workbench height

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.

planing at the bench

 

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)

Dominy bench

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.

carving at the workbench

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.

leaning over the carving

Another task that a the low height is helpful with is mortising, both with a mallet:

mortising
 

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…

mortising w hand pressure

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.

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5 thoughts on “workbench height

  1. Just over two years ago when I made my first bench I ignored all advice (and it was pretty consistent) and made it 42 inches high – I’m 6’3″.

    I built a second bench last year and this one is 34″ high (the height of my pinkie to hand knuckle). The difference for planing is incredible. Getting your upper body over your workpiece makes planing so much easier. Morticing is likewise easier. And over the last month I have used it for sawing tenons and dovetails and have really got to love the height (or lack of it).

    Newly discovered bonus: you can sit on a sawbench (20″ high) and get up close to chisel out dovetail waste.

    Keep up the great blog Peter – we’re see you at PP later this year.

  2. Hmmm…. Funny you should mention bench height. By coincidence I was just idly musing about it in the shower this morning, just before I read your latest post on the subject.

    Some 20 years ago I got a quantity of 2 inch waney edged English Beech, enough to make a bench according to my preference; I now know it to be a “European” style – that is to say it has a tail and shoulder vice and a line of (wooden) dogs along the front edge. It’s fair to say it’s been in almost constant use since.

    I use it mainly for stock preparation by hand, (planning etc) and the occasional carving by hand. I don’t use mallets much in carving, but I do make a lot of dovetails by hand.

    I couldn’t decide on an optimum height at the time, but arrived at a solution by taping an old tape measure onto a vertical board and every time I passed I over a couple of days, I grabbed a hand plane and assumed the bench position by the measure. I noted the height off the floor, subtracted the mean thickness of a board – about 1 ½ inches – took the average and arrived at a height of 33” – I should add that I’m 5’8”.
    I did hedge my bets somewhat by building in a set of foot pads so that I could adjust the height if necessary by addition or removal of the same…. but it hasn’t been necessary.

    Anyway it’s very much a personal thing – if it works, then it’s right.

    Howard in wild, west Wales

  3. When power comes from electricity the benches get taller as the arms get weaker. I have benches at 32 and 34 inches. I prefer the shorter bench for most things hand done.
    Mike

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