There’s a long-standing debate in our home about whether you sit on the floor or in the floor. It boils down to a regional difference in how we express what is actually happening when you get down off of a chair and put your posterior directly in contact with the floor in question. To me, one seems right and the other seems like a physical impossibility, but I understand that when we say them we mean the same thing.
The other day I was working on cleaning up the end grain sides of a chair seat and I caught the edge, chipping away the front corner. My first thought was “design change!” but the chip was so clean that I knew a little wood glue would make it disappear. That is, if I could only figure out how to clamp it. I grabbed the curved off-cut, but that was no help. I puzzled over it for a moment and then I realized, the tool I needed was right in front of me – my workbench.
In short order the chip was glued, clamped, cleaned and invisible. This would have been an inconvenience if I needed to use my vise for something else, but there’s always something else to do that can eat up the 30 minutes that wood glue needs in clamps. Luckily I was about at a stopping point when this happened, so I just clamped it and let it sit overnight.
The whole thing got me thinking about the way that we approach our workbenches. Do we work on them or at them? I know that when I first decided I was going to get back into woodworking in earnest I built what might best be called a big work table. It’s a 4′ x 6′ plywood topped table framed out in 2″ x 6″ material with 4″ x 4″ legs. I still have it stuffed out in my shed where it’s currently serving to hold a router dovetail guide, a belt sander and a whole bunch of other things I never use. I built it when I reasoned that I needed something to work on and a table like that seemed like a solution. As my work became more and more hand tool centered, I realized I needed different things. I scabbed on a vise and a simple planing stop, but the table skittered around the garage whenever I started planing.
As a work table it was fine, but as a workbench it wasn’t working for me. It was working against me.
At some point I decided to build the knock-down English bench I have now, and it has changed everything. I no longer thing of my bench as that thing I work on. Instead I approach it like any other big tool that I happen to be working at. Like my other major free-standing tools, it exists to solve a problem (or many problems). Unlike my band saw or my drill press, however, its strength is in its ability to adapt itself to the work at hand – like a magical cross between a really heavy table and a giant Swiss army knife. I use it hard and it shows. There’s not much it can’t do, but if it can’t I’m not afraid to modify it until it can.
It’s no sacred altar.
At or on? Maybe they mean the same thing? Maybe this is splitting hairs (or prepositions) but I really do wonder if I approach the work differently now that I think about my bench in this way. Do you?