Well known UK woodworkers like Paul Sellers and Richard Maguire do a great job of showing how to build a workbench with a minimal set of tools and without an existing bench. I was lucky to have a bench already, but Sellers and Maguire both go through their instructional videos using a couple of sawhorses and some basic tools: a hand saw, a chisel, a combination square, a marking gauge, a mallet and a marking knife.
Sellers gets by with a single bench plane (a #4 smoother) and Maguire uses a couple of longer planes during his build, but argues that a no 4 or 5 could be used quite satisfactorily for the whole job, only noting that – if you have access to a longer plane – you’d be daft not to use it.
I am in the fortunate position of having collected a good selection of decent quality vintage tools and thus had an opportunity to experiment – below are the tools I used when making my English workbench.
I used a wooden jack plane & a wooden jointer on some boards and a Record #5 & #7 on others. Generally I preferred the woodies for the rough prep work and the metal planes when I was trying to be more accurate.
Richard Maguire has a short video on which plane he would use if he had to choose a single plane. His conclusion is that a no 5 used with two irons (one cambered more than the other) would be ideal. Having experimented with cambered vs straight irons it is hard to overstate how much energy/time a cambered iron saves when doing the rough prep stages.
Nice to have
Paul Seller’s shows what can be done with a humble no 4 if you know what you are doing but as a learner I found longer planes really did help when flattening the boards:
#7 metal plane/wooden jointer: If I were doing another bench and had to start my tool collection again I would still get a cheap 22′ wooden jointer even if I only used it for this job – they are still common and can be bought for very little money. Having said that, of all my planes my Record #7 is the one I enjoyed using the most (they really don’t make ’em like that any more!).
A couple of other planes are useful but not essential:
- A block plane (a Veritas low angle block plane as it happened, but much cheaper second hand options are available). I suppose this was something of a luxury plane for the job at hand, but there were a few times where it was convenient to use the plane one-handed (for instance where the part is already installed on the bench and awkward to get to) and the block plane is ideal for this. A no 4 would have done the same at a stretch but would be unwieldy in comparison.
- Record shoulder plane – completely frivolous (good at cleaning up shoulders though!)
Must-have: any old panel or hand saw (R Magurie makes do with a bog standard B&Q hardpoint for his whole bench). I used my Spearior 88 panel saw for most of mine.
Nice to have: I was glad to have a decent rip saw (Disston) when I had to reduce the width of the top boards, but you can easily avoid the need by adjusting your design to use full width boards. I used my 14’’ carcass saw (Drabble and Sanderson) for most to the cross cuts – it has 10 TPI so cuts reasonably quickly and I found the stiff blade and extra weight made it easier to saw straight.
One observation about my saws is that despite the fairly pedestrian design of the Disston and Spearior handles they are very comfortable to use. Compare my carcass saw, which has a nice hand-made handle but was not nearly as nice to use. The reason is that – as is common with old saws – part of the top horn (the bit that fits over the web of your hand betwixt thumb and finger) has broken off at some point in the past. I have fixed the broken horns on couple of other saws and it is surprising how much difference this tiny bit of wood makes when using the saw (I probably should fix this one too!)
Squares and hammers
Everyone seems to agree it is worth splashing out on decent combination square. Mine is a second hand Starrett. Incidentally, when I built my workshop I used a cheapo Bacho square for the whole thing – these can’t be relied upon to be square but can easily be made so by carefully filling the brass fitting that holds the blade in place. However I found that it only took the slightest knock to make it go out of square again – I guess that is why it is worth getting a decent one.
Hammers – everyone should own at least one Plumb hammer (ideally several!) and a Thor mallet. The internet seems to be reaching a consensus that Thor hammers are the bees knees for hitting chisels and bits of wood with (its true – try it!).
Chisels and drills
I mainly used a 1” Marples bevel edge firmer and could have used it for the whole bench, bar one (optional) part when I created a blind mortice for the rear vice jaw which required a 1/2 ” chisel. I did use my Ward & Payne Aristocrat chisels for refining some of the joints, but I had no reason to do other than justifying my posh chisels.
You will find a brace and 3/4” auger bit is perfect for your holdfast holes. A millers falls no 2 drill is cool but entirely optional! Oh, and a nail punch and marking gauge.
The good news for fellow learners is you need hardly any!
You can practice the basic skills needed as you go, just so long as you are prepared to make a few mistakes and accept you will have to work rather slowly.
Although this was not my first woodwork project (I made a saw horse first), I’d still say a workbench is a good starter project because it can be done with relatively cheap materials and the scale you are working at means you can get away with some inaccuracy without the end product falling to bits or looking awful.
Having said that, there is one pre-requisite skill: sharpening – you need to be able to keep your chisels and planes sharp. Although it is relatively easy to learn how to do this, you may find you need a fair amount of practice to get the knack (I certainly did) and this is not something I’d recommend trying to learn on the job. It would be incredibly frustrating to try and do even the basic techniques needed for the bench using blunt tools, so do a bit of practice sharpening first.
There is a lot of bewildering – and sometimes contradictory – advice on sharpening. My advice, for what it is worth, is just to watch what Paul Sellers has to say on it and do that, or if you are feeling flush spend a few pounds on Richard Maguire’s brilliant video series on the same, it is by far the most comprehensive and clear account I have come across. Try and avoid trawling the internet for advice or your head may explode. You have been warned!
Talking of Richard Maguire – the few quid I spent on his workbench and sharpening video are easily the best woodworking investment I have made to date. He and his other half, Helen, clearly put in a huge amount of effort into their videos and it shows – they are beautifully filmed and produced and very easy to follow.
Maguire is a natural teacher and has an entertaining and very watchable style. The videos are carefully thought out and there are a lot of really helpful close ups showing how he goes about each technique and he frequently shows more than one approach to accomplishing a task so you can experiment too. Highly recommended (I have no affiliation with their business, btw!)
that’s it from me on the topic of workbenches. Good luck to those of you about to embark on your own benches, I am sure you will enjoy it and learn a lot.