What makes a good woodworking bench?
Like many woodworkers, I've built several workbenches. But some people have no more interest in making their own bench than they have in making their own hand planes. They'd rather buy a bench so they can concentrate on the type of woodworking they enjoy. It was for those woodworkers that I made the ultimate sacrifice. I moved my homemade Roubo over to our other workshop, and I moved in a new, $2500 Swedish made workbench from Sjobergs. Yes, I am willing to subject myself to all of this handcrafted European beech so you can find out if it's really worth the price tag. You're welcome. But evaluating a workbench isn't easy. And price doesn’t always equate to performance. Certain features, or lack thereof, can make or break a bench, and knowing what to look for before you buy can save you years of regret. So let's talk about what makes a good bench.
Let's start with overall construction. A good bench should be stiff and stable. Here in America we make benches from maple and oak, but for centuries the Europeans have been making theirs from beech because it is extremely stiff and the very fine grain makes it one of the most stable woods around. In fact, hand plane maker have preferred beech for centuries because of its stability. Some of mine are well over 200 years old and still going strong.
Stability is very important when it comes to workbenches, and besides choosing the right material, the way you construct the top can be a major factor. Most bench tops are made by laminating narrow boards together, reversing the grain on every other board. This resists cupping when compared to a single slab top. But you want to avoid laminated benches with boards that don't run down the full length of the benchtop because every end grain splice compromises the top's overall stiffness. You can't tell by looking at it, but the boards in this top are also fitted together with tongue and groove joinery, further adding strength across the top's length.
A benchtop should also be thick to resist sagging. I've seen benches with 1 1/2" maple tops that look nice, but they sag over time. Unless you have a very short bench you should insist that the top be at least 3" thick. This one is around 3 1/4" thick with an extra inch around the aprons. That's a lot of hardwood. In fact the top alone weighs about 200 pounds. And that brings us to another important factor when choosing a bench. It should be heavy. I mean really heavy. If you can lift it by yourself, it's not heavy enough. This one is about 300 pounds empty, a quarter ton when the cabinet is full of tools. That's important because sawing and planing can rock and shift a lighter bench, wasting your valuable energy, and quite frankly, driving you nuts. I HATE a rocking bench, I can't stress enough the benefits that come with a workbench that is rock solid.
But even the heaviest, stiffest bench in the world is nothing more than an overbuilt table if it doesn't have the right features, in the right places. A woodworking bench is meant to do one thing, hold your work. And I don't just mean it should be a flat surface to set your work on. It should also hold a board securely so you can work the faces, the edges and the ends. That starts with the vises.
A vise should open and close quickly and easily. These vises have a very course thread that opens with just a few turns. A vise should be well built, because it will take a pounding over its lifetime. And it should resist racking forces. This is important because many woodworking tasks require a work piece to be clamped in just one side of the vise. If the jaw doesn’t remain parallel to the apron when you apply pressure, it will be very difficult to secure your work. Many vises require you to place a scrap of the same thickness as your work piece in the other side of the jaw to prevent racking. That isn't necessary with these vises because they have these heavy iron guides that keep it aligned better than any other single screw vise I have every used.
The position of your vise is important too. For a right handed person, the vise should be on your left hand as you face the bench so you can clamp the leading edge of a work piece you intend to edge plane. Most commercially made benches come that way, which mean you are out of luck if you're left handed. This particular bench solves that problem by making a vise that can be easily removed so you can swap it to the other side. I also highly recommend a bench with an end vise because it allows you to clamp work pieces flat on the bench top. Of course you also need certain features on the top itself to do that properly.
You'll notice two rows of holes running down the length of this top, those serve two purposes. They are for bench dogs, and for hold fasts. Bench dogs are pegs that combine with your vise to pinch a work piece and hold it securely. You want a fair amount of those so you can work with different lengths of stock, and it is also nice if the holes line up with the face vise in addition to the end vise like these do. Many benches are made for 3/4" bench dogs. The Sjobergs bench comes with a set of heavy steel 1" dogs. You may wonder if 1" is heavier than you need, but it's not really about the dog itself as much as it is about the versatility of the holes. Most large hold fasts have a 1" shaft. So by making the dogs the same size, you can use the same holes for hold fasts, giving you a lot of options for clamping down your work.
Hold fasts are useful, not only on the bench top, but also on the bench face. A good bench should be designed to clamp on that surface as well. To do that you need hold fast holes in the legs, and you need a bench where edge of the top is on the same plane as the legs. It amazes me how many benches neglect this important design feature. If you are spending good money on a work bench, you don't want a design flaw that limits what you can do with it. So you should insist that to top and the legs be on the same plane.
Finally, a good bench should have adequate tool storage. Some benches have trays built into the top. I hate tool trays. They fill up with wood shavings and tools you don't put away properly, and they limit the amount of all important work surface. I prefer a cabinet beneath the bench. This one has six well made drawers, a cabinet in the center, and my favorite feature, a tray beneath the bench top.
A bench isn't just a work surface. It's a major tool. With the proper features it can be the most versatile tool in your shop. So, just like any major tool, a quality bench isn't cheap. Sjobergs benches range from about $300 to nearly $3000 depending on size, tool storage and features. So, just as you wouldn't go out and buy a table saw without doing your homework, you should know what to look for when shopping for a bench. I hope this video helps. See you next time!
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