I am often asked why I tend to build small work benches. The questions often go something like “Don’t you find that limiting?” and “Aren’t most benches longer?” or “How do you deal with long stock?” There are plenty of answers to these questions. Sometimes stock limitations, space, use, etc. are the answer, but what it really all boils down to is that the size is a design feature.
I build several benches a year. I have to consider the space for the bench, the stock on hand, the style of vise I am planning on installing, and also the type of work it will be intended for. The type of work I do is generally a smaller scale, and most of the time I am dealing with lumber that is broken down to 6′ or shorter by the time it is on the bench.
The space I have for a bench is limited, and I have found that if I only took space into consideration, I would end up with a bench that measured about 36″ long, 16″ wide. While this would be perfect for someone who only builds small boxes and a few smaller cabinets, it is a bit limiting for medium sized work, such as larger hope chests and cabinets.
So, keeping a basic bench style in mind, what I do is take the longest piece of casework I have built on the bench over the past year, subtract 2-4″, and then check my space. If it will work in the space I have, I proceed to the next step.
The next step is looking at the lumber I have set aside to build the bench. If the stock I have will easily fit the size I have come up with, I move on. If not, I mentally modify the bench to the length that the stock will allow, then try to find a way to bring the bench to as close to the planned dimensions as possible. If it is still just not working out to a length that I can deal with, I either find different lumber, or sigh heavily, build a shorter bench, and use auxiliary clamp on surfaces and supports to make up for the lack.
The one time I bought different lumber for the bench I was building, I planed it all down, discovered major defects that couldn’t be worked into the design, and ended up with a bench 1″ shorter than the stock I had originally wanted to use. As such, I tend to just work with what I have.
Now, the vises have to be considered. They have to work with the bench style, leg placement, bench width, and top thickness, as well as be placed with thought to the type of work to be done on the bench. Once I have that worked out, I start building.
The one consideration that I have that most people don’t is that I occasionally do woodworking shows, so I need my benches to be portable enough that they will fit in a truck, but heavy and large enough that they do not move while being used.
A quick breakdown of the process I use:
1. Come up with ideal size for work
2. Measure space for bench
3. Measure bench stock
4. Place vises
5. Build bench
The process may or may not work for everyone, but it is one that works for me.