I know that I am a creature of habit, maybe most woodworkers are. Working alone in the shop, we develop patterns, methods and habits that through repetition become second nature. Then, off to a traveling demonstration and that’s when things become, well, different.
What I noticed when I got back to my shop from the most recent foray is bench height. Mine’s mighty low, and I like it that way. We have sometimes read that older benches were low to account for the amount of planing that pre-industrial woodworkers did in such quantity.
Looking at the Dominy workbenches at WinterthurMuseum, they are really low – the longest bench is 29” high, the others a fraction higher. Forget the notion that “they” were smaller back then, any difference in average height across the years is pretty negligible. Especially considering my height at about 5’9” which is as average as you can get. (here’s the main workbench from the Dominy shop – I copied this from Charles F. Hummel, With Hammer in Hand: The Dominy Craftsmen of East Hampton, New York (University Press of Virginia for the Henry Francis duPont Winterthur Museum, 1968)
So for planing a low bench allows you to lean into the work and use your lower body in addition to your arms. Fine & dandy, but what about carving? Many carvers prefer a higher bench, feeling that they are not hunched over as much.
As I have said before, I learned 17th-century carving from the objects, not from any craftsman. So it might be that my methods are bunk, but they get the work done, and I think the results bear a close resemblance to the originals. My recent “discovery” is that with such a low bench, I can lean all the way over the carving, and really get right on top of it. Working last week at a higher bench, I was sort of lost at sea; and couldn’t figure out what was happening until I got back to my bench.
My joiner’s workbench is 32” high, comes to about my knuckles when I stand at it with my arms dropped down at my side. My store-bought German workbench is just over 34” high. I checked the specs on some modern woodworking benches offered these days, and 35″ seems to be almost a standard height now.
Another task that a the low height is helpful with is mortising, both with a mallet:
And with hand pressure. Well, it’s more than just hand pressure. I use my lower body to help drive the tool here, and that’s where the low bench height is a benefit. I rise up on the ball of my foot, and shift my weight to bring the tool downwards…
Anyway, low bench height can be a good thing. For some people with weird habits. So if you want to experiment with a lower bench height, before you go cutting your bench’s feet off, you can try to lay a board to stand on, even prop it up on timbers if you need to come up more. It might be worth a shot.
Back when I first made this bench a friend of mine tried it & said it was the worst bench he’d ever used! But his legs are too long.