The Work or the Workbench?

A.J. Puzzo, Boatbuilding & Restoration Student Ambassador

Which came first: the chicken or the egg? It’s an ancient paradox of causality that has been mused on since the days of Aristotle. More recently, of course scientists have answered the literal question, my favorite being Neil deGrasse Tyson who said in a tweet, "Which came first: the chicken or the egg? The egg—laid by a bird that was not a chicken." Metaphorically the question is still used frequently across many fields. For example, which came first for the woodworker: the work or the workbench?

The closing of the IYRS shop in March presented me with the time to contemplate this paradox. As a budding woodworker with high hopes of a productive home shop, I spent the first few weeks finishing a project I had started when I still had access to the IYRS facilities. But, once that was finished, I wondered should I take on more work without my own workbench? I certainly could, it would be more difficult to execute quickly and properly, but it could be done. But, to make life easier in the long run, I decided to embark on the last project I’ll ever have to do without a workbench: the bench itself.

To begin, I turned to the trusted Paul Sellers for a design that is functional, strong, inexpensive, and most importantly, achievable to build without a proper bench. It’s also a simple enough design that can be modified for a tight basement space riddled with its own novelties. All that is needed to build this particular design are tools found in most garages or tool chests. Mr. Sellers even goes so far as to show how to build the bench using only hand tools on his blog, here:

I admittedly am using a combination of hand and power tools I have around the shop. It’s a nice balance for my developing approach to projects. The plans call for the use of readily available, construction grade lumber, which is great because it’s inexpensive but presents a challenge because it can be knotty and has those rounded edges -- a telltale sign of an inexpensive piece. To cope, I used my No. 4 bench plane to surface all of the 2x4s needed for the laminated benchtop, but used the table saw to rip the edges square.

Similarly, when the top was glued up and ready to cut to length, I used an old Disston crosscut saw that belonged to my great grandfather to cut one end. I was surprised at how well it worked, having not been used in so many years!

But as I made my way through the foot-long, three-inch thick strip, and the sweat began building on my brow, my mitre saw began to creep from the corner of my eye into full focus.

The combination of both techniques has been both rewarding and speedy.

Setting up a shop isn’t easy by any stretch, and the decision to build a customized workbench before taking on any new work was a difficult one. But the workbench is the center of any workshop and I believe a little sacrifice now will lead to a lot of productivity down the road. So, in my shop at least, the answer to the most existential of questions: which came first, the work or the workbench, is the workbench.

[Note] You can follow along with my progress at my Instagram account