Work at the Workbench

IMG_6067I’ve read about a few woodworkers who cherish their benches to a degree that almost prevents them from working on it. There are no nicks, chisel marks or paint droppings allowed on their workbenches – paint droppings, to some of these woodworkers, are damn near as bad as bird or rat droppings.

Because I spent time as a professional woodworker (I know some will dispute this wholeheartedly), I find this funny. I’ve always thought that my workbench is no different from a handsaw, router or table saw. They are tools to be used in your craft. If you feel the way I do then my next statement will not surprise you at all.

I like to finish some of my projects on my bench. I’ve painted on it, spread shellac on it and have completed more than a couple of oil/varnish finishes on it. In fact, as I wrapped up building my Shaker-style workbench many moons ago, I added a couple of coats of an oil/varnish mixture as a finish and sealer.

This week I’m wrapping up the finish on a contemporary project for 360 Woodworking – I’ve built in modular storage, and it has a veneered set of doors, too. (Look for the article to be released on Friday 4/29.) The finish is a shop-mixed concoction of oil, varnish and turpentine; yes, I like the smell of turpentine.

What I like as well is the fresh coat of oil/varnish spread over my bench top. It’s impossible to not get the finish on the bench. Drips, drops and runs leak onto the surface and I’m OK with that. After the project is wiped and set aside to dry, I wipe off the workbench. (In the above photo you can see a slight line of demarcation where the new finish is, and is not.) After the next two coats on the project, I’ll make sure the entire bench top has received a new layer of finish. I believe in applying a finish to your bench top, and I believe that renewing that finish every once in a while is the way to go.

Is there finish on your workbench? Do you try to keep the bench in a pristine and untouched condition?

— Glen D. Huey

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4 thoughts on “Work at the Workbench

  1. Nice conversation piece.
    I try to protect my bench if I can, but do look at it as a high-end tool that must be respected and cared for. So, I will take necessary precautions to protect it as best I could (try not to dig chisels into it, cover it when painting or staining, etc….) but I don’t sweat it if I do get something on there.
    After all, it IS a workbench and workbenches need to be used. It’s OK if they look tad used (loved) too. They still function they way they are supposed to and each nick, dent, ding, and stain tells a little story and becomes a part of each completed project built on it.
    In my opinion, of course.


  2. I get a kick out of these guys who spend five grand to go sipe wine in France somewhere while attending a sacred bench assembly class that features old oak lumber that some french master cabinet maker pee’ed on 500 years ago…
    Give me a break, OK?
    My bench is a nice one. I built it myself and it has served me well.
    but, it is a tool like any other I own and as best I take care of it, it still gets a little nicked up from time to time.
    Every once in awhile, I’ll sand off the top and throw a coat of finish on there and start using it all over again.
    I don’t think it’ll end up in a museum somewhere after I’m gone, but I do hope one of my kids keeps it and uses it as I have.
    Good article Glen.
    That is one of the reasons I follow you and Chuck.
    You guys are regular guys who love to do woodworking and can relate to regular guys like me who love to do woodworking too.

  3. Glenn;

    After reading your post I went out to the shop and looked at my bench, it’s 22 years old now and though it started life as an 8 footer I cut 3 feet off of it a few years ago to fit in my new hand tool shop. I use it as a bench and it shows, the occasional spot of glue which is mixed in with dye and stain marks. I typically take a scraper to it whenever I inadvertently miss some glue clean up but I’ve only had to flatten it twice in the 22 years that I’ve been working on it. One flattening occurred when I cut it down to the current size and the second occurred when I came out after a lunch break to find that a random orbit sander that I had turned off before the break had switched on and dug a hole between a planning cleat and my project. It’s a tool and I treat it as such, I respect it, I maintain it and like anything that you use regularly it shows the use.

  4. Hmm, let me go look at my bench this seems to have been a recent pod cast discussion also.

    Okay, amazingly my bench is still flat (and even level to the ground) after 8 years. It will never be flatten as the top is made of 4cm thick plywood. The legs and cross supports are large 8.6cm square timber (pine?). They have a crown and Canada in red ink in places. Interesting as I bought them here in Luxembourg. I coated it from the start with Osmos Counter Top satin finish coating. Great stuff, glue and finishes normal pop right off with a putty knife. Strangely however the green milk paint seems to have penetrated to the wood. I try to protect the bench and even cover it when I need to do something. It is a tool and needs the respect I give all my tools. When I scratch the top I usually spot sand and refinish next time I finish a project with an Osmos clear coat. Yes it has spots with Osmos stair coating, Osmos Top Coat clear, etc. I figure they are all basically the same stuff. I keep thinking about sanding it down and refinishing. I recently came across some oak logs and in the processes of sawing planks out of them my bench took on a dark spot in the middle that seems to have stained the finish as it will not wash away like everything else has so far. I do have another work station for sharpening, mixing paint and other nasty stuff. It is a store bought steel frame with some sort of material designed to simulate wood. It gets based as it is also set up for any metal work I do…..

    So yes I do care for my bench, but it is a tool and not a piece of furniture. I use it to make furniture. I ask, isn’t that the real question? Some people think the bench is a mark of craftsmanship and a reflection on what they can build. They build a beautiful bench which becomes a piece of shop furniture that requires special care. It is like buying an expensive SUV, do you haul wood in it and go off road or do you wash and wax it on weekends????

    Yes, my Jeep looks like crap as it is full of wood chips…. This upsets the wife.

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