Rethinking the Tool Well

April 1, 2012 § 4 Comments

For about a year now, I’ve been just a few weeks from starting my workbench build. Then something comes up and it gets delayed. My simple work table has also proved sufficient for most of my tasks, so quite frankly I’ve focused on more pressing needs. But I still plan on building it.

When I went shopping around for a workbench style, I settled on something without a tool well. Tool wells have their advocates (Rob Porcaro, Robert Lang), and detractors (Chris Schwarz, Joel Moskowitz – see The Joiner and Cabinet Maker, page 69). The “no tool well” crowd seems to be the dominant force at the moment, probably due to the enormous popularity of the Roubo and Nicholson style benches that hobbyist woodworkers are currently building in every far corner of the world. I had settled on not having a tool well for the reasons the detractors most often cite – tool wells tend to collect junk and they limit the surface area of your workbench. There, my mind was made up.

Then a funny thing happened. I brought some long 2x8s into the shop and just plopped them on my bench for lack of a better place at the time. I needed to work on something at the bench so I just shoved them to a far side to get them out-of-the-way. I started to work – I grabbed a chisel, then a block plane, a hammer, a mallet, etc. And then I stopped and noticed something. The picture below (a shameless reenactment) tells it all. Without even thinking about it, I was placing the tools up on the boards in between use. This kept them safely out the way when I needed to move things around. I had been employing one of the benefits of having a tool well – keeping small tools out of the same plane as your working surface. This little moment of subconsciousness has made me rethink my anti-tool well sentiments.

I envisioned having my workbench up against a wall, though I had gone back and forth on this. Now I know that I want it against a wall, and either have a tool well or incorporate some sort of narrow shelf or tool holders just above the bench on the wall. The 2x8s have long since moved off the bench, but each and every time I have to move tools around on the bench I consider bringing them back.

Chris Schwarz’ two workbench books (the red one and blue one) might be two of the most popular books ever written on the subject of workbenches.

Tim Celeski maintains, a bounty of information on workbenches for woodworkers. Tim is a professional woodworker who also teaches several classes a year – his 2012 teaching schedule is here.


§ 4 Responses to Rethinking the Tool Well

  • Rob says:

    My work bench is a very inexpensive type I’ve had for around 15 years, but I’d say the tool well at the back has proved one of its strong points – as much for odd wedges of timber, scraps of abrasive, rags, pencils, pots of fastenings etc as for tools, and it’s always been against a wall with a shelf above.

  • I have a tool well on the back of my narrow roubo, and go back and forth on whether to keep it or fill it in with boards to make a wider surface (or just lift the floor out of it). My tool well is about as wide as the bench top itself, around 11 inches. It collects shavings very quickly, and sometimes I have to very carefully go digging for a marking knife or chisel that is unsheathed and very sharp down in there. On the other hand, it can be very handy for keeping smaller tools out of the way and safe. Hard to knock your precision square to the floor when it’s in the well.

  • Frank says:

    I built my bench in 2008 without a tool well. I wish i hadnt listened to the masses. I’d put one in if i do it again.

    • Eric Bushèe says:

      This is a case where my procrastination has paid off. I’ve worked long enought with a bare bones work table that I now have a better idea of what I want – certainly a better idea than I thought I had a few years ago. We’ll see, though, I may even discover more things as I build the bench.

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