A simple British workbench

When we build a modern workbench for our workshops, however large or small they are, we likely all pour over the myriad of books by Christopher Schwarz, and spend copious amounts of time thinking about what wood to use. Should it be all maple? Should I use a leg vise, or a vintage Record? Should it be perfect? The reality is that perfection seems to be a modern affliction. A workbench was always a utilitarian structure, something upon which to work, with tools. Indeed furniture itself was never as precise or aesthetically pleasing as it has been in the past century. Below is a simple workbench from the June 21, 1895 issue of English Mechanic and World of Science (No. 1578, pp.386-387). There are two other benches described before this one, a “work-bench for amateur joiner“, and a joiners bench (a mixture of European and English style benches), but this is the most relevant. Interestingly, this bench was the Third prize in what seems to have been a regular competition for readers.

English workbench late 19th century

Here is the description of the bench (with comments in blue), designed by W.T. Graham of Hackney Wick, London.

The bench which I will now describe should be made of yellow deal, with the exception of the working parts-viz., the lug with the leg screwed to it; the bench screw and its various parts; the bench-stop and also the various pins about the bench. Theses should be made of hardwood; either beech, oak or birch will do.

The term”deal” is used in traditional British woodworking, to describe softwood from various conifers. Red deal is Scots pine, whereas yellow deal is typically white fir/spruce fir. The term lug used here seems to relate to the leg vise, instead of a more traditional bench lug. Unlike many modern benches, which are predominantly made of hardwood, this uses a combination of both softwoods and hardwoods. Three of the legs are softwood, with only the leg supporting the leg vise being hardwood.

I give a list of the sizes of the stuff :- The top 6ft. by 1ft.9in. by 2in., clamped and tenoned at each end. Three legs 2ft.8in. by 4in. by 2in.; the third leg and also the lug 2ft.8in. by 8in. by 2in., both tapering down from 1ft. from the top, and the lug 7½” shorter than the leg. This leg to be secured to the top by two 3/8in. bolts and the bench screw-block to be secured to the leg by two more. Four cross-rails, 3in. by 2in., to be provided, two on each end, to be dovetailed and screwed to the legs top and bottom.

What is interesting here, apart from the fact that the leg associated with the leg vise is hardwood, is the fact that it has the same basic tapered shape as the leg vise. The top seems as though it is one solid piece that has been prevented from movement through the use of breadboard ends.

Some difficulty may be had with the top rail where it joins the hardwood leg. This should be a tenon joint, and the top rail checked out where it comes against the bench-screw block.

Two side rails, same size, are also used to join the ends firmly together. These to be tenoned into the legs. Also two pieces of stuff to be used in the front – same dimensions – and tenoned into the top and rail. These also have rails between them : sizes 2in. by 2in., leaving spaces between A and B. A is a space to put small pieces of board endwise to hold them while being sawn. B is a drawer running on guides screwed to the top. I have left out a handle to the drawer, and have shown the top of the drawer cut away to receive the hand. This is much the best way, there being no handle to catch in the worker’s clothes.

In this bench I have put two braces, 3in. by 2in. each, which greatly strengthens it. To the learner these are awkward joints but the braces can be left out, and the two pieces of stuff, F and G, go right down to the rails, if the worker does not feel equal to it.

There didn’t seem to be any hesitation to use braces, on any of these benches. This may have been derived from the fact that the leg material was only 2in. thick.

A job which takes some care is the sword C. This should be a straight-grained hardwood, tenoned into the lug, going right through the leg, and secured by the pin inserted through D. Another similar convenience is the side-screw, E. This is made of beech, a screw running through one and butting against the other. The screw is made with a screw-box; but as this is a tool seldom used by carpenters, amateur or otherwise, I recommend you to buy a pair of hand-screws, price about 8d.; saw of what you want, and tenon them, in their places. The bench should have 1in. boarding nailed on the rails, 9in. from the ground. This space is very convenient for some of the larger tools, hand-screws, etc. A bench-stop made of beech, 2in. by 2in., is the cheapest, and in some cases the best. Four angle-irons, 4in. by 1in. by ¼in., should be used to secure the bench to the floor.

I guess the use of the term “sword” its appropriate because it’s almost like the piece is stabbing the bench. We know it better as the parallel device, or maybe “runner”. It isn’t quite apparent as to the nature of the side-screw, although it appears to be used to manipulate the board being held by the leg vise.

In conclusion, I may say that this will be a very strong and serviceable bench, not quite so large as the ordinary carpenter’s bench, and therefore more suited to the amateurs’s very often limited room.

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