Our thanks to Taunton Press for giving us permission to reprint in Wood News, our monthly online magazine, Lon Schleining's introduction to his excellent book, The Workbench: A Complete Guide to Creating Your Perfect Bench
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In its simplest form, a woodworking bench is nothing more than some sort of raised platform so you can work standing up. Even a piece of plywood on sawhorses would fit this definition. Such a bench would certainly be inexpensive, fast to build, and very portable. If it got rained on, or stained by spilled coffee, no big deal. Though less than ideal, this may be all the bench some woodworkers would really need. But what they really yearn for is another matter entirely.
Woodworkers' notions of the ultimate bench are as diverse as their activities. What's ideal for one woodworker is wholly impractical for another. A great bench for a furniture maker may not work for a carver and vise versa. A boatbuilder's bench is utterly different from a violin maker's, yet they all work wood and they all need benches.
Much as woodworking pundits might like to say their particular workbench is the only proper configuration, many of the choices in design are simply a combination of familiarity and personal taste. If there is a common thread, it's a tendency to think the bench you learned on is the best bench. A shoulder vise, for example, is a device some woodworkers simply could not get along without. For others, it's a somewhat fragile appendage of little use in a modern wood shop. Such is the subjective and very personal nature of the workbench.
The "classic" workbench originated centuries before the invention of the equipment modern woodworkers take for granted. These days, rare indeed is the woodworker who does not use an electric drill or surface planer. A perfectly suitable bench for the type of work people did 300 or 400 years ago may not be the best one today.
Some things haven't changed. Virtually every woodworking tool, power or otherwise, requires two hands to operate safely. Holding the board securely is, if anything, more important with power tools than with hand tools since the consequences of a slip could be more serious. Woodworkers who think a traditional bench has no place in a modern shop need only consider how difficult it is to hold a furniture part with one hand while belt sanding it with the other.
Woodworkers of today do work differently. We often work with large panels and sheet goods and so need to clamp our work somewhat differently. We have access to hardware that can speed construction. Modern materials like Melamine and laminates are better than solid wood for some applications. Vacuum pressing makes building large torsion boxes easier. Throughout this book, I have tried to point out how modern methods and materials can be applied to workbench design and construction.
For some people, building their own bench is almost a woodworking rite of passage. Their bench is an expression of the pride they take in their work, an opportunity to demonstrate their skills and to show off a little. These folks probably envision a solid-maple behemoth with intricately constructed vises, a gleaming finish, lots of accessories and cool hardware. Sure, it cost a bundle and took months to build. Yes, there may be just a bit of reluctance about actually using the bench for fear of getting that first scratch or dent. But for those bench builders, the satisfaction of having built it is justification enough.
Then there are the folks who sit down and do the math. They figure the cost of lumber and hardware, then estimate (or should I say underestimate) the time it wll take to build the bench. They compare their figures with the cost of having a finished bench shipped to their doorstep. It slowly sinks in that it's entirely irrational to build a bench from scratch. For these practical souls, the only logical choice is to buy a finished bench outright.
The bottom line is that however you get your hands on it, you need a good bench to do your work safely. You need some vises and holddowns for joinery, fitting pieces, and finish work like installing hinges. At the very least you need a true flat surface for gluing.
This book is intended as a guide for asking the right questions and then making the right decisions about what you really need and what you really want. A workbench is a very personal choice. Your opinions and personal preferences are the most important. Take your time pondering the questions. And remember, only you can provide the answers.