Thoughts on workbench design

Now that I’ve found my tools and identified the work needed to get them ready to roll again, I think it’s time to start thinking and planning my workbench. I’ve set that up as my first woodworking project, and I really do think it’s a necessary one.

After all, a proper workbench is reportedly a handtool user’s best tool.

Now, let me be perfectly clear here. I haven’t got a damn clue either way. So far, all of my work has been done on a Black & Decker Workmate and that’s worked sorta almost OK. I need to replace the wood top for my Workmate, but it’s still serviceable in many ways.

But, I don’t trust it. Not really. Not for this.

The Workmate is a neat little thing and it’s fine for small jobs and I plan on using it as a secondary work surface for little stuff, but it’s not meant for building larger things.

Since my wife has already put in her bid for a dresser at some point in the future, guess what I’m going to have to learn how to build?

And that’s going to require a proper workbench.

Now, that requires research.

Previously, I’d bought and read Christopher Schwarz’s first workbench book and fell in love with the English-style Nicholson workbench in there. Partially because it didn’t require this massive glue-up before even building the thing. That means you don’t need a ton of tools in order to build it, and I’ve got everything I really need, all things considered.

Unfortunately, it looks like my wife got rid of it in a pre-move purge years ago despite me expressly stating I wanted to keep that one.

In fairness to her, though, I don’t remember if she convinced me otherwise, I changed my mind, or what. I’m not blaming her for doing anything wrong. I may have just been dumb.

That means it needs to be replaced, and it’s only a hardcover book.

Now, I know Schwarz has put out a new book since then. I purchased it yesterday for the Kindle and am reading that one. I plan to take everything he says under advisement, as well. You see, while I’m not a fan of what I call “fanboyism,” I am a big believer in listening to people who know more than you and Schwarz seems to know more about workbenches than just about anyone else.

But regardless of what I may see in the book, I’m doubtful I’ll find a good reason not to build a Nicholson. I just don’t see it.

Don’t get me wrong, I actually think the Roubo is probably a more overall useful design. It’s got a thick top, sturdy legs, and can be built to really take a pounding. With the inclusion of a sliding deadman and a crochet, you can probably do just about anything you want to do on that bench without a vise, even.

And the thing is massive. Did I mention that?

But the problem is that in order to put that much wood into a bench, you have to buy that much wood. Duh, I know, but when you’re first getting into or back into a hobby, it doesn’t make sense to find projects that require you to drop a ton of money. Especially in my case, since my wife knows damn good and well that I cycle through interests, in a manner of speaking. While I don’t think that will happen if I’m regularly engaged in working on that pastime, it’s a concern.

Now, imagine how she’ll feel if I bring home a few hundred dollars of construction-grade material right before the holidays? I can build a decent sized Nicholson for less than $100, by my estimation. If I tried to build a Roubo for that price, I’d get a passable nightstand.

For better or worse, it’s a legitimate concern, in my oh-so-biased opinion.

Plus, frankly, the Roubo intimidates the hell out of me. I’ve never had luck cutting mortise and tenons as it is, and that wasn’t remotely as massive as a Roubo bench requires. It kind of scares the hell out of me.

So, Nicholson it is.

For now.

So that just leaves me to figure out dimensions.

One thing Schwarz notes in his book on workbench design is that you, in essence, want a narrow, long bench. He mentions as narrow as 20 inches in several places so far as a good width. But for length, he argues it can’t be too long if it fits in your space.

And I’m working outside.


But, on the same token, I’m working under an awning in my yard, that way I can work without rain screwing stuff up. I also have my lifting stuff out there, such as benches, rank, bars, and weight plates. I need that out there as well.

Where my initial reaction to set up was, which is where my lifting stuff is, might not be the best place. I can, at best, get 7’x5’8″ out of that corner. That’s less than 40 square feet.

But, if I move an outdoor table from under the awning, rearrange a few things, I can probably manage 15’x15′ at least; longer, if I don’t mind some stuff getting wet.

That requires a bit of thinking, though, since stuff will have to be moved. Probably not a bad idea, though. Bigger is better and all that.

Well, I’ve rambled on long enough at this point, so it’s time I shut the hell up and let you get back to your day. I’m sure there will be a lot more to talk about on this topic soon enough.


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