Saturday, January 29, 2011

Short Bench Support

I have lots of excuses for why I haven't built a workbench to replace my 4.5'-long shorty: too many good designs on the internet vie for attention; Chris Schwarz keeps writing new bench books with more information to consider; good ol' fashioned lethargy rears its slothful head; and I don't have enough space in my shop to build the length of bench I *should* build.

But thanks to Swedish illustrator Carl Larsson, an artist born in 1853 who captured family life and bucolic settings in watercolor, I may have exhausted the usefulness of the last excuse.

Larsson's painting of a carpenter at work in his shop depicts one way to get around the inconvenience of a too-short workbench when working with a long board. The carpenter uses a stool that's the same height as his workbench as a support. And instead of planing the board along the length of the bench, he planes into the bench and uses the sash as a stop.

The board that's being planed is thick enough not to flex under pressure, but what happens when this method is used to plane a 4/4 board? My guess is the unsupported middle would flex, which would compromise its flatness.

One way to support the middle is to build a roll around shop cart with hinged wings and locking casters. Because the wings add more length to the top when extended, the cart's footprint can be small—a benefit to a small shop. Add a couple shelves beneath the top, and you have a very useful shop accessory.

The last image of a young Jesus with his carpenter father shows a small, but sturdy workbench in what appears to be a room with ample space for a longer bench.

Could be this was a popular style of workbench used when this painting was made. Could be there weren't enough tall trees available for lengthy lumber.

Or maybe the artist thought Joseph was just...I don't know. Lazy.


Dyami said...

If you're out of excuses, I'd love to hear about what kind of bench you're making. If not, no problem. I'll cover for you and say you had every intention of making a bench, but couldn't resist that next carving/inlay/table/cabinet/spoon you're building instead. ;-)

Also, thanks for turning on mobile, I'm reading & commenting on the blog from my phone, and loving it.

Dyami said...

If you're out of excuses, I'd love to hear about what kind of bench you're making. If not, no problem. I'll cover for you and say you had every intention of making a bench, but couldn't resist that next carving/inlay/table/cabinet/spoon you're building instead. ;-)

Also, thanks for turning on mobile, I'm reading & commenting on the blog from my phone, and loving it.

Jonathan said...

I just saw the Carl Larsson illustration on The Woodwright Shop the other day. Great minds think alike I guess.

Anonymous said...

I like it that Jesus is standing on a soap box, or it's equivalent. The timbers in the bench suggest the use of leftover material from an order of crosses completed for the Romans, this would account for the shorter length bench.
For stability's sake I think the cart wouldn't work as well as one would hope.

The Village Carpenter said...

Dyami, I still haven't decided. And you're right—other projects are constantly tugging at my sleeve.

Jonathan, wow—synchronicity. I did not see it on the Woodwright's Shop—I found it on a FB friend's profile and looked into it.

Mike, the cart could probably be beefed up, but I think it would work pretty well. Especially, if you had another support (like that stool) at the very end. This idea just popped into my head; I was hoping that it might entice people to offer their own ideas.

mike said...

By the time you get the cart beefed up it would be a bench unto itself. The wheels cause a big part of the problem as it would not be stable enough.

Alan said...

Wouldn't surprise me that the bench Joseph is working on is more of a reflection of what the artist saw in his/her day, rather than historically correct for 10 or A.D. However, work benches have looked similar since forever probably.
You described my lack of a big Shaker bench that I "plan" to make, just as soon as Chris quits writing books and confusing me.

The Village Carpenter said...

Mike, I was picturing locking casters (I should have said that in the post), which would make it more stable.

Alan, yeah, I know. I was stretching it with that joke. ; )

Damien said...

There is nothing wrong with a small workbench. For a thin board using a planing beam may be enough, although this is closer to the Japanese tradition. Planing towards the window as seen on the picture is certainly an advantage. A similar setup can be seen in a recent post on Chris Hall's blog.

John G said...

This post really got me thinking. Now you've got me entering "carpentry in the time of Christ" into a search engine!

The Village Carpenter said...

Damien, thanks for the link. I agree with you about small benches—I actually love them. The one in that last image was so cool, I had to find a way to fit it into this post. There have been times, however, when I've needed to work on a board that was too long for my bench and Larsson's painting really seemed like a neat idea.

John, you can find lots of images if you google "Jesus and Carpentry." You can also read a book called "Roman Woodworking." I wrote a review on it--if you do a search on my blog, you'll find it.

Damien said...

I thought the bench in the last picture is a stone carver table, a 2000 pound model. I looked up for workshop pictures of the end of the 19th century, to see if it fits, but all I have is Auguste Rodin with 'light' tables for plaster models.
The picture is strange as it is photographic on some parts for example the arms and clothes of Joseph, where the workbench misses part of a leg. I think the artist used his workshop and a workbench in his possession to make the picture.

As for workbench size, I decided to stick to 4'+, after seeing that 4' is enough to pass Chris Schwarz 'kitchen test'.

Anonymous said...

Looks like a courtyard on the right side of the picture. The room they are working in does not appear to be a workshop; no other tools or indication of being a full time workshop. So, I think Joseph is working on a job and the small bench is a jobsite bench.

Mitchell said...

Great post, Kari. You have a real knack at taking a topic that the average amateur woodworker has spent years agonizing over and summing it up in 400 words or less. Brilliant.

I like the rolling cart idea, but for those of use that are seriously shop-challenged, the problem arises as to where to put it when it is not in use. I considered producing one that could be stored under a small bench, but then realized the idea came up a little short.


Alex Comes said...

Speaking of Jesus... I came across this dvd shot of Charlesworth in like a Byzantine Jesus pose--I thought it was funny anyway.

Peter Follansbee said...

I remember the Larsson painting from 30 years ago when I was a picture framer. I want my next shop to look like that...

I made my workbench 8 feet long, and now I wish it was ten...

Larry Marshall said...

The best solution to a small bench is to build small things. My bench is small and suffers from too much lightness.

Like you, I 'plan' to build a bigger one. Wish I could get the shop elves to build it for me.

Cheers --- Larry

The Village Carpenter said...

Damien, I wish I knew when this painting was made, but I wasn't able to find any source. The resolution isn't good enough to tell what Jesus is using a chisel on, but it must be something relatively soft because he's using his hand as a mallet. Stone carver's table makes sense since the table's so beefy.

Anon, you could be right. I wasn't able to find any information about the painting, unfortunately. That bench looks pretty heavy, but a couple strong guys (or a mustard seed) would be able to make it mobile.

Mitchell, I thought the same thing about having the support roll under the end of the bench and include some kind of height adjustor. The design started getting too complicated so I figured a roll around, multi purpose cart would fit the bill better.

Alex, that's a great screen shot! :D

Peter, your shop already looks like that, complete with little boy. ; )

Larry, most things I build are on the smaller side, so a small bench is okay 90% of the time. Before I found Larsson's painting, I was thinking that 10% would annoy me the rest of my life if I didn't build a larger bench, but now there's a solution. Do you rent out your shop elves??

Bill said...

Interesting that Joseph is wearing a full head air filtration helmet yet he's using hand tools. What a safe guy!

Tom Buhl said...

haven't gotten into your latest post yet, but your posting of Larsson's illustration just may be my long sought woodworker with child for my I Madonnari Italian Street Painting image. This could be the one. You rock, Kari.

Eric Madsen said...

Kar, check out this woodworking magazine blog post...

I think this may be just what you need... I know I need one ;)

Eric Madsen said...

Sorry about the missing "i" -nice typing.

Julian said...

Kari- I'm inclined to think that less workbench is ultimately more, because in my case, my woodworking is in a constant state of change. Thus, the less I try to solidify part of my workspace, the better.

I think the problem with a table surface as auxiliary support is that your floor might not be flat, and thus you might end up trying to clamp work to two different planes.

What a wonderful, generous blog. Thanks!

Gye Greene said...

Possible solution: An addt'l, "companion" workbench, of the same height (or, with an "spacer" top to bring it to the same height.

For your normal "short stuff" work, just use your current bench.

When you're doing super-long work, shove them end-to-end.


Gye Greene said...

Or, a series of board jacks?


Woodbloke said...

Hi Kari - the other thing you could do of course, is to make yourslelf a Japanese style planing beam for the long stuff, use your hand planes on the pull stroke and ditch the jeans for a kimono!

The Village Carpenter said...

Bill, well played! :D

Happy to help, Tom.

Eric, that's a cool solution. I saw this bench at the first WIA. It was used in a seminar on Japanese saws. Really makes you rethink just how much bench we really need.

Julian,that's a good point about the floor. Maybe a couple adjustable-height sawhorses might work. A smaller bench also makes it easier to move around when necessary.

Gye, that's sort of what I had in mind with the roll around cart, but the beefier companion bench would be a good solution, too. The spacer idea is pretty neat--in fact, you could build a mini benchtop bench as the "spacer" and then use it on both the companion bench and your main bench.

Rob--->kimono...thanks for the visual! heh.

Shannon said...

Hey wait a minute, I've been in your shop and it's twice the size of mine! No more excuses, if you can't take a nap on your benchtop then it is not long enough.

Ian W said...

I got my blog entry about my Rolling Work Bench up today. The low bench/work bench debate weighted on my mind for years. If you are interested you can see my solution at
Ian W

Michael said...

Hi Kari,

I have been thinking about building a new bench for years. But the real trick is to turn the thinking into doing.

As embarrassed as I am to say this, I still have my original 2"x4"-based 'normite' workbench, built back during Season 1. Whats that now.. 22 years old? Ugh! It still works; I have yet to replace the Masonite top. Danish Oil seems to keep the glue drips at bay, and its only real fault is that it wobbles a tad too much.

I have my bench placed in-line with my table saw, doing double duty an aux. out-feed table. The location is reciprocal though, as the saw table acts as an extension to the work bench, when necessary. (Both are 39" tall, which suits me and my bad back. YMMV)

If/when I do it over, I'd probably build a shaker style bench like the one pictured in the Workbench book. A thick/stout Maple (or Ipe?) top with milk-painted inset storage drawers below.

Lovely shop you have, BTW. I would like to ask, what are the overall dimensions? Also do you have a separate finishing room? And is your shop directly connected to the house?

Cheers -

The Village Carpenter said...

Shannon, I'm a LOT shorter than you, so my bench doesn't have to be all that long. ; )

Ian, that's a good idea to make your workbench mobile. I saw a similar idea with casters and a board that flips down when you want the bench to be stationary. Your locking casters seem to be an easier solution.

Michael, I'm always embarrassed when someone asks if I built my [cheap, shaky] workbench. Have you seen Jameel Abraham's Shaker workbench? It's stunning. Go to and click on Workbenches in the right hand column.

My shop's outer dimensions are 17.5' x 36'. The ceilings are 10'. I do not have a separate finishing room. It was in the original plan, but the building was getting too expensive to build. The shop is not only connected to the house, it's right off the bedroom. Very handy when you feel the need to plane a board in the middle of the night. :D

Michael M. said...

Thank you for the pointer to Jameel's workbench. Indeed.. it is stunning! The sharp contrast between the red paint and the clear maple is beautiful. (I was thinking forest green and maple.. for myself! :-)

I don't know if I could get used to the leg vices though. I have to admit, they are rather inexpensive * until you add on the benchcraft hardware (whew!) For that kind of money, a pattern maker's vise would be most handy as front vise.

What I miss with the 'wagon wheel' vise on Jameel's bench that large flat vertical clapping capability of the German tail vise, which is nice for sawing dove tails and pins. Sigh.. so many choices... :-)


The Village Carpenter said...

Micahel, I really like the wagon vise, too. You could always build a Moxon twin screw vise and just clamp it to your bench anytime you need to cut dovetails. (Sorry to throw another choice your way. ; )

ahardslojdlife said...

That Carl Larsson picture is lovely, but the one with Jesus is even better!