For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.
Inspired by a friend, I started working on a list of things to do in the coming days and weeks. Things I have wanted or thought of doing but had other stuff get in the way. It was inevitable that some of these things would get me into the workshop and I started with a simple one: making an unused or unusable tool into a functional one. I have restored old tools before but was looking for something else.
The English workbench form has held a great deal of attraction for me for two primary reasons: it is the predominant traditional form in Britain, and one that epitomises simplicity. I think there was possibly another, hidden motif of a challenge: will it meet my current and future needs? Can I do without all the fancy stuff? Will I manage?
What often crops up with this workbench form is workholding. The aprons prevent clamping to the bench top which is what some people are used to doing; I certainly have done it in the past. The answer to this is holdfasts for me. You do not need more than several strategically placed holes in the top for them and they hold, well, fast. The bench with holdfasts also allows you to do away with the end vice – actually, I never had one before and still do not see it as essential. Perhaps it is my inexperience but I have yet to find myself in a situation where I would think, ‘man, if only I had an end vice this whole job would be possible / twice as easy / etc.’.
The planing stop is one of those unsung heroes of hand tool woodworking; it is absolutely genius as it utilises the physics of the planning force and the inherent construction elements of the bench for maximum effect. Above all it is simple and it just works; you could get away with a couple of screws or nails in the top, my choice was to build an all-wooden stop in. I would sooner give up my face vice than my planning stop! Speaking of face vice, initially I was going for the horizontal English-style version. Part-way through the build, however, I decided to double what was the initial thickness of the top and I felt the vice screw might end up being a bit too low which may cause racking. I was not certain if it would indeed become an issue but I did not want to do this part of the build twice in case it did end up a problem. I went with a leg vice in the end.
Like many folk, I struggled with a flimsy, inadequate commercial workbench for a couple of years. I use hand tools almost exclusively and although I did manage to build and carve on the bench, any moderate to heavy planing was particularly far from fun. It was a good learning experience, though: when the time came to build my own I knew what I wanted exactly.
There are many resources out there if you consider making your own bench. I looked at Paul Sellers’ videos and articles, one of Christopher Schwarz’s books on workbench design, articles in woodworking magazines and Richard Maguire’s video series. In fact, there is so much information available that it is very easy to get confused very fast. What is the best route to take? Do I need a quick release vice? End vice? Tool well or not? French or English? Scandinavian or Moravian?
Some people seem to get really fancy in their designs and material choice, and obviously there is a market supplying all sorts of gizmos and devices to fit to your bench. I just needed a solid build and enough functionality to allow stock dimensioning by hand while still keeping the thing as simple as possible. I also wanted a sense of continuity with the woodworking tradition I have been studying. What this meant for me was: out with the end vice, exotic timbers, space shuttle technology, storage cabinets; in with the aprons, planing stop, holdfasts, softwood.