Sunday, February 9, 2014

A Portable Nicholson Bench from Scrap Wood

Nicholson's 1832 workbench

I mentioned a while back in my last Leonard’s Mills post that I was going to share a little more about the construction and features of my quickly whipped up travel bench based on a plate from Peter Nicholson’s 1832 ‘Mechanic’s Companion’. I needed another bench that I could easily breakdown to fit in my van for events I demonstrate at and this period appropriate design was a great candidate.

My take on this "English" bench. It's about six feet long.

In true Yankee spirit, I built the entire thing from stuff I had laying around. The top, aprons, braces, and bottom shelf are all attached with screws I can quickly take out with my cordless drill. I can disassemble the works in less than five minutes at a very casual pace. With the diagonal bracing, it is surprisingly rigid. What more could you want?

A Detail shot from 'The Carpenter's Shop at Forty Hill, Enfield, ca. 1813 by John Hill

The two working hold devices are a front vise and a bench hook mortised into the top. The front vise was an old vise from my grandfather I reconfigured with this new pine jaw. The maple “hook” has a piece of handsaw recessed into the top and screwed in place. This is the first time I’ve had teeth on a planing stop. Woah. What a difference that makes!

The "hook" is a stop to hold your work for face planing.

The aesthetic is very rough and utilitarian like all of the period benches I’ve seen. To my eye, the perfectly crisp edged, 220 sanded gapless-joinery benches around today look way out of place in period woodworking demonstrations. I am sure there were exceptions, but this rough workmanship is much more representative of an average rural New England preindustrial workbench.

The legs units are glued together with lap joints. The aprons sit on rabbets. The holdfast holes are strategically placed into the top braces to get a hole depth of about 2 ¾”. The top is leveled only on the front half. The top was left rough and was scraped with the teeth of an old handsaw to leave a “grippy” surface. Finish? nada. No finish needed here.

The top is only screwed into place
Aprons sit in rabbets.

All flat and stacked.

All in all I am very happy with the usability and look of this bench. Works very well. Dirt cheap to build. (People often build these out of big box 2x lumber.) When it is not at events it lives setup in my barn. It’s nice to finally have a work surface in there too.

It slides onto the floor of my van leaving lots of room for other packing!

In action this past October

Any questions? Leave a comment. I’ll do my best to answer.


  1. Hi, I really like the simplicity and style of the vice on this bench. Can you describe how well it works? It looks simliar to a leg vise (bu sideways?), but without the pin in in the pivot. Can you still clamp stock beside the screw? I'm guessing the fit of the "slide" is thecritical factor for making it work smoothly.
    If you have any construction details (or a source for plans) I would really appreciate it!

  2. It works decent. I have never used one like this before so I don't pretend to know the subtleties of tuning this kind of vise. It works but it's not the stoutest thing I've used. Yes, I can clamp stock on either side of the screw. You are right on about the guide bar sliding smooth as the key. I lubricated the slot the bar rides in real well with some gear grease I had in the barn. Made a huge difference. No real plans I know of but you might wanna check out Mike Siemsen's post about his version.
    I did the same thing underneath but instead of completely enclosing the guide bar I put two walls on the sides. (You can see them in the pic with the top removed and leaning against the frame.

    1. Awesome, thanks for the reply and your honest opinion. I really appreciate it. Great blog by the way!