Essential Workshop Equipment for DIY

Basic workshop requirements

A lot of woodworking projects can be done in a spare room, shed, garage, or even kitchen; for such activities there are many ingenious folding benches, including the Black and Decker Workmate bench. But, for more serious work and certainly if long periods of activity are expected a proper workshop is a necessity. It should have a good, level and dry floor, with walls strong enough to support shelves, racks and storage cupboards. If large units of built-in furniture are going to be made then an area for pre-assembly is desirable. An outward opening door creates less restriction on floor space than an inward opening door. An outward opening pair of doors is advantageous where biggish work is tackled. It is also helpful if the door are positioned so as to open opposite the line of the vice. Thus when long timber is worked in the vice it can project through the open door. Small woodworking machines may be acquired later, such as the universal woodworker, circular saw bench, lathe or bandsaw. Floor space will be needed for them. A simple rack, for holding saws, G-cramps etc., is also shown.

Many amateurs work quite comfortably in a shop or shed about 3 m x 2.5 m floor area or even less, but space to move around the bench from front and sides, at least, will be required.

Before starting to make the bench something to work on, and support pieces for sawing and planing, is a requirement. The carpenter’s or joiner’s sawing stool, often incorrectly called a sawing horse, is a device with which we can work timber, with cramps to assist in holding if needed.

In any case the sawing stool is a handy piece of equipment to have, especially for anyone who has a lot of work to tackle around the house. It also makes a useful platform on which to stand when working at some height, and can be used in conjunction with a pair of steps to support a scaffold plank.

The type of stool with splayed legs is not too easy for a newcomer to woodworking because of the compound angles involved in the joints. Making a bench

For a person of average height a bench with its top around 838 mm from the floor is about right. Length can be anything from 914 mm to 1,829 mm, but a top of about 1,524 mm by 533 mm gives a good working area.

The ‘well’ is a traditional part of the woodworker’s bench; and for very good reasons. First, it provides a receptable for tools in use for any particular job and prevents them from being accidentally knocked on the floor. Secondly, wood being worked on, or jobs being assembled, can be placed across the bench without tools getting in the way. Finally, it allows the introduction of a thicker piece of wood for the front of the bench. This is the area that needs to be the most solid, partly so that the vice can be properly mounted, and also it is the front part of the bench where rigidity is most needed.

Legs are made from 76 X 51 mm softwood, or ‘deal’, obtained from the timber merchant as P.A.R. Timber is measured in sawn condition – after machining it is, in fact, rather smaller than the ‘nominal size’. There are also these days ‘preferred sizes’ and all timber is actually cut to metric dimensions within these sizes. So, the measurements of sections are more for guidance and should be taken as approximate.

The joints for our bench are based on a simple form of trenching and notching, but without removing too much timber so as not to reduce the strength of the members. A depth of 10 mm is adequate and where possible the legs and rails should be marked out in sets of four. Either a single coach bolt of 8 or 10 mm diameter can be used for fastening each joint, or the rails can be prepared for three screws at the ends. Extra strength is gained if an adhesive is used during assembly.

Chipboard or T. and G. boards can be used for the shelf, the boarding being nailed or screwed to the rails. The ply back, as well as enclosing the bench, provides a great deal of longitudinal rigidity and helps to resist the strains put on the bench, especially during planing and fairly heavy work in the vice. Ideally, the board which provides the lipping at the back should be rebated to receive the ply. The top of this lipping needs to be level with the top of the front part of the bench.

The thicker, main working area of the top of the bench should, preferably, be made of hardwood. In order both to economise and simplify construction the drawings show a variation in the usual method of forming the top. The well of the bench is made from a piece of 19 mm chipboard, but with this arranged to come under the thicker front piece. The top is fixed by securing through from the upper surface but the screws need to be ‘counterbored’, and the resulting holes are filled with wooden dowels or ‘pellets’. The chipboard must also be screwed from the underside to the thicker front member.

Bench accessories and their use


At this stage the vice should be fitted. Depending on the type and size selected, either a certain amount of recessing of the top or, alternatively, some packing will be required. Detailed instructions follow at the end of the section.

Wooden packing pieces, or ‘chops’, should be fixed to inner surfaces of the vice jaws before it is ready for use. The packing should be of good, solid hardwood, about 16 mm thick, preferably with the grain running vertically. The outer, movable, jaw is bored and threaded for set screws, which are used to fix the packing. The fixed jaw also has two threaded holes for engineers’ machine screws, which are used to fix the inner packing. Packings are fixed level with the top of the bench and screw heads are countersunk.

The apron will have to cut around the vice, although this does not need to be a close fit. Screws are used to fix the apron to the legs, this also adding to the bracing effect needed on the bench.

Bench stop

A bench stop is essential and for this a hole is made in the bench top about 51 mm square, to coincide with the outer surface of the leg. Two forms of stop are shown: in one the stop is slotted, the vertical movement of the stop being controlled by a coach bolt and wing nut, the bolt passing through the leg and the slot fitting over it. The second pattern is simply a pair of folding wedges, easy to tighten or loosen with a tap of a hammer. Folding wedges is the term given when a pair of wedges slide together so that their outer edges remain parallel.

It is well worth while giving a new bench two or three coats of varnish. Not only does this help to keep it clean, it also means that glue which inevitably gets spilt on the top is more readily cleaned off. Finally, always ensure that the bench is standing on a level surface, and adjust the legs accordingly if necessary to make it stand firmly on all legs.

Sawing board

The most used piece of workshop equipment is a sawing board, also known as a bench hook. It is easily made from three pieces of hardwood. Sawing boards can be made right-, left-, or dual-handed and by their simple design are double-sided.

Small chamfers should be made where indicated. These help to clear the sawdust which may prevent the workpiece from lying square against the board. The blocks should initially be simply glued in place, then holes are bored right through and dowels are glued and pushed in, then finished off flush. Until a high standard of proficiency is reached the sawing board should be used with one block clamped in the vice.

Mitre box

A mitre box is another simple working aid which is not difficult to make. Overall size is around 305 x 127 x 89 mm, and construction is of hardwood, glued and screwed. Depth should not be greater than the sawing capacity of the tenon saw that will normally be used. Screws can be used for fixing the parts together so long as their positions are carefully made to be well clear of the saw kerfs. Kerfs should be marked out with an accurately set bevel or a mitre square. They should then carefully be cut with a tenon saw. Once made, it is virtually impossible to correct them if they are wrongly cut.

This is made from two pieces of 19 mm hardwood or multi-ply which are screwed to supporting blocks, as shown in the drawing. Ensure that the top block is fixed exactly at right angles to the edges of the board and, in fact, make the whole assembly quite true on edges and surfaces. It also helps if the block is chamfered at corner to avoid the risk of the block splitting when being used.

As drawn, the board is intended for a right-handed person. For a left-handed worker the top block should be fixed at the opposite end. Alternatively, and for dual use, blocks could be fixed at both ends but in this case the board should be made rather longer.


When skills begin to develop and as the woodworker broadens the range of projects he/she undertakes, the need for cramps and other holding devices soon becomes apparent. These include sash cramps, G-gramps and holdfasts, and other more specialised cramps such as corner, or mitre, cramps. They are all available in a large range of sizes and are of various patterns. Patent cramping devices are now quite popular. They are cleverly designed and easy to use but the old-fashioned G-cramp still holds pride of place in most workshops.

Holdfast Frequently work needs to be held down on top of the bench as, for example, while cutting a mortise or forming a trench. For such purposes the holdfast is ideal. The collar is fitted into a hole drilled in the surface of the bench and housed to bring its surface flush. The collar is then screwed down. The holdfast shank is simply a sliding fit in the collar and is held by a combination of ribbed surface and friction. When the clamping arm is placed on the workpiece the turn-screw is tightened down. Combined leverage on post and clamping arm holds the work quite securely with minimum effort and time. Two collars are usually supplied with a holdfast so, with strategic positioning, quite a large area of the bench can be covered.

G-cramps G-cramps are a useful form of small cramp and have many applications in the home workshop. They too can be used to hold work on the bench and are also used on small assembly work. At one end of the available range is the ‘junior’ pattern – a small lightweight type in different capacities up to 102 mm. These are handy for toy or model making. In the middle of the range the light/ medium duty varieties can be obtained with capacities up to 305 mm. The smaller ones are fitted with wings for screwing down but the larger ones have ‘tommy bars’ or ‘drop handles’.

The distance from the frame to the cramping screw is fairly small on most G-cramps, and this limits the distance relative to the edge at which they can operate. In practice, this is not restrictive for most applications but there is a pattern available where the throat depth is about double that of the normal type: they are known as ‘deep throat cramps’.

A fairly recent innovation is the ‘spring-grip’ cramp. This has a small, knurled wheel let into the frame where the screw passes through. In use, the hand holding the cramp can also operate this wheel until the cramp grips sufficiently tightly to support itself, leaving the other hand free to control the work. Greater pressure can then be applied by tightening the cramp in the normal way.

Another modern variety is the edging cramp. This is a fairly small capacity cramp with a second cramping screw introduced in the centre of the frame; that is, at right angles to the main screw. Its main use is for gripping edging strips by means of the side screw once the cramp has been positioned on the work. The cramps can be used on straight or curved edges and is especially suitable for holding lippings to curved surfaces such as table tops and bookcases.

All G-cramps are fitted with swivelling shoes which automatically adjust to accommodate surfaces which are not quite parallel to each other, providing the taper is not pronounced. Scrap wood should always be used between the cramp and the work, or pressure from the screw will cause bruising. The larger the scrap, within reason, the better as this helps to spread the load. Replacement shoes are available if cramps Sash cramps are used in general assembly work and can be obtained in two main weights. The regular pattern has a bar of rectangular section, but the heavy duty pattern has a bar of T-section. The latter is intended for industrial use. Regular pattern sash cramps are available with capacities up to 1372 mm but lengthening bars of 914 and 1219 mm can be used with the cramps, which greatly increases the scope of the work they can tackle. It is also possible to remove the shoes from two cramps then bolt the bars together in order to increase capacity.

Always use sash cramps with considerable care as even moderate pressure wrongly applied can distort an assembly and finish up by doing more harm than good. Take, for example, two or more boards being butt or edge jointed to form a wider piece, and of a length which calls for the use of three cramps.

Two of these should be placed on one side of the boards, near the ends. The third should be placed in the centre, underneath the boards. This will counteract the strain of the end cramps and keep the glued-up boards flat. If all three cramps are placed on the top side the boards will probably bow as pressure is applied.

When a frame is properly assembled and checked it must be correctly left for the glue to set and the work to dry out. This means that the cramped up job should be left on a flat surface for several hours or, if left in a vertical position, checked that it is not under strain from its own weight.

As with all cramps, packing of some sort must be introduced between cramp jaws and the work. It is also desirable to have scrap between the bar of the cramp and the assembly. This eliminates the risk of any part of the cramp causing damage to the work. It also prevents spoiling from a less obvious source. It is normal practice to wash off any surplus glue when the job is in cramps. This often results in the work being wetted. If a cramp is in contact with damp wood a pronounced stain can be the result. This can be difficult to remove and the lighter the wood the more obstinate becomes the stain.

As an aid to cramping, simple cramp packing blocks can be made. In use, the thicker part is positioned under the shoe of the cramp.

Cramp heads Perhaps one of the most useful forms of cramp for the amateur is one which is partly home-made, using what are called ‘cramp heads’. These are, in effect, the two working ends of a sash cramp, without the bar. The heads are used in conjunction with a wooden bar 25 mm thick, which forms the bar part of the cramp. One big advantage of cramp heads is that cramps of considerable length can be made. Width of the wooden bar should be about 63 to 102 mm, depending on length but hardwood bars up to about 1220 mm need only be 101 mm wide. For the sliding shoe, holes for the fixing pin should be made about 101 mm apart.

Corner cramp A rather more specialised form of cramp is the corner cramp. This has two threaded screws mounted at 90° to one another, applying pressure against a right-angled fence. The two mitred pieces of wood forming the corner are gripped under respective pressure screws and are held accurately in relation to each other. There are several variations of this type of cramp.

Fixing a standard vice to the bench

Two main dimensions are to be considered in connection with vices: width of jaws or size of clamping face, and distance between the jaws when they are fully opened.

The smallest vice of any real, but limited, use has a jaw width of 152 mm opening to 114 mm. This size is also available with a built-in clamp on the underside, enabling it to be fastened to the top of a bench or table.

For the more serious worker a heavier vice should be considered. Such vices are more robustly made, have a deeper capacity from top of jaws down to slides and screws and also open wider. Although there are many sizes, one with 178 mm wide jaws opening to 203 mm should be adequate for most home undertakings.

This range of vices offers alternative types of screw action. One is a plain screw which has to be turned until the required opening is reached; the other is known as a ‘quick action screw’. With this one there is a small lever at the front, near the screw head. When this is depressed the screw is disengaged from the fixed jaw and the movable jaw slides back or forward. When released, the normal clamping action can be made by turning the screw. This is a great time saver when there is a lot of working with the vice. Mounting sequences when fixing such vices are similar in each case.

The vice should be fitted carefully and rigidly anchored.

The front edge of the bench will need a certain amount of recessing to accommodate the fixed jaw and the two webs which add strength to the frame. The size and extent of this recess will depend on two main factors: the thickness of the top is the first. A vice should be fixed so that the top of the jaws is about 13 mm below the top surface of the bench. The main reason for this is to keep the metal of the vice well clear of tools being used on work held by the vice. Chisels, saws and planes can easily be blunted or damaged by accidental contact with the metal.

Secondly, the way in which the wooden jaws are attached to the metal ones must be considered. Wooden jaws must always be added to a woodworker’s vice, mainly to protect the work. Without this precaution the metal will surely bruise or mark any wooden parts gripped in the vice.

In method the fixed jaw projects beyond the edge of the bench, but at it is flush. Some craftsmen prefer one way while some prefer the other, as each has its merits. For instance, the vice at will often cope more easily with partly assembled work while is better when planing the edge of a long board because a certain amount of lateral support is offered by the whole length of the edge of the bench top.

In method the depth of the recess must be equal to the thickness of the metal fixed jaw. In it must be equal to the thickness of the metal plus the thickness of the wooden face -around 16 to 18 mm. The recess would then need to be extended beyond the edges of the metal jaws to allow for the wooden facing, and this usually has its ends dovetailed into the bench, as shown.

For smaller vices coach screws could be used for securing the vice. They are, of course, driven in from the underside, and are in no way visible from the top. With larger vices and for maximum security coach bolts are better. Although engineers’ types of bolts could be used coach bolts, with their large head and square shank immediately under the head are intended specially for use with wood. The heads, however, must be let into the top of the bench. Holes prepared in this way are known as ‘counterbored’. Washers should always be used under the nut. Holes in the top should be filled once the bolts are tightened. This can be done either by gluing in dowels of wood or by using a proprietary filler.

Where a fairly large vice is being added to a bench with a relatively thin top, it might well be that packing will have to be introduced between the underside of the bench and the vice. This is to compensate for the thickness of the top so that the jaws of the vice when fixed will be below the top surface, as before explained. The actual thickness of these pieces would, of course, depend on the factors described.

The apron piece will require a certain amount of shaping. This, however, does not have to be precise as there is no need for the apron to be a tight fit around the vice. The exact shape and extent of this shaping will depend on the thickness of the bench top, and the size of the vice. Apron and bench top are usually arranged so that the top overhangs the apron by about 16 to 18 mm. This overhang would then determine the thickness of the wooden faces used in.

The jaws should be made of hardwood as this best resists the wear to which they are subjected. It is very important that the grain on the moving jaw is vertical: if it is horizontal then the part projecting above the metal can easily split when something is held right at the top of the vice, and the vice is then well tightened.

On most vices the metal jaws are drilled and tapped to accept ‘set screws’ for fixing the wooden faces. It is, however, possible to use ordinary wood screws from the back of the jaw, into the wood. Set screws pass through holes drilled in the wood faces, and make a much stronger fixing. Whichever way they are fixed care must be taken to ensure that the inner faces of the wood jaws are left smooth and without screw heads that stand proud, or screw points sticking through. The wooden jaws need replacing from time to time and care must always be taken in their fitting so that when the vice is closed the surfaces of the wood remain parallel both vertically and horizontally.

Do not grip metal objects in the wooden faces and take care of the vice, with an occasional drop of oil on slide and screws. When gripping irregular shaped material be sure to place softwood packing pieces at the ‘slack’ spots so that the pressure is evenly exerted.

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