WoodCentral's Book Reviews
Workbenches by Christopher Schwarz

From Design & Theory to Construction & Use
by Christopher Schwarz

Popular Woodworking Books: 2007
Hardcover, 144 pp., $29.99
ISBN 978-1-55870-840-2

    Woodworking books are usually purchased for their information value, not their scintillating prose; but, once in a while, a book comes along that is both informative and engagingly written. Workbenches is one such book. Written and photographed by Popular Woodworking editor Chris Schwarz, this gem of a book (his first!) is a detailed yet accessible treasury of in-depth workbench information, savvy and lore, tastefully illustrated and delivered in a smart, conversational style that makes it a pleasure to read.
     Informed by the author's extensive woodworking experience, scholarly research and insatiable curiosity, Workbenches is packed with insights into what makes a good bench, as well as the shortcomings and disadvantages of many kinds of workbenches and bench features, both historical and new.
     The first couple chapters are devoted to workbench basics: sizes, materials, design and features, including detailed descriptions, pros, and cons of various vises, hold-fasts, hold-downs, bench dogs and deadmen.
     The next chapter is all about workbench functions - planing, assembly, sanding, routing, carving, drilling, chiseling, biscuiting, sawing, dovetailing, mortising and more - in each case followed by Schwarz's "good/better/best" recommendations for commercially available and shop made accessories that you can incorporate into your own bench design. Here is where Schwarz's thorough understanding of bench functionality really shines through. Though it gets a bit repetitive in places, this journalistic approach leaves nothing much to the imagination. If you know what kind of work you will be doing on your bench, you can easily put together a wish list of ideal features and accessories, with a clear understanding of the reasons for your choices. Even experienced woodworkers will find enlightening information in this chapter. You will also realize that no one bench can possibly handle every kind of function a woodworker could ever want. The solution is simple: make as many benches as you need.
     Schwarz has a keen appreciation of historical benches, from the days before power tools changed the face of woodworking. His underlying premise in this book is that the workbench was largely perfected about 300 years ago and, with notable exceptions, has not evolved substantially since then. It is enlightening and entertaining to read his barbed critiques of some of the boneheaded designs that have passed for workbenches in the past century or so, compared to some of the great designs of the 17th and 18th Centuries such as the English-style bench and the French-style bench, both of which Schwarz has researched and replicated in his own shop. He devotes three chapters of the book to detailed explanations, crisply-drawn plans, and parts lists for both these designs. If you don't want the whole bench, you can build selected features from the plans.
     In the final chapter on maintenance and accessories, Schwarz demonstrates, in step-by-step fashion, the procedure and rationale for flattening a bench top. He also illustrates the construction and use of important helper accessories such as bench hooks, shooting boards, planing stops and planing boards, which , in conjunction with a well-designed bench will enable you to accomplish the majority of hand-tool (and portable power-tool) operations gracefully and efficiently. As he says in his epilog, while some of the best work has been done on some of the worst workbenches, a good bench will make every workholding task easier, and, by extension, your woodworking experience more rewarding. These are compelling reasons to revisit the principles and practices of bench design and construction. Chris Schwarz is about as capable a tour guide as you will find. I recommend this book highly.
. . . Ellis Walentine