One of the first habits I picked up when I got back into woodworking was wearing a shop apron. Because of my busy, but somewhat flexible schedule, I sometimes find a few minutes before work, or after lunch to make some sawdust, and I don’t always want that sawdust on my clothes when I return to work.
I didn’t buy into the idea because of style. I purchased a shop apron for its function, and it functions just as I need it to. I am hopeful that I will able to say the same thing about the workbench I am about to build.
I have purposely held off on talking about what I deem to be the most important aspect of the English (or Nicholson) style workbench, not to hold everyone in suspense, but because I wanted to do justice to the discussion and not just throw it in as a footnote as so often happens.
One of the things that convinced me of the work-holding capacity of the Nicholson bench is this excellent demonstration by Mike Seimens. In his capable hands the Nicholson bench is an edge jointing, face flattening, end grain working machine. I was blown away by how just a few simple concepts could come together to answer most (or all) of my work-holding concerns. Honestly the plane stops, doe’s foot and batten answer almost all of my needs on top of the bench (where I have struggled the most) but it was what was on the side of the bench that caught my attention.
Those big, beautiful, hole-riddled aprons!
It is probable that such aprons are in some ways the evolutionary requirement for rigidity in the design, and I know there are concerns in some minds about their usefulness, but to me they just scream opportunity. In order to explain what I mean I want to respond to the two main concerns folks seem to have about aprons on English style benches.
A) They get in the way when you want to clamp things to your benchtop.
First of all, isn’t that sort of the idea of the holdfast? At least the way I work I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve wanted to clamp something down to the bench top and would have been prevented from doing so by the aprons. The ends are open on the English bench, so if I really felt the need to clamp something to the bench top, that’s where I’d do it, or I’d just grab a longer clamp that could span the apron.
B) They inhibit storage under your bench.
Well, good. I’m not planing on building a cabinet under there and I don’t really want it to become junky.
I’m not trying to be cheeky here. I know that I need structure to avoid chaos and sometimes that means arranging the world around me so that I am not the one inviting chaos. Most all of my tools are in a floor chest now, and my saws hang on the wall. I want a shelf to store bench hooks, doe’s feet, and other shop appliances and that’s about it. Maybe a couple of planes.
So that’s what the aprons don’t do. What about their advantages?
I’m still on the fence about a leg/face vise. If I do install one, it’s likely going to be a traditional wooden leg vise or a standard sort of front vise. If I don’t install such a vise then the apron gives me some flexibility. Caleb James has a great take on the theme here and there are no shortage of similar set-ups.
This doesn’t rule out the “bench on a bench” double screw style vise which still appeals to me because of the additional height it affords when cutting tenons, dovetails and the like. At 6’4″ (194 cm) tall, I’ll take any extra height I can get for those operations without sacrificing optimal height for planing.
Vise or no vise, I can see the aprons being an asset, and a flexible one at that.
The aprons are also appealing to me because while I rarely clamp things to the top of my bench, I clamp things to the side of my bench all the time. I regularly use clamps to support over-sized boards for edge planing. (note, this board isn’t actually all that long, just for demonstration)
I have also found the side of my bench to be the optimal place to rig up a way to hold instruments while working on them.
I do this now with a couple of cam clamps clamped to the top and bottom of the apron on my bench. I can easily see a couple of pegs and a board supporting the bottom of the guitar and some sort of cam clamping brace for the top.
Bottom line is, that I’m convinced an apron on my bench would be more than just the thing that adds rigidity to the frame. I like the flexibility they invite. I like the capability they exhibit and I am excited about how they would serve as an economical solution to many of the needs I constantly encounter. Not unlike my shop apron, it seems like a flexible way to have all sorts of “tools” ready at my fingertips.