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Thread: Bench Height and Back Issues

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Sep 2015
    Location
    East San Francisco Bay CA.
    Posts
    187

    Bench Height and Back Issues

    Hey All,

    If you have a minute, I would like to hear back from the taller among you and get an idea of the height you have your bench at. I am 6' 10" tall. Yeah - the weather up here is fine and I did play basketball - first two questions I get asked..

    I bought a European workbench about 30 years ago. It is a Diefenbach bench - nice piece of kit...(I wrote that just because I wanted to call a piece of equipment "kit" like the Brits do... ) . Recently I have been having a bad bout of back issues, and I think it may be related, in part, to my bench height. I have the bench top sitting at 40" off the floor (the crease of my wrist is at 41" when standing straight). I am working at hand tool only use, and I am making a bunch of smaller dovetails. This is focused, bent over the bench kind of work. After a couple of hours today I was ready for glue factory - my back was in nasty spasm. So I decided to sit at my computer (something I do all day every day for a living) and write a note to y'all. I do understand that sitting at the computer isn't the best back exercise either. It is, however, tough to do much from a prone position.

    So, If any of you with similar issues could just get back to me with your experience and set up, I would really appreciate it. I gonna go lay on the floor and roll a baseball on my spasming back. If any of you have back muscle spasms, that is a great way to get some relief.

    Thanks folks, I appreciate any feedback

    Joe

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Aug 2018
    Location
    Michigan, USA
    Posts
    325
    I'm 6'1" and am comfortable with a 36" high bench, which is right around my wrist-height. For detailed work, like dove tails, you might want to consider a bench-top Moxon-type device. It gets your workpiece up where you can work on it without bending over so far (and, in my case, where you can see it a little more clearly).

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Mar 2004
    Location
    Cockeysville, Md
    Posts
    1,759
    I've got 2 benches, can't remember the heights, but the second one i finished a few months ago and it's 8" taller than the first and was built because my back got tired/stiff bending over the short one. It's height is 3" lower than my forearm when parallel to the floor and is just right for sawing, marking and chisel work. I also have a box that's 6" x 6" x 8" that I rest one foot on when standing for long periods of time and that helps the back also.

    Brian
    The significant problems we encounter cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.

    The penalty for inaccuracy is more work

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Jun 2010
    Location
    twomiles from the "peak of Ohio
    Posts
    7,917
    Or..get a shop stool and have a seat..."If the mountain cannot come to.." comes to mind. When I do dovetails and the like, I am usually sitting down on a stool.

    If your back is hurting from pushing a plane....learn to use your legs, instead of your back...

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Aug 2014
    Location
    Silicon Valley, CA
    Posts
    469
    He doesn't address being 6'10", but Jim Tolpin has a video about sizing benches:

    Jim Tolpin on Sizing Workbenches

    I found it well thought out and informative and notice he has 3 different height workstations spread between two benches.

    PS- another thank you to Ron Patrick for POSTING this.

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Nov 2007
    Location
    NW Indiana
    Posts
    2,353
    I think you need to do some experimenting to find the right height. Your back will tell you what is right. Also, work for short periods with frequent stretching breaks.

    You might have someone take a video of you working and you can review to help figure if you are doing something that is causing the problem.

  7. #7
    I have found that the right height for me is half way between my fingertips and my elbow. This is a bit taller than most books, etc recommend, but I have found it is more comfortable and works fairly well for both sitting and standing.

  8. #8
    You can watch videos of gurus bending over to make saw cuts. They have the saw right near their cheek. This is bad for the back and the arm. Even when some of these guys make a so called "Moxon vise" they still bend over, cramp the arm and strain the back.

    As a professional hand tool woodworker, if I did stuff like this I would be out of business. You want to stand nearly straight and saw at waist level. Stay away from the contortionist approach. Take care of your body first.

  9. #9
    I’m 6’6”. My bench height is 42-1/2”. I cannot fathom working at a lower height. All those rules about knuckles and wrists are for regular sized people. The human body is nothing but a collection of levers; primarily levers where the fulcrum is at one extreme end. The longer the lever, the more force is required to lift something against gravity at the same angle as a shorter lever. The force in this case is your lower back. If you are 5’9” go ahead and spend the entire day working with a 30 degree bend at your back. But at my height? Forget it. And at 6’10”???? that’s asking for back surgery down the road. At extreme heights you have to convert all these rules to be compatible with tall people levers.

    Raise the bench height if you can. More importantly, wear a back support like what those folks in warehouses use. You can find them at any home improvement store for about $15. I keep one in my basement shop and wear it all the time when woodworking. With it I can go all day every day with zero problems. If I forget to put it on I will know it after an hour. Tall people have to treat our backs differently. I don’t like the shoulder strap on my back support so I just cut them off as I don’t see any need to undo it like warehouse workers frequently have to do. Bonus hint: for those horrible plane flights, put on a heat wrap and then put the back support over it as loose as you can get away with (under your shirt so you don't look like a crazy person). I learned that trick from another tall flier and it was a game changer.

  10. #10
    Make a bench on a bench. FWW had a great article on "A Benchtop Bench" (#198–May/June 2008 Issue). It elevates the work, and includes a front-side moxon-style twin screw vise.

    Benches are conventionally built for face planing. That has always struck me as a little anachronistic; it's great when probably 75% of a person's time might have been spent milling by hand. But nowadays, I agree, higher makes way more sense for efficiency and my back. And I'm not even that tall...

  11. #11
    Get some cinder blocks or bricks and raise the bench up, incrementally if you must, until you find the height that is comfortable for you. Guidelines are great, but I think the right answer is personal.

    Once you find the right height, if you think that leaving the blocks is too ghetto, then you can confidently build a plinth or feet or whatever necessary to modify your existing bench.

    Edwin

  12. #12
    Join Date
    Dec 2010
    Location
    South Coastal Massachusetts
    Posts
    5,361
    I'm considerably shorter, but ran into similar problems when my first bench as too low.

    If it's possible to separate tasks, is the bench high enough to comfortably cut dovetails, tenons and the like?

    Do you have sufficient lighting?
    I found that much brighter lights made detail work easier and I could stand further back.

    Are all of your planes Western style, with handles?

    Are your tools in their sharpest condition?

    Do you stand on concrete?

  13. #13
    I had similar issues while cutting DTs on my bench (although I am considerably shorter) and found that a Moxon vise can do wonders for both your dovetails and your back. Here is pic of the Lie Nielsen DT vise on my bench with work and saw in position to show where your forearm should be: pretty much in line with the saw, while standing reasonably straight. So if you stood in front of your bench with your forearm parallel to the ground, the distance from the ground to your forearm would be your reference distance. From there you can subtract whatever you need to to account for the saw plate depth and height of work above the vise. This will give you the height the top of the vise should be.
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  14. #14
    I would consider the Noden adjust-a-bench that would give you a wide range of working height options. http://www.adjustabench.com/

    Another option I have seen is a 2 height workbench as featured by popular woodworking. Here is the link below for the youtube video, fast forward to the 6 minute mark for the scissors lift option with leg risers. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n4Z886Wb9l4

    A shop stool as previously mentioned is also another option, but I prefer adjustable benches for different types of work in addition to a shop stool.

    John P.

  15. #15
    I built a Jack Bench with MFT style top. I adjusts way higher than would be comfortable for me at 5' 6". It also lowers far enough that I can work sitting down for a lot of stuff which my back greatly appreciates!

    Jack
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