Chris Schwarz, Nicholson Workbench, Popular Woodworking Books, Process Improvement, Workbench, Workshop
Comments 12

I Want a New Workbench

And I want one bad. A new workbench is something I am beginning to think about a lot.

In my 2013 in Review post, I laid out my woodworking schedule for 2014 and no where on this schedule is there time for a new workbench. My only hope is that something changes during the year which will create time for building one, or at least start the process.

But, I can dream about a super cool bench. In my mind, I still drool over what I consider to be the coolest bench ever – the Chris Schwarz Roubo – not the French Oak Roubo, but his previous bench made mostly of rustic cherry and southern yellow pine.

I'm in love with this bench. photo source

I’m in love with this bench. photo source

And what’s not to like: big, beefy timbers abound and I like the color contrast in the lumber he sourced. But, it seems the Roubo workbench is everywhere these days and I am not into being yet another woodworker who builds a Roubo. But I do want a bench based on a historic design.

Before I get too far into this blog post, let me remind you what my current workbench looks like. Take a look at this post at my old blog. The Josh Finn workbench is something I see more as an assembly table. It is extremely flexible, great for glue-ups and can be easily moved – I intend to keep it and use it for that purpose. But this is a decidedly modern workbench.

Tom Iovino recently completed a Nicholson style bench and I have read the chapter devoted to the Nicholson bench (also known as an English style bench) in Chris Schwarz’s book “Workbenches” – this certainly is a historic design. It seems that the splayed legs are rare. In both of Chris’ workbench books I saw just one old illustration showing moderately splayed legs. Most all of the old drawings of this bench show straight legs and none of them show the big leg vise.

Unusual: angled leg vise and wide front and rear aprons.

Unusual: angled leg vise and wide front and rear aprons.

Usually made with economical lumber: southern yellow pine.

Usually made with economical lumber: southern yellow pine.

In Chris’ “The Workbench Design Book”, there is a link to a variety of workbench SketchUp models including his version of the Nicholson bench shown above. Having these SketchUp models is very interesting to study. In the illustration above; I took Chris’ SketchUp model and added a southern yellow pine wood texture so as to dress it up a little.

This design has me thinking. The Nicholson has significant mass and weight, is easier to build than a Roubo – no complex leg to bench top joinery. The top is much easier to build than a Roubo which is typically either big, hard to find slabs of wood, or created from a bazillion face laminated boards. The Chris Schwarz Nicholson has an easy to build end vise and the materials typically are simple and economical – many current versions of this bench are made using home center pine. There are some nice exceptions seen via a Google image search…

  • Erik Mortensen’s Awesome English Workbench – Chris Schwarz writes at Popular about this stunning partner’s workbench, massive in size and full of tasteful styling elements. Are there two leg vises on this bench?
  • The English Tradition – a fantastic example of the English workbench by Richard at the English Woodworker. Note the very handsome wood and English style front vise.
  • Bob Easton’s English Workbench – Another big bench; 12 feet in length, it too has the angled leg vise along with an end vise.
  • Billy’s Little Bench – big honkin’ Roubo-like legs, aprons with un-clipped corners which lend a look of even more mass and note the big vises.
  • Anthony Hay’s Cabinetmaker – this blog post features a woodworking plan of sorts for a Nicholson bench, but what I like the most is the photo which shows two such workbenches in the corner of their workshop – two of them!

Tom Iovino stated in a recent MWA podcast how rock solid his bench is which is extremely important for hand plane work. My bench will be significantly smaller, so mass is important.

Some concerns with the Nicholson workbench: it’s a big bench which means I would have to significantly scale down the design and change the splayed legs in favor of straight ones. The large front and rear aprons mean I would no longer be able to clamp work to the bench top using a F-style or C clamps. I suppose if I used a couple of holdfasts in conjunction with the numerous holes scattered about the workbench, I would seldom need such clamps. One more thing – the large aprons effectively eliminate the possibility of adding a storage cabinet below the bench top, and I need all the storage space I can get.

Right now, the Nicholson design is one of three styles of workbenches I am considering. I am working on a SketchUp model of the second design and will write about it soon. But, I have now publicly made it known that I plan to build another workbench. Over the coming weeks and maybe months, I’ll work on the design. This is a project that I’ll baby step. There is no tellin’ when I’ll actually find time to build it.


    • Jim, I suspect what I come up with will pull a little design ideas from a variety of workbench styles, but will be very traditional looking. It likely won’t look like a Nicholson, but there will be some Nicholson in it. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  1. Jeff,
    Your concerns are all valid … and they all depend on the type of work you intend to do, on what operations you’ll be doing most. Even though Schwarz urges bench builders to seriously ponder what work they intend to do, I can’t stress it enough.

    How much of your work will require clamping to the bench top with clamps vs. holdfasts? How much work will be done on the edges of boards? How much of your work will be joinery (dovetailing and aprons go together nicely)? Make up as many of these sorts of questions as you can and give them serious thought. Then ask one more question: Will this remain the core of your woodworking interest for a very long time?

    Rarely does one need a 12 foot long bench. Yet, I can attest to its value when dealing with preparing long lumber used for building small boats. My bench excels for that sort of work. There’s also a LOT of edge work on boat planks and bottom boards. Clamping and holdfasting to the front apron was very handy for all of that. And, you’re also right that the splayed legs are not essential. In fact the leaning leg vise has “an interesting” point of center force and leverage. Making them vertical won’t sacrifice any function.

    That last question is important. I built the bench for specific functions. My interests have moved away from boat building, and while the bench is still superb, I no longer need one 12 feet long. [ The bench has now become an often cluttered victim of HSS, Horizontal Surface Syndrome. ]

    No matter what choice you make, focus on the end products more than the bench, and keep havin’ fun!

    • Bob, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I am not sure what my bench will end up looking like, I am jealous though of anyone who has the room for a 12′ workbench. 🙂

  2. If my vote counted, I would vote for the Nicholson bench. If and when I build another bench, that would be the style. I would probably go for the straight legs as well. The splayed legs work well with a leg vice, but so do straight. One thing with this bench is the row of dog holes in the front, which would probably be difficult to get to with such a wide apron. At that, it doesn’t bother me too much because I’ve found that the front row of dog holes is a lot less necessary than people think, especially if you have that wide apron to clamp stuff to.
    Your post has gotten me to thinking about making a new bench. I’m kind of stuck in limbo there because we’ve been talking about moving and I would rather not build a new bench to end up needing to move it.
    Will you be redesigning it or using a plan? The one good thing about a workbench is that you can build the base first but not assemble it until you are ready to make a new top, which gives me an idea…

    • Bill, the second design I am mulling over is a variation on the Nicholson; a knockdown bench and somewhat easy to move. The size is more in line with what I have space for. You are right about the dog holes. I read somewhere a comment about that being an issue. Rob at Logan Cabinet Shoppe says an end vise isn’t needed if there is a plane stop. If my needs are the same then I could eliminate the dog holes. We will see…

  3. dennis says

    In my opinion and based on my experience the Roubo design is superior. I made mine with bolt-on rails so it can be easily dismantled if needed. Using the base for storage is incredibly handy. Having an overhang at one end is also very useful for clamping. I put a surface vise on mine that can be removed (from Lee Valley) so I have lots of room at the end. A leg vise is a bit tricky to make and line up properly, but economical, and provides more than enough pressure. I wouldn’t put one on an angle though because it would tend to bind or rack even more than a vertical one. Just as a final point I think a hard wood is best as your bench will take a lot of abuse over the years.

    • Dennis, one thing I am concerned with is the traditional leg vise and wooden screw. As shown in the photo of Chris’ Roubo, the wooden screw sticks out significantly from the front of the bench. In my basement the area in front of my bench is a main walkway from our cars to the stairs and is a tight space. I also have a support pole for the first floor close by, so I will likely go with something like a metal front vise.

      I likely will do a hardwood work surface like you suggest. But clearly the Roubo is a great design – I don’t think I have ever read anyone complain about it. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Pingback: Leaving well enough alone… « The Slightly Confused Woodworker

  5. Best of luck in building your future new bench, Jeff. In my experience, they can be unlike any furniture project – you get to work with wood on a larger scale but the real challenge lies in making one without using another bench to make it! 😉

    • Olly, that is what I am afraid of: larger material as in the top. I would like to make one without having to laminate a bunch of boards, but I think that could be the best kind of top.

      • Well, I found it easiest to laminate in wide top in, say, three goes, so you end up with three sections of the top which you can flatten in turn… Then, I ended up ripping my bench top in two and creating a tool well in the middle! 😉

        I like a workbench that is never complete! 😀

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