|Glossary Intro and Glossary Annexes|
Workbench. noun. A bench on which work is performed; especially such a bench for mechanics, machinists, carpenters, etc.
"While we have land to labour then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a workbench, or twirling a distaff."
Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State Virginia (1787) 275
The etymology of this term is obscure. On the left, we see that Thomas Jefferson uses the term in 1781, but surely -- given the claims by such authorities on the workbench as James Blackaby -- as term, "workbench" is in use -- e.g., Roubo, below -- even before then. Graham Blackburn, "The Workbench: An Illustrated Guide to an Essential Working Tool." Fine Woodworking 160 2002, pages 54-59, pictures a Roman bench; and -- Scott Landis, The Workbench, Newtown, CT: Taunton 1987 -- in his first chapter, surveys the "evolution of the workbench", tracing the workbench back to ancient Egypt.
A 19th-century prescriptive manual for a British genleman building his residence on his estate states the following:
A Carpenter's Shop ... will contain ... the well-known work-bench of the trade, and perhaps a lathe.
Source: Robert Kerr The gentleman's house; or, How to plan English residences, from the parsonage to the palace; with tables of accommodation and cost, and a series of selected plans.. London: J. Murray, 1864, page 307.
A workbench provides a sturdy, stable work surface, and allows you to work at a convenient height.
Woodworkers' benches at the turn of the twentieth century were simpler than those now in use. The ends of long boards were supported on wooden or iron pegs. Notice the various holes drilled in the side of the bench to hold these pegs. For the vise to hold thicker stock, you adjusted a part of the fixture at the bottom, by moving two pegs over one or more notches.
The European-style -- below, right -- workbench improves the workbench pictured above by making it capable of clamping long flat workpieces securely on the workbench's top.
For many American amateur woodworkers,
born in this century, a workbench is shop-made -- often
fitted against the shop's wall -- with a top usually fashioned from 2 X
10s and legs made from 2 X 4s or 4 X 4s. And, in more recent times,
sometimes the workbench top is covered with a combination of plywood
and a smooth-surface sheet of tempered-hardboard.Woodworking for Everybody.
Before and during the 1920s, in contrast, we see -- detailed below -- that to professional woodworkers in Europe or America, a workbench isn't built into a corner of the shop or against the wall. Instead, the workbench, in effect, becomes the focal point of the workshop, with tools situated around it.
Remember, this is an era of greater use of hand tools and -- when and where available -- smaller scale stationary power tools, powered by direct current motors.After WW II, Who First Introduced the European Workbench to the American Market?
While it does not address specifically who is first, etc., the brief information in the 1978 The Tool Catalog, pages 273-274, gives details about this movement to reinstate the European-style workbench in home workshops by some woodworkers. A 1979 Fine Woodworking issue has an adv for a European-type workbench by Garden Way, a Vermont-based manufacturer that copied the style.
On the right is a European- style bench, created by my friend, Keith Rucker, Webmaster for www.owwm.com For more examples of workbenches created by American woodworkers, see theGeocities webpage on workbenches.
On the left, a typical European bench laid out schematically.
A European-style bench's system of vises and holds allows it to grip workpieces in almost any position. Thus, in this sense, workbenches greatly assist craftsmen whose work concentrates on hand tools, but are optional for the craftsmen who prefer power tools.
A workbench is a flat surface for accurately laying out parts, assembling the components -- "dry fitting" -- that comprise a woodworking project.
A workbench is a flat surface on which a project's parts can be permanently and precisely joined. The height of the bench top is determined by the type of use the bench is to support. If used mainly for hand tool work, the bench top height should be about "palm height" (stand erect, arm at your side, wrist bent so the palm of the hand is horizontal). This height allows for using body weight -- rather than just muscles -- to apply downward force for planing. This height will also let you work kneeling or sitting on a stool - better on your feet, legs and back -- getting your eyes closer to the work -- without bending way over.
(I am indebted to Charlie Belden for a lengthy discussion about these concepts.) Interest in workbenches today is both status symbol and expectation toward creative achievement.
I admit that I'm struggling with the Workbench entry. When I started assembling this piece, I visualized "workbench" -- like my other glossary entries -- as something that I could finish quickly. Something was not right, though. Instead, I realized that rather than a narrative about “workbench” that fits into my personal concept of that tool, because of an importance it has for many amateur woodworkers, as a symbol of fine woodworking, the treatment of workbench deserves an emphasis of a different kind.
(In my own case -- on the left -- my workbench, a Woodbutcher's workbench? -- is on large rubber casters, has an English Record metal vise, and a 2' X 6' X 1" particle board top. Definitely not "classic", and, since I'm messy, it is almost always cluttered.)
You have probably noticed already that in my shop, my workbench is always cluttered – it’s a place to put things -- with tools that should put away, leaving no room for the work that a workbench is designed for.
Instead, to do justice to it for woodworkers, I'm finding that you need to look at the workbench from another point, i.e., that many -- maybe most – professional and amateur woodworkers alike -- treasure, even idolize, their workbench. Why? Is it, perhaps, because for these woodworkers, their workbench is a symbol of realizing their aspirations of woodworking achievement, of finally becoming a “craftsman”? That is, with their completed projects, realize their dream of rising above the “wood-butcher” level of creativity. To finally achieve that quality of creativity that puts them into that circle of achievement, the realm of “creating a work of art”. In this sense, I am beginning to understand why many amateur woodworkers visualize as the workbench central tool in their shop. It is both status symbol and expectation toward creative achievement.
In woodworking, creativity in, in my view, comes from taking the wood in it rough dimensioned stage, and by cutting and shaping it, fashioning this wood into a stage, where – while it is not a work of art, as a functional piece, becomes a symbol of your achievement, in the sense that it endures as a piece that you made, and that generations to come might treasure it because of its origin, and not always because of its artistic quality.
As electrification progressed -- beginning around 1915, and completed in urban centers by 1930 -- and fractional horsepower motors became readily available, the transition in home workshops from hand tools to power tools increased.
The impact of electrification is significant, for it meant that much of the dimensioning of lumber could be achieved through operations involving power tools, rather than hand tools, thus reducing the need for a hefty workbench.The evidence that shows this shift in the centrality of workbenches -- literally a shrinking of the workbench's size and functionality -- comes from several sources, but primarily Woodworker's Manuals.
Workbenches, regardless of the style, whether commercial or carefully-constructed by craftsmen, usually have one or more Vises, Bench Dogs and other appliances and -- optionally, for storage -- shelves or drawers below.
Some amateur woodworkers either purchase a ready-made European-style workbench, or, like my friend Keith Rucker, take pride in constructing their own workbench (Keith's workbench is pictured above).
From my experience, other amateur woodworkers -- and I have to count myself in the other group -- are less inclined to see the necessity of an elaborate workbench, and make use other tables as substitutes.
For most amateur woodworkers, beginning in the mid-1920s, a transition from hand tools to power tools became a reality, and the dependence on the larger, heavier European-style bench declined. As this workbench disappeared, it was often replaced by the semi-built-in against-the-wall units. [examples below]
Having authors of woodworker's manuals recommend workbench sizes is one thing, but having the required space in one's home is another.
Before WW II a typical house's square footage was considerably less than after the War, especially given the housing boom that grew out of the economic engine that World War II produced in America. The increase in numbers of attached garages -- especially the two-car garage -- presents more space, but space that must be shared with automobiles. In this setting, where in the garage are the workbenches located? Does the homeowner have a basement workshop? As factors in determining size of workbenches, available space in the home workshop needs to be factored into any equation about what determines workbench size.
For more background on house sizes, see Appendix 27: Home-Ownership's Central Role for Amateur Woodworking and Chapter 7-1 Background Information.htm
First, let's recognize that in the woodwork shop, the workbench is a "tool". According to Norm Abram, of television's New Yankee Workshop fame, "the workbench is the most important tool in the homeshop":
Without a good one, it's difficult to work with the convenience, precision and safety that most operations require. From a more personal point of view, the workbench is a signature of sorts. Carpenters and cabinetmakers tend to compare their workbenches just as they compare completed furniture projects.
While you can buy very good woodworker's benches from different woodworking tool suppliers, it's traditional for the carpenter to make his own bench. Besides, the factory-made workbenches can cost over $500. By building your own, you'll save enough money to buy a new router, or the wood for several furniture projects.
My workbench is a lightweight version of the traditional European- style benches that most cabinet- makers use. Like the classic cabinet- maker's bench, this one is designed to use bench dogs and a heavy-duty bench vice. An integral tool tray runs the full length of the bench along its back side, and there's a lower shelf for storing lumber or tools. Instead of using hardwood for the entire bench, my version has a frame that's made from common 2x4s. The workbench top is 1/4-in.thick tempered hardboard, screwed to a 3/4-in.-thick plywood base. The hardboard may not look as impressive as a top of laminated oak or maple, but it's inexpensive and easy to replace when it gets overloaded with scratches and stains.
There is some oak in my workbench, but it's used selectively. For example, the oak edge boards look good and provide longer wear at the bench perimeter than softwood could offer. It's also important for the tail stock assembly and bench dogs to be made from oak. These are the moving parts of the bench, and they need hardwood's extra density, strength and durability.
Source: Norm Abram, The New Yankee Workshop, Boston: Littlem Brown, 1989, page 27.
1769: André Jacob Roubo, L'Art du Menuisier Paris, 1769-74.
(Three volumes, over 300 plates. for an extended account of roubo and his famous woodworker's manual, click here)
For more background on Roubo's bench, see Scott Landis' chapter 2, The Workbench Book Newtown, CT: Taunton Press, 1998.
W. F. M. Goss Bench Work In Wood: A Course Of Study And Practice Designed For The Use Of Schools And Colleges , Boston: Ginn & Company, 1887, page 7. Goss's workbench is almost identical to Wheeler's 1899 workbench. What is different, though, is that Goss's context is the school shop, meaning that he is not recommending a model workbench for amateurs to reproduce in their home workshops.
Contemporary with both Goss and Wheeler, but located in London, the Australian, Paul N Hasluck, published plans for numerous workbenches intended for amateur wooddworkers to replicate.
The editor of Work, Hasluck, was a prolific writer, and today much of what he contributed to amateur woodworking is preserved in the inexpensive paperback book, The Handyman's Book.
(In London, a weekly, Work, was published from 1889 to 1893; Hasluck also edited the monthly, Amateur Mechanics. While it shows a publication date, 1903, The Handyman's Book reflects the work Hasluck did as editor of Work .)
 Early in the amateur woodworking movement -- which I pinpoint had its beginnings around 1900, woodworkers were assailed with arguments about the importance of the workbench in their success in woodworking. One of these "assailants" is Charles G. Wheeler. In 1899, Wheeler -- another of my manual-writing heroes -- ambitiously wrote a major treatise for amateur woodworkers.1899
Wheeler's Woodworking for Beginners: A Manual for Amateurs demonstrates the importance he attaches to the amateur woodworker's workshop -- in particular the workbench -- by dedicating 50 pages of his manual to the topic. (Including the index, the manual is itself over 550 pages!) Notice the recommended dimensions -- jpg image in box below. Definitely a hefty size, and very adequate for vigorous dimensioning of wood with hand-planing.
Below is Wheeler's notion of a "First-Class Bench" (For Wheeler, a "small" bench is: "5'10" long and 2'6" high".)
The reason for making this bench 5' 10" long, instead of cutting a 12' board into two lengths of 6' each, is that it is hard to get boards sound and square at the ends, and so it is best to allow a few inches for waste. Of course your bench can be of any desired length. Six or eight feet is suitable for ordinary work, but there is no objection to making it as much longer as your space and material will admit. The height should bear a proper relation to the height of the workman. No definite height can be given. Try moving a plane back and forth. If your right elbow, when holding the plane, is slightly bent and your back about straight, the height will be not far from right. Do a little simple work at a table, trying different heights, and you can soon tell what will be satisfactory. If the bench is too low, you cannot manage your work well and your back will get tired from bending over, not to speak of becoming round-shouldered. If the bench is too high, it will be hard to manage your work, you cannot plane well, and your arms will be tired from holding them up unnaturally high. A bench for heavy work like carpentry is usually rather lower than one for cabinet- or pattern-making, while a carver's bench is usually higher.
Source: Charles G Wheeler, Woodworking for Beginners: A Manual for Amateurs New York: G P Putnam's Sons, 1899, page 581900: The Workbench 1901-1910
Amateur Work, a short-lived "Monthly Magazine of the Useful Arts and Sciences", commenced publication with November, 1901 and died six years later in 1907. Details about the magazine remain obscure, even after a scouring of possible sources of background information. Several mentions turn up in a search of the www.newspaperarchive.com . Praise for Amateur Work, came early, though. According to to Modern Machinery, December 1901, page 209, "The first number bears every indication of coming usefulness as it sets out to interest amateurs in [numerous pursuits, including woodworking].... There is plenty of room for this magazine.... Amateur Work has 24 pages of reading matter and cover; size of page 10" x 7" inches. Published by F. A. Draper, 85 Water Street, Boston, Mass. Subscription, $1.00 a year. )Around 1906 or 1907, John F Adams, a woodworker with many featured articles, published an article on the workbench:
A good work bench is a great aid in turning out work, greater accuracy being secured as well as greater rapidity, yet how many, especially amateurs, are to be found working at some makeshift contrivance of old boards, not because they cannot afford the amount required for stock for making a bench, but rather that they have never realized the value of one in their work. ...[L]et no time be lost in ordering the necessary stock and making a bench according to these directions, as I am sure that the increased facilities afforded by such a bench will be sufficiently appreciated to win the thanks of those acting upon this suggestion.Source: John F. Adams, "A Work Bench", in Amateur Work, v. 5, 1907[?], page 53
In his article, Adams notes that the featured vise will add $5.00 to the workbench's total cost, but that it is a a highly recommended asset. Overall dimensions: 72" X 24".
In the 1920s, at least three manuals dedicated to amateur woodworking stress the importance of the workbench:
Charles G. Wheeler's Woodworking: A Handbook for Beginners in Home and School, Treating of Tools and Operations. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1924.
Height is given, but length and width are not, suggesting these are optional. Wheeler's treatment of the workbench in this volume -- dedicated incidentally "To The Boy Scouts of America From One of the Advisorys to the National Court of Honour -- is only 6 pages, considerably reduced .
1927: Chelsea Fraser's The Boy's Busy Book New York: Crowell, 1927.
1927: [Anonymous] How to Work With Tools and Wood, For the Home Workshop New Britain, CT: The Stanley Rule and Level Plant, 1927.
Jigs and fixtures that help to steady the work, bench dogs, bench screws, holdfast -- a ka bench cramp, all supplemented by a quick-acting iron vise that can clamp work in place, and, if possible, a tail-screw vise. The tail screw vise holds the workpiece at both ends on the flat bench top, and enables you to plane it true and smooth.(I have yet to write a separate account of Wheeler's contributions to amateur woodworking.)
In Home Craftsmanship New York: McGraw-Hill, 1935 and Woodworking as a Hobby, Harper, 1939, Emanuele Stieri, doesn't mention the importance of a workbench in the text, although diagrams of home shop layouts show workbenches (one 22" x 48", another 22" x 52" ), each with vises. And, rather curiously, for me at least, the illustrations -- which include workbenches -- in the 1930, 3-volume The Modern Motor-Driven Woodworking Shop (Milwaukee: Woodworkers Educational Dept, Division of Delta Manufacturing Co., authored by Herbert E Tautz and Clyde Fruits, appear to have been created by the same artist. But like the Stieri volumes noted above, nowhere is mentioned details about constructing the bench.
And (some) workbenches were/are treated reverentially: In a still-classic 1901 work, Bench Work In Wood, W. F. M. Goss, Professor of Practical Mechanics, Purdue University, Lafayette, Indiana, writes,
When in use, care must be taken to protect [the workbench] from injury. It should never be scarred by the chisel or cut by the saw.
On page 1, chapter 1 in his now-classic 1930 woodworker's manual, Herman Hjorth declares,The bench is a tool or appliance of the utmost importance to the woodworker.
Source: Herman Hjorth, Principles of Woodworking. Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1930, page 1.
Hjorth is only one of the "heavies", i.e., leading figures in Industrial Arts, who contributes to the two 1930s volumes dedicated to the "home workshop movement". Edited by Arthur Wakeling, The Home Workshop Manual and companion volume, Things to Make in Your Workshop, both include a chapter on the workbench. Benches covered include: "kitchen table bench", "a portable workbench", "small cabinet workbench", and "heavy-duty workbench". Wakeling shows several workbenches, and dimensions for two workbenches: 48" X 20-1/2" and "the heavy-duty", @ 84" X 23". Wakeling is an influential player in the formation and growth of the National Home Workshop Guild in 1933. Further, the Preface of his 1938 edition of the Home Workshop Manual notes the exponential growth of the homeworkshop movement, claiming that there re over 500 local active local chapters. Click here for more on the these volumes and on the "home work shop movement"
1941: Edwin T Hamilton, Home Carpentry New York: Dodd Mead and Co, 194172" X 30" Hamilton offers both stationary and folding workbenches, and acknowledges that space limitations may overcome any realization of his generous dimensions.
The 1946, anonymous, How to Get the Most Out of Your Homeshop, a Popular Science publication, declares flatly,
No matter what kind of home workshop you have, there is really nothing more important in it than the workbench. You may have all sorts of machine tools, yet you still have to spend much of your time fitting and assembling at the bench.
Source: anonymous, How to Get the Most Out of Your Homeshop New York: Popular Science 1946, page ?
Readers of this history of amateur woodworking soon recognize that I am -- without apology -- a hero-worshiper of several woodworkers who have authored classic manuals. Among the top-rung authors is John Gerald Shea. Below is the European-style workbench that Shea recommends for amateur woodworkers in his 1944 Woodworking for Everybody , pages 24 and 166.
(If you follow the succession of the four editions of Shea's Woodworking for Everybody , you'll observe how his recommendations for a home-crafted workbench shifts to reflect the tenor of that era in American culture.)
The Woodworker's Work Bench
It goes without saying that among the woodworker's first needs is a good solid bench on which to work. It should be equipped with a vise for holding the work and with slots and holes for keeping the common hand tools.
Work benches are manufactured in many different shapes and sizes.They are always built solidly with good heavy tops to withstand pounding and to provide a good working surface for cutting, as well. They may be attached to the floor so as to remain stationary while work is in progress. The vise on the bench illustrated is equipped with an "adjustable dog"; that is, a piece of iron which can be moved up and down in the outside jaw of the vise. With this dog boards may be firmly held between it and a bench stop which fits into the holes along the edge of the bench.
The wood worker often prefers to make his own bench, rather than buy one. Thus, he has the opportunity to use his originality in designing useful features to his bench. For instance, some woodworking benches have drawers to store supplies and tools. Others have lockers below for clothing and supplies. Plans for making a simple workbench appear in the project section of this book.
Source: John Gerald Shea and Paul Nolt Wenger, Woodworking for Everybody Scranton: International Textbook company, 1944, pages 24 and 166.
... [L]et's describe what we feel would be a real nice setup for a homeworkshop. It would consist of the workbench and cabinet shown in the drawings which, incidentally, can be built with just a handsaw and a hammer. A couple of sawhorses for use near the bench or anywhere in or about the house. A table saw sitting near the bench area. Some hand tools and portable power tools that can be stored in the cabinet or under the workbench.
Source: R J DeCristoforo, The Practical Handbook of Carpentry New York: Fawcett, 1969, page 7.
: In the plans for Abram's workbench (above), the dimensions are not explicit, but its length seems to be 5'.
The "800-pound gorilla in the room", though, is Scott Landis' Scott Landis, The Workbench, Newtown, CT: Taunton 1987.
Landis, author of the major study of the woodworker's workbench, however, -- for me at least -- betrays a sense of humility when describing the results of his survey of "The Evolution of the Workbench". Readers -- if they are sensitive to the long brush of history in the role of the workbench in woodworking -- will cherish the detail that Landis injects into his narrative on the evolution of the woodworker's workbench.
Perhaps more than anything, Landis' account demonstrates a universality of purpose among woodworkers around the globe, regardless of their historical period or geographical area:
Sources: Only a partial list here. I want especially to acknowledge the lengthy telephone discussions I had with Charlie Belden, who very patiently walked me through several of the details about the history of workbenches that I was in danger of overlooking. W. F. M. Goss Bench Work In Wood: A Course Of Study And Practice Designed For The Use Of Schools And Colleges Boston: Ginn & Company, 1887; Charles G Wheeler, Woodworking for Beginners: A Manual for Amateurs New York: G P Putnam's Sons, 1899; John F. Adams, "A Work Bench", in Amateur Work 5 1907; Herbert E Tautz and Clyde Fruits, The Modern Motor-Driven Woodworking Shop Milwaukee: Woodworkers Educational Dept, Division of Delta Manufacturing Co.,1930, 3-volumes; Emanuele Stieri, Home Craftsmanship New York: McGraw-Hill, 1935; Emanuele Stieri, Woodworking as a Hobby Harper, 1939; John Gerald Shea and Paul Nolt Wenger, Woodworking for Everybody Scranton: International Textbook company, 1944; R J DeCristoforo, The Practical Handbook of Carpentry New York: Fawcett, 1969; James R. Blackaby, "How the Workbench Changed the Nature of Work." American Heritage of Invention Technology Fall, 1986): pages 26-30; Scott Landis, The Workbench Taunton 1987; Norm Abram, The New Yankee Workshop, 1989; Sam Allen Making Workbenches: Planing, Building, Outfitting New York: Sterling Publishing, 1995; Graham Blackburn, "The Workbench: An Illustrated Guide to an Essential Working Tool" Fine Woodworking 160 2002, pages 54-59; Mark Schofield, "Ready-Made Workbenches" 188 Winter 2006/2007, pages 58-63.