Buying a Workbench
A workbench anchors your woodworking shop by providing a flat, durable surface dedicated to making parts and assembling projects. Building your own requires substantial labor and material, so some woodworkers choose to buy ready-made.
Priced from around a hundred to several thousand dollars, factory-made benches offer a variety of sizes and features to meet most home woodworkers' needs.
Going bench shopping
The kinds of projects you build should drive your workbench selection. Large furniture projects, for example, require different benches than small boxes, toys, or craft items.
Consider, too, the way you work. Hand-planing stock, chiseling mortises, or cutting dovetails by hand demands a stout bench that won't scoot around while you work. Assembling machined parts doesn't stress a bench the way handwork does.
Pick the type that best fits your needs from the choices in three categories.
DIYer/hobbyist work centers. These steel units, topped with a hardwood or MDF worksurface [Photo A, below], let you set up shop quickly. They're ideal for home improvers and woodworkers who build small- or medium-size projects with machine-made parts.
A built-in perforated tool board, drawers, and shelves offer storage, and many work centers feature lighting and electrical power strips. Most measure about 4' long, with prices from $100 to $500 or so at big-box home centers, tool dealers, and online.
Industrial worktables. Essentially heavy-duty tables with steel legs and a steel or wooden top, these benches range up to 12' long. Some manufacturers sell legs and rails that bolt together into a custom-size base to support your worksurface (or a manufactured one) [Photo B, below].
A large surface and a rigid base provide space and strength for big projects. Add backboards, shelves, and drawers, as needed. Buy these from big-box stores, industrial supply houses, tool dealers, or online. Prices start around $100 and head into the thousands as size, sturdiness, and features increase.
Traditional woodworking benches. Often described as European- or Scandinavian-style benches, these wooden benches, some of heirloom quality, are designed and built with woodworking in mind. Integral woodworking vises [Photo C, below] distinguish these benches from other styles. Such vises grip boards securely for sawing, planing, and other jobs and, for most woodworking processes, serve better than machinist-type vises mounted on the benchtop.
This bench style suits furniture builders well. Larger ones equipped with storage cabinets weigh 300 lbs. or more, making them steady and resistant to sliding when machining or shaping parts on them.
For many woodworkers, having a traditional bench, made or bought, is a source of pride. Prices start around $200 and go into the thousands. Find them at woodworking specialty dealers, tool stores, industrial suppliers, and online retailers.
Once you've decided on a type of workbench, focus on these important factors:
Strong support. A base with sturdy legs and stout stretchers resists swaying and provides a solid worksurface. Through-bolted joints offer superior strength [Photo D, below]. Feet that span both legs on each end enhance sway resistance and make leveling the bench easier.
Top-notch worksurface. Laminated hardwood makes the toughest worksurface, suited to the largest projects and hand-tool use. A top built up from plywood or MDF may prove durable enough for many projects. A steel worksurface poses problems for woodworking, as it's likely to damage cutting edges on tools and might prove too slick to work on safely.
Vise virtues. Adding woodworking vises to an already-built bench can prove difficult, so consider buying a bench that comes with them. A pair of vises—a face vise on the left front edge (for right-handers) and an end vise on the opposite end—offer greatest versatility [Photo C, above]. Bench dogs and hold-downs that fit into benchtop holes offer added ways to grip a workpiece [Sidebar: Holding things, below].
Sometimes installed instead of an end vise, a tail vise [Photo E, below] holds a long, wide workpiece vertically. The guide rods and screw in a face or end vise force you to grip such a piece at one end of the jaw, racking it out of alignment so it holds less firmly.
Storage space. A traditional workbench usually has a bottom shelf between the legs to hold tools and materials and prevent benchtop clutter. The shelf stiffens the bench base to increase rigidity, too.
To increase storage, some manufacturers offer additional shelves, drawers, or cabinets for their workbenches. A European-style bench often features a trough near the back edge of the top to keep chisels, mallets, and so forth handy but out of the way [Photo C, above].
Make it mobile?
A movable bench offers advantages. In a small shop, you could keep the bench against a wall or in a corner until you need working space on all sides for a larger project. One solution is simply to set a workbench on a mobile tool base, but the workbench won't be rock-steady when positioned, even with locking casters. For the greatest solidity, install workbench casters that retract or fold up, so the bench can stand on its legs when placed in working position [Source, below].
Make sure it fits you and your shop
A wall-mounted bench (or one placed against a wall) saves space but limits your ability to work from all sides or accommodate an oversize workpiece. Decide whether this would be a serious drawback for you.
Measure the overall benchtop length and width, including vises. Then, add another 3' in front of and, unless placed against a wall, behind the bench, plus, ideally, at each end for working space. Determine how that footprint fits within your shop.
Benches vary from about 33" to 36" tall. A few inches may seem insignificant but can make a big difference in working comfort. Generally, you'll like a benchtop as high as the distance from the floor to your first thumb knuckle with your arms hanging relaxed at your sides.
Hand-tool woodworkers often prefer a lower bench for hand-plane and chisel use. But a taller bench might make power-sanding and assembly more comfortable.
Some benches, especially those designed for kids, have height-adjustable legs [ Photo F, below]. If a fixed-leg bench seems too short, place it on risers. A too-tall bench will be harder to deal with.
Bench dogs are stops that fit into holes drilled into the benchtop. Woodworking stores sell many varieties (below), or you can make your own (above). Used in conjunction with a vise, they let you grip a workpiece securely [opening photo] without interfering with tools. Metal dogs have springs in the sides (upper inset, below), so you can insert the stop to different depths to accommodate workpiece thickness. Other dogs sit flat on the benchtop (lower inset, below).
Holdfasts and hold-downs fit into benchtop holes to secure large or irregular workpieces. To set a traditional fixed holdfast (above), drop it into the hole, let it contact your workpiece, then tap the curved top with a mallet to wedge the shaft into the hole. (Tap the back side to release it.) Adjustable hold-downs, such as the one below, drop into holes and tighten by turning a knob.