Introduction: English-style Joinery Workbench
For this workbench I used the following tools.
Cross cut hand saw, chisels, No. 5 "Jack" hand plane, bit and brace with various drill bits, tape measure, straight edge, carpenters combination square, hammer, screw driver, old hinge, hacksaw, wood glue, fasteners like wood screws, several carriage bolts with washers and nuts, large finish nails, nail punch or nail set, metal file, assorted clamps, assorted sand paper, 8 - 2x6" boards, 6 - 2x4" boards, 6 1/2x3" boards, large scrap of plywood, boiled linseed oil, wood stain or paint, brush, brush cleaner, clean up rags, dry space to work over a period of days.
I used rough construction-grade lumber, most of it was salvaged. Some pieces only had one good side. Undesirable surfaces were always placed so they faced down or inside the bench.
Step 1: Background
There are many styles of workbenches. This is a particular kind of woodworking bench. It is an English-style joinery bench that uses only metal holdfasts to secure stock to the bench.These are "J" shaped pieces of metal with a flat flange on one end. The holdfast is dropped into a hole on the bench, a tap with a hammer wedges the holdfast into the hole, holding a piece of stock under the flange. This method of holding wood to a bench goes back centuries.
The English-style joinery bench is relatively quick, cheap, and easy to build - even as a first project. It uses commonly available materials, requiring only the most basic tools and skills. All the joinery is based on simple 90* cuts. Since I am an amateur/hobby wood worker, that is why I chose this approach.
In my view, a workbench should not be thought of as a piece of finished furniture, nor should a beginning workbench be seen as a show piece of a worker's ultimate skill. First and foremost, a bench is a tool. As a tool it is best to understand that its form follows its function, which is to hold pieces of wood while the wood worker shapes the stock. At its heart, the bench's job is to hold pieces securely and at convenient height. With this in mind, a finished workbench should not twist, rack, shift, or move when the worker is applying energy from a tool to a piece of wood. It should also have a thick top that can receive blows from a hammer or mallet without deflecting the energy as bounce-back.
Another similar English bench is called a Nicholson bench. A Nicholson bench might look like this bench, but slightly more difficult joinery is used in constructing the Nicholson. Also, in general Nicholson benches usually have a built in vise or two, which have always been expensive additions.
My workbench suits my purposes. In this Instructable I will not give very many measurements. The reason is I built this "by hand and by eye", not from plans. I recommend this approach. I did measure pieces when I had to duplicate or reproduce the dimensions of stock I had cut. None the less, I often cut one piece to fit the next, keeping stock square and true as I went along.
This is a workbench built "to fit." What I mean by this is that there is no standard height for a bench. Each bench is build to fit the wood worker and to fit the kind of work a worker intends to do in a wood working project. Small projects can be build on a small bench. Working long lengths of wood and building doors, etc. require a bench large enough to handle the project. At times a bench also has to fit a space within the limits of a shop area.
There were two measurements which for me were given and fixed. I wanted the final height to be at the knuckles of my hand with my arm hanging down at my side. This height allows me to get my upper body weight and strength positioned over the work when using hand tools. The length had to fit a space in my shop, which was about 5-51/2 feet in length. As for width, this was less critical, but I wanted to be able to comfortably reach across the width of my bench without an over extended stretch. With these basics in mind, I started.
With a thoughtful approach, you can build one that suits what you need.
Step 2: How Do You Build a Workbench Without a Workbench?
Previously, I built a saw bench, which is a saw horse on steroids. Instead of a narrow board for a top, it has a fairly wide flat top which can be used for clamping. This was my work station for cutting and drilling stock as I started building my large workbench. Some may think that power tools are required for building a large workbench like this Instructable project. Think for moment... Workbenches have been around since the Romans. How did they build them? With hand tools, of course.
My cutting and drilling tools are laid out on the saw bench in the picture above. Auger bits are designed for a hand brace. These worked so well for the larger diameter holes. But modern twist bits also fit the particular brace I use. Although they are designed for high speed drilling with a powered tool, they do work in a hand-powered brace. Each time, I would bore a hole with a twist bit in my brace before setting the screws in this project. I even used a countersink bit in the brace to create a perfect seat for screw top bevels.
Not only is it possible, it is quick and relatively easy to drive long screws by hand. I used a Yankee screwdriver. This has a spiral ratchet shaft which drives in screws with a downward pushing action on the handle.
Yes, a workbench can be built with hand tools.
Step 3: Start From the Ground Up--Legs First
I cut a 2x6 to the total length I wanted for my bench, fitting the space I knew it would occupy. This was the "apron." The best board was for the front apron. Repeat this with the next best board for the back apron.
Each of these was 6" wide. A 2X4 would rest on top of this apron forming the bench top. The narrow side of a 2x4 is actually not 2 " but 1 1/2". 6" + 1 1/2" = 7 1/2" I subtracted 7 1/2 from the distance from my knuckles to the floor. This became the distance I needed beneath the apron to the floor for the bench top to end up at the desired finished height.
Keep in mind, each of my bench legs are made of two pieces. The front piece of the leg rests flush under the apron. A back piece goes from the floor, to the top of the apron. Glue and screw these two pieces together for each leg. Squaring and clamping for accuracy. Repeat four times for four legs.
The ends of the two aprons are miter cut with the hand saw. The 2 legs are clamped under each apron. Drill holes through the apron and the top of the legs. Fasted with carriage bolts, washers and nuts. Do not glue this apron/leg joint, so the legs can be removed as needed.
Determine desired width of workbench. Cut 2 1/2x3" board to this length, attach to a front and matching rear leg assembly under the aprons, placement is toward the inside of the bench. Repeat for left and right pairs of legs. Now determine the inside dimension from inside of the front apron across to inside of the rear apron. Cut 2 1/2x3" board to this length. Attach one of these to the outside left of the left pair of legs, flush to the top of the apron. Attach the other one to the outside right pair of legs, flush to the top of the apron.
In the photo above right, you will see the finished leg assemblies and the finished frame top. In the picture the carriage bolt fasteners have been removed and the assemblies have been taken apart. I did this several times during my construction.
Step 4: Build the Frame
The leg/apron assembly needs to be fastened together as a frame.
Cut a 2x4 for each apron. The length of the 2x4 is the distance between two legs, parallel with the apron. This is on the inside of the bench. The 2x4 is positioned so a 2x6 resting on top of the 2x4 registers flush with the top of the apron. When this position is found, mark it. Then glue, clamp, screw this 2x4 in place. Repeat for both aprons.
Cut 2x6 boards to length so they fit between the aprons, resting on the 2x4 support, flush with the top of the aprons. Depending on the length of your workbench, plan on a 2x6 approximately every 6 inches.
Glue and screw these 2x6 supports to the 2x4 underneath.
Cut a pair of 2x4 to length to serve as braces at the bottom of each pair of legs. Use the saw and chisel to cut a notch in each leg to receive the 2x4. Glue and screw in place.
Step 5: Attaching the Bench Top
My bench top consists of both 2x6 and 2x4 boards. Depending on the width you choose, yours might be different. I determined one board will be a movable fence built into the bench top. To serve this purpose, this 2x4 is positioned on its narrow side. See the photo. When the boards are selected to fit the bench frame, attach them with large finish nails to the 2x6 supports in the frame below. Counter sink the nail heads at least 1/4 inch. Screws leave a much larger hole than nails and are harder to sink below the surface of the top. Also the metal in screws is more brittle than nails, they can snap while nails will flex with the pounding a bench top will receive. This is why I used nails instead of screws. In the future individual boards in the top can be replaced as needed. Do not glue.
The 2x4 near the back of the bench, standing on its side will be a bench-top fence. Transfer lines for the location of the supports under the bench top to the 2x4. Using the location and dimension of these supports layout a series of steps on the 2x4. Measure so on one step the fence will sit flush with the top. On other steps it will sit proud of the top, serving as a stop to work stock against. Cut these steps out with a cross cut saw and remove waste with a hammer and chisel.
As an option, chisel slots into the top of the fence to hold tools like saws, chisels, or gauges.
I used my Jack plane to level the surface to desired flatness.
Cut the plywood to rest on the bottom leg 2x4 braces and fit between the legs. Cut 2 1/2x3" boards to fit the front edge of the plywood. Glue and screw the assembly together. This will become the slide for the sliding deadman to rest upon.
Step 6: Add a Crochet and a Deadman
A crochet is a bench attachment that holds stock so the edge can be worked with a plane. Glue two pieces of 2x6 together. Drill holes into the side of the block. With saw, plane, chisel, and sandpaper shape the block of wood into a curved shape. Match and mark the holes to the side of the front apron at the left end. Drill these holes, then attach with carriage bolts, washers and nuts.
Some joinery workbenches have aprons that are up to 24" wide. This allows for a wide variety of holes to be drilled into the front apron yielding maximum holding positions for the holdfast system. Since my bench apron is only 6" wide, I added a sliding deadman to add work-holding flexibility. A deadman is a piece of vertical wood that slides left and right under the apron with several holes bored up and down the face of the deadman. Its purpose it to receive a simple peg so stock can rest on it. It slides so the worker can position it exactly where this holding position is needed.
To make a deadman, select a piece of 2x6 that will fit between the apron and the edge in place on the front of the plywood shelf. Shape the sides as you desire. Add a 2x4 cut to 2x3 on the back. This 2x3 should be longer at the top and flush at the bottom. The top edge will fit behind the apron. Glue and clamp this assembly together. When dry, use the bit and brace to bore holes through the assembly. These holes will hold movable dowel pegs. A scrap is glued to the front face of the deadman as a toe-kick. With the tap of a toe the dead man will slide to the left or the right.
A piece of stock can be quickly and easily wedged into the crochet, and held in place with a peg placed at the right height on the apron or the sliding deadman.
Step 7: Add a Bench Stop
Find an old hinge. Cut off half of the hinge with a hack saw. Drill holes in the hinge to receive screws and file teeth into the flat edge of the hinge. This will become a bench stop designed to hold the end of stock pressed into its teeth. Glue two pieces of 8" 2x4 together, clamp. When dry, trace the short end of this block against the bench top near the left front end. Chop this out with chisels. The block should fit snugly. Attach the hinge, now the block can be raised and lowered with a tap of a hammer from below or above.
A dedicated bench stop is such a simple devise that quickly holds stock for planing without the need for clamps. Clamps often get in the way of planing for example, a stop never does.
Step 8: Add a Finish
Adding a finish is optional. While a bench is not a piece of furniture, rubbing several coasts of boiled linseed oil into the top of the bench and even staining or painting parts of the bench increases the appeal of working on the workbench and adds a degree of protection. In the pictures, you can see my choice. I added braces to the back of the bench and painted the lower shelf before I filled the space with a stock of wood for future projects.
Holes drilled into the bench top and front apron are for receiving metal holdfasts. This is the main way stock is held on my English-style joinery bench. I purchased mine from Gramercy.
Two holes drilled into the front apron can be used to create a holdfast vise. To make one, a "T" shaped piece of plywood is cut to fit between two holdfasts, while the "wings" rest on the holdfast shafts. A slight tap of the hammer tightens this into a serviceable vise. Another tap on the side loosens the grip. Simple and easy.
This bench cost me out of pocket only approx $35.00 dollars (USA) to build. The wood was salvaged. My tools, paint and stain were all on hand. My expense was in purchasing carriage bolts, nuts, washers, large finish nails, glue and screws. In addition I purchased two holdfasts from Gramercy for $40.00. They work perfectly in 3/4" holes.
I now have a very stable, functional workbench that cost me very little. But it increases my ability to build larger wood projects using hand tools. Building the project has increased my knowledge, skill and confidence in woodworking. With this workbench I can prepare stock by crosscut or rip sawing. I have a stable platform for planing the ends, edges and surfaces of boards. I can cut mortise and tenon joints, dovetails, dados, and rebates. I hope this inspires you to build a workbench of your own.
First Prize in the
Hand Tools Only Challenge
Question 1 year ago on Step 8
Beautiful work! Did the boards butt up against each other - or did you leave a small gap? I'd like to use 12/4 ash on the top - so perhaps a 12d finishing nail - or something longer? Many thanks for this article!
Answer 1 year ago
The boards were laid in tight. Over time they have shrunk in dry humidity, creating a gap. Nail head need to be counter sunk below the surface so they don't nick tool blades. Still so very pleased with this design. Good luck, show pictures, please.
2 years ago
Great Instructable! Congrats with being a finalist in the Hand tools only challenge!
2 years ago
Nice solid bench and the price is perfect.
2 years ago
Excellent workbench from easily attainable materials and crafted with easily acquired tools. Well done. I think I might have attached the top boards to the cross pieces with wood screws from the bottom, but that's just me. Your way is much faster and definitely easier! Kudos!
Reply 2 years ago
Your suggestion is another way. I chose to nail from the top down, because when screwing from the bottom up it is hard to know how close the screw tip is to the surface. When leveling the bench top with a plane hitting an unexpected screw tip will damage the plane iron. I felt I had more control sinking the nail heads to a safe, consistent depth using a nail set. The nail set hole allows me to actually see where the nail heads are and how far below the surface they are. If one comes close to the surface, I can send it home again quickly and easily. Also, nails flex and move more than the brittle metal of most screws, especially drywall screws. Since the bench top receives repeated stress from seasonal moisture changes as well as from mallet blows, for example, there is a chance that screws could snap. Not all of them of course, but one snapped screw could become quite a problem when time came to replace the bench top. This is my reasoning for using finish nails. The joinery bench I built is not to show off the best examples of my joinery skills. This bench was a quick, easy and I think practical way to start working wood projects on a dedicated bench. Thanks for your views.
2 years ago
I've never seen a pull up fence before. Great simple idea and executed well.
Reply 2 years ago
It is a common feature on old English joinery benches
2 years ago
FFF ("Form follows function")
I, too, was much impressed by the detail of the disappearing fence and the craftsmanship evident.
Definetly a 'winner.'
Question 2 years ago
I couldn't figure out what the unfinished thing was between the top and bottom shelf. It has a few holes in it, the deadman?
Also, the crochet was weird; never saw that before.
Nice bench and nice instructions, well, except for that thing I couldn't figure out.
Answer 2 years ago
Hi Frank, My goal was to have a vise-less bench. If you install a vise, probably don't need a crochet. "Crochet" is derived from French/German origins (spelled differently). It means the crook or crotch in a tree. These were sometimes used on workbenches to hold stock. For a crochet to hold the end of a board, the bottom need to also be held up. The piece with holes between the top and bottom shelf is the deadman. A crochet and a deadman often are seen together so the stock is held and stable. They work well, they are simple and it is very quick to set up.
All the best...
Reply 2 years ago
That's great! I love seeing new ways to solve problems. In this case old ways to solve problems that craftsmen face every day. Very cool.
I didn't see how that deadman slides back and forth.
Reply 2 years ago
I just looked again. Did you add more pictures and text?
It makes a lot more sense now. Very nice.
It looks like a very useful bench.
Reply 2 years ago
The deadman isn't fastened to anything. There is a board behind the face of the deadman that is taller than the face, this fits behind the apron. The bottom of the deadman sits on the reinforced edge of the plywood shelf. The toe kick added to the front keeps the deadman from falling backwards. With the weight of stock resting on a peg in the deadman everything stays in place securely. When nothing rests on the dead man, it can be freely moved left and right under the front apron or even removed. Simple, but it works. My deadman is a rather basic design, biut it holds when and where it needs to. The internet has examples of much more refined ones, too.
Reply 2 years ago
And I LOVE the pull up fence!
The whole thing is ingenious. Thanks😁👍
2 years ago
What a beauty, well thought out and marvellously executed.
2 years ago
I like it. After reading through the project and observing the accompanying pictures I learned and saw a few steps which I will implement into my next workbench build. Thank you.
Reply 2 years ago
Thanks for your kind words and encouragement. Lets see your workbench!