Bench/Setups
Last Updated: 10/21/2006

This is my bench, built around 1975, from plans that were published in a British woodworking magazine (I think it was called Popular Woodworking). It's a good bench, hard maple 3-4" thick and it breaks down into small pieces for moving, which it has done numerous times. Some shops will allow you to bring your own bench. Some won't.

The patternmaker's vise (a recently available knock-off of the Emmert) was added last year. These vises are great, can be wrangled into all sorts of odd arrangements (as you can see) and even though there's loads of slop in the action, still, extremely handy. A pain to install but well worth the effort.

A bench like this, or similar, makes work go a lot easier, that's for sure. You can buy one, they're always available, new or used. But making one is much better.

In the old days, apprenticeships usually included making one's own tool chest and/or bench. Some of the chests are exquisite, beautifully constructed, especially their intenors, often made of rare woods or veneers.

But a bench, a bench is made to work. Constructing one is a kind of initiation into the craft. It becomes an external representation of your interest in woodworking, a purely functional product, built for the long run.

And you'll work on it, literally, every day. Your hands will become completely aware of each surface, every quirk, the bench's strengths, weaknesses. You'll seek to improve it, fret about errors in the design, clean it, tweak it, fix it, retrofit it, refinish it when necessary. Try as you might to avoid it, it will get beaten up, but that's okay. It's a work bench, not an operating table. It will develop a real patina, a working patina. A lifetime's project.

So, if you're thinking of buying a bench, you might try making it, instead. I bet you like it.

But not assembly tables. I don't have an assembly table. Never have. In the commerical shops where I've worked, one of the first things you learn is that you only have a small personal space. You get a bench. Or you can bring one. Maybe. There'll be a place for your tools or your toolchest. That's it. You're just another benchman among 20 others. And space (particularly in a NYC shop, where rents can be stratospheric) is at a premium.

But you know, as every cabinetmaker knows, that Everything Must Be Built On A Level Surface. Everything, from little boxes, to dining tables, to 15 foot runs of 7' tall AV units. It's the first law of cabinetmaking. If you don't do it, nothing will work. Doors won't close right, drawers won't slide right. Wrack and ruin.

Which is why there are setups, made from horses and rails. Horses come in all sizes, low to high. There are T types and bracket types and folding types, a million different designs, some ingenious, some not, doesn't matter. And there are rails. Usually plywood (don't use flake or MDF), 1½" thick (two ¾" pieces glued together is good), maybe 6" wide, 2' - 8' long. Make them in pairs, exact matches. If your project requires something more than 8' long you can screw them together to make any length you need.

You can use them as a regular table just by laying the rails down on horses, and then dropping any old piece of ply or flake on them. But if you're going to use them for assembly, cut two pieces of ply, maybe 4" (depends on the width of the rail) wide and 8" - 30" long, to suit. Nail these pieces to the ends of the rails. Then shim to level. Make sure it's level in every direction. Take care. And build on that. You'll have spaces to send clamps through, you'll be able to check your work from every angle, including underneath, and if you think about it a little, you'll be able to clamp up pretty much anything you're ever going to build. (Remember, cabinets can be clamped up on their side as well as on their bottom). And when the shop foreman says "Break it down, we need some space," just whack it apart. And go have lunch.

By the way, this is particularly handy in small home shops, where you sometimes need to clear floor space for other projects.

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Last Updated: 10/21/2006