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Newsletter Article: Must Have Workbench Accssories

Must Have Workbench Accessories

By Luther Shealy

20 January 2019


The most important tool for anyone interested in traditional handtool woodworking is the workbench.   I equate a good workbench to the foundation of a house.  A house rests upon its foundation, which must be rock solid and level for the house to stand up.  Similarly, when doing traditional handtool working, your workbench must be rock solid and have a flat top for you to properly perform woodworking tasks such as planning, sawing, and chiseling.   Essentially, the workbench is just a very big clamp with a flat reference surface. 


There are a lot of different styles of workbenches, but they are all designed to do the same thing: hold a piece of wood securely to the workbench so you can work on the wood.  In this article I discuss my favorite workbench accessories that I use to hold wood to my workbench.


First off, I am assuming you already have a solid, rectangular shaped, workbench with a flat reference top (If not, see Rob’s article on building his MDF and plywood workbench).  What workbench accessories do I recommend?  Here are my “must have” workbench accessories, in order of priority:


Vises, Dog Holes, and Dogs.  You must have at least one vise on your workbench; either a face or a tail (also called an end) vise.  I prefer my workbench to have both types of vises, but you can easily work with just a single tail vice.   A face vise or a tail vise should be capable of  holding a piece of wood to your workbench in two ways: 1) against the apron or edge of the workbench (usually for sawing), and 2) when used with bench dogs, flat on the top of the workbench (usually for planning).  If you can only afford one vise, then go with a tail vise.  There are two reasons for this: 1) A tail vise holds your stock along the length of the bench (as opposed to across the width of the bench) which is the easiest planing direction, and 2) a tail vise can be ambidextrous (works left or right handed) where as a face vice is one or the other once you attach it to your workbench.    





There is a subcategory of face vises called shoulder vises that I also like.  These face vises have the advantage of not having any vise hardware in the way of the vise's clamping area.  These vises are more difficult to install that a "standard" face vise and your work bench must be specifically designed to accept a shoulder vise.   (Note:  For those really into vises, I am also counting leg vises as a type of a face vise).



There is a subcategory of tail vises that only holds your stock flat on the workbench top; they do not hold stock against the apron of the bench: a wagon vise and a sliding tail vise.  While these type of tail vises are very useful, if you use one of them, then you should also install a face vise to your workbench to be able to hold a piece of wood against the bench edge.  Also, they are a bit more difficult to install than a “standard” tail vise.  I much prefer a wagon vise over a sliding tail vise as sliding tail vises are notorious for having droop problems. 



My favorite vise set-up is a wagon-vise with a face vise, but if funds are limited or you are uncertain of how to install a wagon vise properly, then I recommend using a face vise with a “standard” tail vise.  If funds are limited, start with the tail vise first and later add a face vise.   My recommendation for the best overall vise (value for the money and ease of installation) is a Sjorberg vise.  It works as a face or a tail vise and is the best mass-produced vise I know of at reducing racking (the tendency for a vise to skew when clamping something near the edge of the vise). 




I am lumping dog holes and dogs in with vises because they work with each other.  I like round dog holes as they  are generally easier to install than square dog holes (just drill a hole in the workbench top).  Dog holes are generally either 3/4“ or 1” in diameter.  I prefer ¾” dog holes because I think they are slightly more versatile, its easier to drill a 3/4" hole than a 1" hole, and 1" bits are expensive.  I prefer wooden dogs over metal dogs.  You can easily make your own wooden dogs and if you mistakenly hit a wooden dog with your plane iron it’s no big deal; hit a metal dog and you will probably be re-grinding and re-sharpening your plane blade.





Holdfast.  I love hold-fasts.  Hold-fasts are like having a third hand.  There are almost unlimited situations where a hold-fast comes in handy to assist in securing something to the workbench top.  The typical hold-fast works by wedging itself securely in a hole through the workbench.  You create the wedge action with a good downward tap on the top of the hold-fast with a mallet.  A sideways tap on the hold-fast and  it releases.  My favorite hold-fasts are from Gramercy and can be found at "tools for working wood".  I use two hold-fasts on my bench.  Notice the little leather pads that fit onto the hold-fast head to prevent them from marring the wood.  I found these on eBay for about $6.00.  Search ebay for “Leather Holdfast Covers” and you should find them.




Bench Hooks.  I use several different sizes of bench hooks on my workbench.  A bench hook has a lip on the bottom to grip the edge of your workbench and a fence on the top to hold your work-piece against.  I use mine for crosscutting stock and planing thin stock.   These accessories are super simple to make from scraps you have laying around your shop.  I also pull out my large bench hook and use it as a platform to do my chiseling on.  This way I ding up the bench hook not my workbench.  Any dings do not affect the operation of the bench hook.









Shooting Boards.  A shooting board will significantly elevate the precision of your handtool work; It gives you super power!  A shooting board allows you to precisely square the ends of your stock and create parallel edges.  I cannot imagine not having a shooting board.  You can make a shooting board from materials you probably already have in your shop, but unlike bench hooks, shooting boards require more precision in their construction.   Designs for shooting boards can get elaborate, however; I prefer my shooting board to be very simple and straight forward.  If you don't want to make your own shooting board then I recommend Rob's shooting boards.   I use a couple of different size and types of shooting boards.   My primary shooting board is used with my number 5-1/2 hand plane and is about 18” x 12”.  I have a much smaller shooting board (5” x 7”) that I use with my block plane for shooting small stock.  I have another shooting board for making perfect miter cuts.  




Planing Stop.   A planing stop is a fixture that quickly immobilizes your material so that you can easily plane it.  There are a lot of designs for a planing stop.  Here again I like the simple design, just a piece of wood at the end of my workbench to keep my workpiece steady.  I just glue and screw an approximately 12” x 1.5” x ½” piece of wood to a block then secure that block in my face vise.  I use a hold-fast to secure the other end of the planing stop and now I can plane even long boards.  Note: As long as my planing force is going into the planing stop.  You might think that a planing stop is redundant if you have a tail vise, but I use both to hold wood while I plane.  It just depends on the size of the wood and what I need to plane as to whether I use my tail vise or my planing stop, but I use them both.





Moxon Vise.  I secure a Moxon vise to the top of my workbench to cut dovetails.  The height of my workbench is sized for planing, meaning it’s a lower height (mine is 33” high).  While I can use my face vise to hold stock when cutting dovetails, at 6’ tall I find myself bending over to reach a comfortable sawing position.  Instead of bending over, I prefer raising my stock up higher and bending over less; I achieve this with my Moxon vise.  This is fairly easy to make, but the vise hardware can be a bit expensive.  I prefer Bencrafted’s Moxon Vise Hardware.  Note how I use my hold-fasts to secure the Moxon vise to my bench top.




Yoga Mats.  Invariably I use the top of my workbench for things I should not be using it for (e.g. assembly table, finishing table, glue-up table etc.).  When I do, I protect the top of my table with Yoga Mats.  These are very thin, but dense pads of rubber that roll-up for easy storage.  My local thrift store always seems to have several available, so for just a few bucks I have a protective top for my workbench.  If I destroy the yoga mat its back to the thrift store to grab a few more.




Workbench Brush.  My workbench gets covered with shavings and sawdust.  I don’t have a fancy air blowing system in my shop to blow off my bench; I just use a brush to sweep the stuff onto the floor.  The brush I fell in  love for doing this I picked up form Home Depot in the paint section for about $10.  Its called a 5" wide "flat stain block brush." 



Little Wood Pads.  I always need a wooden pad to protect something.  I got tired of digging through my scrap pile every time I needed one so I just made a bunch of them.  I store them in one of the very first boxes I ever made. Now they are within easy reach of the bench when I need one.