Introduction to Buying Workbench & Hand Tool Storage

By Joshua Farnsworth

In my opinion, the workbench is the most fundamental and most important tool in a traditional woodworking workshop. It’s difficult to build furniture by hand without a good sturdy workbench to build on. Whether you’re planning to make your first traditional workbench or planning to buy it, it’s important to do a little research beforehand and get the features that will help you enjoy working with hand tools. Some features should be pretty important to everyone, and some features are more a matter of preference.

Brian Weldy hand planing a walnut board in the Hay Cabient making shop in Colonial Williamsburg

What Features to Look for in a Woodworking Workbench?

When you are looking for your first workbench, which features are important to consider? Before jumping into the buyer’s guide, I’ll discuss some important features to look for in a bench, and define some of the confusing terms:

A. STURDINESS AND STABILITY

One of the most important features to look for in a workbench design is sturdiness and stability. Hand planing and sawing on a cheap and flimsy workbench will become frustrating very quickly as your workbench moves and shakes across the room. Sheer mass and weight are usually the solution for a sturdy workbench, along with solid construction with good joinery. A workbench top of 3-4 inches thick will usually provide you with the mass you need. Some special workbench designs (like the Moravian Workbench) provide sturdiness through design (splayed legs, mortise & tenons, etc.) which lets you get away with a less massive slab top and a smaller, portable workbench.

 B. GOOD VISES

Vises are used to clamp your workpiece to the workbench so you can plane, saw, or shape it in any number of ways. Two traditional wooden vises (or metal vises with wood to protect your workpiece), will be sufficient for a traditional workbench. Traditional vises more-or-less fit into two categories: (1) “Face Vises” which point toward the furniture maker on the face of the workbench, and (2) “Tail Vises” which are attached to the end of the workbench. The different types of vises fall into these two categories. The type of vises that you choose are a matter of personal preference, so I would recommend that you try out different types of vises, if possible, to see what you like the most. Most of the workbench vises for my woodworking school were purchased from this company. Below is a little primer on traditional woodworking workbench vises.

~ FACE VISES ~

“LEG VISE”

A leg vise is one of the most common traditional vises that you’ll find on antique woodworking workbenches. This type of vise is attached to a front leg (usually left side) and is tightened down with a wooden or metal screw and handle.

“SHOULDER VISE”

Shoulder vises were very common in continental Europe, and have a wide unobstructed opening that works great for cutting dovetails on wider boards.

“FACE VISE”

A face vise (part of the category with the same name) is another very traditional type of workbench vise. This vise is usually the same thickness as your workbench top and clamps against the top with either one or two screw arms. A drawback of this style of vise is that the screws get in the way of clamping a wide board. Also, you need to use a spacer to keep the vise from “racking”. There have been some modern designs that have improved upon this design, like the Veritas Twin-Screw Vise, which uses a chain to equally tighten both sides of the vise.

“CAST IRON VISE”

Record 52 1/2 cast iron vise for woodworking

These metal vises came about during the mass production era of the industrial revolution. They are typically bolted to the bottom of a workbench top and wood is usually added to the jaws to offer protection to a wooden work piece. The vise can be mortised into the workbench top to give it a flush alignment. While this is a strong style of vise, it doesn’t have the traditional look that many woodworkers prefer when they build a classic style of workbench.

 

“AUXILIARY VISES”

Auxiliary Vises can be clamped to your workbench top, or even to a table top in your house (while you’re building a workbench). This type of auxiliary vise with double-screws is often called a “Moxon Vise”, because the design was featured in Joseph Moxon’s classic 1703 English Woodworking book “Mechanic Exercises”. I love this style of vise for dovetailing large boards, because it has such a wide space between the wooden screws, and can be set on tall blocks to prevent back strain. Lake Erie Toolworks made the solid maple Moxon vise that I use (find it here). 

~ END VISES ~

“TAIL VISE”

A tail vise moves a bench dog to clamp a workpiece along the length of the workbench. This type of vise also allows the woodworker to clamp a vertical piece in the opening. This vise is a bit more difficult to make, but it’s worth the effort.

“WAGON VISE”

A wagon vise is similar to a tail vise that moves forward and backward to clamp a workpiece along the length of the bench, but rather than the entire enclosure moving, just the bench dog moves in an open recess. This is a simpler vise to install than a tail vise.

 

“END VISE”

And end vise (part of the category with the same name) is just like a face vise, but attached to the end of a workbench. This type of vise is useful because it allows you to tighten boards between dogs (like with tail vises and wagon vises), but also offers another area for dovetailing, etc.

Vise Hardware Sources:

 C. LEGS FLUSH WITH THE TOP

A lot of cheaper commercial workbenches have popped up with a workbench top that overhangs the legs. This will lead to frustration because you won’t be able to clamp a long board or door in your left vise and clamp the other end of it against the legs. So just make sure that the legs are flush with the front of the workbench top.

 D. PROPER HEIGHT, LENGTH, & WIDTH

The dimensions of a traditional workbench can be somewhat a matter of preference. But typically a bench top wider than around 24-inches is too wide (difficult to reach across). I really like having a longer workbench (8 feet long) because it allows me to work on longer pieces, but my Moravian workbench is just over 6 feet long, and I’ve rarely felt that it’s too short. But most 6 foot workbenches (other than the Moravian workbench) are pretty flimsy. Just look at the space you have for a workbench and let that be your determining factor.

READ MORE ON WORKBENCH DESIGN

Here are a few excellent workbench books that I have read through quite a few times when deciding on which workbenches to build for my traditional woodworking school. They talk about various workbench designs and features, and have plans for some really great workbenches. You should buy these books, because they will really help you decide which features you want in a workbench:

WORKBENCH & TOOL STORAGE BUYER’S GUIDE

BUILD A WORKBENCH (Option A)

Building your own workbench can certainly seem overwhelming for new woodworkers, but with the right assistance it can be an amazing project for beginners, and will even teach you many fundamentals about traditional woodworking. Below are a few traditional design options that have recently become  popular because of their fantastic features (and some helpful promotion by famous woodworkers).

“Building the Portable Moravian Workbench with Will Myers”:

moravian_workbench_header_web
Several years ago master woodworker Will Myers found a historical workbench that amazed him at the Olde Salem Moravian settlement in North Carolina. It was collapsible & portable, very attractive, small enough to fit into smaller spaces, yet surprisingly sturdy due to it’s angled legs. Typically you need a very heavy workbench to prevent the bench from rattling and moving across the floor when hand planing boards. He named it the “Moravian Workbench” because it was built by Moravians in the 1800’s.
 
 
He loved the old workbench so much that he decided to recreate the workbench. He made some improvements in the design while building several more benches.  Then he started teaching classes on building the Moravian Workbench at Roy Underhill’s Woodwright’s School (see the classes here). So Will got the opportunity to build the Moravian Workbench many more times, refining the details as he taught students. I fell in love with the Moravian Workbench when I saw it and decided to work with Will to film and produce the DVD “Building the Portable Moravian Workbench with Will Myers”. I went to great lengths to film a step-by-step tutorial with hand tools, with as many close-up details as I could possibly get. I wanted even beginners to be able to follow along and build this workbench. And this bench is very affordable to build; it can easily be built for under $500. The DVD has become one of the top selling woodworking videos! I’ve even had people tell me that they have their Moravian Workbench setup in their apartments in Manhattan! You can purchase the DVD or Download here in my store.
 
  
Here’s the preview video that shows how quickly this Moravian Workbench can be assembled:
 
 

Two Workbench Designs from Christopher Schwarz

Christopher Schwarz has done a great service to the woodworking community with his research and teachings on building traditional workbenches. Below are two workbenches that he shares, the first a traditional French Roubo, and the second a simple & affordable two-day workbench.

“Building a Slab Top Roubo workbench with Christopher Schwarz”

In this video Chris Schwarz gives a really great, quick overview of his Roubo workbench build.

“Build a Sturdy Workbench in Two Days with Chris Schwarz”

This workbench that Chris Schwarz came up with is a good option if you’re on a budget and you’re not concerned with having an attractive and traditional workbench, but still want something that’s sturdy and quick to build. You can purchase the 4 part video course here.

OTHER POPULAR WORKBENCH DESIGNS

There are so many different styles of classic workbenches (and hybrids of different styles), that I haven’t yet listed them all here yet (contact me here if you have a classic workbench style that you don’t see here, if you want to submit a photos). For example, in addition to those listed above and below, some popular styles are Shaker workbenches, Holzapfel workbenches, Japanese workbenches, etc. Here are a few other styles that I will touch on:

FRENCH ROUBO WORKBENCH

The Roubo Workbench is based on a design featured in an 18th century book by Frenchman André Jacob Roubo. Christopher Schwarz, in his above-mentioned books popularized this massive and sturdy workbench. Many online tutorials have been created for building the Roubo workbench, but here are two that are pretty good.

EUROPEAN WORKBENCHES

Workbenches from mainland Europe encompass so many different styles, with many features overlapping throughout different regions. The Holzapfel workbench is one popular style of European workbench. Frank Klausz helped to make the European style of workbench more popular here in the United States.  He learned to build furniture on this type of workbench when he apprenticed with his father as a boy in his home country of Hungary. This type of workbench often has a tail vise on one end and a shoulder vise on the other end, with a thick top. Here are some plans and styp-by-step tutorial, by Keith Rucker, on how to build a version of this popular workbench: