This is a section from A Beginners Guide to Woodworking: Helping New Woodworkers Make Better Projects, which is available on Amazon. Over the next couple months, you will be able to read the entire book, and I hope that you like it enough to get tour own copy. Enjoy.
Chapter Four – Your Shop and Bench
As a woodworker, you are going to spend more time in your shop and near your bench than anywhere else. It’s important to get a few things set up correctly so that you can get the most from your working area.
In the beginning you may not even have an area to work permanently, or a bench. That’s ok. Over time you can develop strategies to deal with that, and possibly find a dedicated space of your own.
Having a dedicated space even in the beginning is a real treat, because you can build your area as you are building your skills.
If you do not have a dedicated area to work, start figuring out how to make that a possibility. If it’s just not in the cards, then figure out how to make the setup and take down of your temporary working area as fluid and quick as possible.
As with anything, when you start running into barriers, it makes it that much easier to quit. There may come a time when you would like to work on a project, but you know that setup and take down will eat up thirty minutes of your shop time. When you only have an hour, that can prevent you from even starting.
Also, you do not need a huge shop to be successful at woodworking. There are many examples of great work that was made in very small spaces that are hardly what anyone would call a shop.
A bigger area is really nice to work in, and can give you much more freedom to manipulate your project. However, a smaller area only means that you may have to move a few more things in between steps.
The only loss is a little time, and you can really surprise people if you are patient and turn out good work from a smaller shop space.
The shop area is going to be very important over time, because you will slowly create the area that is the most comfortable for you and the most conducive to delivering your best work.
A shop is a very personal area, and a well organized, clean, and comfortable shop can help you as a woodworker.
Great shops beg to be worked in. Small shops that are cared for beg to be worked in too. When you craft an environment like this, you will encourage yourself to spend more time in the shop, and that’s how it can make you a better woodworker.
Probably the most impactful thing you can do as a beginner is to spend a lot of time in the shop. The more you work, and the more you learn with your hands, the faster you will become a great woodworker.
All the books and videos are great, but they will pale in comparison with what you do with that knowledge when you step out into the shop.
Take the time to create a safe, well organized, and inviting area that you are happy to call your shop. It should call you while you are on your way home from work, and beg you to spend time in it. This is how you know you created the right kind of area.
Have a Bench if You Can
If you can have a bench in your shop, that’s a woodworking friendly bench made for that purpose, then do so. A well made, and functional bench is a huge asset to any woodworker, especially a beginner.
A bench is a stable foundation to build upon, and will become the hub of your shop.
More time will be spent over your bench than just about any other place, and you will develop a relationship with your bench over time that encourages you to come out into the shop and work.
There are a lot of different bench styles out there to choose from, and most of them come from the type of work that the bench was used for. If you Google old carpenters benches you will see several different styles.
They all have a similar look, but the locations and placements of the bench features will be different. The vises in particular are one of the biggest differences.
Depending on what kind of bench makes you happy, you will learn over time how to put its features to work, and how to make it a part of your routine. Vises may be different, but they all hold things. While one woodworker uses an end vise, you may use a front vise, because that’s what is on your bench.
The carpenters bench is a really special kind of bench, made with woodworking in mind, and can be on the expensive side. If you really want one of these benches you can look second hand or make one.
While this is a traditional symbol of woodworking, a bench does not have to be this elaborate to be a good bench. There are some shop owners that don’t even have a traditional woodworking bench, and they still turn out really nice work.
The important thing about a bench is to have a stable surface that you can apply pressure to, and that is at a comfortable height for you to work. There are tons of articles (and arguments) online about what the right bench height should be, and what makes a comfortable and stable bench.
The real way to know is to try out a few in a store and see what you like. Some people like a higher bench, and some like a lower bench.
As long as the bench you choose is sturdy, has enough space for your work, and is at a comfortable height, then most of the other details won’t matter much. Vises are nice, and so are drawers and other additions to a bench, but the bare minimum is so important that you should trade all the extras away for stable and comfortable.
You are going to be spending a lot of time at this bench, so a little planning in the beginning can make a big difference.
There are a few ways that you can get a bench into the shop without breaking the bank. These are all coming up in the next few pages. Whether you find your bench second hand, build it, or come up with something on the fly, having a stable and comfortable space is a huge start in your shop.
As a new woodworker, starting out with a bench that makes you proud to build things will make you a better woodworker.
Build Your First Bench
What better way to start out your woodworking career than by building your own bench? Even as a very green beginner, you have many different options when it comes to making a bench.
There are also a lot of benefits to making a bench yourself. Not only will you learn a lot about woodworking in the process, which is the overall goal anyway, you will also save money over buying a bench that someone else made.
The type of bench and the detail that you put into the bench in the beginning will vary based on the woodworking skill that you have. If you are comfortable with your hands, you may be more capable of tackling a tougher or more detailed build.
If you are brand new, then you might want to stick with a simple 2×4 and plywood model that essentially is just a sturdy table.
For the beginner, it is important that you pick out something you can accomplish. There are a number of great plans out there online that can show you how to make a sturdy bench. If you are more of a book person, then you can also find several books on making benches and shop furniture.
The most important things, as mentioned earlier, are strength and comfort. The bench needs to be strong enough to withstand the weight of the projects made on it, as well as additional weight from being pressed upon. It also needs to not shake from side to side when lateral pressure is introduced to the bench.
Then finally, the height needs to be such that you are comfortable working on the surface. You do not want to have to bend over too much, or lift your arms to work. A bench that satisfies all of these requirements, no matter how it looks, will become a shop treasure that you enjoy working with.
Look around online as a beginner for a basic set of bench plans, and pay attention to the way that the bench is made. If the unit is made primarily from 2x4s, then you can pretty much make the entire thing with a miter saw or hand saw.
The top may need to be cut somewhere, but you can do the frame yourself. Look for a design that has double 2x4s in several places, and gussets on the corners that prevent the piece from twisting.
Once you have a design, then go about making your bench as a first project. Get some help as needed, especially with cutting the top if you are not used to working with a large piece of plywood.
You can overcome this by having the hardware store cut down a sheet for you that will match the size of your bench top. Then, you just build your frame around the size of the top.
If you are more advanced, or you have done other work with your hands in the past, you may be able to make something a little more elaborate. A few small changes to the simple 2×4 and plywood bench can even be accomplished by most beginners.
The number one thing that you can do to a bench to elevate the look is to make a butcher block style top. It is a standard among benches to have a top made from wooden staves that are glued together. While this does require a bit more machining, the assembly process can be pretty easy even for a beginner.
You can also save money by making the top from Pine or Fir, which will not give the same resistance as Maple or Beech, but will still look good and hold up for many years.
If you are going to make a top like this, look online for a few designs and pick one. There are a lot of clever woodworkers that have come up with alternative ways to make the bench tops that are easier for beginners.
One way is to have a bunch of 2x4s planed so that the corners are not rounded anymore. Then, all you do is line them up and glue them together. Sand the top level, and you are done.
Another way is to cut the 2x4s open the long way, down the middle. Then, stand them up so that the fresh cut surface points up. Line up a bunch of these next to each other, and glue them down to a backer board. Once you sand the surface, you will have the same look with half the weight.
Another thing that you can do to elevate your bench is to add a vise. The most simple way to accomplish this is to just buy a vise and screw it in place. The next step up in difficulty would be to buy the hardware and make the vise yourself.
If you are buying a vise, a pony style vise is helpful, but you need to try and get a big one. This kind of vise sits on the top of the bench and is screwed or bolted into position.
When you need to use it, you just open the jaws and tighten them on the piece. Again, unless you buy a big vise, these are only good for smaller projects.
The easiest way to get a larger opening is to buy front vise hardware from a woodworking store, and just add the faces and install the unit.
The front vise is a very common woodworking vise, and can be had for an inexpensive price if you look for a sale or buy used. This vise will attach under your bench, and you can hold larger pieces.
Either way you go, adding a vise to your bench is a great way to upgrade it from the basic, and give you a little more help when it comes to holding things in place.
Another thing that making your own bench can do for you is save you money.
Take a look at the new benches that are for sale, not counting the ones that you can find at a discount tool store. The really cheap benches are not worth the money in most cases, though some end up being ok if you get lucky.
Most woodworking benches are several hundred dollars, and some are several thousand. If you have the money, then feel free to invest in a really nice bench if you don’t want to build it.
However, since this is not most of us, making a bench is a really nice way to save money that can be used on more tools or wood.
Finally, making your own bench will teach you several things in the beginning. The first lesson being that it stinks to build things on the floor. Since you do not have a bench yet, you will most likely end up building the bench on the floor of the shop, and you will learn really quickly that it’s an awful way to build.
Bending over all the time hurts your back, and getting up and down all the time is hard even for someone who still has a young body.
On top of learning the value of a bench while building your bench, you will also learn many other lessons along the way. Cutting wood, measuring, planning, taking your time, and more.
These are all important things that a woodworker develops over time. Having a nice project to start learning those skills with right from the beginning is a good thing, and the bench will teach you quite a lot.
If you are not going to buy a bench, simply pick out a design that makes sense for your woodworking skill level and make it. Even a simple 2×4 bench with a plywood top can become a lifelong treasure that you make many projects and memories with.
Restore an Old Bench
Another alternative to buying a new bench is to restore an old bench. There is a huge resurgence of love for all things old at the moment, and rustic or reclaimed pieces are quite valuable.
There are millions of carpenters benches in the world, many from decades or centuries ago just waiting to be worked on again. You can many times pick up one of these benches on a deal, and after you put in a little work, they make a great shop centerpiece.
I was very fortunate to be given a carpenters bench that was first my grandfather’s, and then my father’s. It was an absolute pleasure restoring this bench, and bringing it back to the way it would have looked when it was closer to being new.
It’s also a connection to my family history that would not be there on a new bench.
If you are into history, and reclaimed wood, then you should really take a look around for a used carpenters bench to restore. There are a number of places that you can buy a bench like this, and if you do a little leg work, you can be rewarded with a really nice old bench.
The first way to find older benches is to visit flea markets, rummage sales, antique stores, or second hand stores. Most older pieces like carpenters benches that are discarded end up in a place like this.
When you look for a bench in a store, it gives you the chance to go and see it in a place that is more open than going to a person’s house. This is the way you should shop if you are concerned with meeting someone you find selling their old bench online.
You can save yourself some work by calling ahead and asking if they have what you are looking for. In just about every city there are dozens of second hand stores and places that would sell an item like a bench.
Find them in the phone book or online, and call to inquire about what they have in stock. Places like this turn over their stock regularly and get new stuff all the time, so in the event that you can’t find anything on the first round, don’t worry, it can change in a week.
Another market that the internet has opened for us is the second hand market of individual sellers. Places like Craigslist, OfferUp, and even the Facebook Marketplace all feature items that are for sale by owner.
The nice thing is that anyone in the world can post what they have to sell, and anyone in the world can find them. The bad thing is also that anyone in the world can post things to sell, even people you may not enjoy meeting.
If you are going to look online for someone to buy from, make sure that you follow some safety guidelines when visiting them to look at what they are selling.
There are a number of things that you should do, but a couple basics would be not going alone, meeting somewhere in public when you can, and telling someone else where you are going. All of these things can help if you end up meeting someone that you did not expect to meet.
In all of my adventures selling and buying things online, I’ve never really ran into anyone that I believed was dangerous, but I have ran into people that I was glad to have met in a public place.
I’ve also met some really nice people too, so you never know. That’s why you want to be safe when you meet people online.
The secondary market of individual people selling their items is a great way to find old woodworking benches and even woodworking tools. When you are looking for a bench, scroll through and see what you are getting for the price being asked. Most people are willing to negotiate a bit, and all you have to do is ask.
Look for a nice bench that fits your needs, and that you are willing to pay for. Also, look for something that you can restore. If the bench is in pieces, you may have a tougher time than it’s worth getting it back to working condition.
Some basics to look for are that the structure is in good shape, and that the wood is not rotted. Older wood can be really rough looking, but as long as it has not started to decay, it will typically still be strong enough for another lifetime of use.
Also, look at the vises, and see if they are working or not. Sometimes it can be tough to repair or restore a vise, especially if the wooden screw is missing or broken. These screws can be bought, but they are not cheap. Lastly, look at the overall condition and decide if it can be cleaned and restored.
Any bench that has had oil on the top will need to be leeched and cleaned with a solvent to remove the oils before you can place wood on the surface. There are a number of good de-greasers that you can use, and you can also use acetone.
Remove as much oil from the surface as you can, and then sand it level. After sanding, treat it with acetone again to ensure that all the oil is gone, and you can add the finish of your choice to seal it all.
Another consideration is the base. Some old benches are missing their bases, but the top is still good. In a case like this, you can easily make a base from 2x4s or 4x4s that the top will rest upon. The presence of a base can be a negotiating point for the price as well, because a top siting on the floor doesn’t work very well.
Lastly, restoring a bench is not a weekend project in most cases. If you get lucky and all you need to do is clean up a bench that you found, then it can be a short one, but in most cases getting a deal means putting in a bunch of work to get it looking nice again. If you have the patience though, you can turn something really ugly into a great looking centerpiece for the shop.
Do a little research into workbench restoration if you are thinking about going this route. There are many different ways to bring a bench back to life, and some of them are more involved than others.
On the basic end, you will need to remove any oil from the surface, sand the top flat, sand off any odd coloring or decay, repair the vises, and build a sturdy base. Once you know what steps need to happen in the restoration process, you will know what kind of bench project you are willing to take on.
After you are comfortable with the amount of work that will go into a bench of a certain condition, then begin searching for benches that either match or are in better shape than your minimum.
Often times, you can find something that matches your expectations, but still offers you a little challenge in the way of restoring the piece to its former glory.
Spend some time on the bench when you get it into the shop. This is going to be the rock that you build all of your projects upon. It deserves to be respected and well cared for. In turn, the better you treat this restoration project, the better the bench will turn out, and the better it will serve you in your woodworking adventures.
Part 19 – Wrap Up
I hope you liked Part 19 of A Beginners Guide to Woodworking: Helping New Woodworkers Make Better Projects. As you can see, this is a different kind of beginner woodworking book, and I encourage you to get a copy for yourself so you have it all in one place.
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