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Workbenches: from Design & Theory to Construction & Use by Chris Schwarz

The editor for both Popular Woodworking and Woodworking magazines, Chris Schwarz, has published his first book: Workbenches: from Design and Theory to Construction and Use. Over the years I've become a fan of Mr. Schwarz's; he's helping bring the hand tool element back to the over "powered" woodworking magazines of the last two decades. For the last many years, magazines have disappointed me again and again with their over-"powered" approach to absolutely everything. For example, if you wanted to do dovetails they preached the use of a $400 router accessory over simple hand cut craftsmanship. I don't do enough dovetails to warrant purchasing one of those accessories, even if I wanted one, so that approach has always irked me.

Mr. Schwarz has been quietly advocating a return to a more simple approach to woodworking... one that does not preclude the use of power tools, but neither does it ignore centuries of tradition and process.

It was no real surprise when he first mentioned in his blog he was working on a new book on workbenches. Benches have been consuming his attention for some time now, and with good reason - a good bench design has very nearly been a lost art. Yet, they are an integral part of any hand woodworking. So - as soon as it was available I placed my order through his website, and the book arrived (signed by the author) within about 10 days or so:


Workbench Cover

Title: Workbenches: from Design & Theory to Construction & Use
Author: Christopher Schwarz
Hardcover: 144 pages
Publisher: Popular Woodworking Books (November 7, 2007)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1558708405
ISBN-13: 978-1558708402

Purchase from Popular Woodworking's Woodworkers' Bookstore*

From their web site:

"Every workbench should allow the woodworker to easily work the edges, faces and ends of boards, however most benches built during the last 100 years fail on at least one of these tasks. Workbenches is the only book that shows the reader how to design and build a good workbench and most importantly, how to use it in their shop for all sorts of tasks. This book dives deep into the historical records of the 18th and 19th centuries and breathes new life into traditional designs that are simpler than modern benches, easier to build and perfect for both power and hand tools. Two venerable designs are provided as basic skeletons and the knowledge presented shows woodworkers how to design custom workbenches, perfect for their style and method of woodworking."


I could hardly put it down. Chris Schwarz has an engaging writing style, no doubt honed over years of writing articles (and now his blog on the Woodworking magazine web site) for woodworking magazines. It's a friendly, honest, personal style that engrosses you in his enthusiasm for the subject. Each chapter in the book is informative, starting with the first - "Introduction: Benches That Are Functional Failures" (at this writing, the first chapter is available online at Wiktor Kuc's most excellent woodworking web site).

From there on, his approach isn't to show off different fanciful workbenches. It's an in-depth essay on aspects of workbench design, use, and construction - just as the title promises. Covering the basics, he also expounds on vises, exhaustively covers methods on how stock is held for various tasks from planing to the best methods for different types of joints, and give his honest opinions on what approach he believes is best, while still managing to keep an open mind to other approaches.

There are two separate styles of benches he constructs and includes plans for in the book: one, a french style "Roubo" bench - "Roubo" was the author of L'Art du Menuisier, a very old tome from the late 1700's that translates to "The Art of the Joiner" - that he's interpreted from illustrations within that book and others. The bench, in one word, is "massive". The other bench is an english design, and is the ying to the Roubo bench's yang. Where the french design throws mass at the issues a woodworker might have using it, the english style bench is a study in efficiency...

He also discusses the other styles of benches popular today, most notably the scandinavian/german style popular with many today (this is the style you find most retailers sell, also), though he doesn't go into building one. There is also a "Holtzapffel" style bench (another book, this time from the mid-1800's) is somewhat similar, with plans for it on the CD-Rom that is included with the "deluxe" version of the book. Each of the benches he builds for the book are a refreshing reminder of almost forgotten classic workbench designs, with - I want to say "innovative", but that's not an appropriate term - interpretations that extend the bench's usability, such as the "sliding deadman" on the Roubo bench, that are just simply great ideas.

I also love his recommendation of materials... gone is the idea that the bench is a piece of furniture. It's a working tool, and designed that way with an economy of purpose, material, and construction not seen enough in today's "bling" obsessed world. There are tables with regard to common wood species' stiffness, hardness, and weight, so should you decide you want to build your bench out of one of these woods you are armed with this information - but the material he's chosen for use is construction-grade lumber available at the local lumberyard. He even addresses methods for working with that lumber to achieve the best results.

Workbench appliances are also addressed: Bench hooks, slaves, stops, dogs, and holdfasts are all covered in adequate depth, along with construction methods and tips for each of the two benches shown in the book. There's no doubt, you will be able to build and use a great workbench using only this book as your guide.

Which leads me into the criticisms I have for the book, which are few:

First - I would have liked more construction details for the Scandinavian style bench. Maybe there are other example books he feels accomplish the task already, I don't know - I don't have those books... which is my point. I would have liked to seen some more details on them, even if just for completeness - I wouldn't want to have to buy another book to see how one is made (though it's not rocket science). I think it would have rounded the book out very nicely, and allowed the reader the ability to combine parts of that bench design with the other designs in the book (though a google search for "Frank Klaus workbench" will yield copious information, which is perhaps why he doesn't). In fairness, he includes a similar bench on the CD in the deluxe version - but that's not technically in the book, is it? It would have been nice if it had been.

One other small complaint... while he goes into exhaustive detail on which vise or bench appliance he prefers for which task - some vises (in particular the classic L shaped tail vise) are given short thrift in lieu of these preferences. He does lament their complicated construction and failure-prone design.... Though I may agree or disagree, it would have been really nice to see an example of the construction and possibly subsequent failure, especially for such a popular vise design. Don't get me wrong, the preferences section is useful, I just think some pages could have been included discussing the strengths and weakness of the individual vise designs, how they are built. Don't think for a moment that vises are not covered well in the book - they are. I just wish a few more different vise designs had been given even just a few more paragraphs and illustrations.

Another area the book is light in is on the subject of carving. Granted, he does admit he is not a carver and therefore can't really give an experienced discussion on the matter, and I applaud him for his honesty. The book is not really aimed towards the carver in any case, and perhaps that subject is better left to another.

But - these are really minor complaints. As a whole, it is an extremely well written book, and I can easily see it becoming the gold standard of workbench design references. His explanations are thorough and come from an understanding only achieved through the actual construction and use of these bench designs and not just intellectual discussion. I think this is the book's true strength. The fact he has built so many benches in his research is commendable, and easily buys him forgiveness for any minor discrepancy that I think the book might have.

It's easy to see (and he readily admits and even references) his source material is from old (100 to 400 year old) carpenter and furniture maker reference books, and rightly so... The designs and ideas are still appropriate for use today... it is the modern woodworker that has lost their way. Chris Schwarz has become one of a very few voices of reason in the woodworking magazine world, at least for me - in my eyes, he is the most likely candidate to become the modern version of one of my favorite woodworking authors, Charles Hayward. I am already looking forward to his next, of which I hope there are many.

This book rates as a "must-have" for me.



Post note - a quick shout out to Louis Bois, who's done some of the artwork and bench plans for the book... Well done, Louis!