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Making and Using Tools - Shop Benches and Other Appliances

  Building the Holtzapffel Workbench by David Pearce

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In my attempt to learn the craft of woodworking, I have discovered that one of the most valuable tools a woodworker needs is a good workbench. 

Rather than delve into the details of my journey from doing general carpentry with power tools to learning the more traditional woodworkers methods using hand tools (which drove my reasoning to build a good, solid workbench), I want to take the approach of showing the process of building the bench using limited resources and relatively basic knowledge and skill of woodworking.

Hopefully, this will serve two purposes, first, allow those people with little skill or experience to feel more confident in taking on a project like this,.


David Pearce


Second, show some of the pitfalls I encountered not having a fully equipped shop (or even a partially equipped one!) at my disposal. 

These articles aren’t intended as the “best” advice for building a workbench, in fact, I’m guessing that more than a few people will read this and wonder why I ended up causing myself extra work.

For me, it’s all about learning.  Of course, we should all be willing to take the suggestions we get, and learn from them where possible.  Additionally, however, we should never be afraid to start something.  In the end, I know I’ll make a lot of mistakes, but hopefully, I’ll come away from this project having learned something.  Certainly more than if I’d never attempted it.  I suggest you, the reader, approach this project in the same way.  

My friend whose woodworking skills are far beyond mine gave me this advice at the start of my project: “It’s your first bench, so don’t worry about it too much.  In about 2 years time you’ll probably look at it, and want to make another one.”

With that said, let me start by offering a short background on how I found out about this design, and why it appealed to me.

It just so happens that I subscribe to Popular Woodworking.  I began to read more of editor Chris Schwarz’s writing, and eventually figured out, he was a bit of a bench builder himself.  He wrote a great workbench background article in the June issue of Popular Woodworking called “Woodworking Essentials-Rules for Workbenches”, which basically explains what a good workbench consists of.  Reading his blog entries one day I found out there was a tool swap scheduled at John Sindelar’s shop in Michigan. 

My friend and I took the trip up to check out the show, and to hopefully add to my meager tool collection.  The show turned out differently than I planned due to the fact that by the time we arrived many of the dealers had packed up and left. 

However, it was still a great trip because not only did I get to see John’s fantastic collection of tools, I was able to see Chris’s Holtzapffel style bench up close and personal.  It really looked like a bench a woodworker would use.  Sturdy and large, were the two things that came to my mind.  I left that day thinking this was the bench I’d like to build. 

Fortunately, by reading further on Chris’s blog, I found out he was including the bench and plans in the next issue of Woodworking Magazine (Issue #8).  I won’t attempt to reproduce the plans or layout of this bench in this article. 

Chris has done a far better job of that anyway.  I’d recommend to anyone thinking about building a bench to buy a copy of Woodworking Magazine issue #8 for themselves (As well as the June 2007 issue of Popular Woodworking) and read firsthand about it.

 Incidentally, Chris is also publishing a book dedicated to various benches and bench design.  I’ll be standing in line when the book becomes available and I suspect anyone serious enough to undertake this type of project will want it also.

After comparing the Holtzapffel’s design to the myriad of others I found, I reasoned the design wasn’t terribly complicated, and in some cases, even less so.  Still, it wasn’t going to be easy.  The framing and top are quite large both in joinery and scale.  It’s not like building an end table, or some other piece of normal household furniture.  The tenons are big, and the framing pieces are unwieldy.  The top itself was another challenge all together. 

I was hoping to use hand tools primarily, and leave the power tools tucked away.  Unfortunately, this was a bit of wishful thinking on my part.  Not only were my skills a little lacking for that task, so were my available hand tools.

I’ll start the next installment with the actual bench building process itself.  Until then, grab a copy or two of Woodworking Magazine and read up.

Cutting for the Top

I began building the top from 2x8 Southern Yellow Pine I had picked up from the local big box lumber store.   It was one of the types of wood Chris Schwarz recommended for bench building.   Luckily, it’s relatively cheap here in central Ohio.   An 8 foot board was about $7.00.  

I certainly could have spend a lot more on Maple or some other hardwood, but I tried to keep the advice from my friend in mind that I might be building a new table in a few short years after I use it for awhile.   No sense in spending a large amount of money on my first shot at this.

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