The six types of workbench builder
January 9, 2018 11:32 PM   Subscribe

Are you a woodworker, or have been thinking about getting into woodworking? A rite of passage is to build your own workbench and a go-to resource the last decade or so has been Christopher Schwarz. Despite or maybe because of a couple of books, a slew of articles and the many, many hands-on courses under his belt, Schwarz is approached regularly for advice. Luckily he has put his anthropologist cap on and provided us with his insights into the six personalities of workbench builders.

Schwarz is known as a former editor for Popular Woodworking Magazine and an author, most famously for The Anarchist's Tool Chest and Workbenches: From Design And Theory To Construction And Use. He is a founder of Lost Art Press. If you go on and try to build a workbench, with or without buying his book, maybe this article can be of assistance: The Mistakes of First-time Bench-builders
posted by Harald74 (52 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
 
...enormously gratified to find I'm the "wtf do I care, does it work well enough to get this fucking thing done? Jesus fuck, I don't care, just let's finish the goddamn thing!" cadre.
posted by aramaic at 12:06 AM on January 10 [6 favorites]


I think bondcliff might like this post.

Where is the category for "Dreamer" for the person who looks through StewMac and says "This is so neat - maybe someday I'll learn how to build something"? That's me. I guess the closest one is The Undecider.

I actually have been thinking about getting into woodworking, with just basic simple tools that probably wouldn't even warrant a real workbench in the beginning.

Thanks for posting. I got a kick out of the humor because some of the behaviors sound verrry recognizable within non-woodworking contexts.
posted by rangefinder 1.4 at 12:16 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


This is good stuff! I wondered if my type would be included, and yep, there it is, the Frank Sinatra. Everything needs to be custom in my workshop, fitted to the last milimeter. Flip-up chopsaw in the workbench, all surfaces on the same level, a cubby-hole for every piece of machinery and a dedicated place to hang every tool.

Of course, the quintessential resource for a gonzo woodworker is Woodgears.ca. And a plethora of youtube woodworking channels.
posted by Laotic at 12:19 AM on January 10 [3 favorites]


I actually have been thinking about getting into woodworking, with just basic simple tools that probably wouldn't even warrant a real workbench in the beginning.

Maybe pick up Schwarz's The Anarchist's Tool Chest, then. It's mostly a discussion of hand tools and how to use them - I think his argument is that if you're not a production workshop you don't necessarily need vast quantities of power tools.

(I have a carpeted basement I need to sort out into a workshop, and I'm thinking I'll be ok with hand tools along with a planer and a track saw. Of course, the big issue is what workbench to build.)
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:43 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


I'd add to this thread Frank Howarth's Youtube channel. He's not just a stunningly good woodworker, his videos explain why he did it the way he did it, or often as not, why he tried to do it one way, discovered that wasn't the way, and found a better way.

I'll also add that all of this fascination about old-time methods for building workbenches made lots of sense with old-time materials. Nowadays, it's hard to beat a worktop of three layers of 18 mm ply glued together and a shit load of affordable power tools.
posted by happyinmotion at 1:54 AM on January 10 [4 favorites]


I do quite a bit of timber work, regularly enough in exchange for money. I work at either; a. A bench I inherited from my father that was used for electronics and is really too high for woodwork but is great for power tool use. b. A piece of plywood screwed to a pair of saw-horses. c. The floor.

I really do want to build a workbench, it would make a great many things easier, but I can never justify building something that's not going to leave the workshop. I'm not sure what category this puts me in.
posted by deadwax at 2:21 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


deadwax, just screw together three plywood boards like happyinmotion suggests, and put them on cinder blocks : )
Or go even lighter on the engineering to save more time and do it like this. (a little feuding with Steve Ramsey)
posted by Laotic at 2:54 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


The Harbor Freighter

Goes to Harbor Freight. Has coupon. Gets last workbench in stock, despite dubious amounts of damage to the box. Gets home, assembles, mostly. Starts using workbench. Part of workbench collapses. Partially disassembles, reinforces workbench. Repeats process of collapse, disassembly and reinforcement until fully functional workbench is achieved.
posted by MrVisible at 3:36 AM on January 10 [15 favorites]


For point & droolers like me, there's always The Workbench Book - - if it's positioned just right on your coffee table, you can almost imagine it was a workbench.
posted by fairmettle at 3:49 AM on January 10


Ist das nicht eine Schnitzelbank?
Ja, das ist eine Schnitzelbank.
posted by chillmost at 4:19 AM on January 10 [3 favorites]


I know pretty much nothing about woodworking but that was surprisingly interesting and funny to read. I’m tempted to write a similar one called “6 types of website design clients”. It would have a lot of similar types except the twist is that all of them are really the Cheapskate underneath.
posted by like_neon at 4:59 AM on January 10 [5 favorites]


Don't even want to check if my type "hmmm, if I'm careful I can cut this on the stair, oops, oh shhh" is on the list.
posted by sammyo at 5:18 AM on January 10 [4 favorites]


I got my workbench for $50 off Craigslist. Actually I got two identical ones and have one to my husband for his miniature painting. I did most of my work at a makerspace, though.

I got into woodworking this year and it seems like an inordinate amount of woodworking is making things in order to do woodworking and that just....bothers me on a fundamental level.
posted by soren_lorensen at 5:21 AM on January 10 [15 favorites]


For point & droolers like me, there's always The Workbench Book

Can confirm. Good book. Stumbled upon it in a used book store and will be using it extensively now that wiring is ran to my outdoor shed and it's ready for final finishing. Debating picking up Schwartz book too but not sure if it's overkill to have two books. I have a few of his other books and they are all great.
posted by RolandOfEld at 5:29 AM on January 10


I have an exquisitely tiny old Hammacher Schlemmer school workbench, which suits my height and reach because I'm apparently the size of your 1800s schoolboy. It's always covered in crap, and clearing it off so I can work is like conducting an archaeological dig. Being a larger person, Himself has a huge 10-foot built-in bench... which is also deeply covered in crap at all times. I think the last time I actually saw the bare surface of either bench was when I cleaned them both off in a fury of frustration, looking for the charger for my cordless driver (which I eventually found out in the shed, and we had to have that uncomfortable talk about Putting My Shit Back When You're Done.)

So anyway, I think I might be a 7th type of workbench builder: the Doesn't Matter Really, It's Only Going To End Up A Mess Anyway.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 5:41 AM on January 10 [4 favorites]


Being in the UK, I'm always bemused about how casual American woodworkers are about the choices of wood available. Here, if you don't want to make stuff out of softwood, MDF or really crappy Chinese plywood, you're going to need some serious money. My workbench is just a load of CLS studwork timber with a couple of thicknesses of MDF screwed to the top; anything better would be way beyond my budget, and would be too good to use for actual woodwork. I've been eyeing up a bit of oak at a local timber yard, but the cost is such that I can't really justify buying any.
posted by pipeski at 5:57 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


no love for "like throwing a hotdog down a hallway"? I mean, come on, that's AMAZING.
posted by hearthpig at 6:04 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


no love for "like throwing a hotdog down a hallway"? I mean, come on, that's AMAZING.

That's actually a well known (and gross) euphemism for sex with a "loose" woman. So yeah, no love for that.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:07 AM on January 10 [10 favorites]


I think bondcliff might like this post.

And I do!

I'm very familiar with Mr. Schwarz and I have one of his bench building books. Did you know his cousin is a well-known MeFite and someone who is Kind of a Big Deal on The Internet? I'll let them out themselves.

I've been thinking (and dreaming) about building a bench for some time but since I get very little time in my shop as it is I'm not sure I want to spend the time building a bench instead of actually building other things.

Currently, I have a long bench against a wall that I built out of 2x4s and plywood. It's a nice sturdy bench but I don't really like working on it. It's more of a place to keep my stuff. My tools hang above it on pegboard so the bench itself is more of a gathering place for all sorts of crap.

The bench I work on is a really shitty "workbench" that my wife bought twenty years ago. It's designed to look like a woodworking bench but it's... not. It's hollow and light and the vices are terrible and if you plane a board on it the whole bench moves while you work. It's mostly useless. I use it though because I like to have 360 degree access to it. I usually keep a 2x4 foot sheet of MDF on top of it so I have a flat surface on which to work. If I have to plane something I use one of a couple vices on the main bench. My wife also bought me a guitar vice for my birthday so on my next build I'll hopefully have a better way of working on the neck and body edges.

One of the things keeping me from building a bench is that I'm still trying to figure out what sort of woodworker I am. I'm currently focusing on guitar building so I really don't need a traditional bench, though I would like to have the option to do casework and other woodworking projects eventually.

But it's a lot of effort, time, and money that I'm having a hard time justifying right now. I'm also very much a beginner who has done little in the way of straight and square woodworking, so I'm not sure I want to build a big heavy bench and have it come out less than perfect. Then what? Then I have a big, heavy thing in my shop that doesn't really work for me.

What I really want is to already have built a bench.
posted by bondcliff at 6:16 AM on January 10 [6 favorites]


Preach. Preach.
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:25 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


> it seems like an inordinate amount of woodworking is making things in order to do woodworking and that just....bothers me on a fundamental level
My advice: don't get into machining.
posted by cardioid at 6:33 AM on January 10 [17 favorites]


Years ago I had a friend who was reducing the bench top space in his workshop. He had this theory that flat surfaces just accumulated junk. I thought he was crazy then. Now I have seen evidence of his theory in every work place I've been in.
posted by bdc34 at 6:37 AM on January 10 [3 favorites]


My advice: don't get into machining.

There are machinists at my makerspace and it does just seem like a giant pile of nope.

(I also wish there was, like, JigMart where I could go get the jigs I need rather than have to spend 75% of every task making the thing to do the task.)
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:40 AM on January 10 [7 favorites]


My dad built me a benchtop a few years ago. He brought it down and we built the frame for it together.

He hit upon an ingenious idea. The core of the top is an old solid-core door salvaged from a friend’s house. He filled in the recessed panels with plywood so the whole thing is even thickness, then made sure it was still more or less flat and true, He put a hardwood frame around it that extends 1/4” higher than the door’s surface, and screwed replaceable hardboard panels in for the actual work surface. If one of those panels gets gunked up or scarred too badly, I pop it out, cut a new panel, and pop it in.

He had this theory that flat surfaces just accumulated junk.

I have applied this theory to generally to my home. I have found that it is, at least for my family, categorically true.
posted by middleclasstool at 6:43 AM on January 10


I can't cut rabbets for drawers without my fucking 10" table saw and panel jig. I appreciate good craftmanship, but TIME is everyone's most valuable resource.

( See also: Dishwashers )
posted by mikelieman at 6:44 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


I have applied this theory to generally to my home. I have found that it is, at least for my family, categorically true.

My personal filing system is based on the principle of stratigraphy.
posted by mikelieman at 6:45 AM on January 10 [8 favorites]


Topographical maps are an indispensable part of my project management strategy.
posted by middleclasstool at 6:46 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


it seems like an inordinate amount of woodworking is making things in order to do woodworking and that just....bothers me on a fundamental level

For a lot of hobbyists, I think this is actually the main pleasure.

Personally, I'm in the highly frustrating seventh category of having all my tools in storage and no workshop space. Right now, workbenches are a purely fantasy exercise for me.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:01 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


I'd like to be whichever type Nick Offerman is.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:02 AM on January 10


I'd like to be whichever type Nick Offerman is.

He's in the appendix under Bacon Flavored Sex.
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:04 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


That's actually a well known (and gross) euphemism for sex with a "loose" woman. So yeah, no love for that.

Ah, well, I've never heard that and it didn't occur to me. Absent that apparent connection I hope I can be forgiven for getting a chuckle.
posted by hearthpig at 7:13 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


"Six personalities of people who will never build a 500 lb. Roubo workbench"

Jigger: Mostly build jigs to use their table saw

Foreigner: People outside of the US who do excellent hand work but where that amount of solid lumber for a workbench is immoderate

Destroyer: People who build workbenches because their previous one was destroyed during non-woodworkng projects

SocialMedeist: People who rarely build anything

Lustful: People who have a workbench that works fine, yet still long for a flashy status symbol of a workbench

Other: People who build some other opulent type of workbench

If you are one of these types, please post a conversation that you might have. It would help us all to learn more about your psychology.
posted by bdc34 at 7:22 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


I am an Undecider, apparently, having constructed scores of these things in a neverending Gedankenexperiment, yet never building one.

Which I guess I'll keep to myself and not email this guy incessantly about:
I put the email aside. I needed to think of how to answer this email without using the phrase: “How many Hot Wheels can fit up your butt?” This process takes a couple weeks and includes some guided meditation. Finally, I am ready to answer this without sounding like a pirate. Then my email dings.
posted by Caxton1476 at 7:28 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


Did you know his cousin is a well-known MeFite and someone who is Kind of a Big Deal on The Internet?

It's me!

Chris is actually as great as he seems, to the extent that we know each other as adults. Our grandfather was a serious hobbyist woodworker, as was my father. Chris is the woodworker of this generation and it's been great watching him go from "editorial dude at magazine company" to "guy living his dream while also being hot shit on Instagram." He's also got killer taste in music and beer and a kickass family including his wife who does local news reporting in the Cincinnati area. Anyone anywhere near Covington Kentucky who is into this sort of thing should stop by his storefront, a totally rehabbed old pharmacy building where you can look at nine (9!) different benches.
posted by jessamyn at 7:33 AM on January 10 [17 favorites]


The core of the top is an old solid-core door salvaged from a friend’s house.

aka a prebuilt torsion box. It's a good solution if what you need is a very flat, stable surface. For a woodworker, this would be an assembly and finishing table. You want a very flat table you can clamp up and glue on. The flatness provides a registration surface for your carcass or whatever. Torsion box benches are often big 4'x4' or 4'x8', often light, so they can be moved around, and have lots of holders and drawers for clamps and tools.

What the link is talking about though is the bench on which you make the pieces to be assembled. For that you want something that's really heavy and can take the full body weight of the worker pushing against it. It shouldn't flex, or skitter around on the floor when you hit a knot with a plane or when you're malleting out a mortise. Wood working benches are super heavy, have a vice or two attached (which are near flush to the surface) and often some system of holddowns to keep work securely on the bench. They're also usually smaller than assembly tables, 8' x 2' or something. Flatness is nice, but not super important.

Two different sorts of benches for two different purposes.
posted by bonehead at 8:06 AM on January 10


I've found these types are seemingly in a lot of traditionally "manly" hobbies. Woodwork, BBQ, Machining, Cars, Coffee.

The Best of Everything

If you have a hobby, you want to be friends with this person. While ooing and aahhing over his latest most awesome thing might get a little tiring, getting slightly used, in great condition last year's best and most expensive tools on the cheap is great. You can also go over and mooch on their tools.
posted by zabuni at 8:24 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


For a lot of hobbyists, I think this is actually the main pleasure.

I find this so baffling lol

I have like 30 minutes a week in which to engage in a hobby. At the end of the month I'd rather have a cutting board, or a box, or a picture frame than a splining jig. Maybe when I retire I will discover the joys of Making The Tools Required To Make A Thing But Not Actually Making The Thing.
posted by soren_lorensen at 8:26 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


For that you want something that's really heavy and can take the full body weight of the worker pushing against it. It shouldn't flex, or skitter around on the floor when you hit a knot with a plane or when you're malleting out a mortise. Wood working benches are super heavy, have a vice or two attached (which are near flush to the surface) and often some system of holddowns to keep work securely on the bench.

You just described my bench to me there, thanks. It is heavy as hell, takes shit tons of weight, needs two full-grown men to move it, doesn't flex or skitter. Has a vice and dogs. There is zero empty space inside the top, it's all filled in and solid.
posted by middleclasstool at 8:29 AM on January 10


That's actually a well known (and gross) euphemism for sex with a "loose" woman. So yeah, no love for that.

Ah, well, I've never heard that and it didn't occur to me. Absent that apparent connection I hope I can be forgiven for getting a chuckle.


Jumping on the train since I had the saying's euphemism basis wrong as well, it seems. I knew it was sex related but I always thought it was basically a jab at a male's penis size/shape/flaccidity. But I'll leave that aspect of the conversation to continue to languish in the light of day without me.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:44 AM on January 10


Just so anyone doesn't delude themselves about having enough workbench space: In the "working" side of my shop, I have:
  1. Main bench: 2' x 16', steel-topped, drawers and lower shelf
  2. Staging bench: 2' x 18', wood topped with lower shelf. Bought the materials for drawers
  3. Misc bench: 2 - 2' x 4' store-bought "Gorilla" benches
  4. Floating work tables, on wheels: Each is 2.5' x 4', steel
  5. Planning bench, in corner: 3'x2' on each wing
All are completely covered in crap within 15 minutes of starting a project.
posted by maxwelton at 8:47 AM on January 10 [5 favorites]


Maybe when I retire I will discover the joys of Making The Tools Required To Make A Thing But Not Actually Making The Thing.

Ahh, but if it's a complex cut that you'll need to do more than once, making a jig can really speed things up in the long term.

What I don't like about making jigs is I only discover I need them when I go to make a cut and realize I really need a jig. By that time I'm in the "I want to do the thing I want to do NOW!" mode so I tend to half-ass the jig so I can move ahead with my project. I need to be better at planning ahead so I can make the jig before I actually need it. But, like you, I have limited time.

What I really enjoy is doing shop projects. Finding a problem in the shop and fixing it with some plywood and glue. For years all my sandpaper was kept in a drawer so if I needed, say, 320 grit I'd have to sort through the pile until I found it. One day I decided to build a little organizer for sandpaper sheets and discs and now I always have the grit I need. It was a day building that thing when I wasn't building other things, but in the end it really improved my workflow and, more importantly, my sanity.
posted by bondcliff at 8:47 AM on January 10 [4 favorites]


(Also: Each bench can support a colony of at least 20 wispy shop spiders...who shit concrete, as far as I can tell.)

I also have at least 150 linear feet of shelving on this side of the shop, and cabinets above the staging bench. I STILL would like more space.
posted by maxwelton at 8:50 AM on January 10 [3 favorites]


Good lord, maxwelton. I'm contemplating putting together some basic woodworking bench/tools in my 8x16 3rd car garage spot. I can't even imagine having that much room. I'd have to kick my husband's car out of the garage, which I can tell you wouldn't fly.
posted by sharp pointy objects at 9:18 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


Chris is actually as great as he seems

Oh good! I always see Christopher Schwarz on the Woodwright's Shop, and they seem to have a lot of fun together. He always comes across as a great guy.

I am basically an aspiring woodworker, in that I have zero workshop space and zero experience with woodworking tools of any kind, but I always love watching and reading this stuff. In fact, I was just watching the Woodwright's Shop last night, randomly. Clearly a sign from Heaven that I should take up the saw and the plane and whatever else I need to begin filling my apartment with workbenches.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 9:21 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


Shop projects are great because you can often do them with scrap or cheap materials so they don't cost that much. And since it is just for the shop you can try some more complicated techniques without worrying about messing the whole thing up by trying something new. For me it is more often about building skills rather than having a new thing in the shop.
posted by Quonab at 9:45 AM on January 10


it seems like an inordinate amount of woodworking is making things in order to do woodworking and that just....bothers me on a fundamental level

When my wife and I are working a project, I'm all "I need to build a jig to make this cut just so" and she's all "SKILSAW ATTACK! CUT NOW!". It is truly marital bliss, but with powertools.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:15 AM on January 10 [7 favorites]


I'm the accumulate and procrastinate type. The work bench is GOING to be fantastic, when I get around to it as long as the wood and vises haven't mouldered into the ground by then.

On the subject of jigs, and their multitude. I made the mistake of building 4 4 foot long by 30" by 24" bins on castors that go under a worktable. They are full of jigs that I have forgotten what for they are.
posted by Pembquist at 11:23 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


I eventually built a workbench last year. It's made out of 2x4s and 2x6s, which here in Norway means spruce. So I collected lumber for about three months until I had a pile that was reasonably straight and knot-free. And then I built a bench on Paul Seller's pattern, but without a tool tray. I laminated it up, and decided I was so hard core I was going to plane it flat with hand planes. After several days I gave up and built a router sled to do the hard work. I finished it off by hand planing, though.

So I have my cheap spruce bench, which is quite massive, but spruce is very soft. It does not ding my projects, though, so I got that going for me.
posted by Harald74 at 12:22 PM on January 10 [2 favorites]


I loved the Looking Sideways interview with Schwarz which taught me things about the history of English furniture and its relationship to the history of the British empire.

Now I'm looking at Havoc Pennington's "Build a workbench in 2 years" and trying to classify it....
posted by brainwane at 12:58 PM on January 10


My grandpa had a workbench made out of an old wooden diving board. It was some kind of thick slab of solid hardwood and already thoroughly treated for moisture. It also had tick marks painted every foot for the benefit of erstwhile divers.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 1:01 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


Alternative materials for your woodworking benchtop: A couple of hardwood Ikea countertops, LVL (Laminated Veneer Lumber), glulam (glue laminated beams) (again by Chris Schwarz).
posted by Harald74 at 11:57 PM on January 10


I like this, from the japanese woodworking tradition: Three beams with some dowel holes, sturdy sawhorses, done.

In terms of woodworking skills, I think I'm up to the task of putting beams on existing sawhorses. I'm not sure about using the new worksurface to then make sturdy sawhorses, but that's part of the fun.
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:40 AM on January 12


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