Working on the ground or floor is not comfortable for most of us, if you wish to work that way, find and follow someone who works in the Japanese tradition. (don’t leave me! but follow them also 😉 )
So the workbench was invented!
A workbench is a sophisticated work holding device designed to hold the work above the ground at a height that is easiest to work at.
look at it! practically oozing sophistication! 😉
OK that is my outdoor bench that I take with me for demonstrations and teaching classes. And it actually is a good bench, it does all of the things a good bench does, and it demonstrates to my students, who sometimes want to say they can’t afford a really good bench, that an expensive fancy bench isn’t what you need. This is a slab of soft maple @ 14″ wide and @ 6’6″ long, it’s on horses here, but it now has legs of its own that just pop out when I want to move it.
So what does it DO? Well mostly it does nothing 😉 It doesn’t bounce when I drive a chisel to make a mortice. So I don’t waste effort making it spring up and down. It doesn’t wiggle or walk across the floor when I am hand planing or sawing. It sits there and doesn’t move. there are a few holes in it so that I can use hold fasts, and there is a planing stop on my left as I stand in front of it. And the top surface is fairly flat so that I can use it as a reference while planing (to check another surface against).
And that is what you need in a workbench. Something that does not move and keeps your work at the right height.
What is the right height?
Well, newer people who haven’t tried the “right height” will argue extensively that the right height is too low and they would hurt their backs if they tried it… and then they hurt their backs at benches that are too high and say that this just proves them right…
Stand up straight, arms down at your sides, make a fist. the right height for you is just high enough so that your knuckles of your fist will touch the top. IT WILL SEEM TOO LOW. at first, then when you put a board on it to plane it you find that the strain that your back experienced at a higher bench goes away! why? Because you are now holding up your weight by leaning on the bench. (from your hands to the plane through the wood to the bench). And your weight on the plane makes the planing less effort. (imagine trying to hold the plane down and push it forwards if it was level with your shoulders while standing up, THAT would give you a back ache)
So when you plane or mortice or saw anything this height lets you put your weight into it and makes the work easier.
While it is very popular to make workbench tops out of solid slabs these days, you can make a very good bench out of thinner stuff (2 x 12’s) if you back it up with structure.
“in the absence of superior timbers, use superior construction” I don’t remember who said that but it is correct