Hand tools can have that same spiraling cost. My first inexpensive big box store hand plane gave an idea on how much fun it was to use – and how hard it was to keep the wood steady under the blade. It only took a few minutes of work to understand the need for a sturdy workbench, and a way to firmly secure the work piece to that bench. It’s not simply the ease of use, the blades of hand tools need to be crazy sharp, which brings up safety concerns as well.
The key was doing this without pouring money into a fairly new hobby. A good bench needs to be heavy – two or three hundred pounds is not uncommon – to handle the torque of planing thick wood without scooting the bench across the shop floor, and to keep it from shaking and rattling during aggressive chiseling. A thick hardwood top is preferred, set atop massive legs, affixed with wide aprons, and outfitted with multiple vises.
And that can be expensive. Or difficult to build, made more poignant if you’re a beginner trying to learn the skills to say…build a bench. A tail vise is extremely useful since it allows long or short boards to be clamped across the bench top for work; but adding one is costly and no simple feat. A compromise can be had by avoiding expensive vise hardware, and instead constructing a simple, sturdy bench with common lumber. My first bench (yes, I have four now) is nothing more than three sheets of laminated plywood hardwood for the top, and a base of laminated 2x4’s. Only tools required were a circular saw and drill. Without a complement of vises, this simple design relies on versatile bench holds and battens to keep the work safely secured. The cool thing is that viseless benches are nothing new; Mike Siemsen of Mike Siemsen’s School of Woodworking has demonstrated a variety of hand tooling on a Nicholson Bench that has no vises. Check out his YouTube videos to watch him in action. The wood still must be anchored, and I’ve found an inexpensive setup using dog holes, bench stops, and battens to work very well.
Safe and Secure
Useful Accessories – All Important Bench Holds
A hand tool is like a boat; owning one is not the same thing as actually using one.
Once my 14 foot kayak was built, I was done. But only if "done" meant stored in the safety of my back yard. To get it on the water required transportation. Which meant a sturdy carrier (didn’t want to peer in my rear view mirror to watch my shiny new wood kayak tumbling down the road), and a truck to attach the carrier to. And unless my idea of kayaking was to float aimlessly on the lake, still needed paddles and life jacket. Might as well get a wet or dry suite for inclement weather. The good news is with all that equipment I really feel motivated (obligated) to use that boat.
Dog’s – pegs made of metal or wood – are stuck into holes (specifically, dog holes) drilled into the table top and side aprons. Drop the dog into the hole and you have something sturdy to shove the work against. Here is a Lee Valley’s Veritas Round Bench Pup, a solid brass 2-3/8 long rod that sells for $13.50 each.
A larger version at 6-1/2 in. is available, the Bench Dog, for $15.95. I add these dog holes sparingly, letting my project dictate what holes to add, largely because I hate punching holes into my newly constructed bench. Some folks go nuts and make the bench top look like a sheet of pegboard. To expand the functionality of dogs, Lee Valley also offers a clever improvement that gives them clamping capability. I have a set of their Veritas Wonder Pups, which gives me some tail vise like functionality.
These Wonder Pups are a bit pricey at $36.50 each. The post is 2-3/4 long with the dog head projecting about 7/8” above the table. A larger version called, not surprisingly, a Wonder Dog, has a 6-1/2 post and sells for $39.50. I’ve found the best use for these to be any task other than planing, unless it’s a very short plane. With the dog head sticking that high above the table it was too darn easy to smack the top of it with the toe or heel of my plane:
They were indispensable when I needed to align a board over the edge of the bench for rabbets and dadoes, and also worked fine as a surface mounted clamp for chopping out mortises. Two screw holes in the head of the Wonder Pups allow the attachment of custom tips for clamping irregular shapes.
When chiseling dovetails the wood must stay put on the benchtop, without any dogs blocking the ends of the board. The embodiment of elegant simplicity is the age old holdfast; a “magical” curved piece of metal dropped into a dog hole, and with a tap (or sometimes smack) of the mallet locks the wood on the benchtop, or even apron. Magical because it’s seem impossible for it to hold wood so well. For something that doesn’t need to be more than a bar of metal, there is a surprising number of expensive options; hand forged, built with levers, and adjustable screws. A low cost and reliable tool is the Gramercy Holdfast, the brand name from retailer Tools for Working Wood:
They keep the price down by using formed wire – kinda like a big nail – selling them for $19.95 each, or two for $34.95. I’ve found that two holdfasts handle the vast majority of clamping needs, not to say that a couple more to spread across multiple benches wouldn’t be nice. These tools have worked with all three of my benches that have dog holes drilled in them. The concern with holdfasts is how they’ll work with different bench construction in terms of wood and thickness; two of my benches have softwood tops, the third hardwood. The softwood tops are less than 2-3/4” thick and the holdfasts worked right out of box, while the hardwood bench has its dog holes drilled in the 4 in. thick skirt and didn’t work at first. As suggested by Tools for Working Wood, all it took was roughing up the hold with sandpaper and they worked perfectly in this thick bench.
The problem with planing wood pushed up against a dog is that the small size and smooth shape of the dog can cause the wood to pivot off it, especially if planing at an angle. That’s where a tail vise really shines – it pushes and holds the wood against the dog. Those of us without tail vises can look to bench, or plane, stops to help out. Another old, classic tool, the bench stop is nothing more than a piece of metal with teeth (elegant simplicity) set into the bench top. A board is then shoved into the stop, with the teeth digging into the end and holding it from moving (much). The first one I saw came from Benchcrafted.com (which they call a plane stop), a nice tool at a fair price of $24.00 plus shipping. Since we don’t want sharp metal nailed to the top of our benches, a through hole is cut into the benchtop and the stop is secured to a block of wood that then fits into this hole. A tap of a mallet is all that’s needed to adjust the height of stop, or when not needed knocked down below the surface of the bench. But it only works if that post fits just right in the hole; not too loose, not too tight. And it’s a fair size hole that you’ll need to very accurately cut, a recommended 2-1/2 x 2-1/2 in. opening. The thought of knocking out that big of a hole made me squeamish. Instead I settled on a slightly different styled bench stop, one that’s only mortised into the top of the bench:
This type of stop is permanently installed in the bench top with a spring loaded serrated-tooth jaw. A wing nut controls the height of the jaw, depending on the thickness of wood being planed, and can be screwed all the way down safely below the surface of the bench when no longer needed. Lee Valley sells a Mortised Bench Stop for a cheap $8.90 each, although somehow I missed seeing they carried it and instead got mine from EBay. First time I’ve bought something with absolutely NO make or mark on the unopened package. I have three of them with the only identification being they were made in Taiwan. Seem fine and each cost about eight bucks with shipping. They’re made of soft, cast aluminum to prevent accidentally damaging expensive hand tools. The only challenge for installing this device is chiseling out the mortise to fit all the curves and shapes of the bottom:
To do so I outlined the stop on the bench top with my marking knife, and then used a forstner bit to get to the initial depth. Next drilled out the center hole – all the way through the bench so that when fitting the stop you can reach under the bench to push it back out – and then router and chisel out the rounded shapes:
Two screws hold the stop in place, and the wing nut raises and closes the jaw. The edge of the stop is about 1-1/2 in wide, which is twice the width of my Veritas Bench Pup, but less than the 2-1/8 in with the BenchCrafted Plane Stop. And the BenchCrafted version has much more aggressive teeth; the serrated teeth in my bench stop don’t really dig into the wood no matter how hard I shove the board into it. Works fine when pushing the plane toward the stop, but on the return pull the board slips back with the plane. The board still needs some support at the back, and a simple piece of scrap wood takes care of this.
A Doe’s Foot, or batten, is nothing more than a board with a right angle notch cut in the end. With the help of a holdfast, the Doe’s Foot is wedged into the board to keep it from moving while planing:
It even handles aggressive cross grain planing; BenchCrafted also recommends a Doe’s Foot when using their plane stop.
The great thing about these tools is that they meet my current needs, at a low cost, while continuing to add value over the years. Even work on a classic, massive slit-top Roubo workbench with leg and tail vises benefits from these bench accessories. Such a bench is on my wish list, once I wrap up a dozen or so projects started and scattered throughout my cluttered shop. And once I’ve built that new Roubo bench it’ll need a bigger shop to really take advantage of it all it can do.
After all, it’s not my choice to get a new shop – it’s an obligation.