Tool and Workshop Report: The Anarchist's Workbench
Last Edited: 2023-03-16
Welcome to the first entry of what I am calling The Tool and Workshop Report. My original inspiration for this was to write down tool reviews that are separate from the online retailer websites, which are terrible places to actually write real reviews of tools. But then I wanted my very first entry to be about my workbench, which I can hardly say is a “review”, so let’s just go with a more inclusive name, like Report. My first entry into this series will be an essay on the Anarchist’s Workbench, both the book, and the bench itself.
Briefly, “The Anarchist’s Workbench” by Christopher Schwarz
Before I go over the Anarchist’s Workbench as the physical bench, I have to at least outline a bit on where the design and plans came from. The Anarchist’s Workbench the book is written by Christopher Schwarz, former editor of Popular Woodworking magazine. He is one of the founders of Lost Art Press, which is a publisher dedicated to printing high quality books on myriad subjects related to hand tool woodworking and the process of learning to make things with your own hands.
I don’t actually remember how I first heard about this book, but it was the first book in a long time that I ended up reading cover-to-cover. Let’s go over some good things about the book:
The history of workbenches in the American and European tradition provided in this book is comprehensive in breadth, but not so dense as to be obtuse or long-winded. I loved reading about the history of different workbenches, the variations in different kinds of tools and features workbenches have had over the years. By far, this is the best part of the book besides just the plans (which Lost Art Press does offer for free as a PDF on their website). As an added endorsement, this book was the first book I read cover-to-cover in a very long time.
The plans in the book are detailed and provide helpful illustrations and images to the prospective builder.
There is a strong defense in this book of cheap lumber* from the hardware store, which makes the design much more accessible.
Most importantly, if you following the plans provided in this book, without making compromises to simplify the build process, the result of all your work is a bench that certainly seems sturdy enough to outlive your great grandchildren. Check back in a few hundred years, and maybe I’ll post an update on whether that was actually true.
However, there are some things that bothered me about this book, or which did not prepare me adequately for the build process of the bench:
Why do old guys insist on telling bad jokes? There are a handful of off-color jokes and words in the text, some of which are like, really offensive, that just did not have to exist in this book at all. I think some people (especially older white guys? What is it with you people?) think that by being edgy with their words they add interest or humor or legitimacy to their writing, but the author is so knowledgable and smart, there is simply no need for this attempt at injecting crude humor into a book. It also just doesn’t align with the aesthetic mission of Lost Art Press at all. Books that are printed with high quality archival paper and beautiful binding and stitching, which are sold on the idea that they will last 100 years, shouldn’t have weird jokes in them that in 100 years will, at best, confuse people. It’s annoying to write so much about this, but this is the case in every book of Schwarz’s that I have read and it is so frustrating!
Perhaps a silly point for many, but the interpretation of anarchism used in this book is a little shallow and facile. It’s a minor quibble, as my expectations were not high. But as someone who knows self-described anarchists, and who agrees with many of the points anarchists make, I just think that, in this book, anarchism seems mostly like a scarier word for “anti-consumerism”, and that’s a shame. Schwarz is a self-described “American Anarchist”, or what Wikipedia classifies as Individualist Anarchism, and cites Josiah Warren as a direct inspiration for his beliefs. I am not an anarchist scholar, but this “American anarchy” in his books seems to focus primarily on the unending cycle of consumption we are all trapped in, where we cycle through cheap, crappy furniture every few years, in a way that is destructive to the environment and unsatisfying for the consumer and the producer of the product. The solution to this problem, for him, is “anarchy”, in the sense that we can radically break from this cycle by using our labor directly to make the things we need. For me, this felt far too limited and therefore unsatisfying, at least as far as political thinking goes.
In the author’s defense, he has written essays outside of his published works that seem to go more in depth into the anarchism that he ascribes to, like this one here on the Anarchist Library. Reading that essay provides a more complete, and perhaps satisfactory, interpretation of his idea of anarchism. I don’t want to dwell on this point as much as the author doesn’t want to elaborate on it in the book directly, but it was something I noticed during my read.
I put an asterisk in the cheap lumber point in the prior list because Christopher Schwarz lives in Kentucky, and so the cheap construction lumber in his neck of the woods is Southern Yellow Pine. Schwarz waxes poetic about the nice parts of SYP that make it ideal for shop projects where quantity of stock trumps quality. Unfortunately for me, Southern Yellow Pine is not what you get in Washington state. Here, you get Douglass Fir, which is much squishier and splinteryer than I expected. Chiseling mortises with bad technique and edges that aren’t as sharp as they should be led to some really nasty looking mortise walls, which is compounded by the fact that all the mortises you carve in this bench are huge. You don’t get the simplicity of just carving a mortise that is the same width as your chisel. It is, in short, a huge pain in the ass.
With all that being said, would I recommend the book? That depends on how good the actual workbench you get out of it is, and how doable the building process actually is…
The “The Anarchist’s Workbench” Workbench
First, let me start by saying, this is the first woodworking project I have ever tried to do on my own (with the exception of getting help for moving the whole thing when it was done). So the following thoughts are coming from someone who is trying to build this as their first, and hopefully only, workbench. With that being said…
The Anarchist’s Workbench is huge, sturdy, and surprisingly forgiving.
My bench was even scaled down from the original design, which called for 8’ of length. I dropped that down to 6’. It’s still massive. By virtue of each component being super thick, the whole bench is very heavy and feels extremely sturdy. And because of the drawbore mortise and tenon joints, your M&T’s can look pretty ugly (as you can see above), and the pegs will pull everything together (provided you drilled the offset holes towards the shoulder. Towards the shoulder. Towards the shoulder). I was very nervous during dry fitting each separate piece that the joints would be too sloppy and loose. Once the whole leg assembly came together, and then slid into the benchtop, it became clear that glue wasn’t even really necessary, and the pegs would keep things very snug.
The materials are easy to get.
I bought all the wood from the home center. I bought all my tools from the home center or Amazon (but nothing I bought at Amazon I couldn’t have found at the home center). You do not need to go to a nice lumberyard with nice hardwoods for this design and that is extremely appreciated. However…
The stock is hard to prepare.
The book states that you should buy 2x12 material and rip it to the widths you need for the different parts of the table. As I don’t have a table saw, I thought this would be the hardest step in stock preparation for me to do. I would later learn that this assumption was very, very wrong. After making a small ripcut setup with a circular saw, rip guide, and some hard foam insulation on my garage floor, I did the job more than satisfactorily.
The book states that you have to have a small planer and jointer to do this process. If you are working with little space and little experience, you will run into the issue I had, which is that it will be very hard to safely and consistently mill the wood to dimension. If you are like me and do not have a workbench already to help you make this workbench, you will have the same problem I did, which is I had no outfeed table to set up with my little thickness planer to plane the very long boards for the benchtop without creating a ton of snipe. Once a sufficient length of my 6’ boards exited the planer, they would sag hard and get really messed up on the ends, and I wasn’t coordinated enough or strong enough to consistently prevent this from happening.
It got to the point where I actually had to go to a community woodshop in my area (shown above) to use their giant planer and jointer for all these boards for the benchtop. And I was running out of time before a surgery date was going to take me out of commission for months, which meant I rushed the process and didn’t cut the boards at the table saw/plane them at the planer to the same width. This became a huge problem later.
So, if you don’t have access to a community workshop and you don’t have space for your little planer and don’t have a good way of managing the whole boards as they get milled down, you probably can’t do this project. You honestly probably can’t do any workbench project, outside of a little Roman style workbench. This leads me to my next point…
The Anarchist’s Workbench is not worth building?
This thing took me almost a year to complete. Not because I was working on it for a whole year. Obviously a few months of that time was due to me not being able to lift my arms above my head. But even afterwards, the mental wall I hit when it came time to build the legs felt insurmountable. I thought I had made so much good progress after building the benchtop, but then when I looked after the glue had dried, I saw how uneven all the boards were. Not cutting/planing everything to the same width meant the bottom of the bench was so uneven it was hard to look at without getting annoyed. And while I went to the community workshop for the long boards, I did all the shorter boards for the legs and stretcher at home, which was its own challenge. I still got snipe on a lot of boards and even after cutting them to length with a hand saw, there would still be unevenness at the ends for some of these parts. And cutting to length by hand is very hard to do perfectly, and I don’t have a shooting board because I don’t have a bench to use it on top of, so the ends of all my legs and stretchers are not perfectly square. It sucks.
And there was the matter of cutting all those giant mortises with my terrible chisels and even worse sharpening skills. It was so impossible to imagine that I could do this thing that I didn’t do anything for months. I had a mental breakdown towards the end after accidentally nailing/gluing a batten for the bottom shelf on the wrong side of the stretcher (shown below). I frantically tried to pry out the nails before the glue set, but I was using tiny finish nails and I didn’t have anything besides the back of a hammer, which did not work for obvious reasons. I eventually calmed down and fixed the issue a couple days later, but this bench caused me psychic damage in ways I was not prepared for.
I think about an alternate timeline where I built a Roman style workbench instead. The Roman bench is basically just a big bench you sit on, and your body weight keeps the bench still while you plane boards. You can still add workholding to Roman style benches, too. Making a simpler bench like that seems like it would have been the more correct way to start my woodworking journey. I could have been working and making things much faster, and maybe could have avoided some of the heartbreak that this bench caused me. And while I have recommitted to woodworking as a hobby, I can’t guarantee I’ll stick with it forever. What if the bench doesn’t solve all my workholding problems the way I thought it would? What if I get too frustrated after subsequent bad projects and give up? What if I am just not cut out for this kind of thing? After all, the only other woodworking I’ve ever done was watch a friend do 99% of the work to build an ill-conceived board game table. What if all my subsequent projects take a full year to make? Will I have the patience for it?
The Anarchist’s Workbench is totally worth building
I cannot deny the insecurity and uncertainty I feel going forward about woodworking as a hobby. As it stands, I have no ambitions for huge projects, like building a house or even a door to replace a future door in a theoretical house I own (I am currently a lowly renter in a little townhouse with shitty doors that will never be replaced unless Jack Nicholson shows up with an axe). Likely, the Anarchist’s Workbench will be the biggest thing I will ever build for the rest of my life. But at the end of the day, I was able to do it. There was nothing in the design that was truly impossible to accomplish. There was nothing so challenging and precise that I had to even re-make any parts of the bench. None of the joinery was particularly complicated, just labor intensive. And that goes with the general philosophy of the book, I think. Labor and time, simplicity and pragmatism, over filigree, ornamentation, and overoptimization.
This bench design is clearly well thought out. Even with my extremely ugly and sloppy joints, the bench pulls together at final assembly, like tension on guitar strings. As I walked around the bench, driving in the pegs into each joint, I could feel the strength and solidity in my work. When my friends flipped the bench over, it came down with a solid thud, and I leapt up and sat on it, triumphant. I had done what I previously thought was impossible. I had built a real, undeniably strong workbench.
It is overkill. I could have made something simpler, smaller, less intense. I could have just bought a nice workbench from a decent maker and been on my merry way. But I chose the difficult path, and I made it out alive and with an actual, complete bench. I was so scared it was going to explode or fall apart that I had nightmares of planing the bench and chunks falling off like pieces of cake. But yet it stands, a testament to strong joints and sweat.
I will likely never make anything as big and heavy as this workbench. One way to think about it is that I have to make a bunch of stuff to justify all this work I put into it. I have to make use of this thing, otherwise what was the point. But the way I look at it, and the way I feel about this bench, is that this will prepare me for anything and everything I want to make in the future. And if this is all I built, well, how fucking cool is that. This bench is huge. Not many people commit the time and energy and sweat and blood and tears into a project like this in their whole lives. Before this bench, I had never physically labored this hard for anything. Now I know what I can do. I know what my time and effort can make. I can bring ideas into the physical world with my hands and arms and legs and body and the result will feel amazing, even if it looks scraggly.
I am immensely proud of this bench. For all the grief it caused me, I am so glad I stuck with it and finished this project. I learned a ton about woodworking, and even more about myself, and what I am capable of doing. I cannot wait to make more things with the bench, I cannot wait to flatten the top, I cannot wait to build the leg vise and the planing stop and bench hooks and little jigs and all the fun stuff that you can make, just for your own workshop. I was able to go from nothing to one thing, and from that one thing, I can spring up and make everything else. That is exciting. That brings me joy and ambition. That’s the beauty of a project like this.
So, I can say without a doubt that I thoroughly recommend the Anarchist’s Workbench, both as a book and as a design and a project. Even if you are a beginner, if you have the drive within yourself and the support around you to put in the effort, you will be greatly rewarded. It’s a deeply challenging work if you are starting from scratch, but at least for myself, I was able to prove that it is 100% possible. And if it’s possible, finishing it is inevitable, as long as you continue to put in the work. At the end, the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction is indescribable.