When I began planning
this bench my garage was to be my workshop. While longer than the 8
foot by 10 foot shed which I’d used up until then, the internal
width of the garage was only 8 feet with a door width of 7 feet.
Garages in England were often designed to house a small Austin Seven
and not a modern car.
Until a back injury
stopped me I used to drive the car into the garage, then back it out
straight leaving the steering wheel alone, so I could then push it in
again and close the up and over garage door. When I wanted to get
into the car I’d open the garage door and pull the car out by hand
before I could open the door.
To solve the problem
after the back injury I cut a hole in the side of the garage, fitted
a rolled steel joist lintel to hold up the roof and installed a
sliding door. The garage then became far more useful than just a
place to park a car.
Setting up the garage
for woodworking presented problems. Having read all I could find
about building workbenches and having experienced the benefits and
disadvantages of basic Workmates for years, I wanted a workbench
where I could use both a shoulder vice and a tail vice with the
advantages of clearance down to the floor unencumbered by metal vice
guides or screws.
I also wanted to be
able to get all around the bench, so one mounted against a wall would
After 18 months’
design work in my spare time I came up with a bench which would do
all that I wanted but would have a profile which would make it
acceptable in the limited space available.
This is how I developed
and built the "Walkaround" bench.
In my father's
workshop, where he and my cousin repaired car radiators, the
workbench was a plywood top on an angle iron base which, as a small
boy, I reached by standing on a box. In high school woodworking
class we used two sided flat topped benches with a shallow tool tray
in between and cupboards beneath, a cast iron vice at the left end
and a single planing stop.
At home I used my
father's World War II surplus folding telegraph table as an
occasional bench. The support struts of the telegraph table had a
tendency to drop out of their sockets - as the folding legs then
folded up, the tools and work would slide down to meet the concrete
A couple of basic Black
and Decker Workmates, weighted with concrete slabs to limit wobble,
were much more useful.
An 8' by 10' work shed
gave me the opportunity to build a permanent workbench. This was a
slab of chipboard supported by 2 by 4s on edge between two mahogany
chests of drawers (formerly used by a bank to store customers'
cheques) with a metalworking vice at the left and a woodworking one
at the right. While solid, this was inflexible and severely limited
the length and width of timber stock which could be worked - however
it made a good side bench to hold tools, fastenings and so on.
I learned from these
different benches that my ideal workbench would allow me to walk
around it so I could get at work from all sides.
The job of the
workbench is to be a clamp for holding wood while you work on it.
The best choice for this seemed to me from research to be the Tage
Frid ("Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking Book 3: Furnituremaking")
or Frank Klaus ("The Workbench Book" by Scott Landis) style
of European cabinetmaker's workbench, but the way the shoulder vice
stuck out at the left hand end of one side of the bench would be a
problem given the dimensions of the garage. Reading Andy Ray’s
book "Choosing and Using Hand Tools" I’d paid attention
to his comment on the difficulties of running into the shoulder vice.
Eventually with the
help of drawings and a model, I worked out a layout which would work
in my tiny garage. Here is the resulting bench in its original
habitat seen through the sliding side door:
Please note - this is a
"walkaround" bench as the title suggests - it will not work
properly if moved up against a wall.
Christopher Schwarz in his excellent new book "Workbenches from
design and theory to construction and use" says that the old
style workbenches whose designs have stood the test of time are the
ones to follow for the very reason that they do the job.
Mr Schwarz is right -
there is nothing unusual about the underlying structure of the bench
I've built, legs with two rails at each end are joined by long rails
with stub tenons using threaded rod. The top is made up of sections
which could be any timber you choose. Originally one part was a spare
piece of joist left by the builders in the loft of a 1930s English
house and another was an offcut of black cherry from a timber
merchant's stock kept for enthusiastic amateur woodworkers. The
removable middle to assist in clamping was a structural 2 by 4 as is
the dog hole strip. The tail vice uses commercially available steel
hardware. The difference is the placing of the shoulder vice in line
with the length of the bench instead of at a right angle to it.
That's the thing which gets the bench into a small space.
Building the bench
bench has proved useful to me through two subsequent house moves.
Rebuilding it again in a one car garage in Seattle, although I have a
lot more room, I decided to put it together exactly as I had before,
including the errors.
To build a bench . . .
you need a bench. This sounds daft, but becomes apparent in the
building process. Even if you are building your first woodworking
bench you need at least one level surface to clamp parts to and hold
tools. Rebuilding this bench reminded me of this. When I first
built it I was using a couple of basic model Workmates which I'd used
for years. I still have these and used them to do this rebuild. A
big reason why I decided to design the bench this way was to use
elements I'd found useful in the Workmate. If you don't have
Workmates, a door clamped to a couple of sawhorses will help. If you
want a side bench to hold tools, for sharpening and so on, put this
together first so you can use it to help build your woodworking
bench. With a side bench make it the same height as your woodworking
bench in case you want to make something big which bridges the two
benches. A narrow side bench with a tool board above it and storage
underneath is a very useful thing to have. I was lucky in Seattle
because the landlord left a useful bench in the basement which acts
as a good side bench.
Before you even think
of choosing the wood for the bench get the hardware for the shoulder
and tail vices, the round dogs and the holdfast which takes the place
of a permanent left hand front vice whenever you need to clamp
something to the face of the bench. There can be differences between
a catalogue description and the product when it arrives in the post
and it is simpler to start from having the real thing in front of you
as a starting point.
With the end frames, 2
by 4s in England (1 3/4" by 3 11/16" planed) are available
in relatively clear stuff (Yellow Deal, also known as Norwegian
Pine), so I used pairs of these glued together to make the legs and
end rails. If I was building a new frame here in Seattle I'd
probably use Douglas Fir to do the same job because the main part of
the top is an old Douglas Fir joist.
The top rails use
haunched, wedged through tenons and the bottom rails use wedged
through tenons. Using plain-sawn wood (sawn through and through)
towards the centre of the log with heartwood on the outside produces
wood with a tendency to cup. Putting the inside of the wood on the
outside of the glued up piece, any tendency of the two halves of the
rails or legs to cup merely adds to the mechanical locking action of
the wedged through tenon joints.
When I built this bench
originally I was in a hurry and ignored a basic rule - when you've
glued the 2 by 4s together to make the legs and end rails, plane the
legs and end rails to flatten out the joins before you glue
the end frames together. Don't do what I did. Trying to plane out
those overlaps afterwards without hitting the cross-members is
Another rule I bypassed
was to build the top first. As a result you can see in the
photographs and the Google Sketch-up model:
that the hardwood top
overlaps the end frames a little instead of being in line with them.
I'm used to this but it might drive you nuts, so I recommend you put
the top together first on sawhorses and take the measurements for the
base from that.
The rails joining the
two end frames have stub tenons to locate in mortices and are bolted
to the end frames using threaded rod with nuts and washers. A
slatted carrier dropped on the top of the rails at the other end from
the vices supports boxes to hold items under the bench and adds
weight to the structure. I habitually hang clamps along the rest of
You can build this
bench out of any wood you choose. I used wood which was lying around
to make the top of the bench because it was strong, would take a
pounding and wouldn't worry me too much if I put a ding in it. The
main part which carries the tail and shoulder vices is an offcut of
joist left by the builders in the loft of my family's 1930's home.
The timber was tough and dry. This acts as the top strut or backbone
of the bench, holding it together, and is held on by four lag screws.
You could make up this part of the top for your bench from four
clear Douglas Fir 2 by 4s glued together, but shorten the legs
accordingly to get the height to match the one you want.
Before I set the height
of the bench I experimented using an old door clamped at different
heights using scrap wood spacers and sawhorses. Do the same to find
out which height suits you best. This will probably be a compromise,
but I was surprised that the best height for me, using mostly hand
tools, was 37 inches. I am 6' 2" tall and from many sources I'd
thought a lower bench would be better, however I found planing or
paring with chisels at this height takes the back ache out of the
work for me. During the rebuild however I used an old wooden try
plane to tackle flattening the top and had to stand on a pallet to
get my weight over it, so bear this in mind if you use wooden planes
a lot. Everyone is different and you may find that testing the sort
of work you do gives you a completely different ratio of bench to
The length of the bench
will depend on the room you have available. I suggest you make the
bench as long as you can and still be able to walk around it
comfortably (taking into account the extent of the vice screws when
fully extended). I thought about making my bench longer when
reassembling it in an American garage, but the luxury of the extra
space makes getting around the bench so much easier that I decided to
leave it the same length as in England.
The depth of the bench
depends on the top you want to make. A narrow bench is easier to
reach across than a wide one, and the removable centre works best
with clamps if the two sides are not very wide, but the point of this
bench is that you can walk around it, so you may want to make a
deeper one depending on space.
The length of the long
rails connecting the end frames of the bench depends on how much
overhang is required for the tail vice to operate and how much
overhang you want at the far end from the tail vice. The distance
required for the shoulder vice is not so critical as the tail vice in
relation to where the vice face meets the bench, so start with the
Using ready-made tail
vice gear is a key part to how this bench works, so take your time
getting this right, but also don't make the job harder than it has to
be. The tail vice back plate will be fitted to the side of the main
joist of the bench top plus a screwed on support so that the top and
bottom plates can slide along it driven by the screw. Two things in
the design of the vice hinder this - the vice screw nut which is held
through the back plate by another nut which sticks out and the
sliding plates which are grooved to run at the top and bottom of the
You can rout a slot
along the main joist for the edge of the sliding plate to run in and
you can also cut a recess for the vice nut to sit in, however this
would require very accurate placing of the slot and, as you may not
have a stout workbench to support the joist while you work on it,
this can be tricky.
Instead I recommend
making a spacer out of plywood to space the backplate and sliding
plates away from the main joist and provide the recess for the vice
nut. If you make the ply deep by gluing up thin pieces then you
won't need to make a recess for the nut in the main joist, so do this
To mark up the spacer
shape separate the backplate from the vice slides, removing the screw
nut as well, and draw around it with a sharp pencil on the plywood,
marking the screw holes and the vice nut hole at the same time. The
edges of the top and bottom plates are grooved to slide along the top
and bottom edges of the backplate. To allow this to happen smoothly
mark the plate thicknesses along the top and bottom edges of the
spacer before you cut it out, then cut to those lines rather than the
full width of the backplate. Drill the screw holes in the plywood
which line up with the back plate, then drill a hole large enough
with some play for the vice nut to sit in and your spacer is
Reassemble the vice,
place the spacer behind it and screw the backplate to a piece of
scrap wood with a couple of the screw holes only, to check that the
vice runs freely before you continue. Leave it attached to the scrap
wood for further testing as you make and assemble the parts of the
vice. This will give you the right height to fit the backplate and
the right distance for the vice jaws. Lining up the completed vice
with wooden parts fitted to the benchtop is easier than trying to fit
The next step is to
make a wooden core - a long box with one side missing. This has two
functions. One is to act as a spacer to keep the two metal plates
far enough apart that they do not to bind on the backplate, but not
so far as to create play or make the vice sloppy in use. The second
is to support the outer wooden parts of the vice.
This level of accuracy
needed for the core would be tricky to carve from a single piece of
wood without having a good workbench to support the work - and of
course you are probably building the bench because you don't have
one. The top and bottom of the core have to be strong and flat to do
their work, so I used glued up plywood for the top, MDF for the
bottom and 1/8th inch ply for the side. Offcuts of wood are cut to
fit between these at each end, both of which are drilled for the
bolts of the top and bottom plates and one of which is drilled for
the vice screw to run through.
To get the height of
the core right, assemble the top and bottom vice slides onto the
backplate, letting them overlap at one end, and tighten the bolts
until they won't slide. The gap between the slides now gives you the
size of the core. Adding washers later between the bottom slide and
the core as shims when assembling it will allow the slides to run
freely in use.
Now you can choose the
wood for the five parts of the rest of the vice. I used a spare
piece of hardwood for the top and vice jaw and the same 2 by 4
material as used for the legs for the other pieces. For the sake of
elegance I connected the front, back and sides of the vice with
dovetails, but they could equally be butt jointed and dowelled into
position if you prefer. The vice jaw is connected by screws to the
hardwood top and the left hand end of the dovetailed section. Screws
through the top of the core and holes in the top plate hold the
hardwood top in position. At the right hand, handle end, two screws
go through the flange of the vice screw bearing, the dovetailed
section and into the vice core.
To screw the screws
through the top of the core it is handy to drill access holes in the
same place on the bottom of the core, large enough for your chosen
screwdriver to go through to turn those screws. Take the top plate
and use it as a template for the bottom to get those access holes in
the right place.
When assembling the
vice to the backplate the trick is to get the core over the nut and
the top rail over the backplate before adding the bottom plate. By
slackening the top screws through the core into the hardwood top
enough to allow the top plate to rise over the backplate edge this
can be done, then those same screws can be tightened through the
Three 3/4" holes
are drilled through the top and front for round Veritas metal bench
dogs. You can modify the design to use any kind of dog you like.
When you are happy with
the action of the completed tail vice on its scrap wood support, draw
lines showing the top of the vice and the top of the backplate in
relation to it and the left end of the backplate in relation to the
vice jaw travel to gauge the position of the backplate on the main
joist of the bench. Make sure you don't take the vice to the far
left of its travel at exactly the point where it would meet the other
jaw - to do this take it all the way to the end, then subtract half
an inch. In this way you will have a vice which will hold a thin
piece of work tightly. Dismantle the vice and move to the main joist
of the bench which should be supported on a couple of saw horses for
the next steps.
Add a piece of wood to
the bottom of the main joist with lag screws to take the base of the
backplate. This piece needs to extend beyond the end of the main
joist because it will be used to support one end of the shoulder vice
arm. Mark up the position of the backplate, then drill two of the
holes and attach it to make sure the reassembled vice lines up. Once
you are happy drill the rest of the holes and complete the
Now you know how far
apart your bench legs will need to be because the tail vice jaw meets
its counterpart at the top of one of the rails. Rotate the main
joist on the saw horses so that the bottom is uppermost, then using
the top rails of the leg frames and a square mark their width
underneath where you want them to be. It is more accurate to use the
measurement between these pencil marks to work out the length of your
long rails (adding the two stub tenon lengths) than by using a
measuring tape. You can also mark the top rails and the underside of
the main joist for drilling the lag bolt holes which will hold the
main joist in place, two in each rail. Keep the lag bolt holes in
the rail towards the tail vice edge round, but slightly elongate the
ones towards the centre of the bench with a round file to allow for
The rails will be held
to the legs using lengths of threaded rod, nuts and washers.
The long rails have
stub tenons running halfway through mortices in the legs. Mark up
the centre of the mortices on the other side of the legs to find the
centre then drill through. Find the centres of the tenon ends and
drill through the ends using a long auger bit and through the rail
sides using a Forstner bit for nuts on one end of threaded rods, the
other ends of which go through the mortices and are held with nuts
and washers on the outside of the legs.
The round Forstner bit
holes in the rails for the nuts are squared off with a chisel at the
tenon end to make a D shape. This makes it easier to hold the nuts
on the inside of the rail with a wedged screwdriver while you tighten
the outside nuts with a spanner (wrench). In the Sketch-up model you
will see that I cut square holes all the way through the rails as
With the rails in place
and bolted up you have a platform which can take over from the
sawhorses for building the rest of the bench top.
When you put the main
joist on top and test screw through the rails to hold it on (or
probably before) you'll see that the tail vice is pointed at nothing
other than the top half of the rail-leg joint. This section is going
to be filled in with the dog hole strip and the other tail vice jaw.
The dog hole strip on
this bench is made of a replaceable 2 by 4 with a spacer of wood to
make up the width to the edge of the legs and the vice jaw. This has
two advantages over continuing the main joist to the edge of the
bench. The first is that the edge, which takes a lot of punishment
on a bench, can be replaced easily and cheaply. The second is that
clamping to the edge is easier with thinner stock. The downside is
that it would be unwise to sit on the edge of the bench, but that is
not much of a limitation. In longitudinal strength this set-up has
been used to pull apart old chairs for restoration as well as clamp
boards for planing and so on.
Using the jaw of the
tail vice to line up the hardwood opposing jaw at the top of the leg
gives the width of the replaceable dog hole strip. To keep the dog
holes a consistent 6 inches apart I first drilled two holes through a
piece of scrap wood with a 3/4 inch Forstner bit which were the right
distance apart and from the edge of the wood. Then I drilled the
first of the holes in the strip using the template. A bench dog held
the first hole in position while I drilled through the template to
make the next. Then I switched the dog position to do the next and
so on. Use either a drill guide or a drill press to do the drilling
Two long screws through
countersunk holes at each end of the dog hole strip and one in the
middle attaching the strip to the main joist hold it firmly.
Do not throw away the
template - this is very useful for making jigs of all kinds with
bases which locate on the round Veritas dogs.
To complete this side
of the bench add a piece of hardboard to each hardwood jaw of the
tail vice with the fuzzy side inwards using double-sided tape at each
corner - the hardboard will protect your work.
The shoulder vice
begins with an arm made of 2 by 4 stuff at right angles to the main
joist. It is held in place with threaded rod, nuts and washers. The
tail vice support is cut back to provide an end support for the
shoulder arm. The end of the main joist is drawn on the arm to
establish the correct width, then the arm is subdivided to determine
the placing of the holes. These are then drilled through to the
outside of the arm with a small drill then, with the arm lined up,
the hole positions are transferred to the main joist end. The arm
holes are enlarged to the diameter of the screwed rod and so are the
ones in the main joist with a long auger bit. Holes are made from
the underside of the main joist with a Forstner bit to allow for the
nuts in the same way as in the long rails.
The nut for the
shoulder vice screw is lined up on the inside face of the shoulder
vice arm and a hole is drilled for the boss of the nut using a hole
saw in an electric drill, allowing the flange to seat on the outside
of the arm.
Line up the screw
parallel to the top and side of the main joist with a square. Use
washers under the corners of the screw nut flange to make any
You'll see it is a long
way from the end of the shoulder vice screw turned all the way in to
the top rail of the leg frame. This distance will made up by the
secondary top at that end and also by a box and two vice jaws.
"How do I use the
two screws for the shoulder and tail vice without their handles
colliding?", you might ask. The answer is that they share one
handle which has a stop only on one end. Initially I found this
slightly annoying as at the end of a turn the handle would fall
through onto the floor, but I soon got used to anticipating this and
also to swapping it around in either of the vices' handle sockets so
it wouldn't do this.
Between the main joist
and the secondary top will be a removable centre. I like to use a 2
by 4 for this as it will allow room for clamp heads to be lowered
through and tightened, but does not need to be as wide as a
conventional tool well. If I put tools on the bench I put them in a
tray which stops them rolling around and potentially falling off the
bench top. When flattening the bench top the 2 by 4, being softwood,
does not interrupt planing between the main joist (Douglas Fir) and
the secondary hardwood top.
The 2 by 4 is sited on
the two end rails alongside the main joist and marked with a pencil
to gauge two slots to be cut out so that it rests flat beside the
main joist. Depending on the accuracy of the cuts you might need to
shim one or both of these to lift the 2 by 4 or plane it down to fit,
once the secondary top has been fitted.
The secondary top spans
the rest of the width of the bench top and is of inch thick hardwood
mounted on two spacers to match the height of the main joist. This
allows for clamping light work, a small metal bench vice and other
attachments, but is still strong enough to support planing against a
stop held in the jaws of the shoulder vice.
Two lag screws are used
to hold the secondary top in place, one in each top rail, but put
spacers between this and the removable centre before drilling so that
wood movement will not lock the centre in place. In the photograph
I've used plastic card from a model making store which is 1/64"
thick for this purpose. If the sections of your benchtop are wider,
use a thicker spacer.
The end of the
secondary top nearest the shoulder vice sits on a four sided box
which is lag screwed to its underside to act as the backer behind the
stationery jaw of the shoulder vice. This stops the shoulder vice
pushing the secondary top out of alignment. Due to the size, shape
and position of this support you might want to consider building it
to include a cast iron vice to the side, though bear in mind the
extra weight this would place at this end of the bench.
The centre part of the
box is tenoned into the jaw support and the outside part is
dovetailed to the end of the jaw support. The fourth part next to
the leg rail is drilled and pegged to the centre and outside parts.
I used square pegs glued and hammered through slightly undersized
round holes at a 45 degree angle to give a diamond effect.
The shoulder vice
moving jaw has a "tail" which moves along the underside of
the main joist. Getting the moving jaw square to the fixed jaw may
involve using shims and you can see one attached to the top of the
"tail" in the photograph. There is no bottom rail under
the shoulder vice tail in this design. To prevent the jaw rotating
to the left there is a counterweight on the right end of the jaw.
I've used an old brass car badge, but any similar weight will help.
The moving jaw side
nearest the main joist is about 1/4 inch away from the side of the
joist. This allows for the manual rotation of the jaw and its
removal without unscrewing the flanged retainer attached to the jaw.
Now for the flattening
of the bench top. There are four main parallel components to the
top: the dog hole strip, main joist, removable 2 by 4 and secondary
The old woodworkers who
were used to wooden planes always said a low bench was a good idea.
This bench is higher in relation to my height as I find I can usually
still plane with less back strain, but for flattening the bench top
evenly with three different species of wood I used an old wooden
trying plane which does not like tall benches. To solve this problem
I raised the floor by putting down a pallet made of 2 by 4s at each
end connected lengthwise by 2 by 6s. If you decide to do this,
please don't forget the pallet is there and trip over it.
In place of a front
vice on the dog hole side I use a screw adjusting holdfast which
requires an iron collar placed where the stem goes through. This is
only in the leg of the bench for as long as it is required, so it is
quick to add and remove and I minimise the chance of running into it
in a small space.
As alternatives you
might prefer to make a wooden leg vice with a bench screw or use the
modern Veritas holdfast which only needs a 3/4" hole to work.
The reason why I didn't want a cast iron vice at that corner was that
it is easier to plane without running into one at the end of the
stroke. I also found most of the jobs I wanted to do could be done
using clamps, the two vices or with an edge planing jig mounted on a
chipboard base which fitted over the last two dog holes in the dog
To get the distance
right for the holdfast I assembled the bench first. The downside is
that drilling and fitting the hole for the iron collar is not easy
when the bench is built, with the result that there are spaces
between the edge of the collar and the leg where it has been levered
out in between fittings.
A piece of scrap wood
with a recess for the holdfast's clamping pad protects your work from
being marked by the pad's waffle iron grip.
The edge planing jig
is very simple - a piece of chipboard and two pieces of scrap wood,
one of which is cut at in half by hand at a dovetail angle (1in 7 or
1 in 6) to act as a sliding wedge to trap the edge of a piece of
wood. The chipboard is drilled with two 3/4" holes using the
template you used for the dog hole strip so that the base slips over
the top of two dogs and will not move.
you plane in the direction of the wedge the wood is held tight, but a
knock in the other direction releases it. A piece of chipboard the
same thickness is under the other end of the work to keep it level.
A slatted platform is
knocked together to fit over the long rails at the end away from the
vices. This is used for keeping heavy items like a small anvil,
clamps and so on. This also provides removable mass to the bench
making it sit solidly so it doesn't move around, except when you want
to move it.
Good luck with any
bench you decide to build, but if you choose this one I would be
interested in any feedback you may have in working with it.