This post is for woodworking bench geeks. Yes, woodworking bench geeks constitute an official charted chapter of geekdom. Everyone else: this is not the post you are looking for. Move along. Move along.
I have a bad back. Though my back surgery in 2003 surgery helped, my back pain still flares up from time to time. What does that feel like? Lay your lower spine down on a railroad spike and put an anvil on one side of your hip. That should give you some idea. In any case, because I have no particular affinity for railroad spike/anvil yoga, I’m extremely mindful of ergonomics. I have office desks that move up and down. I use my legs to lift. I get in and out of bed and cars a very specific way. I take my time at airports. Because when I don’t do these things, I can be knocked out of commission for more than a month. And that makes Narayan a dull boy.
One could argue that my back maladies aren’t compatible with woodworking, an endeavor which involves lots of heavy lifting, back-bending, hunching for detailed work, etc. One could argue that I shouldn’t do woodworking and that I should perhaps take up crossword puzzles or meditation. One could also fuck off (though perhaps the meditation advocates are onto something). Having a bad back is definitely a challenge but it’s not a death sentence. So in 2006, I purchased a set of Noden Adjust-A-Bench legs after reading about them on the web. And a few months later, I completed this bench, which was my main workbench for many years:
That bench (pictured above) was roughly 5’ long and 24" deep. It was a massive upgrade from my previous bench–two sawhorses and a few 2x4s. The cabinet and drawers were necessary because my garage woodshop had no wall space or floorspace for storage, and I needed a place to put my handtools. In the left drawers, the top drawer had marking and layout tools, the second drawer chisels and rasps, the third and fourth drawers held handplanes. On the right, the top drawer contained supplies like glue and rags and camelia oil, the bottom drawer things like mallets and a brace and auger bits. It’s funny–it’s been several years since these drawers contained this stuff, but writing this now I have a very clear recollection of where everything went. I used to spend a lot of time in my woodshop. I used to be a contender.
As for the bench itself–I made it prior to Chris Schwarz’s bench bible. After that book came out, I, like a lot of woodworkers, found myself scrutinizing the bench in my shop, looking for excuses to build a Roubo. There were a lot of things about my first workbench which didn’t work as well as I had hoped. It was a little too long for the space I had. The tail vise didn’t work very well. I couldn’t work edges of large panels. The face vise didn’t have enough space between its screws. I couldn’t clamp things to the benchtop because of the aprons. The casters were a necessity due to the configuration of the shop, but even when retracted (which was a pain), the bench wasn’t as stable as it needed to be (most of this was the uneven floor). But on the whole, my first bench did an adequate enough job, helped me continue woodworking despite my back pain, and I made more than a few decent projects on it.
I’m now in a much better shop space. The floor is not at an incline (in my garage shop, the floor was sloped so steeply you could toboggan down it). I don’t need to move my bench to open the garage door or cut a long board on the tablesaw. I have lots of space on the walls to store things. And, as mentioned in my last post, I now have a bonafide bench in the Roubo (details still forthcoming). But due to my back, I wouldn’t be able to work comfortably on the Roubo for many operations I now consider commonplace–dovetailing, sawing, routing. And an assembly table is always handy.
After the Benchcrafted Moxon Vise came out, I decided that I was going to turn my previous bench into a joinery bench with a built-in Moxon vise. Not wanting to repeat history, I knew I was going to make the bench less long and remove the casters. I knew I wanted 24" between the Moxon’s screws. I didn’t want side aprons. But I did want to keep a cabinet–for storage (who can have enough) but also for mass.
The build was actually really simple:
- Disassemble the old bench
- Resize the top with a circular saw and guide
- Slice off the right side of the cabinet (leaving the four long drawers)
- Make a new front apron and vise chop and install vise hardware
- Reassemble, flatten, and voila
The only unique part of the build was taking a circular saw to the cabinet to lop off the right drawers (I sadly have no pictures of this—it wasn’t unlike separating conjoined twins). I didn’t expect that operation to go very well and had a backup plan to rebuild the cabinet. But it went just fine, so the cabinet part of Joinery Bench 2.0 took about 10 minutes instead of a few days. And I’m even repurposing the orphaned drawers as wall-mounted shelves over by the lathe.
I sized the top at 26“ deep and 48” wide–just a little bit smaller than a contractor’s garbage bag. This gives me a decent enough surface for the joinery and assembly I’ll be doing on this bench and also allows me, for glue-ups or finishing, to cover the bench with material I always have in the shop. But downsizing the top isn’t about garbage bags–it’s about floorspace. The joinery bench is small enough that it sits comfortably in the middle of my shop (as opposed to against a wall). This, in conjunction with the adjustable height feature of the legs, has already proven useful with assembly—I can clamp (klamp for those of you in the boonies) from all four sides or use the back edge for powered tool work like routing (krouting for those of you in the German boonies). I also use the bench to temporarily stack wood that I’m running through the tablesaw or jointer/planer.
Another parameter which influenced benchtop size was the width of the vise chop and the desire to have some space at the front of the bench (to the right of the chop) for bench hooks and shooting boards and other bench accessories (such as a Kreg pockethole bench hook I use a lot and a jig which allows me to use my sonic screwdriver as a Dremel–the lasers and flux capacitor on that jig take up some extra space.) A lot of times I saw something with a backsaw then take it to a shooting board to clean up or trim. So this is why the whole front of the bench isn’t just a massive vise chop.
For handtool use, I’m amazed how handy it is to pivot between the Roubo and this bench. I don’t yet know what I’m going to put in the drawers; if I don’t have a use for them in the handtool area of my shop, I can always make the cabinet face the tablesaw and router table and use the drawers for machine-accessory storage.
The chop and vise are great, though the width of the chop is something I’m still getting used to. For the chop, I used a 10/4 piece of maple with a huge knot in it. I filled the knot with epoxy I colored with Transtint. We’ll see how it holds up—so far so good. I have this thing for knots (particularly in maple)–as difficult as they can be to incorporate well into a piece of woodworking, I love the chaos in the grain which surrounds them. So I put this epoxy-filled knot in a very prominent place.
The Benchcrafted Moxon Vise was an easy install. Because the benchtop is relatively thick, I routed out some space on the benchtop behind the front apron so I could get a crescent wrench around the large nuts which hold the vise’s acme screws in place. And I took the time to chop out hexagons in the front of the apron (the fixed jaw vise).
The vise makes it super-quick to immobilize a board—the wheels almost turn themselves. And the vise mechanism as a whole is strong enough that without a lot of effort, I can visibly bend the chop. This may also be because I am a cyborg and have superhuman strength (my bad back was a manufacturing defect).
With the exception of adding a few benchdog holes, I’m going to give the bench a few months of use to decide if any modifications are necessary. I’ll eventually chamfer the top edge of the chop to make sawing 45° angles a little easier, but I’m in no hurry to do that yet. I also have a very heavy Record vise I’m considering sticking on the back of this thing (for holding things like bolts or screws I need to hacksaw), but I’m going to wait and see how the shop is used through some real furniture projects before making any adjustments.
I know some people take their bench aesthetics very seriously. I’ve seen benches with exotic wood inlays, with decorative carving, and all kinds of ornamental flourishes. My goal right now is to get the shop as functional as possible as quickly as possible. Accordingly, this bench isn’t going to win any beauty contests but it sure does work well.
Next up: a decidedly non-handtool project: my tablesaw router extension table.