Woodworking benches should be a basic part of any home wood workshop, but they go all the way back to Roman and Greek times; they can be seen in images from these eras being used by carpenters and other workers. No mechanical vises were no used in those times, but holdfasts or pegs driven into holes in the benchtop held pieces being worked. Wooden vises came into use in the early 1800’s; these featured wooden screw rods fitted into the legs of the bench.
The modern woodworker’s bench, also known as a cabinet maker bench, is a hardwood table that provides a flat working surface. It is usually 5 to six feet long, 2 to 2 ½ feet wide, and is equipped with drawers, vises, clamps and end stops. The most important characteristic it should have is rigidity; if the underframing legs are prone to flexing, then any sawing or hammering will be difficult and imprecise.
Building your woodworking bench of heavy sections of hardwood, preferably beech, using mortis and tenon joints and bolt fasteners, is the best way to achieve this. Also important is making the bench the proper height- 36 inches or so is a good start, but this can vary based on your preference and ergonomics.
The woodworkers vise is usually installed at an edge of the bench near a leg in order to allow for maximum support. These vises have movable jaws made of cast iron running on steel slide screws. Jaws are moved by turning a handle that drives the screw slides running lengthwise to revolve. In order to protect the workpiece, the jaws can be lined with ¾ inch thick hardwood.
The best position for the woodworking vise on the bench is the mount it so that the top of the jaws are flush with the top surface of the bench. Attach the vise’s fixed jaw to the bench’s underside, using 4 carriage or lag screws, shimming as required to get the desired flushness.
An end vise should also be installed at one of the lengthwise ends; this will give you clamping ability along the length of the bench for long pieces. Pieces are more easily planed and routed this way. For added stability of such pieces, holes can be drilled in the bench top and fitted with vertical steel pegs; these can also act as simple assembly jigs.
Another handy feature is a shallow well near the back edge of the bench, which can hold tools temporarily, or collect wood shavings and saw dust. Some benches even have a storage slot for tools in back of the well, although at times the tool handles projecting from the slot can be an impediment.
You can also convert your woodworking bench to a metalworking bench. You will need to protect the top and side surfaces by fitting plate metal to the wood, and replace the woodworker’s vise with a machinist’s vise. These vises have heavier duty jaws and more adjustability. They are also known as an engineer’s vise, fitter’s vise or mechanic’s vise.
Another good accessory for your bench is the C-clamp. It is useful in both woodwork and metalworking. It consists of a round, semi-conical shoe attached to the end of a screw tube via a ball-joint, which can take up angled surfaces. The screw tube is mounted on a C shaped frame, and has a handle at it’s other end. Be careful not to torque the handle too tight, as you can easily damage your workpiece; sandwhich some scrap softwood between the shoe and workpiece to avoid scratches and markings.
Photo by 416style, Creative Commons Attribution License