Whether the person builds large scale furniture, or small intricate jewellery boxes, they have at least two things in common: a love for making handcrafted items out of wood, and the fact that at least some of the work will be done at a workbench.
Whether it is a classic hardwood workbench fitted out in the traditional way, or a simple plywood top on a couple of sawhorses, there are workbench accessories available that will make the time you spend at the workbench safer, more accurate and more enjoyable. It would be impossible to cover the entire list of accessories, so we will try to cover some general categories that would apply to most woodworkers.
Most workshops are set up in whatever space is available, which usually means a corner of the basement, a shed, or a garage. If you are one of the lucky ones, you may have a separate stand-alone shop dedicated to your woodworking, but most of us will have to make the best of the space we have.
When working at a bench you will need lighting that is appropriate to the tasks you will be performing. There are two types of lighting to consider: area lighting, and task specific lighting. To light up general areas there are several options. Fluorescent fixtures are very popular because they are inexpensive, provide a decent, shadow free light, and are easily installed. Depending on the height of the ceiling in your shop, you have the option of permanently mounting them to the ceiling, or hanging them from chains above your bench, which enables you to move them out of the way if you are handling large pieces.
General area lighting is fine for most tasks, but there will be times when you will find yourself requiring task specific light. Adjustable task lighting is one of the best additions you can make to your bench. An articulating desk lamp is perfect for all of those detail operations where a little extra light is required. Such lighting can be found new for around $10. Most of them come with a plastic adaptor that you clamp to the edge of a desk to hold the lamp. Discard this piece and build a compact heavy base that will support the fixture, and allow you to move it to where it is needed. Another option is to replace the plastic holder with a shop made version that fits into your bench dog holes.
Before you can start working on a piece of wood you’ll need some way of holding it fast to the bench. There are a countless numbers of work holding devices, from face and tail vises made in the traditional manner to new innovative hold-downs made of modern materials. The ever-popular bench vise is available in a variety of styles, sizes and materials. There is likely one to fit almost every budget and need, from the clamp-on vise to the permanently mounted version.
A vise will hold small to medium-sized parts that fit in its jaws, but to hold large panels horizontally for sanding or carving you will need dog holes. Dog holes are rows of holes placed in the right location on the bench top. These holes, used in conjunction with wooden bench dogs and a vise (with a pop-up dog) is the easiest way to secure large parts to your work bench while still allowing the entire surface of the material to be unobstructed. Bench dogs are available from several manufacturers for either round or square holes, but can just as easily be made in the shop from scraps. The fixed bench dog becomes one end of a long clamp, the movable dog on the jaw of the vise the other end.
Thousands of years ago when a hunter needed to sharpen a spear, he found some suitable rocks and wedged the stick into a cleft in the rocks to hold it while he put a point on the business end. The bench hooks and bird’s mouth style methods of holding work are a direct evolution of this. Bench hooks are quick and easy to make and provides a solid support for sawing, sanding and other shaping operations. If you are working with longer parts, two or more identical hooks will easily support long stock.
There are many commercially available hold down solutions out there, with one for almost every application. Have a close look at the methods they employ to hold the work, and you will realize that most of these have several variations that can be shop made, using readily available parts to suit your individual needs and budget.
Measuring and marking are another set of tasks common to bench work. It stands to reason that your joinery will only be as accurate as your measuring and layout tools allow. A carpenter’s pencil and a rusty tape measure are fine for framing work, but would leave something to be desired at the bench. Abasic kit containing a few items is an important part of your bench. To be accurate with a pencil you’ll need to keep it sharp, so invest in a proper sharpener of some sort – knives are great tools, but lousy pencil sharpeners for layout work. Keep a few different grades of pencils handy to use on various types of woods. A good basic pencil is the standard HB that uses a lead that is of average hardness. Pencils harder than this (i.e. H, 2H) are too hard and will easily damage the surface. I keep a softer 2B pencil at the bench as well, because the lead is much softer and leaves a dark line behind without scoring the wood.
For measuring parts smaller than three feet, a quality stainless steel ruler is indispensable. They are far more accurate in use than a tape measure and can be used to draw straight edges as well as shallow arcs. A set of four in various sizes is a great addition to your bench. For larger parts, select a good quality tape measure and use it only for your shop projects. Buy a cheap one for other construction use, or if you are like me, buy a dozen of them, misplace eleven, and hope that you can find the twelfth one when you need it!
For the ultimate in marking accuracy at the bench, choose a marking knife. Several manufacturers make specialty knives for this, and my favourite is the Veritas Striking Knife. Using a knife, you can be far more accurate laying out joinery and cuts that you can ever be with a pencil. The lines left behind by a marking knife can be tricky to see (especially as we get older) so use the 2B pencil to highlight the score line. You’ll end up with two pencil lines, with the score line clearly highlighted between them.
Most of the cutting and trimming done at the bench isn’t of the heavy-duty variety, usually being limited to joinery and fitting operations, so a few basic cutting tools should be part of your workbench essentials. The type of work you do will influence the cutting tools you’ll find most useful at the bench, but a good rip saw and a good crosscut saw are useful. Look for a well-made saw that is comfortable in your hand over time.
When cutting joinery at the bench, a good set of chisels is indispensable. They are equally useful whether you use power or hand tools. You don’t need an expensive set of chisels for your bench – my favourite set for everyday use is an inexpensive set of three. After spending a little time dressing and honing them, they function every bit as well as chisels costing much more.
A utility knife is another indispensable addition to your bench. There are many choices in utility knives, but not all are created equal. The newly redesigned Irwin Pro Touch Blue Blade utility knife is the safest and most comfortable one I have found. Look for one with a retractable and unbreakable blade.
Keep a sharpening stone and a leather strop charged with honing compound handy so that you can quickly (and regularly) dress your edge tools. This reduces the frequency of major sharpening and means you’ll always have a sharp tool at hand.
There are times when you are working at the bench when the only thing that will fix a problem is a good whack with a ‘persuader’. Keep a few striking tools such as hammers and mallets handy at the bench. A basic hammer for driving nails can be found in almost every toolbox, but bench work often requires a few other variations of this common tool.
A dead blow hammer is useful when assembling or disassembling pieces. The head on such a hammer is hollow and filled with lead shot in oil. This material in the head keeps the hammer from bouncing back after it strikes the surface. With a rubber or plastic covered head, they allow you to deliver a solid blow without risking damage to the piece.
Wooden mallets have been used in furniture construction for a long time. These are easily made in the workshop and can be as basic or as fancy as you want to make them. Making a few in different sizes means you will always have one suitable for the job at hand.
How about a block of wood as a workbench accessory? Sure, why not – it can be indispensable. Keep a few handy when using clamps or striking implements to protect the surface of your parts by spreading the force of the impact over a larger area.
For those of you without ready access to running water and cleanup facilities in your shop, the next time you empty the dust collection for your electric sander, save the very fine wood dust or wood flour. Keep it in a sealed container and reach for it if you should spill something on your bench. Sprinkle some of the flour on your spill and it will instantly soak it up; it works equally well on finishes and coffee. Where this really shines though is if you are applying a finish to your project. If your fingers are covered with finish, use the flour (sawdust works equally well) to give yourself a quick dry scrub. Just as on the bench, the wood flour will absorb all of the wet finish from your hands.
It’s a fact of life that every horizontal surface in the shop will fill up with tools. Make it easier to maintain working space on your bench by providing some sort of tool storage space that is convenient and practical enough that it will actually be used. In most cases this takes the form of a recessed tray somewhere on the top, either in the middle or along one side. Keeping your tools in these troughs gives you more working room on the bench and keeps your tools safe from damage that might be caused if they roll off the bench.
No matter where your shop is located, your bench must be comfortable to work at. The two most important factors affecting this is the height of the top, and the floor you are standing on. If you are making your own bench, build it to suit your own work habits and height. Don’t worry about what is a standard height or dimension; build it to suit your specific requirements. I’ve seen the massive shaker benches, as well as diminutive benches the size of footstools, and the one thing they all have in common is that they suit the work habits of the person using them.
Standing at a bench for hours can be very hard on your feet and spine if you don’t have the right floor. A concrete floor is what is most commonly found in workshops and these are as hard on you as they are on any tool that rolls off the bench and falls on it. A wooden floor, even one put together inexpensively using plywood and 1×4 sleepers, is a massive improvement for you and your tools. Another option is commercially available anti-fatigue mats although these can be expensive.
Most bench work, by its very nature, involves primarily hand tools, but making provisions for electrical power and air at your bench is a wise idea. A power bar fastened to the underside of the bench will provide enough power for your portable power tools, without having extension cords all over the place. The same is true for air. Compressed air at the workbench can be very useful when assembling projects with a brad nailer or one of the newer 23-gauge pinners. When sanding, carving or chopping out mortises, having a blowgun at the bench can quickly remove loose debris from your workspace. Always use proper safety equipment when working with air.
Everybody will have a different list of workbench accessories based on personal work habits and interests. Such accessories can be either commercially produced or made in the shop as needed, but they all have one thing in common – they all make the time you spend at your bench more productive and enjoyable.
Carl Duguay - [email protected]
Carl is a Victoria-based furniture maker and the web editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.