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"Walkaround" workbench for a small shop

by David Randall


If you need a woodworking workbench that you can walk around for complete access to a project and that incorporates a tail vice and a shoulder vice then this may be the answer.

When I began planning this bench my garage was to be my workshop. While longer than the 8 foot by 10 foot shed which Id used up until then, the internal width of the garage was only 8 feet with a door width of 7 feet. Garages in England were often designed to house a small Austin Seven and not a modern car.

Until a back injury stopped me I used to drive the car into the garage, then back it out straight leaving the steering wheel alone, so I could then push it in again and close the up and over garage door. When I wanted to get into the car Id open the garage door and pull the car out by hand before I could open the door.

To solve the problem after the back injury I cut a hole in the side of the garage, fitted a rolled steel joist lintel to hold up the roof and installed a sliding door. The garage then became far more useful than just a place to park a car.

Setting up the garage for woodworking presented problems. Having read all I could find about building workbenches and having experienced the benefits and disadvantages of basic Workmates for years, I wanted a workbench where I could use both a shoulder vice and a tail vice with the advantages of clearance down to the floor unencumbered by metal vice guides or screws.

I also wanted to be able to get all around the bench, so one mounted against a wall would not work.

After 18 months design work in my spare time I came up with a bench which would do all that I wanted but would have a profile which would make it acceptable in the limited space available.

This is how I developed and built the "Walkaround" bench.

Background and development

In my father's workshop, where he and my cousin repaired car radiators, the workbench was a plywood top on an angle iron base which, as a small boy, I reached by standing on a box. In high school woodworking class we used two sided flat topped benches with a shallow tool tray in between and cupboards beneath, a cast iron vice at the left end and a single planing stop.

At home I used my father's World War II surplus folding telegraph table as an occasional bench. The support struts of the telegraph table had a tendency to drop out of their sockets - as the folding legs then folded up, the tools and work would slide down to meet the concrete floor.

A couple of basic Black and Decker Workmates, weighted with concrete slabs to limit wobble, were much more useful.

An 8' by 10' work shed gave me the opportunity to build a permanent workbench. This was a slab of chipboard supported by 2 by 4s on edge between two mahogany chests of drawers (formerly used by a bank to store customers' cheques) with a metalworking vice at the left and a woodworking one at the right. While solid, this was inflexible and severely limited the length and width of timber stock which could be worked - however it made a good side bench to hold tools, fastenings and so on.

I learned from these different benches that my ideal workbench would allow me to walk around it so I could get at work from all sides.

The job of the workbench is to be a clamp for holding wood while you work on it. The best choice for this seemed to me from research to be the Tage Frid ("Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking Book 3: Furnituremaking") or Frank Klaus ("The Workbench Book" by Scott Landis) style of European cabinetmaker's workbench, but the way the shoulder vice stuck out at the left hand end of one side of the bench would be a problem given the dimensions of the garage. Reading Andy Rays book "Choosing and Using Hand Tools" Id paid attention to his comment on the difficulties of running into the shoulder vice.

Eventually with the help of drawings and a model, I worked out a layout which would work in my tiny garage. Here is the resulting bench in its original habitat seen through the sliding side door:

Please note - this is a "walkaround" bench as the title suggests - it will not work properly if moved up against a wall.

Christopher Schwarz in his excellent new book "Workbenches from design and theory to construction and use" says that the old style workbenches whose designs have stood the test of time are the ones to follow for the very reason that they do the job.

Mr Schwarz is right - there is nothing unusual about the underlying structure of the bench I've built, legs with two rails at each end are joined by long rails with stub tenons using threaded rod. The top is made up of sections which could be any timber you choose. Originally one part was a spare piece of joist left by the builders in the loft of a 1930s English house and another was an offcut of black cherry from a timber merchant's stock kept for enthusiastic amateur woodworkers. The removable middle to assist in clamping was a structural 2 by 4 as is the dog hole strip. The tail vice uses commercially available steel hardware. The difference is the placing of the shoulder vice in line with the length of the bench instead of at a right angle to it. That's the thing which gets the bench into a small space.

Building the bench

The "Walkaround" bench has proved useful to me through two subsequent house moves. Rebuilding it again in a one car garage in Seattle, although I have a lot more room, I decided to put it together exactly as I had before, including the errors.

To build a bench . . . you need a bench. This sounds daft, but becomes apparent in the building process. Even if you are building your first woodworking bench you need at least one level surface to clamp parts to and hold tools. Rebuilding this bench reminded me of this. When I first built it I was using a couple of basic model Workmates which I'd used for years. I still have these and used them to do this rebuild. A big reason why I decided to design the bench this way was to use elements I'd found useful in the Workmate. If you don't have Workmates, a door clamped to a couple of sawhorses will help. If you want a side bench to hold tools, for sharpening and so on, put this together first so you can use it to help build your woodworking bench. With a side bench make it the same height as your woodworking bench in case you want to make something big which bridges the two benches. A narrow side bench with a tool board above it and storage underneath is a very useful thing to have. I was lucky in Seattle because the landlord left a useful bench in the basement which acts as a good side bench.

Before you even think of choosing the wood for the bench get the hardware for the shoulder and tail vices, the round dogs and the holdfast which takes the place of a permanent left hand front vice whenever you need to clamp something to the face of the bench. There can be differences between a catalogue description and the product when it arrives in the post and it is simpler to start from having the real thing in front of you as a starting point.

With the end frames, 2 by 4s in England (1 3/4" by 3 11/16" planed) are available in relatively clear stuff (Yellow Deal, also known as Norwegian Pine), so I used pairs of these glued together to make the legs and end rails. If I was building a new frame here in Seattle I'd probably use Douglas Fir to do the same job because the main part of the top is an old Douglas Fir joist.

The top rails use haunched, wedged through tenons and the bottom rails use wedged through tenons. Using plain-sawn wood (sawn through and through) towards the centre of the log with heartwood on the outside produces wood with a tendency to cup. Putting the inside of the wood on the outside of the glued up piece, any tendency of the two halves of the rails or legs to cup merely adds to the mechanical locking action of the wedged through tenon joints.

When I built this bench originally I was in a hurry and ignored a basic rule - when you've glued the 2 by 4s together to make the legs and end rails, plane the legs and end rails to flatten out the joins before you glue the end frames together. Don't do what I did. Trying to plane out those overlaps afterwards without hitting the cross-members is fiddly.

Another rule I bypassed was to build the top first. As a result you can see in the photographs and the Google Sketch-up model:

that the hardwood top overlaps the end frames a little instead of being in line with them. I'm used to this but it might drive you nuts, so I recommend you put the top together first on sawhorses and take the measurements for the base from that.

The rails joining the two end frames have stub tenons to locate in mortices and are bolted to the end frames using threaded rod with nuts and washers. A slatted carrier dropped on the top of the rails at the other end from the vices supports boxes to hold items under the bench and adds weight to the structure. I habitually hang clamps along the rest of the rails.

You can build this bench out of any wood you choose. I used wood which was lying around to make the top of the bench because it was strong, would take a pounding and wouldn't worry me too much if I put a ding in it. The main part which carries the tail and shoulder vices is an offcut of joist left by the builders in the loft of my family's 1930's home. The timber was tough and dry. This acts as the top strut or backbone of the bench, holding it together, and is held on by four lag screws. You could make up this part of the top for your bench from four clear Douglas Fir 2 by 4s glued together, but shorten the legs accordingly to get the height to match the one you want.

Before I set the height of the bench I experimented using an old door clamped at different heights using scrap wood spacers and sawhorses. Do the same to find out which height suits you best. This will probably be a compromise, but I was surprised that the best height for me, using mostly hand tools, was 37 inches. I am 6' 2" tall and from many sources I'd thought a lower bench would be better, however I found planing or paring with chisels at this height takes the back ache out of the work for me. During the rebuild however I used an old wooden try plane to tackle flattening the top and had to stand on a pallet to get my weight over it, so bear this in mind if you use wooden planes a lot. Everyone is different and you may find that testing the sort of work you do gives you a completely different ratio of bench to user height.

The length of the bench will depend on the room you have available. I suggest you make the bench as long as you can and still be able to walk around it comfortably (taking into account the extent of the vice screws when fully extended). I thought about making my bench longer when reassembling it in an American garage, but the luxury of the extra space makes getting around the bench so much easier that I decided to leave it the same length as in England.

The depth of the bench depends on the top you want to make. A narrow bench is easier to reach across than a wide one, and the removable centre works best with clamps if the two sides are not very wide, but the point of this bench is that you can walk around it, so you may want to make a deeper one depending on space.

The length of the long rails connecting the end frames of the bench depends on how much overhang is required for the tail vice to operate and how much overhang you want at the far end from the tail vice. The distance required for the shoulder vice is not so critical as the tail vice in relation to where the vice face meets the bench, so start with the tail vice.

Using ready-made tail vice gear is a key part to how this bench works, so take your time getting this right, but also don't make the job harder than it has to be. The tail vice back plate will be fitted to the side of the main joist of the bench top plus a screwed on support so that the top and bottom plates can slide along it driven by the screw. Two things in the design of the vice hinder this - the vice screw nut which is held through the back plate by another nut which sticks out and the sliding plates which are grooved to run at the top and bottom of the back plate.

You can rout a slot along the main joist for the edge of the sliding plate to run in and you can also cut a recess for the vice nut to sit in, however this would require very accurate placing of the slot and, as you may not have a stout workbench to support the joist while you work on it, this can be tricky.

Instead I recommend making a spacer out of plywood to space the backplate and sliding plates away from the main joist and provide the recess for the vice nut. If you make the ply deep by gluing up thin pieces then you won't need to make a recess for the nut in the main joist, so do this first.

To mark up the spacer shape separate the backplate from the vice slides, removing the screw nut as well, and draw around it with a sharp pencil on the plywood, marking the screw holes and the vice nut hole at the same time. The edges of the top and bottom plates are grooved to slide along the top and bottom edges of the backplate. To allow this to happen smoothly mark the plate thicknesses along the top and bottom edges of the spacer before you cut it out, then cut to those lines rather than the full width of the backplate. Drill the screw holes in the plywood which line up with the back plate, then drill a hole large enough with some play for the vice nut to sit in and your spacer is complete.

Reassemble the vice, place the spacer behind it and screw the backplate to a piece of scrap wood with a couple of the screw holes only, to check that the vice runs freely before you continue. Leave it attached to the scrap wood for further testing as you make and assemble the parts of the vice. This will give you the right height to fit the backplate and the right distance for the vice jaws. Lining up the completed vice with wooden parts fitted to the benchtop is easier than trying to fit them afterwards.

The next step is to make a wooden core - a long box with one side missing. This has two functions. One is to act as a spacer to keep the two metal plates far enough apart that they do not to bind on the backplate, but not so far as to create play or make the vice sloppy in use. The second is to support the outer wooden parts of the vice.

This level of accuracy needed for the core would be tricky to carve from a single piece of wood without having a good workbench to support the work - and of course you are probably building the bench because you don't have one. The top and bottom of the core have to be strong and flat to do their work, so I used glued up plywood for the top, MDF for the bottom and 1/8th inch ply for the side. Offcuts of wood are cut to fit between these at each end, both of which are drilled for the bolts of the top and bottom plates and one of which is drilled for the vice screw to run through.

To get the height of the core right, assemble the top and bottom vice slides onto the backplate, letting them overlap at one end, and tighten the bolts until they won't slide. The gap between the slides now gives you the size of the core. Adding washers later between the bottom slide and the core as shims when assembling it will allow the slides to run freely in use.

Now you can choose the wood for the five parts of the rest of the vice. I used a spare piece of hardwood for the top and vice jaw and the same 2 by 4 material as used for the legs for the other pieces. For the sake of elegance I connected the front, back and sides of the vice with dovetails, but they could equally be butt jointed and dowelled into position if you prefer. The vice jaw is connected by screws to the hardwood top and the left hand end of the dovetailed section. Screws through the top of the core and holes in the top plate hold the hardwood top in position. At the right hand, handle end, two screws go through the flange of the vice screw bearing, the dovetailed section and into the vice core.

To screw the screws through the top of the core it is handy to drill access holes in the same place on the bottom of the core, large enough for your chosen screwdriver to go through to turn those screws. Take the top plate and use it as a template for the bottom to get those access holes in the right place.

When assembling the vice to the backplate the trick is to get the core over the nut and the top rail over the backplate before adding the bottom plate. By slackening the top screws through the core into the hardwood top enough to allow the top plate to rise over the backplate edge this can be done, then those same screws can be tightened through the access holes.

Three 3/4" holes are drilled through the top and front for round Veritas metal bench dogs. You can modify the design to use any kind of dog you like.

When you are happy with the action of the completed tail vice on its scrap wood support, draw lines showing the top of the vice and the top of the backplate in relation to it and the left end of the backplate in relation to the vice jaw travel to gauge the position of the backplate on the main joist of the bench. Make sure you don't take the vice to the far left of its travel at exactly the point where it would meet the other jaw - to do this take it all the way to the end, then subtract half an inch. In this way you will have a vice which will hold a thin piece of work tightly. Dismantle the vice and move to the main joist of the bench which should be supported on a couple of saw horses for the next steps.

Add a piece of wood to the bottom of the main joist with lag screws to take the base of the backplate. This piece needs to extend beyond the end of the main joist because it will be used to support one end of the shoulder vice arm. Mark up the position of the backplate, then drill two of the holes and attach it to make sure the reassembled vice lines up. Once you are happy drill the rest of the holes and complete the attachment.

Now you know how far apart your bench legs will need to be because the tail vice jaw meets its counterpart at the top of one of the rails. Rotate the main joist on the saw horses so that the bottom is uppermost, then using the top rails of the leg frames and a square mark their width underneath where you want them to be. It is more accurate to use the measurement between these pencil marks to work out the length of your long rails (adding the two stub tenon lengths) than by using a measuring tape. You can also mark the top rails and the underside of the main joist for drilling the lag bolt holes which will hold the main joist in place, two in each rail. Keep the lag bolt holes in the rail towards the tail vice edge round, but slightly elongate the ones towards the centre of the bench with a round file to allow for wood movement.

The rails will be held to the legs using lengths of threaded rod, nuts and washers.

The long rails have stub tenons running halfway through mortices in the legs. Mark up the centre of the mortices on the other side of the legs to find the centre then drill through. Find the centres of the tenon ends and drill through the ends using a long auger bit and through the rail sides using a Forstner bit for nuts on one end of threaded rods, the other ends of which go through the mortices and are held with nuts and washers on the outside of the legs.

The round Forstner bit holes in the rails for the nuts are squared off with a chisel at the tenon end to make a D shape. This makes it easier to hold the nuts on the inside of the rail with a wedged screwdriver while you tighten the outside nuts with a spanner (wrench). In the Sketch-up model you will see that I cut square holes all the way through the rails as another option.

With the rails in place and bolted up you have a platform which can take over from the sawhorses for building the rest of the bench top.

When you put the main joist on top and test screw through the rails to hold it on (or probably before) you'll see that the tail vice is pointed at nothing other than the top half of the rail-leg joint. This section is going to be filled in with the dog hole strip and the other tail vice jaw.

The dog hole strip on this bench is made of a replaceable 2 by 4 with a spacer of wood to make up the width to the edge of the legs and the vice jaw. This has two advantages over continuing the main joist to the edge of the bench. The first is that the edge, which takes a lot of punishment on a bench, can be replaced easily and cheaply. The second is that clamping to the edge is easier with thinner stock. The downside is that it would be unwise to sit on the edge of the bench, but that is not much of a limitation. In longitudinal strength this set-up has been used to pull apart old chairs for restoration as well as clamp boards for planing and so on.

Using the jaw of the tail vice to line up the hardwood opposing jaw at the top of the leg gives the width of the replaceable dog hole strip. To keep the dog holes a consistent 6 inches apart I first drilled two holes through a piece of scrap wood with a 3/4 inch Forstner bit which were the right distance apart and from the edge of the wood. Then I drilled the first of the holes in the strip using the template. A bench dog held the first hole in position while I drilled through the template to make the next. Then I switched the dog position to do the next and so on. Use either a drill guide or a drill press to do the drilling for accuracy.

Two long screws through countersunk holes at each end of the dog hole strip and one in the middle attaching the strip to the main joist hold it firmly.

Do not throw away the template - this is very useful for making jigs of all kinds with bases which locate on the round Veritas dogs.

To complete this side of the bench add a piece of hardboard to each hardwood jaw of the tail vice with the fuzzy side inwards using double-sided tape at each corner - the hardboard will protect your work.

The shoulder vice begins with an arm made of 2 by 4 stuff at right angles to the main joist. It is held in place with threaded rod, nuts and washers. The tail vice support is cut back to provide an end support for the shoulder arm. The end of the main joist is drawn on the arm to establish the correct width, then the arm is subdivided to determine the placing of the holes. These are then drilled through to the outside of the arm with a small drill then, with the arm lined up, the hole positions are transferred to the main joist end. The arm holes are enlarged to the diameter of the screwed rod and so are the ones in the main joist with a long auger bit. Holes are made from the underside of the main joist with a Forstner bit to allow for the nuts in the same way as in the long rails.

The nut for the shoulder vice screw is lined up on the inside face of the shoulder vice arm and a hole is drilled for the boss of the nut using a hole saw in an electric drill, allowing the flange to seat on the outside of the arm.

Line up the screw parallel to the top and side of the main joist with a square. Use washers under the corners of the screw nut flange to make any adjustments needed.

You'll see it is a long way from the end of the shoulder vice screw turned all the way in to the top rail of the leg frame. This distance will made up by the secondary top at that end and also by a box and two vice jaws.

"How do I use the two screws for the shoulder and tail vice without their handles colliding?", you might ask. The answer is that they share one handle which has a stop only on one end. Initially I found this slightly annoying as at the end of a turn the handle would fall through onto the floor, but I soon got used to anticipating this and also to swapping it around in either of the vices' handle sockets so it wouldn't do this.

Between the main joist and the secondary top will be a removable centre. I like to use a 2 by 4 for this as it will allow room for clamp heads to be lowered through and tightened, but does not need to be as wide as a conventional tool well. If I put tools on the bench I put them in a tray which stops them rolling around and potentially falling off the bench top. When flattening the bench top the 2 by 4, being softwood, does not interrupt planing between the main joist (Douglas Fir) and the secondary hardwood top.

The 2 by 4 is sited on the two end rails alongside the main joist and marked with a pencil to gauge two slots to be cut out so that it rests flat beside the main joist. Depending on the accuracy of the cuts you might need to shim one or both of these to lift the 2 by 4 or plane it down to fit, once the secondary top has been fitted.

The secondary top spans the rest of the width of the bench top and is of inch thick hardwood mounted on two spacers to match the height of the main joist. This allows for clamping light work, a small metal bench vice and other attachments, but is still strong enough to support planing against a stop held in the jaws of the shoulder vice.

Two lag screws are used to hold the secondary top in place, one in each top rail, but put spacers between this and the removable centre before drilling so that wood movement will not lock the centre in place. In the photograph I've used plastic card from a model making store which is 1/64" thick for this purpose. If the sections of your benchtop are wider, use a thicker spacer.

The end of the secondary top nearest the shoulder vice sits on a four sided box which is lag screwed to its underside to act as the backer behind the stationery jaw of the shoulder vice. This stops the shoulder vice pushing the secondary top out of alignment. Due to the size, shape and position of this support you might want to consider building it to include a cast iron vice to the side, though bear in mind the extra weight this would place at this end of the bench.

The centre part of the box is tenoned into the jaw support and the outside part is dovetailed to the end of the jaw support. The fourth part next to the leg rail is drilled and pegged to the centre and outside parts. I used square pegs glued and hammered through slightly undersized round holes at a 45 degree angle to give a diamond effect.

The shoulder vice moving jaw has a "tail" which moves along the underside of the main joist. Getting the moving jaw square to the fixed jaw may involve using shims and you can see one attached to the top of the "tail" in the photograph. There is no bottom rail under the shoulder vice tail in this design. To prevent the jaw rotating to the left there is a counterweight on the right end of the jaw. I've used an old brass car badge, but any similar weight will help.

The moving jaw side nearest the main joist is about 1/4 inch away from the side of the joist. This allows for the manual rotation of the jaw and its removal without unscrewing the flanged retainer attached to the jaw.

Now for the flattening of the bench top. There are four main parallel components to the top: the dog hole strip, main joist, removable 2 by 4 and secondary hardwood top.

The old woodworkers who were used to wooden planes always said a low bench was a good idea. This bench is higher in relation to my height as I find I can usually still plane with less back strain, but for flattening the bench top evenly with three different species of wood I used an old wooden trying plane which does not like tall benches. To solve this problem I raised the floor by putting down a pallet made of 2 by 4s at each end connected lengthwise by 2 by 6s. If you decide to do this, please don't forget the pallet is there and trip over it.

In place of a front vice on the dog hole side I use a screw adjusting holdfast which requires an iron collar placed where the stem goes through. This is only in the leg of the bench for as long as it is required, so it is quick to add and remove and I minimise the chance of running into it in a small space.

As alternatives you might prefer to make a wooden leg vice with a bench screw or use the modern Veritas holdfast which only needs a 3/4" hole to work. The reason why I didn't want a cast iron vice at that corner was that it is easier to plane without running into one at the end of the stroke. I also found most of the jobs I wanted to do could be done using clamps, the two vices or with an edge planing jig mounted on a chipboard base which fitted over the last two dog holes in the dog hole strip.

To get the distance right for the holdfast I assembled the bench first. The downside is that drilling and fitting the hole for the iron collar is not easy when the bench is built, with the result that there are spaces between the edge of the collar and the leg where it has been levered out in between fittings.

A piece of scrap wood with a recess for the holdfast's clamping pad protects your work from being marked by the pad's waffle iron grip.

The edge planing jig is very simple - a piece of chipboard and two pieces of scrap wood, one of which is cut at in half by hand at a dovetail angle (1in 7 or 1 in 6) to act as a sliding wedge to trap the edge of a piece of wood. The chipboard is drilled with two 3/4" holes using the template you used for the dog hole strip so that the base slips over the top of two dogs and will not move.

As you plane in the direction of the wedge the wood is held tight, but a knock in the other direction releases it. A piece of chipboard the same thickness is under the other end of the work to keep it level.

A slatted platform is knocked together to fit over the long rails at the end away from the vices. This is used for keeping heavy items like a small anvil, clamps and so on. This also provides removable mass to the bench making it sit solidly so it doesn't move around, except when you want to move it.

Good luck with any bench you decide to build, but if you choose this one I would be interested in any feedback you may have in working with it.