By Joshua Farnsworth
The workbench is the most fundamental, yet most important tool in a traditional woodworking workshop. It’s difficult to build furniture by hand without a good workbench to build on.
When looking for a workbench to build or buy, look for a style that is very heavy and sturdy, to prevent movement when hand planing and sawing on the workbench. This is the most important feature. Don’t make the mistake of going for the small “affordable” workbenches. If you’re on a tight budget, then building a workbench would be the best option for getting a sturdy workbench. A thick top will also add to the mass. Also, a woodworking workbench should have quality wooden vices with strong clamping power.
Option 1: Building a Workbench
Building your own workbench can certainly seem overwhelming, but with the right assistance it can be an amazing project for beginners, and will even teach you many fundamentals about traditional hand tool work.
I discovered that there was no really detailed step-by-step resource to help beginners build a solid & beautiful workbench, so I partnered with Will Myers to create a DVD that walks beginner woodworkers through the process of building an amazing historical (and collapsible) workbench:
DVD: “Building the Portable Moravian Workbench with Will Myers”:
The material cost (lumber & parts) for the Moravian Workbench works out to around $300-$600, so it’s a very affordable option. You can see more details and purchase this 2 DVD set through my store here. A digital download version is available for woodworkers outside the U.S.A.
DVD: Chris Schwarz’s “Two Day Workbench”:
Christopher Schwarz, the founder of Lost Art Press, released a DVD about making a very basic, yet affordable workbench. This actually seems like a very economical yet sturdy workbench, and $25 for the DVD seems reasonable. It’s not an heirloom workbench, but it’ll do the job. You can now order the DVD here. You can also find the vice that Chris used in the DVD here.
Build a Roubo Workbench On a Budget:
If you’ve got big woodworking power tools to mill the lumber, and space for a HUGE workbench, then a Roubo Workbench is a fantastic historical choice.
Paul Sellers’ Hand-built workbench:
If you’re really set on building your first workbench with mostly hand tools, Paul Sellers gives a free tutorial on what looks like a pretty good workbench.
Option 2: Buying a Workbench
Buying a workbench is a valid option for woodworkers who don’t have the time or are nervous about undertaking such a large project as a beginner. Don’t let anyone give you a hard time.
My Woodworking Workbench
If you’re new to woodworking, and are short on time, then you may decide to buy your first workbench. When I made the big transition to hand tools I wanted a really strong & sturdy workbench but I didn’t have the time to invest into building a quality workbench with hand tools…or so I thought. I now realize that if I had been aware of a step-by-step resource like the Moravian Workbench DVD (or Will’s class) then I could have quickly built my first solid workbench with hand tools. Well, at least you know this now!
Nevertheless, I found an amazing Scandinavian style workbench (made out of European beech) and decided to make a purchase so I could get building projects right away. So after much research, I found a workbench that I loved. This is the Sjobergs workbench that I purchased. It is 8 feet long with a 4″ thick beech top. The face and end vices are convenient and powerful. I love the tool tray on my Moravian Workbench, but I also love the wide, flat surface of this Sjobergs workbench. The bench came with 1″ dog holes, and I drilled my own holes for holdfasts (see below). I actually purchased my workbench with an optional under cabinet, which is handy but not vital. Here’s a video of my Swedish made beech Sjoberg workbench that I love:
Workbenches at Highland Woodworking
Highland Woodworking has an impressive selection of traditional woodworking workbenches: here
This large “Hofmann & Hammer Premium German Workbench” is the workbench that Roy Underhill uses for his students at his Woodwright’s School: here. I’ve used them quite a few times and really love the layout of the vices. It’s not as heavy as my two workbenches, but you can remedy that by placing bricks underneath the workbench.
Workbenches on eBay
You can also find quite a few workbenches to purchase (new and used) on eBay. Shipping is surprizingly affordable on some of these workbenches on eBay. Here’s some workbenches on eBay. Just make sure that it’s heavy and sturdy enough for your intended use.
Educate Yourself about Workbenches
Here are a few links to great books that I’ve read about workbenches, that you may wish to read to help you decide which features you want in a workbench:
3. Urgent Workbench & Storage Accessories
Buy Bench dogs:
Bench dogs are essential to a workbench, as they enable you to wedge your work piece between the vice and the dog. Here’s an example of bench dogs that I use for my Sjoberg workbench (and a couple other cheap ones):
- Here are the bench dogs that came with my Sjoberg workbench: click here
- Here is a huge selection of more affordable bench dogs on Highland Woodworking: view bench dogs.
- I’ve also made bench dogs out of wooden dowells. If you have square benchdog holes, then you’ll have an easier time making bench dogs.
Just make sure you get the right size or that you drill holes the right size for whatever you buy.
Buy Metal Holdfasts:
Holdfasts are amazing tools, and I can’t work on much without them now. You drill holes in your bench top, and then you drop your holdfasts into the holes and hit the top of the holdfast to wedge your workpiece down. Then you hit the back to release the holdfast. It’s ancient magic.
These Gramercy holdfasts are what I purchased, and really like them. Roy Underhill uses these affordable holdfasts in his Woodwright School. You may need to rough up the holdfast with sandpaper if it doesn’t stick properly. They run $34.95 for two and $19.95 for one on Tools for Working Wood. Here’s the video from their website:
- If you can afford $75 for a hand-forged holdfast (you should really get at least two, so it would be $150) then I’d recommend ordering them from master blacksmith Peter Ross (former head Colonial Williamsburg blacksmith…and he’s always on The Woodwright’s Shop). Here’s his website. But I’m not sure how long it would take to get these.
- Here are some really excellent holdfasts made by Lie-Nielsen (Maine), Auriou (France), and Veritas (Canada): click here
Make a Bench Hook
A bench hook lets you quickly hold your work piece in place while sawing across the grain, without having to clamp your piece down. It’s very helpful. You should really make this tool yourself. I built mine from a scrap piece of white oak, but you can use almost any wood since it’s meant to be replaced. It can take just a few minutes, or a bit longer if you want something more useful. Here are a couple videos that I really like of people’s bench hook construction:
Make a Shooting Board
A shooting board is used to square the end grain on your work pieces, and should also be made in your shop. Here are two videos that show good shooting boards (the first is much simpler but the second has more features):
You can also download free PDF shooting board plans.
Buy or Make Vice Rack Spacers / Stops
These simple blocks are designed to help prevent racking when clamping work at one side of a vise. You can easily build several common sizes to set in the unused side of the vice, like in these photos that I took at the Woodwright’s School. But they have a major drawback.
They don’t cover various board thicknesses, which you’ll certainly encounter if you dimension your own boards. So I bought this extremely cool “Vise Rack Stop” (made by Veritas) which lets you micro-adjust for different wood thicknesses. I can’t believe that I hadn’t seen this before!
It’s amazing how convenient it is!
5. Non-Urgent Workbench & Storage Accessories
Make a Sawbench pair
I still haven’t made a pair of sawbenches, because I’ve found more creative (albiet less-convenient) ways to do my sawing (think kneeling on top of my workbench). However, I really want to make Christopher Schwarz’s “$5.87 sawbenches” as shown in this article, and as shown in the first part of this video at the Woodwright’s School:
Make or Buy a Workbench Tool Tote
I really like to have a workbench tote to hold my most-used small tools. I can move the tote around my bench, or move it off my bench if needs be. You can either make one like I did:
…or you can buy one for cheap, like these on ebay or at flea markets.
Buy a Shop Apron
Some traditional woodworkers “can’t be bothered” with wearing a shop apron, but I really like having my pencil, small square, and other small measuring devices right next to me. Here are a few highly rated shop aprons on Amazon (I own the first one):
Make or Buy a Tool Chests
I have yet to build a large traditional tool chest (see mine above), but these are a couple that I’d like to build…Chris Schwarz introduces both on these Woodwright’s Shop Episodes:
I highly recommend that you purchase “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” book & the accompanying DVD. This really is a great book & DVD that show not only how to build the chest, but which tools to fill it with!
You can buy vintage woodworker tool chests here.
Hand Tool Buying Guide Shortcuts:
- #1 Buying Guide: Workbench & Tool Storage
- #2 Buying Guide: Layout, Marking, & Measuring Tools
- #3 Buying Guide: Handplanes
- #4 Buying Guide: Handsaws
- #5 Buying Guide: Chisels
- #6 Buying Guide: Sharpening & Honing Supplies
- #7 Buying Guide: Mallets & Hammers
- #8 Buying Guide: Hand Drills, Braces, & Bits
- #9 Buying Guide: Tools for Curved Work
- #10 Buying Guide: Files, Rasps, & Sanding
- #11 Buying Guide: Fastening, Gluing, & Clamping
- #12 Buying Guide: Carving Hand Tools
- #13 Buying Guide: Tools for Green Woodworking