Craftsman’s workbench

By Gary Walchuk

Photo by Roger Yip

After many months of researching, dreaming and drawing, I finally came up with a design for my craftsman’s workbench. While planning, I took time to consider as many workbench features as possible. Mine is smaller than a lot of showcase bench designs, but it’s well suited to my  basement workshop. It’s also sturdy enough to handle most of the chores required for the size and type of woodworking I enjoy. If you’re ready for a challenging project that will help to improve everything else you build afterward, this bench is worth your time.

I do a lot of routing and belt-sanding, and for this, the end vise, bench dogs and bench surface hold much of my work in place. Still, I love traditional tasks such as hand planing, sawing and chiselling, especially when working on handcut dovetails. For these jobs, I really value the workings of a good shoulder vise.
To add extra storage capacity and weight to this smaller bench, I planned for a bank of drawers over the plain stretcher boards normally used to tie the leg assemblies together. The drawers are useful and they add stability to the whole bench, making it rock solid.

The wood I chose for this project dictated the final dimensions of the bench, including some rough-sawn two-inch-thick curly maple and some 1 1/2″ plain maple for the top. After sizing and hand planing the curly maple, I could only get 1 7/8″ of smooth thickness out of my stock, so all of the thicker parts listed had to be made from laminated boards. Wherever I had to laminate two pieces of wood, I took care to use the showiest board face on the outside for the best visual effect. If you can find lumber thick enough to build without laminating, you’ll save hours of heavy-duty resawing, planing and gluing.

It’s a good idea to have the vises and your other bench hardware on hand so that as you build you can keep in mind just how they’ll fit in. To make this bench come together as the flat, square tool it needs to be, take extra care to make your joinery exact and check for squareness frequently. Dry-fitting parts is essential before you get out the glue bottle. Once these hefty parts are joined, you won’t be able to make adjustments. Any holes to be drilled are also easier to make and generally straighter if done with a drillpress while parts are still separate. If you chamfer and sand all edges and corners before assembly, you’ll also save time in the end.

There are four main assemblies in this craftsman’s bench: the top, the left-leg frame, the right-leg frame and the drawer unit.

In describing bench locations, I’ll call the drawer side of the bench the front, the shoulder vise is on the left, and the end vise is on the right.


Building the Benchtop

Start by milling wood for the laminated top. You’ll need 13 pieces of maple in all, each measuring 1 3/8" thick x 2 1/2" wide x 54" long. I glued them together on edge to create a 2 1/2"-thick top that’s about 18" wide and 54" long. Despite the size, joining the benchtop stock is relatively easy if you do it right: I used five biscuits between each board, about 10" apart, to keep the top edges aligned and flush while clamping. I also found it handy to glue together only three benchtop pieces at a time before letting them dry. That was all I wanted to handle in one go. As you work, alternate any cup-shaped curve of growth rings upward and downward to help the completed benchtop to remain flat.

Number the top edges of the boards to keep them in order. Take the two outer ones (No. 1 and 13) and bore 3/4"-diameter bench-dog holes on centre through the 2 1/2" thickness, starting three inches from one end and every six inches from that point on.

Before joining the three pieces nearest the shoulder vise, drill 1/2"-diameter holes, 1 1/4" down from the top edges and six inches in from the ends. These accommodate the single threaded rod that secures the vise arm to the benchtop. The three holes must line up after the three parts are glued together, so take your time. Before gluing this set of three to the fourth piece from the vise, cut a square notch into the bottom edge of the fourth piece using a saw or router. The idea here is to create enough space to get a washer, nut and wrench into the space and tightened on the end of the threaded rod. The notch should be centred at six inches from the end, approximately one inch wide, two inches long and 1 3/4" deep.

Now you can go ahead and glue together top boards No. 1, 2 and 3, followed by 4, 5 and 6, and then 8, 9 and 10, and finally 11, 12 and 13. Next, join No. 3 to 4 and 10 to 11 to form two near halves. At last, join board No. 7 (the centre one) to boards 6 and 8 to complete the lamination. While you work, maintain a flat, even surface throughout. It’s quite easy to build a twist into the top if you’re not checking and correcting the assembly as you work.

After all the pieces of wood are dry, clean up both ends of the benchtop with a hand plane, making sure it’s square, straight and flat. Scrape excess glue from the entire top and check for flatness from end to end.

Next, prepare a router spinning a 1/2" straight bit. Using a guide fence, rout a 1/2" x 1/2" groove, one inch down from the upper surface along the end grain edges of the top. These will hold splines that secure the end caps.

Cut the back and front aprons to size now. Leave the left end of the front apron square, but cut 1" x 3/4" notches from the top and bottom corners of the right end of the front apron. You need to apply this same treatment to both ends of the back apron too. Drill a 1/2" hole into the front apron to match the hole in the front edge of the benchtop. Finally, glue and clamp both aprons to the benchtop, ensuring that all upper edges are flush.


drawer detail

how off your joinery skills with contrasting wood species for the dovetails, and use jatoba for drawer pulls and walnut for the box front.

storage detail

The drawers don’t just provide storage. The design has a wide-open flat space and top accent rails to keep tools from rolling of.

drawer detail








Bench-dog holes are spaced every six inches along the top. They include a slight chamfer around the opening to prevent splintering.

Vise Squad

Now it’s time to plane, scrape or sand the entire top perfectly level. When you’re done, belt-sand the top with the grain using a 120-grit abrasive. Scrape the excess glue from the top’s underside. If you’re using the same model of end vise that I did, you’ll need to rout a 1/2"-deep recess into the bottom surface of the benchtop to mount the hidden vise carriage. The benchtop will be just two-inches thick where the recess is cut.

Place the vise carriage in position to help you visualize the grooves required to accommodate your particular hardware. I created 1⁄4"-deep x one-inch-wide grooves so the vise guide rods don’t touch the bench bottom surface.

Cut the right-hand end cap to shape now, using your tablesaw. This piece serves as the inside jaw of the end vise. Rout a 1/2" x 1/2" groove along the inside face, end to end, one inch down from the top edge. Chisel notches into the ends of the caps to fit the tenoned ends of the aprons you made earlier, then cut a one-inch-wide spline from 1/2" plywood to fit into the groove. Temporarily press and join the end cap to the bench end.

Follow any instructions that came with your vise hardware to guide you through marking, drilling and installation. With the metal parts mounted, cut the end vise's jaw to shape now, allowing an extra 1/16" of wood along the top edge. You’ll plane this down at the very end of the project process, making the vise jaw match the benchtop surface perfectly. Drill a bench-dog hole in the vise jaw to align with the holes you prepared earlier in the benchtop.

The vises


Walchuck loves cutting dovetails, and his new shoulder vise—with spalted maple atop the vise block and jatoba for the shoulder vise board—makes it a pleasure

vise below

Seen from below (above) and along the side (below), the end vise is a heavy-duty piece of equipment that won’t back down from a job. The ends of the wooden jaws are trimmed narrow, exposing the ends of the bench dogs. This makes it easy to remove the dogs with your fingers


Shoulder Vise

Now for some work on the left end. It’s a small part of the workbench, but intricate. I recommend that you look closely at the plans while you read the next part of my instructions.

Cut the left end cap and vise arm to size, then mark and prepare the large dovetail that joins them at a right angle. Check this for a perfect fit, but don’t apply glue yet. Instead, rout a 1/2" x 1/2" groove into the inside surface of the end cap to mate with the groove in the bench end, one inch down from the top surface. This groove runs from the back end to just short of the dovetail. Saw the stepped, two-inch-radius roundover on the open end of the arm using a bandsaw. Counterbore a one-inch hole that’s 1/2" deep to accommodate a nut and washer.

Next, drill holes for the vise screw and a 1/2"-diameter hole for its threaded rod. Locate this hole 1 1/4" from the top, and six inches from the right side of the end cap. Notch the back end of the end cap to fit into the back apron. Rout the spline groove in the arm from the dovetail to the threaded rod hole. Cut a plywood spine to fit, then dry-fit the arm to the end cap (the end with the dovetail) and dry-fit the end cap to the bench ends. Once again, check and adjust the joint for a perfect fit.

The vise block is an integral part of the shoulder vise, providing much of the strength required in the dovetailed corner. First, cut four pieces of 3⁄4"-thick Baltic birch plywood to 6 1/4" x 7 1/2", then glue and clamp them together to make a three-inch-thick block, with the sides perfectly square. Next, rout a 1/2" x 1/2" groove along all four sides of the block—exactly 3⁄4" down from the top surface.

Cut the vise guide to size. This guide will end up along the right-hand side of the vise block. Mill a 1/4"-wide x 1/2"-deep rabbet along the top inside edge of the guide, leaving a 1/4" x 1/4" lip along the top outer edge. Rout a 1/2" x 1/2" groove 1 3/4" from this top edge on the outward-facing side along the entire 7/1/2" length. The tenon on the inner end of the vise jaw will glide along this groove to keep the vise horizontal. Glue and clamp the guide to the block, with the rabbeted-top inside edge flush with the block’s top surface. Note how this step traps one of the block grooves to provide a pathway for the threaded rod.

I used a 1/4"-thick piece of spalted maple to finish off the block and fill in the rabbet in the vise guide.

Cut the jatoba shoulder vise board to size, then create a 1/2" x 1/2" tenon on the inner end to fit the groove of the vise guide. Again, you’ll need the vise instructions to mount the metal hardware properly and fine-tune the vise for smooth operation.

Cut splines to fit the vise block to the benchtop and the block to the vise arm—be sure not to block the rod holes or grooves. Dry-fit the entire assembly, including the threaded rod. If everything fits well, make two marks on the outside face of the end cap, four inches and 16" from the back end. Each mark should be 1/1/4" down from the top surface. Drill 3/4"-diameter holes here, 1/4" deep to countersink a #14 cup washer, then secure it with #14 x 4 3/4" screws (Lee Valley #93Z7202). Predrill pilot holes through the cap, through the spline and into the bench end. Now it's time to test your vise.

When the vise is working smoothly, take it apart, glue the spline to the cap, then glue the splines to the block and join the dovetail. Glue the vise block to the cap and vise arm only. After the glue has dried, reattach the unit to the bench with two screws and threaded rod, but no glue. The shoulder vise accent made of jatoba is just that: a decorative touch. Cut it to size, drill the central hole to match the size of your vise screw, then rout the perimeter of the accent piece with a 1/8" roundover bit before gluing it to the front of the vise arm.

Leg Assembly

Cut the feet to size now and prepare rounded profiles on the top corners as shown in the plans. You’ll need to prepare the legs now too, as well as the top rails. There are two rails involved—both ends of the left leg assembly and one end of the right leg assembly need to be rounded to a two-inch radius.
Next, create 1 1/4"-thick tenons on all but one of the ends of the legs. The tenons should be 2 1/2" long at the bottom ends and 1 1/2" at the top ends, with the exception of the right front leg. To join this leg to the right top rail, first cut a 3⁄4"-thick x two-inch-long tenon on the end of the rail and a matching mortise into the inside edge of the right front leg. The plans show the details.

Cut mortises into the top edges of the feet and the underside of the top rails. I used a 1 1/4"-diameter Forstner bit in a drillpress to hog out most of the waste wood, then chiselled the mortises square. When you’re that far, cut the foot bottoms to shape, then dry-fit the pieces to check your work. The leg assemblies should be 30" high, with the outside edges of the legs 17" apart. The smaller left-side front leg should be 4 1/2" from the left middle leg. When all of your leg assemblies are fitting correctly, glue them up into square and flat frames.

I added cherry dowels strictly for show. Install these by drilling 1/4"-diameter holes about one inch deep, apply glue to the hole, tap in a dowel and cut it flush to the surface of the foot.


leg accent

The left end cap joins to the vise arm with a large-scale dovetail, a fail-safe method for parts under pressure. Walchuk has added a signature bookmatched piece of spalted maple to the vise block for a bit of pizzazz. Cherry dowels add visual contrast to the feet and hold the leg tenons snug

Drawer Unit

Build some storage features into your bench in the form of drawers. Cut the top, bottom and sides for the drawer unit to exact sizes listed. Cut the accent strips as well, but make these slightly oversized: 1/4" x 3/8" x 15 3/4" is about right. Glue and clamp the 3/8" surface of each strip to the top and bottom edges of the plywood sides, leaving the outside edges of these strips protruding slightly. With the edging in place, each side should now be exactly six inches high.

After the glue has dried, rout a 3/4"-wide x 1/2"-deep rabbet along the inside surface of the top and bottom edges. This step leaves you with a 1/4" x 1/4" accent strip glued to the outer ends of the rabbets. Make the outside surface of these accents flush to the side surface with a hand scraper.

Lay the top and bottom assemblies on a flat surface, inside faces pointing upwards. Measure 11" from each side and mark the lines for 3/4" dados that will run the width of the top and bottom. This should leave you a 15" space between the two dado grooves. Rout these now to a depth of 1/4" with a straight bit in a handheld router.

Have a look at the materials listed for the sizes of the side stiffeners, partitions and edge caps. Cut them all to exact size, then glue strips of hardwood to the front edges of all four parts to cap the raw plywood edges.

Double the thickness of the sides by gluing and clamping a stiffener to each inside surface, aligning the front edges flush. Glue and clamp one edge of the partitions to the dados located in the bottom only. Again, make sure the front edges of the partitions are flush to the bottom, then glue and nail down the sides, making the joints tight and square. I recommend you drive a few countersunk screws up from the bottom into the stiffener to add strength.

Next, cut the back panel to size, then glue and nail it to the top surface of the bottom and the back edges of the partitions and the stiffeners.
Cut the drawer runners, then glue and tack these to the top surfaces of the bottom, located tight against the partitions and stiffeners. Complete the drawer unit by gluing and clamping the top in place. Cap all of the raw plywood edges with hardwood edging on the front and back of the drawer assembly.  This should make the unit six inches high, 39" wide and 17" front to back.

Cut the supports to shape and pre-drill holes that you’ll use later to attach the top and bottom ends to the bench legs. Prepare a 1 1/16"-diameter countersunk hole, 1/8" deep, to house the head of a knockdown 2 1/4" screw. Glue and screw the supports to the drawer unit sides, locating the front edges of the supports 1/2" back from the front and back edges, positioned 12" apart.

Accented Drawers

Get ready to build drawer boxes. I made mine with 9⁄16"-thick maple sides and backs. I also handcut dovetail joints to connect the sides with walnut fronts, though any kind of joinery can be substituted. The backs are set into dados 3⁄8" from the back ends of the sides, with veneered plywood bottoms that slide into 1/4" x 1/4" grooves. Cut the drawer fronts to size, then anchor them to the drawer boxes with screws installed from inside the drawers.

Cut the top accent rails now. Glue them to the drawer unit top, from support to support, 1/2" in from the front and back edges. These rails add flair and keep tools from rolling off.

Final Assembly

Clamp the drawer units to the inside of the leg assemblies, positioned 12" up from the foot bottoms. With everything aligned, predrill holes and screw the supports into the legs, which should now be 41" apart. Set the benchtop temporarily onto the top rails and position the left side six inches proud of the left leg assembly. The right front leg should be flush with the front apron, and the drawer unit should be parallel with the front apron. Use a pencil to mark the location of the top rails onto the underside of the benchtop, then lift it off.

The idea now is to add support strips between the top rails and benchtop’s bottom. Carefully measure the spaces to make custom-sized strips to fill the gaps. See plans for details. Glue the support strips to the rail tops, then reposition the top and install a couple of 43⁄4"-long screws through the bottom of the rail, through the support strips and into the benchtop.

Using a hand plane, smooth the end vise until it’s flush with the benchtop. Check the entire top for flatness using a pair of winding sticks. You can eliminate small amounts of twist in the top with a hand plane, although it is a lot of work. Complete the project using a router to cut a tiny chamfer around each bench dog hole. Sharp hole edges here would chip during use. Finish any edge chamfering with a file, sand wherever needed and complete any touch-ups.

I protected my bench with many coats of Waterlox medium sheen, a tung oil product. I even applied it to the benchtop’s bottom! With your bench now complete, it’s payback time. All your hard labour will pay off for years, offering a great space to build many more projects.

Tools & Materials

Part Material Size (T x W x L*) Qty.

For each benchtop

Top strips maple 1 3/8" x 2 1/2" x 54" 13
Back apron maple 1" x 4" x 55 1/2" 1
Front apron maple 1" x 4" x 54 3/4" 1
Right end cap maple 1 3/8" x 5" x 20" 1
End vise jaw maple 2 1/2" 5" x 20" 1
Left end cap maple 2 1/2" x 4" x 30 3/4" 1
Splines plywood 1/2" x 1" x 18"** 2
Vise arm maple 3 1/4" x 4" x 20 1/2" 1
Vise block Baltic birch plywood 3" x 6 1/4" x 7 1/2" 1
Vise guide maple 3/4" x 4" x 7 1/2" 1
Shoulder vise board jatoba 1" x 4" x 11 1/2" 1
Vise accent jatoba 1/4" x 6 3/4" x 7 1/2" 1
Large vise
(LV #70G08.02 )
Lee Valley Large Front Vise 1
Shoulder vise screw
(LV #70G01.51)
Lee Valley Should Vise Screw 1
Vise handles
(LV #05G12.03)
Lee Valley Tail Vise Handles 2
Threaded rod plated steel 3/8"-diameter x 16 1/4" 1
Washers and nuts plated steel 3/8"-diameter 2

For the leg assemblies

Left foot maple 2 3/8" x 4 1/2" x 30" 1
Right foot maple 2 3/8" x 4 1/2" x 23" 1
Legs maple 1 7/8" x 3" x 27 1/2" 4
Left front leg maple 1 7/8" x 2 1/2" x 27 1/2" 1
Left top rail maple 1 7/8" x 2" x 29 3/4" 1
Right top rail maple 1 7/8" x 2" x 18 1/2" 1
Tenon dowels cherry 1/4"-diameter x 1" 15

For the drawer unit

Top and bottom maple ply 3/4" x 15 3/4" x 38 1/2" 2
Sides maple ply 3/4" x 15 3/4" x 5 1/2" 2
Side edge accents jatoba 1/4" x 3/8" x 15 3/4" 4
Side stiffeners maple ply 3/4" x 14 3/4" x 4 1/2" 2
Edge caps maple 1/4" x 3/4" x 5"** 4 4
Partitions maple ply 3/4" x 14 3/4" x 5" 2
Back maple ply 3/4" x 4 1/2" x 37 1/2" 1
Drawer runners maple 1/8" x 3/4" x 15" 6
Stile caps maple 5/8" x 1 1/8" x 6" 4
Rail caps maple 5/8" x 3/4" x 36 3/4" 4
Supports maple 1" x 2" x 10 1/2" 4
Outside drawer fronts maple 5/8" x 4 7/16" x 10 7/16" 2
Centre drawer front maple 5/8" x 4 7/16" x 15 11/16" 1
Ouside drawer boxes hardwood 4 5/16" x 9 11/16" x 14 3/4"*** 2
Centre drawer box hardwood 4 5/16" x 14 15/16" x 14 3/4"*** 1
Drawer pulls jatoba 3/4" x 1" x 6 1/2" 3
Top accent rails jatoba 1/2" x 1/2" x 39" 2

**Cut to length required. ***H x W x L

* Length indicates grain direction

Recommended Tools


No comments

To leave a comment, please log in

Don't have an user account? Register for free


How do you heat your home?

Loading ... Loading ...