The Sad State of Workbenches (Part 2): What’s Wrong Nowadays

Modern benches generally have spindle vises with two metal guide spindles and a metal screw between them. They are usually less than 2” below the benchtop. To grip anything more than this distance, it has to be to one side of a spindle, usually the right side. The front jaw of the vise cocks when tightened, ruining the corner of the work and giving a indeterminate hold. This is not progress.

poor hold of modern spindle vise

We live in the era of the Texas bench, with “high” being in vogue. Sadly, this is a perceived need by the public and does nothing for functionality if you use hand tools and most power tools. Proper bench height is somewhere between knuckle and wrist height with your arms loosely at your side. Higher makes such things as planing very difficult and much more tiring. The great thing about the human back is that it bends, and bending forward slightly during planning is highly beneficial. I have two Euro benches with traditional shoulder vises. The first came at the right height. With the second, I bought the lowest example the importer had but still had to cut 1” out of the legs.

the author working at his bench

As stated in Part 1, well-meaning engineers make changes for reasons of ease of manufacturing and perceived utility. This perception is not born of deep knowledge of woodworking. They may never have used hand tools at all. Most woodworkers think they are buying what they need and have never used a proper bench. Therefore the state of workbenches is declining! Don’t be afraid to complain.

Ernie Conover

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  • “The great thing about the human back is that it bends”

    Amazing thing the human body! And a little bending is much less tiring than having to raise your arms to perform every task like you mentioned. Sometimes style and function don’t work together!

  • Gordon C

    OK, but how tall are you? “Wrist height” is different for different people. I’m 6’4″ and have spent my whole life fighting back problems from using things that are too low or too short: desks, chairs, tables, monitors, kitchen counters, snow shovels, lawn mowers, etc. (Not to mention the head injuries…) I’ll soon be either buying or making my first workbench; I ‘inherited’ one in my previous house), and don’t know exactly what’s right for me. Advice appreciated.

  • Richard

    Benches have recently become display furniture. Pretty, expensive, and never to be damaged. Something like the massive pickup trucks that never, ever, carry anything. Status items. Further, there’s a whole crowd of amateurs who are willing to spend great gobs of time thinking about the ‘ultimate’ bench. Even antique dealers are selling old benches for thousands of bucks – as furniture.
    Anyway, most, or all of the woodworking books have good ideas. The big division is between one for mostly hand-tools, including carving, or one that will be used with power tools – that determines the proper working height and whether or not you need one that’s really heavy. If you’re hand-planing a lot, a low, heavy bench is good. Some kind of a tail vise and dogs. If you’re making carcasses or big stuff, more working room than a narrow bench is better. If it’s for assembly, really low, mobile, and carpeted is useful. Vises are a whole other story – too long for here, but they boil down to being supports for other simple jigs; the vise itself is limited, and of course, mechanically they’re all kinda punk. The example in the article was a vise being used wrong, not a wrong vise.

  • JLP

    I find today’s work benches to be glorified decoration pieces. Even many home built shop benches are glamorous show pieces. Why make a gorgeous, multi-species hardwood bench that is going to be banged, nicked, cut, sliced, stained and glue residue will inflict the stylish and beautiful build?? I would not to damage such a proud and beautiful build after spending time and energy If it is truly a showpiece… Rock on… good build. My own built benches never cost me more than a hundred bucks and have lasted decades. More importantly, I am not worried nor fear marring, staining or marking up my bench.

  • R Ball

    JLP and Richard are totally right. I’ve always thought that those great looking and expensive benches would be great to own but also always thought that I’d be afraid to use it for fear of messing it up. I made a bench 20 or thirty years ago out of plywood, 2 x4’s and Masonite. It does the job, has held up and probably cost me $30 in materials…..the two vises cost a bit more. I’m not afraid to do just about anything on it for fear of scratching it up and I didn’t spend weeks making it. When the top gets worn and stained enough it gets a new piece of Masonite. It seems some people would rather spend their time making stuff for their shop than making stuff in their shop. Also my shop is usually a bit of a mess. When I apologized to a friend who came over to see it he said ” if it’s all neat and tidy you’re not doing anything”. I think a lot of supposed woodworkers have their priorities mixed up. I make stuff in my messy shop and use it in my home, give it as a gift to friends or family and occasionally sell something. I get most of my satisfaction from being able to do what I do, and having people honestly say to me ” Wow! You made that!” Yes, I’m also a tool junky but I want the tools ( including the work bench) for what they help me do, not for how it looks or impresses people.