsequent note: About a year ago I did “upgrade” the bench to include the “criss-cross” from Benchcrafted and I would wholeheartedly recommend using this approach. It is so much easier to use than the older way – just turn the handle and everything moves smoothly without adjustment. I actually used the same Lie-Nielsen screw and just fitted the criss-cross into the leg.

      Hope this helps. If you want additional details please feel free to contact me. I could also post some additional photos though I’m short on time in the next couple of months for actually getting them done and posted. About 8-9 months from now my wife and I will be moving (meaning that I will have to disassemble the bench) and I might be able to take a lot of additional photographs when it is put together again and post them for anyone who is interested. (I realize that your time frame may be much shorter.)

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