Journeyman’s Journal – This is a journal of the art of woodworking by hand

2020-08-28 13:00:26

This won’t be an extensive discussion on workbench heights; I’ll reserve that for a future post. Instead, this is a brief critique of a recent post by Paul Sellers, which appears to have been removed from his blog.

Despite his impressive 60 years in the trade and a large following, Paul Sellers, like anyone, can occasionally make mistakes. This became evident when I found myself going in circles following his advice.

In a recent blog post, now seemingly removed, Paul discussed the heights of workbenches, attributing their smaller stature to the shorter average height of 18th-century woodworkers, which he claimed was 5ft 5″. This fact checked out. However, his assertion that workbench heights were solely determined by the woodworker’s height didn’t quite add up to me. While our height does factor into the equation, it’s not the sole determinant, as he suggested.

Before voicing my thoughts, I consulted Jacque Roubo, whose guidance I had previously used to determine my own workbench height. In the 18th century, woodworkers, who typically stood at 5ft 5″, used wooden-bodied planes and had workbenches around 28 to 30 inches in height. My own workbench stands at 31-33″ (I can’t recall the exact height), and I’m 5ft 9″. Paul, who is 5ft 10″, has a workbench height of 38″, the same height I use when carving.

This discrepancy left me puzzled. Could Paul be correct, given his additional 30 years of experience? I decided to experiment by raising my workbench to 35″.

I acquired some 4″x4″ pine, identical to what I used for the legs. After cutting them perfectly square with my mitre box, I temporarily elevated my bench without permanently affixing the blocks to the legs. My intuition was hinting that this could be a waste of time and money, and that I might regret it if I permanently raised the bench. Heeding this inner voice, I decided not to proceed.

The difference was immediately noticeable when hand planing. I found myself expending more energy and tiring out quicker, which aligns with Roubo’s assertion that a higher bench leads to quicker arm fatigue. With a lower bench, you engage your back more than your arms, a point that Paul seems to disagree with. He argues that you primarily use your arms, not your back.

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Aside from hand planing, a higher bench brings the work closer to your eyes, reducing the need to lean in, which is beneficial. This explains why I elevate my bench to 40″ when carving. However, as I use both wooden-bodied and metal hand planes, raising the bench excessively doesn’t seem practical.

I raise my bench height to 40 inches when carving only.

Standard non-woodworking bench heights, such as those found in hardware stores, mechanical workshops, and counters, typically range from 38-40″. If you’re my height and a hybrid woodworker, a 35″ bench height seems to be a reasonable compromise, especially since most of your planing will likely be done with a smoother, requiring only one or two passes.

However, for someone like me who works entirely by hand around the clock, a lower workbench is more suitable. Paul, on the other hand, is probably accustomed to his higher bench, and working on a lower bench like mine might be uncomfortable for him.

In conclusion, I found myself chasing my own tail, following the advice of someone I deeply respect and believed to be beyond error. However, it became clear that no one is infallible, underscoring the importance of verifying the information we encounter.

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