Seeing something that isn’t there.

It’s harder than we sometimes think to see when something is missing. I have listened to Dr. Matthew Sleeth tell the story about how when he was a new resident he was learning to read x-rays with a group of other residents and the chief of radiology started asking questions about one particular x-ray. At first they struggled, and then they started getting the hang of it, learning to uncover even subtle details like whether a person was right or left handed, what kind of work they probably did, etc.

After about an hour with this one x-ray they thought they had finally gotten the hang of interpreting the image before them when their instructor told them that although several highly qualified people had read this x-ray as normal, he believed this woman had cancer.

The clue was something that wasn’t there. Namely her left clavicle. It had been eaten away. They had stared at this x-ray for all that time and had all missed what was (or wasn’t) right in front of them.

Point is, it’s hard to see what isn’t there.

In coming to terms with my current work bench and its limitations, I’ve had to ask myself about what this bench is and isn’t. I’ve had to consider what is missing and what is lacking in order to rest upon a bench that will solve those concerns. It might be argued that every bench is a compromise in some way, but I prefer to think that every bench is probably right for someone and some work. The question then becomes which bench is right for me and the way I work? What am I missing?

The one thing that is missing is weight. My bench struggles to stay in one place when it’s being used.

Another thing that’s missing is work-holding capacity. Yes I have a face vise. Yes, it does a decent job with holding stock so I can plane sides and joint panels. Yes it has even served for re-sawing, cutting tenons and dovetails and many of the other sundry tasks I put it through. But what about working on the faces of boards?

Because my current bench is 1/2″ thick plywood I sometimes struggle to hold boards flat to the bench, even with a planing stop. I’ve found myself rigging up all sorts of ways to do the work that could easily be accomplished by a hold-fast. Plus my vise is too either too high or two low. It’s too high to really use my planes to their full advantage and too low for dovetails and tenons. I intend to incorporate a bench top, twin screw vise into my work routine with the KDN, in order to raise the work up and save my back some bending.

Seeing what’s not there can also teach some positive lessons. There’s no tool tray on the back of my bench at the moment and that has helped me decide that there won’t be one on the next one I build either. I know that with the way I work a tool tray would be a boneyard of debris and clutter and a constant battle for me to keep clean. I like a flat “level” surface that I can brush off at the end of the day. It encourages me to clean my tools and put them where they belong. It also encourages me to be thoughtful about preparing for and considering the work I am doing. An exercise in mindfulness.

I also know that I don’t want storage under the bench. At least not a cabinet. There are enough places for junk to accumulate. One simple shelf seems like it would accomplish most of what I need.

Again, this is just me. If you want to go buy yourself a Sjobergs have at it. If you want to go full Frank Klausz who could blame you. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past year about workbenches it is that there is no norm when it comes to this holy altar of our craft.

These things aren’t made to worship, they’re made to work. Or at least they ought to be.

Seriously, what else am I missing?


8 Comments Add yours

  1. momist says:

    Well, you did not mention workholding to the _front_ of the bench, which is what a thick apron can give you. This is conventionally only used for when planing the edges of long boards, but it can also be utilised to present the end of a board at a convenient height for dovetailing (negating the need for that bench on bench) or even just for sawing vertically down when ripping shorter pieces, although the face vice is good for this.
    I am still arguing with myself over the need for an apron. Planing long board edges can be arranged with the face vice and a row of support holes in the leg at the other end, and a bench on bench has more uses than the apron.


    1. momist says:

      Oh, and at the risk of ‘hogging your blog’ ™ I can also make another suggestion. Have you ever worked with a really large capable face vice, with quick release? I for many years had a smaller screw vice similar to yours on my plywood topped bench, which I one day replaced with a very ancient “Parkinson’s Perfect” vice, 15″ capacity. This monster is huge, heavy, smooth and I am thoroughly in love with it. I have never used it’s huge maw to the maximum, but in it’s grip nothing ever moves or slips and it does not mark my work. I have gained much confidence in my workholding using that vice.


      1. This is exactly the kind of conversation I was hoping this blog would engender. Any chance you would consider guest blogging your bench build when you start?

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I held off on talking about the apron because that’s probably the most important aspect of the bench for me, but I do intend to talk about that in the next post.

      Even with my decision to build the KND a (good) vise of some sort is still not out of the question though, so I’m glad you brought that up.


  2. Brian Clites says:

    Hi Jim, i think you’ve hit all the major issues, except for a bench made just for YOU. What does a luthier’s bench need that a casework bench might lack? (And vise versa.)


    1. Excellent question, and one I’m not sure I have an answer to yet. Although I’ve worked on acoustic guitars before, this is the first one I’ve built and that is quite a different matter.

      You can ask Kieran about this, but speaking for myself I think ideally this would be two different benches. One for stock prep and another smaller one for assembly. One bench could certainly suffice (and a french bench would do quite well) but when working with hand tools many of the stock prep stages are not a lot different (just more specialized) than other work .

      the one thing I continually found myself needing to do was hold the body and neck upright against the sides (I hesitate to call them aprons for fear of offending real workbenches) of my bench. I’m going to get to that in the next post though.


    2. Brian

      From my perspective there is not too much difference between a bench that is good for lutherie and one that works for casework (although there are many luthiers who have a different approach to me, and may well have different requirements). I’ve built guitars on a number of different benches, including my current Sjoberg (don’t judge me), and the plan for 2016/17 is to build an oak Roubo, which I anticipate will be just as effective for lutherie as it is casework.

      I would definitely agree with Jim’s comment that two benches are beneficial for lutherie, and I’m planning to build a 4 foot long knock-down Nicholson next year on which o stand the go-bar station, solera, or thin panel gluing jig.

      The specific requirements of the main bench (beyond being flat, stable, and rigid) are the ability to secure a number of supports and holding devises either to aprons or a sliding deadman, and being able to use a repair vise (normally secured through a dog hole). So on that basis, either a Roubo or Nicholson would work, depending on personal preference.

      As I said though, these are just my personal thoughts and I’m sure many luthier’s would disagree or have other specific requirements.



      1. I hadn’t thought about my go-bar deck. I just sort of heft it onto and of of my workbench when needed.

        Hmm…. honestly if I had a purpose built shop for luthiery I would have a 2′ x 6′ table up against the wall with my go-bar deck on the corner and just enough space to do the small finiting and set-up work that accompanies repairs and assembly and then a French or English bench for most all of the other work.

        No judgements about the Sjoberg BTW. I could easily (and happily) work on one of those for the rest of my days. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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