Building a Workbench

Building a Workbench
The finished bench on the day it was done, November 28, 2023.
Another long blog post. TL;DR version: I built a workbench, it was fun and I learned a lot, and now I've started using it.

When I retired in July of this year, woodworking was high on the list of things I was looking forward to spending my time on. Both for the fun and satisfaction of learning some new things, and also because we had so many things we wanted to build for our house: new nightstands in the bedroom, builtin shelves in the library (the room formerly known as my office), a nice hardwood bar for the parlor, a new closet for the bedroom, and so on.

The first thing I tackled last summer was to make two simple Shaker style end tables for out on the deck. I learned a lot making those, and one thing I learned was that I didn't have a good solid place to hold lumber while working with chisels and handsaws. When I clamped the legs and aprons of those deck tables to any of the work surfaces I had at the time, they would wobble and shake while I chiseled and sawed. Not good.

The deck tables during construction. I had to cut 16 mortise and tenon joints, and did most of that work with pieces clamped to this plywood outfeed table I had made for my table saw. It got the job done, but the lack of mass and stability in this work surface made it hard to do precise work, and that's when I decided I needed a better approach.

So I started doing some research on options for a much heavier workbench with better workholding options. One option is to just buy one, and for a while I was lusting after a $3600 workbench made by Sjobergs. Sjobergs is a Swedish company that's been building workbenches for over a century, and they're now the world's leading manufacturer of craft and woodworking workbenches.

But a retired guy can't be spending that kind of money on toys (at least this retired guy, anyway), and also I couldn't find a Sjobergs model that was exactly what I wanted, in terms of its size and configuration.

So I started thinking about what it would take to build my own workbench. I learned that Chris Schwarz, the former editor of Popular Woodworking Magazine, had written a comprehensive book called Workbenches: From Design & Theory to Construction & Use, so I bought a copy and read it carefully. The book includes technical diagrams for building many different styles of workbench, but more importantly it teaches you how to think about designing and building a workbench. For example, I love the respect for the past embodied in this quote from the introduction: “If you can see in your mind’s eye a workbench device that no one has ever invented before, and you think you need, them I caution you. Chances are that someone has come up with a way to do what you want to do, and they used simple technology to do it.”

After reading about the history of workbenches, from sit-down Roman benches through German woodworking benches of the 17th century, the English Nicholson bench, the French Roubo bench, and many others, I came across a reference to a workbench design that the author has been refining for many years, and I immediately knew that was the bench for me: The Anarchist's Workbench. It's a design for a simple sturdy timber-framed bench that can be built from inexpensive lumber that's readily available anywhere in the US from Home Depot or Lowe's. (Well, some places don't have a Home Depot or Lowe's – Butte, for example – but I have a pickup and love to drive.)

The plans for the Anarchist's Workbench are now available in a free PDF at this link.

I downloaded the 323-page PDF and printed a copy and spiral bound it, and over the next few months that printed copy was with me constantly. I had it in the shop while working on the bench, it sat on my nightstand in case I needed to re-review something that occurred to me late at night, and it was my reading material on flights to Brussels and Palm Springs this fall. The bench was finally complete today in late November, roughly four months after I started, and I'm expecting it to live up to Chris Schwarz's advice to build a bench “capable of doing things you might not be ready to do yet. And when you are ready, your bench will be willing and waiting.”

The rest of this post goes through the process of building the bench. Few people will be interested in all of these details, but if you're one of them, enjoy!

Buying Lumber

The first step in building the Anarchist's Workbench is to purchase a bunch of 2x12 lumber from the big box stores. Big 2x12s are generally cut from better wood that 2x4s, with fewer knots and straighter grain that makes them less likely to warp while drying. So by cherry-picking the best 2x12s you can get some pretty good quality lumber at low big-box store prices.

From late July through early October, I picked up some 2x12s whenever I was near a Home Depot or Lowe's. I took a couple of trips to visit my Mom during that time, and I made stops at Home Depot or Lowe's stores in the Seattle area, Spokane, Missoula, Helena, and Bozeman.

Lumber from the Tukwila Home Depot drying in the living room in late July. I had decided on a 72 inch length for my bench, so I cut these 2x12s down to 78 inches long and then ripped them in half before letting them dry for a few weeks. (Chris Schwarz recommends a few months, but I was in a hurry.)

Building the benchtop

After the lumber was relatively dry, the first step in assembling the workbench was to mill the pieces to make the 5 inch thick benchtop. And in order to do that, I needed to get some new equipment.

After many hours of flattening the top and bottom, and cutting off the ends to the final 6-foot length with a handsaw, I had a big gorgeous slab weighing nearly 200 pounds.

The end vise

I planned to put a tail vise on the end of the bench, and that required cutting out an area for mounting the hardware on the underside of the bench. This task would be very hard to do once the bench is upright, so I turned the benchtop upside down and sharpened my chisels and got to work on getting the vise hardware mounted. It was fun to be working on the benchtop – even though it was just sitting on two sawhorses, it was so heavy that it was the sturdiest bench I've ever worked on.

Legs and stretchers

Next was the construction of the four legs and the long and short stretchers that go between them a few inches off the ground.

After finishing the legs, I clamped some pieces from the stretchers into place to get a feel for what the workbench base would look like.

The leg vise

This was probably the most satisfying piece of the puzzle, for me. I've seen many leg vises in videos but had never seen or used one in person, and at first I was intimidated by the thought of building one. But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to try.

A leg vise typically has a thick board (called the chop) that can be moved in and out by spinning a massive threaded screw. Some leg vises use a wooden screw, others use a steel Acme screw. I went with the Glide model from Benchcrafted, and I also installed their Crisscross mechanism, which is a ressurection of a French design from the 19th century. The crisscross automatically holds the chop vertical throughout its range of motion, eliminating the need for the cumbersome "guide and pin" approach.

The final steps were installation of the vise screw: drilling holes in the chop and leg, with an offset for the bushing, installing the front plate, and so on. Everything has to be done carefully and precisely, so that the vise and crisscross will work smoothly together. Note that the workbench legs and stretchers are all clamped together so that I can test the vise in an upright position before final assembly of the workbench.

It was very satisfying to finally have it done and working. Here's an Instagram video showing how smoothly it operated once everything was installed.

Mortises for the legs

Now that the leg vise and end vise were done, I disassembled those and set all the pieces aside, and then got to work on making the legs, stretchers, and benchtop all fit together.

And then, finally, it was time to cut the big mortises in the benchtop to mount the legs. Each mortises was 3 inches deep and roughly 2.5 inches wide and 5 inches long, and they had to be positioned precisely so that the legs and stretchers could all come together at 90 degree angles with no gaps.

I decided my smallish Grebstk and Narex chisels weren't up to the task, so I picked up a massive Robert Sorby timber framing chisel and got to work.

The final glue-up

The final assembly was exciting and also a bit nerve-wracking. I had been working on the bench for months, and the assembly would be one last opportunity for something to go terribly awry and ruin all my hard work. So I spent several days preparing and rehearsing.

I heated the shop (with a kerosene space heater) for two days to get it warm enough for the glue to dry. Titebond III (my glue of choice for this step) requires 45℉ to cure properly, and although it was getting below freezing every night I managed to keep the overnight lows above 50.

Megan and I did a dry run, talking through all the details to make sure we knew who would do what, and in what order. There were 12 mortise and tenon joints to be glued up, and 17 total drawbore pins to drive home, and it all had to be done in a certain order. First we'd glue together the legs and stretchers, then the big mortises in the benchtop, and then, after all the joints were glued and assembled, the final step would be to drive home all the drawbore pins.

The drawbore pins, waxed (to make it easier to drive them without anything jamming or breaking) and ready to go. These take the place of clamps during the glue-up, pulling each joint tightly together when they're driven through offset holes in each of the tenons. The long pins are for the benchtop mortises, the shorter ones are for the stretchers, and we had an extra of each size just in case.
One of the things we learned during dress rehearsal was that it was awkward to get the legs and stretchers assembled before inserting the leg tenons into the benchtop mortises. So I made two jigs out of 2x4s to help hold the long stretchers during assembly.
Megan was a sport. I literally couldn't have done it without her.
After driving home all the drawbore pins, it was time to breathe a sigh of relief and then keep the shop heated for another 48 hours to let the glue cure well. I was out there checking on the heater every few hours for two days; this photo was at 5AM the morning after glue-up.
After everything had cured, I moved the old workbench out of the way and we were ready to flip it over and stand it up. The bench weighs over 300 pounds, so my friends Ron and Rodger came by to help me get it safely turned over. Thanks, guys!
Finally standing upright! Time to re-assemble the vises - the leg vise is done here, but the tail vise isn't re-installed yet, and the bottom shelf needs to be assembled.

Finishing touches

There were still a few days of finishing touches to be done, but this post has gotten really long so I'll just summarize that stuff quickly:

  • Drilling the dog holes (the holes in the benchtop for the holdfast). The layout of dog holes is a topic woodworkers have been debating for centuries, and after seeing all the arguments for various approaches (reminds me of software architecture debates!), I settled on a simple minimalist set of dog holes because I can always drill more later if I decide I need them.
  • Building the shelf. An optional detail that I decided to go with was adding a simple shelf inside the stretchers, a few inches off the floor. I had some leftover hard maple from making the vise faces, so I used that to make railings for the shelf boards to fit on. And then I cut the shelf boards from some beautiful 1" thick ash I picked up at Crosscut Hardwoods in Seattle. I chamfered the edges of the shelf boards because I like that look.
  • Applying the finish. After considering several options, I went with Osmo PolyX, a hardwax-oil finish based on natural vegetable oils and waxes. It made the pine a bit darker, and I finished the maple vice faces and ash bottom shelf with rub-on polyurethane for a lighter contrasting look in those areas. The main reason I picked PolyX is that it's really easy to repair, and by design a workbench is going to get plenty of abuse over the years.
  • Building the Moxon vise. This is the devise that you can see in some of the photos below with two big V-handle screws in the front of a slab of maple. It's a popular style of vise for cutting dovetails, among other things, and I always wanted to build one and try it out. I store it on the shelf underneath the bench, and when in use it gets mounted on top of the bench with a holdfast or clamps.
  • Building other bench accessories. I also built several accessories that Chris Schwarz recommends, including a couple of doe's feet, a couple of bench hooks, some vise spacers, and so on.

Lessons learned

In no particular order, some things I learned going through this process ...

When building a leg vise, keep the chop oversized and rectangular as long as possible. This would have simplified some of the processes involved in installing the crisscross mechanism and vise hardware, but I foolishly cut the chop to a sexy tapered chamfered shape early on, and that made it much more complicated to do things like build jigs to help cut the crisscross slots.

Speaking of, build jigs. Lots of them! I guess that's not a workbench thing, more of just a woodworking thing, but I learned it in earnest building this bench. How many jigs did I build? I couldn't even guess; a lot.

Even if you're not doing a lot of fancy woodworking from rough cut stock, you need a jointer and planer. I thought I didn't need them, but halfway through this project I realized there was no way I'd get the workbench finished this year without them. I went with a cheap 6 inch jointer made in China, and the best-selling DeWALT 735X "four poster" planer, and I love them now.

And speaking of that, another lesson learned was that Chris's claim that you can build this bench out of $175 in lumber from Home Depot is nonsense. Setting aside the fact that lumber prices have gone up (I think I spent a bit over $400 for the lumber), you need a couple thousand dollars in specific tools to do something like this and do it right. Don't get me wrong, I love having all those tools now (especially that Robert Sorby chisel!), but the actual cost of building this bench was an order of magnitude more than what I thought I was getting into.

Buy a quality holdfast. I decided I was going to need a holdfast, and looked around at options and then ordered a model from a popular store who shall not be named for $35. It was crap, and I started to wonder why oldtime woodworkers fell for this scam. And then I shelled out $144 for the one from Last Art Press (this one), and OMG it was like night and day. It works so well. I've developed such a visceral reaction to the sound of whacking it that I may make that my phone's ringtone.

You can never sharpen your chisels too often. Well, sure, you can, but you probably won't. And I learned that sharp chisels matter more for soft pine than for hard maple and ash. That seems counter-intuitive, but the soft fibers of pine are easy to crush and mangle if you're trying to cut them with a dull chisel, whereas those other woods (especially maple) are so hard that they hold together even when your tools aren't sharp.

The finished workbench in situ in my shop. I've built all the work surfaces to the exact same height, which comes in handy for working on large pieces.

I am now a big fan of the Anarchist's Workbench (get your free PDF here), but I didn't follow those instructions in every detail. My bench is shorter (6 feet long instead of 8 feet), a little deeper (24 inches instead of 22 inches), and much taller (39 inches instead of 28-36 inches), for reasons I don't feel like explaining. And I've installed not one, not two, but three vises, in part because I wanted to make all three of them. I also didn't wait as long as Chris recommends to cure my lumber, in part because I wanted to get it done before winter set in; so I may need to deal with some wood movement eventually. But overall, I'm happy with my choices.

I'm looking forward to spending a lot of time standing on that nice soft rubber mat in the future!