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Bench Quest

Every wood worker goes through the same enjoyment and arguably torment of finding and deciding on the kind of work bench they want/need for their wood shops. I get many questions and letters from readers every month about this topic and got to know Steven Melhuish over these past few months through his correspondence. Steven, like so many others (myself included) is trying to find that ‘perfect work bench design’ for his shop in the UK and sent me numerous  letters about his journeys and discoveries. It’s been a pleasure to read about his experiences meandering through the path ways of workbench design, the pros and the cons as well as his meetings with others through out the journey.

I decided to ask Steven to write a post and share some of his experience and thoughts-these are his words…

The Quest for a hand tool WoodWorking bench

A Personal journey

By Stephen Melhuish

Richard Maguire 'SIGNATURE' Bench

I’ve been corresponding with Tom Fidgen over a number of months since his book fell into my hands at Blackwells bookshop in Oxford, England, back in December 2009.

My work, like Tom’s has taken me in various directions. In the spring and summer months I plan, plant and maintain gardens for a whole host of interesting people in the far north villages of the Cotswolds just west of Oxford.

This might seem totally unrelated to woodwork, cabinet making or any level of craftsmanship that involves wood, but in this day and age not all of us can make a living from just one interest or discipline, indeed the reasons why we find ourselves drawn to the desire to work with wood are many. We all choose our own quests through circumstance, meandering at times to a place where one day something grabs hold of us, a realisation perhaps that you want something more than what you currently have, to improve ourselves and the work we produce. If this rings a bell with you then you’ll perhaps be somewhere on your own journey to some new horizon, whether it’s perfecting the techniques of sharpening your tools or buying that dreamt about plane.

My own quest it seems over these past six months was to ask myself what do I want from a workbench?

I move between general carpentry, constructing built in situ’ cabinets, wardrobes or bookcases and the finer more considered world of the wood shop, this second discipline is still relatively new to me, where small to medium scale projects will be my aim in the coming years.

While all this goes on, one question remains… Are the results I’m likely to get when working with hand tools always down to the quality, careful tuning and handling of the plane or was it and could it be in some other more fundamental way be more to do with my work space and the centre of that being the workbench?”

Well for me it’s a quest that continues to this day and whether you manage to produce wonderful work on a nailed together series of odd ply sheets fixed roughly to some old decorators trestle table or whether you were perhaps lucky enough to inherit your grandfathers cabinet makers workbench, one thing should remain constant and that is the pursuit of excellence through hard work mixed with pure enjoyment.

I’ve struggled-by with a poor bench for some time, the vices just aren’t big enough, the steel screw thread squeaks and wobbles and the tool well is constantly full of junk… so why oh why have I put up with it for so long, I guess the answer is partly habit and not knowing enough about what else is out there to replace it.

Back to Tom Fidgen’s own bench and that lovely book of his, I read his story of how through chance he ended up with two benches, both from the same supplier and manufacturer, I looked closer at the work he was producing on it, the way he would consider adding an extra dog hole here and there to better serve the holding and positioning of his work on the bench or in the vice. All of this fascinated me. A bench it seemed was somehow becoming part of who Tom was and how he worked.

I started to look at books on the subject of the history of benches, and spoke with friends who have arrived at similar conclusions, that to some degree “the bench is the shop”. You must plan and work everything else around it, other items come and go in the shop but the bench remains a constant and must in my own opinion be perfect for everything that you do and therefore flexible and yet simple enough to achieve those tasks.

Where then do you start?

Internet research:

Well I would certainly go and look at as many out there as possible, and by that I mean look hard and research on the internet and get a feel for the makes and scale of benches available. Once you’ve gathered together this visual and written dimensional information try and see if you can find a supplier that has an outlet that actually stocks one or a few of your favourites.

At this point you’ll probably realise like I did that there isn’t actually a vast selection that’s equal to this want, and what there is varies hugely in terms of quality.

So what’s important in a bench?

Scale of work:

Work wise, that’s entirely up to you, but whatever you’ll produce on it, the bench should at least be solid and large enough to cope with it.

Like I say, my own small and lightweight bench isn’t, and the only way I can stop some of its movement is to bolt it down with brackets to the shop floor.

Bench top thickness:

The thicknesses of bench tops can be deceptive, don’t be fooled by the apron that runs around the edge of the bench-top, in fact these are usually way deeper than the actual heart of the bench-top itself, and to be honest this heart is what matters. Get it too thin and the bench runs a significant risk of racking or twisting out of shape through changing atmospheric conditions. Lets face it all wood moves at some point, so the trick is to reduce this to an absolute minimum.

I’d say that a good bench worth paying decent money for should have a top that’s no thinner than 2.5inches or approx’ 60mm deep and ideally thicker still.

Fixings:

The bench thickness may have to be thinner in certain sections close to fixing plates and runners for the screw thread mechanisms and dog blocks to be housed, but scrutinise these fixings too and make sure that all the mechanics of the kit associated with the smooth running of the vice threads appear sensibly ‘up to the job’, remember that moving parts are far more likely to let you down than static ones, so again, buy the best that money can afford.

Dog Holes Blocks & Board Jacks:

Remember that a bench is a tool to hold wood steady while working on its edges or faces, that might sound a little obvious but the number of times I’ve seen woodworkers, including myself, struggling to hold down pieces with ease is disturbing, in fact this should never be the case, a good bench should certainly have covered all the basic options for helping you to clamp your work.

The Dog holes, whether square, rectangular or round all do pretty much the same job. For me the more the merrier and as long as the bench top is thick enough to take all these holes then it wont effect it’s performance.

A wagon vice will have a sliding dog block together with its corresponding dog hole, the two together allow for flexible clamping positions down the length of the top surface of the bench. Too few holes in line with this end vice might limit the length of wood you can clamp in this method, meaning manual clamping with some other form of surface clamp which isn’t ideal as they often get in the way when using larger planes on full face work.

Add another row of dog holes to the far surface of the bench and you’ve got an amazingly efficient way of extending this surface support system. Just cut a narrow straight baton of wood the same sort of thickness as any inserted dogs and the correct length and you can bridge over between the two rows of dog holes. This could also be set at a diagonal should the work require. So again, the less holes you have the more chance you run of struggling, make life easy eh!

Whether you opt for a standard face vice or some style of deeper leg vice, you’ll at some point almost certainly need some other form of clamping further down the side of the bench, this comes in the form of bench fasts either fastened through the end bench leg, or with even greater flexibility through a sliding board jack. Not all benches have them, and there are other ways of doing a similar job with all manner of different separate clamps, but to have a length of sliding wood bored with numerous holes to clamp through is by far the simplest and surely again the most flexible.

If you want a really secure stop on the bench surface then consider a much larger dog block, these can be set permanently anywhere along the run of dog holes, but ideally look for a bench that has it set towards the face vice end and then you have the rest of the length of the bench top to lay pieces up against it. The block itself can then be deep enough to be brought up above the bench surface when required to hold some particularly high work pieces.

The Vices:

Benches purchased from most manufacturers and stockists dictate what vices you end up with, as most are supplied with “what you see is what you get” therefore there can be little or no other choice available at the initial buying of your bench. So if you’re happy with the bench and the vices on it then that’s terrific, but if you love the bench but the vice is not for you, then always ask to see if they’re able to offer any options.

Things vary to some degree in this area and you’ll just have to ask… On the other hand try to seek out an independent bench maker, one who’s prepared to offer lots of choice! … Well that’s wonderful if you can find any and in fact in my own case I stopped looking once I’d found the only one I could find on the web in the UK, (there might be more out there, but I couldn’t find them!). His name is Richard Maguire.

Remember that almost every piece of wood that you’ll place on the bench will need at some point I’m sure to be held in safe hands… this is the vices job.

The screw threads are crucial to the vices smooth running and good ones will ensure that little or no chattering occurs as the vice handle is turned, the speed of vice operation too is down to the way in which the screw thread is milled from the steel. Basically you get what you pay for. The best and more expensive benches fit some of the best vices as standard. You could indeed purchase a lower cost bench but have a higher quality vice and screw thread fitted later, again the choice is yours and if budget allows!

If you’re after a beautiful and traditional vice with a wooden screw thread then the same thing will apply, if you get a really good quality one that’s be turned by a skilled craftsman then these can be magical to use, the performance for speed is often quicker than many steel threads as long as logic dictates that the diameter of the thread is made much bigger, therefore each turn takes the vice in or out that much quicker… Science eh!

Finally there has been a trend in more recent times to mix engineering wheel style handles to bench vices as a modern replacement to the more traditional pole handles, this is entirely a choice for the individual and purists may find them incongruous with the mix of aesthetic styles, seen by many as a clash, however they do have some merits if its “your bag”, they’re pretty easy to grab and spin, so long as the screw thread runs smoothly then they’re fine. Tiny movements and adjustments can be made with them too, so like I say they have their place and time will tell whether they become a long term fixture or not, but for now they’re usually only fitted as a custom extra!

Bench Maker…Richard Maguire:

Steven left and Richard MaGuire in front of a few of his benches.

I thought at this point I’d take the time to sing the praises of the independent bench-maker and there must be quite a number out there I’m sure, but rather than thinking always of walking into a bigger trade outlet, try seeking out a good joiner who’ll make one individually just for you, bespoke, right down to the style of pole handles. The joy is that it’s been made just for you by one person, not cheap, not quick, but when did that matter when it comes to the potential of a life times’ use and an ongoing heirloom?

So although completely subjective, I believe that Richard Maguire from Lincolnshire in England makes the best hand made benches for sale on the market today, certainly in the United Kingdom, if not the World!

This is a big boast and one that I can only qualify by personal experience. I was very fortunate that I spent a little quality time with Richard looking over a small selection of his hand made benches, and what can I say, all the appropriate boxes were ticked, nice thick solid lengths of wood, beautifully crafted and jointed together, every single thing appeared right, the design, balance and sheer strength of these beasts just jumps out at you. Richard has a background in cabinet making and larger joinery for the building industry. These two disciplines are melded together within a craftsman who daren’t ever send anything out from his shop until he has personally gone over every inch by hand.

Richard prototypes everything first within a varied range, he then makes further tweaks before the final designs are settled on. He told me that one of the benches under scrutiny was tested by leaving it outside in all weather conditions, for quite some time, before bringing it back into the shop to once more acclimatise, all this just to see how it might cope with such extreme stresses.

He’s researched the history of bench making and includes his take on the classic Roubo and Dominy styles these are within an awesome range of serious heavyweight benches, all hand made with a great choice of vices too including a twin screw faced option.

He personally guarantees everything and that’s how confident he is that his benches will perform.

He uses a choice of Ash or Steamed Beech to construct them, some of the bench tops are 3 inches of solid wood, others 4 inches, while his thickest is a hefty 6 inches and at those sort of dimensions your bench won’t budge a jot! No wonder that he’s proud to place and fix a small brass plaque on every bench with the Richard Maguire name.

If you go for any benches of this nature then you’re not only investing in quality for your own shop, but you’re helping to keep the Craftsmen’s skills alive and well. I know personally how incredibly proud Richard is of every bench he makes and he should do with the hours he puts of himself into each one.

Alexandra Palace Woodworking Show:

While visiting this years wood show in north London on the 14th March I was very pleased to see the figure of Rob Cosman blowing fine wood shavings high into the air from a Stanley Plane, but what took my eye more was the bench he was working on, yes The Richard Maguire Signature bench.

Many of the passers by were reading up on the details of the bench on a display board, a few wood fans were over from Sweden and I asked them what they thought. Generally they remarked on the solid thickness of it’s bench top, the smooth action of the leg vice and how useful the double row of dog holes would be for bracing work across and down the length of the surface. One of these guys said it was just the sheer beauty of the whole thing.

The ergonomics of design is something the Swedish are famous for, so who am I to disagree… All of them took a leaflet!

Making your own bench:

This is of course another option, and if you choose to take this path then just make sure you appreciate all the factors mentioned previously. Your vices and fixings are best ordered first so that positions and bench thickness can be planned around them.

I did consider making my own bench and this would no doubt have been a different kind of investment, one that was time heavy in the wood shop, this for me was the deciding factor, I just couldn’t afford the time, but you’ll have to juggle with this dilemma yourself.

What you do get if you choose to purchase is the knowledge that the bench makers specific niche skills and experience has gone into every consideration, this for me was a guarantee well worth paying a premium for, basically it’s peace of mind territory.

Conclusion:

I’m sure that if your making your own quest you’ll settle for what ultimately feels right for yourself, but my conclusion is that the bench is far too important an investment to go wrong, after all it’s highly likely to represent the single most costly outlay in the hand tool wood shop. Take your time and tread carefully.

While my own decision was a Maguire bench, there are other benches out there with great merit, including the Lie Nielsen or Sjoberg range. Take a long look at all. My overriding want is that a bench should be as flexible as it can possibly be without it looking cluttered.

Whatever you choose to purchase or indeed if you end up spending time making your own bench, just remember this,  “The Bench is the Shop”.

Happy hunting.

Signature Leg Vise

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