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Thread: Pop Woodworking 21st Century Bench

  1. Pop Woodworking 21st Century Bench

    The October 2008 issue of Popular Woodworking features a brand new 21st century workbench design that seems to really fit the bill for today's hybrid woodworker that uses both hand and power tools regularly. They are even offering a DVD, as well as free sketchup plans ( Since this seems like something a lot of people might be interested in building (myself included), I thought it might make sense to start a forum thread where people can discuss materials, challenges encountered, and overall experiences. Chime in if you have any interest at taking a stab at this project. I probably won't get started for a month or so (need to pick out lumber and get it acclimated to my shop first).

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Nov 2006
    Fallbrook, California
    Rob, that bench caught my attention as well. I like the choice of wood for the bench. Ash is the wood I'm considering using for a bench. First, however, I have to get my shop built.
    Don Bullock
    Woebgon Bassets
    AKC Championss

    The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything.
    -- Edward John Phelps

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Feb 2008
    Hampstead, NC
    You could start a group build thread much like the Morris Chair project headed by Walt et al. Makes for some great reading too! Take a look over in the project's sub-forum.

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Mar 2007
    Jacksonville, FL
    That bench has some interesting features, but then there are some things that don't make much sense to me.

    The most obvious for me is the tool well. I'm not sold on tool wells to begin with and I'm pretty sure that even if I changed my mind, I wouldn't want it right down the middle of the bench like that.

    Next, there are holdfast/dog holes on the edge of the top, I'm not sure what the point of that is. The holes are too shallow to use for holdfasts, and they aren't far enough below the top of the vise to be useful for bench dogs to support long pieces being held in the vise... The stringer with the holdfast holes is nice though.

    Finally, although I like the knockdown joinery that attaches the bottom shelf to the legs, but I'm not sure what the point is on this bench since the top stringers aren't attached with knockdown joints too...
    "History is strewn with the wrecks of nations which have gained a little progressiveness at the cost of a great deal of hard manliness, and have thus prepared themselves for destruction as soon as the movements of the world gave a chance for it." -Walter Bagehot

  5. #5
    The tool well in the middle allows clamping from the middle using standard F clamps rather than holdfasts/holddowns. It also allows bench hooks to be used reversed and hooked into the tool well for japanese saws.

    The holes in the edge are to allow for the use of the Veritas panel clamp instead of a long clamp over the whole benchtop.

    The bench is all knockdown. There are two end assemblies, the upper long dovetailed stringers, and the lower long shelf support stringers with knock-in wedges.

  6. #6
    Chris answered these questions correctly. I'm not sure how people are getting the idea that the lapped dovetail joint that connects the top rail to the leg is permanent. It's a mechanical joint, secured with a single lag bolt. Benches aren't moved every day, but making it knock-down makes the final assembly easy, and if it should ever need to be moved to another location, it takes less than 10 minutes to disassemble or reassemble it.

    I have a love/hate relationship with tool wells, and this is a solution that works for me. I stole the idea of putting it down the middle from David Charlesworth and Lee Valley. For me, it's a lot handier than having to reach across the bench to a tool well on the far side, and it's easier to see what's in there. Fabricating the well as 4 separate boxes makes the tool well more manageable and flexible. They can be turned upside down to have a flat surface if desired, and removed to allow clamping down to the middle of the bench with an f-style clamp. Another benefit of removing the tool wells that appeared after the bench was complete is that I can take out the one on the end, next to the quick release vise, and hold small parts in the vise for sawing. The biggest drawback of tool wells to me has always been the issue of cleaning them out. I can take out the boxes one at a time, carry it to my tool box to put stuff away, and them dump out the junk in the trash can.

    There is a bunch of additional information about this bench on the Popular Woodworking website, there are links at:

    I'll be following along on this thread, and if you have a question for me you can reach me through this site, or my e-mail.

    This was a fun project for me, and I'm pretty happy with the finished bench. I hope everyone else that builds one also has a good time with it.

    Bob Lang

  7. I wasn't a big fan of the tool tray when I first saw the bench (and originally considered just eliminating it from the design). But when I found out they were removable, I reconsidered. Really the big complaint about tool trays is that they fill up with shavings and dust, but if you can just pop them out and dump them, that pretty much solves that problem. The temporary bench I'm using has no tray, and a recent project that required frequent switching between three chisels, also showed me how a tool tray could be useful. My 1/4" chisel rolled off the bench a few times, and cost me about 45 minutes of honing.

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Mar 2003
    SE PA - Central Bucks County
    I'm the same way...never been enamored with tool wells for much the same reasons as others, but the explanations given here about the design make sense and in this case, the inclusion of the feature in the manner it's designed offers some interesting capabilities that are lacking on basic flat bench designs. The removability for clamping and cleaning specifically are attractive design elements...

    Bob, thanks also for chiming in. It's always nice when someone intimate with such a project contributes to the conversation!

    The most expensive tool is the one you buy "cheaply" and often...

  9. Thanks for chiming in Bob. I almost emailed you when I first read the workbench article, as I thought PW might have some kind of forum for folks to post their experiences, but Sawmill Creek seemed like as good a place as any to get things started. I'm definitely going to build this bench, it's just a question of timing (this real job keeps getting in the way of things). I'm really hoping other folks will join in, but it's good to know the designer himself will be monitoring the thread. One question I would like to throw out there for discussion is the choice of materials. I have read "The Schwartz"'s book (been spending too much time on, and was pretty much sold on SWP as the ideal bench material, but I'm wondering if the knockdown joinery on this bench might lend itself better to traditional (but more expensive) hardwoods.

  10. #10
    Hi Rob,

    I think the point Schwarz would make (and I think he did in his book) is to use a readily available--and inexpensive--wood for one's bench as long as it meets certain properties.

    For me, Ash is less expensive than SYP. As is White Oak, Doug. Fir, etc. While I like the properties of SYP, I would be unwilling to spend the "premium" for it. It's just a bench.

    Take care, Mike

  11. #11
    You're right on the money, Mike, and I think a lot of people have assumed that the SYP is the ideal wood. The traditional approach is to find a locally available wood that meets the criteria, but doesn't cost too much. In some areas it might be SYP, but in others it might be beech or maple or whatever. This can also vary with time, maple is popular right now as a furniture wood and can be rather pricey. I was leaning toward some ugly soft maple-not selected for color and with worm holes, but ash turned out to be a real bargain. In this neighborhood the emerald ash borer is spreading and a lot of ash trees are being cut down. When I bought the wood for the bench, ash was slightly less than poplar.

    Bob Lang

  12. #12
    There are a lot of good ideas in that bench. I particularly like the idea of the center tool tray setup. It's there when you need it and gone when you don't. Designing for the use of holdfasts is another great idea in a modern bench. They are an old idea, but they are wonderful in the 21st century too. the Veritas Twin Screw should work well there, but I think it would work even better if it could be adapted to fit a 30" panel between the screws.

    The SU model has a small problem with the end vise. The dog will not reach up to contact the workpiece. I would suggest raising the top of the chop, putting dog holes in it and and forgoing the vise's dog.

    The top cross members seem to me to be way under spec. With the removable tray, the top has no structural role and all of fore and aft racking forces are dependent on on those cross members. I think they could easily be 4" thick. I would also like to see the bench be generally stouter, but that's just me.

    I'm also not sure how you would control for wood movement on the top. The front of the top needs to be right up with the front of the legs, so the back part has to be able to slide. With the loose tool tray and a separate slab for the back of the bench, I'm not sure how everything would hold together. Perhaps that's explained in the article.

    I also recognize the end vise LINK . Good to see it being put to use.
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  13. #13
    Hi John,

    I owe you one for the vise, all of your stuff on 3D warehouse is really good, and there is an error (my bad) in the model with the vise and chop. In real life, the vise I used is a bit taller, and the dog in the vise does extend far enough to be usable. The chop is also mounted so that it's top edge is flush with the benchtop. I do have a hole in there for a regular dog anyway, because I think the dog in the vise is kind of rough and a bit difficult to raise and lower.

    I have to disagree with your structural assessment, however. It wouldn't hurt to make the top end cross members thicker, but as they are, those are two stout pieces of wood. The top sections are structural elements, each half is bolted in two places on each end, and each acts as a beam across the two ends. Two of the four bolts (in both halves) would have to fail at the same time to dislocate the top from the ends, allowing the racking you're concerned about.

    Additionally, the base itself, without the tops attached is very resistant to racking. The top rails, even though they are located below the top add a lot of strength in that direction. I haven't actually tried to rack the assembly, but I doubt that one (or even two) people could generate enough force to move it.

    Lastly, I'm not worried about movement in the top. All of the individual boards are on edge, so most of the movement will be up and down, not side to side. Because there are two half sections, lateral movement might pinch the trays, but I don't see any other issues.

    We'll see what happens over time. The separate tops concievably could move different amounts making leveling the two tops to each other a bit of a problem. So far, so good.
    If you're ever in Cincinnati, you're welcome to drop by the shop and push, pound or jump on the bench to see how it performs. I think it's similar to the Roubo in the way that the sheer mass of the components gives it tremendous strength. We though about putting Chris Schwarz's Karman Ghia on it, and now that I think about it we could do that and remove the trays to get at the plug to change the oil.

    Bob Lang

  14. #14
    Join Date
    Mar 2007
    Jacksonville, FL
    Chris and Bob,

    Thanks for the clarification, I was only looking at the SU model which didn't show lag bolts (or even the holes for them) and I just assumed the dovetailed stringers were glued. However, after looking at the blog, I see the error of my assumption...
    "History is strewn with the wrecks of nations which have gained a little progressiveness at the cost of a great deal of hard manliness, and have thus prepared themselves for destruction as soon as the movements of the world gave a chance for it." -Walter Bagehot

  15. #15
    This is really a best of the old and best of the new and very practical workbench.

    I suspect I have been overbuilding my bench so much that everything else I see looks underbuilt. I can see how the top does have a structural role too. I would still worry some about wood movement, but again I've been thinking in terms of SYP and it moves more than most hardwoods. Most importantly, you've actually built it and pushed at it and the proof is in the stability. Can't argue with that.

    I think a pair of Workmates would probably handle a Karman Ghia. I'm thinking an F250 crew cab will be stable on my variation on Chris's Ruobo. SketchUp is a great tool and lots of fun.

    I also just watched the video. The trick with removing a tray and sawing on the end vise is very good. Wish I'd thought of that.
    Last edited by John Schreiber; 09-10-2008 at 3:30 PM. Reason: Saw the video
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