Building a Relief Carving Bench


Relief carvers do not often have the luxury of carving in the living room in front of the TV. Chip carvers can, as long as they work things out with their significant others first. Caricature carvers can, and so can whittlers, since they carve while seated. But relief carvers for the most part need a solid workbench on which to work, and on which to place their many tools if they are to do their thing.

I know from experience that many of the work benches used by carvers are of the small, wiggly, light-weight, low to the ground variety and are poorly equipped for holding a relief panel securely.

When I started carving many years ago, I used a wall mounted workbench in my landlord's garage. It was narrow, saturated with years of oil changes and soiled with iron filings. This was not a good place to carve. But it was all I had, and I was desperate to carve.

Later, I moved up to a Black and Decker Workmate™ which was at least clean and had sturdy plastic bench-dogs mounted into a moveable top. The problem was that I had to either bend over to carve, or I had to sit on a chair. Both these positions were very awkward and uncomfortable. Add to this the fact that the Workmate liked to travel across the floor when I used the mallet on my tools, and you can see why I don't use the Workmate for carving today. It's up at the cottage where it is used for other things.

My next workbench was found at an auction. It was a full sized carpenter's workbench, made of beech wood, with two rows for square bench-dogs, an end vise and a side vise. After it was repaired, it served me for years as the place where I did all my carving. It was a real treasure.

However, it was also too low, being a mere 32" high, and I still had to lean over my work all the time. Eventually I built some lifts for the bench legs to raise the table another 6". That helped a lot. Still, things were not as they should be. The bench-dogs were square, of the type carpenters like, and the bench top had a tool tray along the length of the top which reduced the size of the carving area.

Maybe I was just too fussy for my own good, but then maybe I just realized that if I were going to continue to spend fifteen or twenty hours each week carving, I might as well be comfortable and well equipped.

The bench described below is one that I built about 3 years ago to better equip my shop for carving classes. It has proven sturdy, comfortable, durable, and convenient. Some of my students have copied the design and built their own. Perhaps is can serve you as well as it has served me.

Overview of the bench


Looking at the side view, you can see that the bench is over 39" tall. This height is good for people of average height, from 5' 9" to 6' 2". If you are taller or shorter, you will need to adjust the length of the end posts to suit your height. Working at the proper height, you will be able to lean into the table with your hip, and place your arm and elbow on the table top comfortably as you carve. The foot rest, which adds stability to the table, also allows you to lift one leg while you work, taking the strain off your lower back.

Note that the table is almost 50" long (see the images below). This is large enough that you can spread your tools on the bench top while you work, and still have lots of room for your carving panel. This also allows for efficient use of wood if you are purchasing lumber in 8 foot lengths. The boards (excluding the end-caps) that make up the bench top need to be 44.5" long when they are finished. You can do the math here, but suffice to say that you will have room in each 8' board to cut two lengths of boards for your bench top.

From the end view, you can see that the bench is 28" deep. This is large enough for most relief panels, and with the added width of the 9" vise opening, you will be able to hold a panel as large as 32" securely.

 The vise:

The vise is your typical Record-type vise, the 7" variety, with a 9" capacity. It is inexpensive and relatively easy to mount under your work bench. The vice I purchased came with excellent mounting instructions. These vises come with a single dog which, when coupled with your bench dogs, will allow you to hold your carving panels at three points. This is the preferred method of holding a relief panel on a bench top.

The vise should be mounted on the side of the bench, not the end, close to one corner of the bench (see the images below). This will allow you to move around the table as you carve and to reach your relief panel from three sides. It also leaves the rest of the table clear for your tools, drawings and the like.

 The bench-dog holes:

Look at the top view bench top view on the bench (see the images below). Note how the bench-dog holes are arranged in three rows. The inside row is staggered in relation to the two outside rows. The holes are 4" o.c. apart, length-wise, but about 6" o.c. apart width-wise. This arrangement allows you to hold your carving panel with two or three points of contact, including, of course, the vise-dog.

Building the bench

Constructing the bench top:

Start by choosing the wood you wish to use. I have made benches of beech, hickory, maple, oak, ash and birch. All of these woods work well, but my favourite is hickory. This is one tough wood, and though it is a little harder to work with, its weight and durability are its outstanding attributes. Besides, hickory looks real nice, and is less expensive than many other woods. Perhaps you have a favourite wood with which you can indulge yourself.

Do not use softwoods like pine, cedar or even fir to make your table. And stay away from the softer hardwoods like basswood, alder, and aspen. These woods will not stand up to the wear and tear that relief carving inflicts on a work bench. Bench-dogs crush these woods easily as pressure is applied by the vise, and soon the dog holes will widen and become too sloppy to use.

Choose boards that are a full 8' long, and as close to 2" thick as possible. Boards that are 6", 8" or even 10" wide are quite acceptable. Make sure the lumber is dry and reasonable straight. Lumber that is not fully seasoned will shrink and warp after the table is assembled, bringing you disappointment and grief, and crooked lumber is just plain hard to work with in 4' lengths.

Cut the boards to length PLUS one inch. After they are assembled in a panel, you can trim them to the finished length. Also take time to rip the boards length-wise into smaller widths. A 6" wide board should be ripped to 3", and 8" board to 4" and a 10" board to 5". That way they will fit onto a standard 6" jointer for the initial surfacing.

You will need to surface the boards (face down, NOT edge down) initially on a jointer to get one flat surface. From there you will put your boards through a planer to achieve parallel sides of a consistent thickness. On this point, be sure to take off only as little wood as necessary while planing. You want your bench top to be as thick as the wood allows.

Once you have boards that are flat and parallel of both faces you are ready to joint their edges in preparation for lamination. Edges should be jointed at exactly 90°. If you have any doubt as to the proper techniques for jointing wood, then please take the time to consult with a competent cabinet maker. There are a few tricks that will help you get accurate joints and nearly flawless laminations. For a cup of coffee and some sweetener, you will likely persuade your friendly cabinet maker to divulge the secrets.

Once the boards are jointed, separate them according to width so that you can make two roughly equal panels. You will need to glue the boards into two panels, at first, so that you can put them through a planer before joining them together to form the bench top. Most small shop planers are around 14"-16" in width.

After the boards are laminated into separate panels, plane each of these panels to smooth their surfaces. Then joint the two edges that are to be glued and laminate the two panels to form a complete bench top. When the glue has set, hand plane the seam connecting the two panels to make sure it is relatively smooth. Cut the bench top panel to length, taking great care to ensure that the finished panel in dimensionally accurate and square (measure the diagonals).

Fabricate end-caps so they will fit closely to the ends of the bench top panel, and then, with all your clamps in place, glue the endcaps to the panel. This is a tricky procedure that will likely require are extra pair of hands, and a bit of adjustment of the two pieces if you are to get a good fit. You may also have to use glue with gap filling properties, or mix your glue with a small amount of fine sawdust. While the glue is setting in the clamps, pre-drill three countersunk holes (see the images below) to receive the lag bolts that will help secure the end caps to the bench top panel. Install the lag bolts using a wratchet and socket. Finally, chamfer the edges of the bench top and sand the surface till you are pleased with it.

 Building the End Post Assemblies:

The joint used to attach the posts to the upper and lower horizontal members (what is the proper name for these two pieces?) is a simple open mortise-and-tenon joint. You can make this joint using only a radial arm saw or a table saw if you need to. The joint does not have to be perfect. Close is good enough. But make sure the joint is a snug fit, and use lots of glue, with some sawdust mixed in for good measure.

Clamps will be needed to hold the end post assemblies together while the glue sets. Take special care to ensure that the end posts are square (measure the diagonals) as you tighten the clamps. If these assemblies glue up crooked, you may as well throw the end posts out and start over again. Here, close is not good enough. Your bench will never stand evenly unless the end posts are square.

The posts are made of two pieces of wood laminated together (for stability and to achieve a larger dimension) and machined to size. This is necessary because the post are 2.5 inches thick and 3.5 inches wide. I find that a thick post will transfer the impact of your mallet blows to the floor more effectively than a skinny post.

Use your bandsaw to cut out a wide crescent from the bottom horizontal member of the end post assembly as shown in the End View (see the images below). This will help the bench sit steady on a floor that is a little uneven.

 Attach bench top to end post assemblies:

You will need two machine bolts on each end of the bench top to fasten it to the end post assemblies (see the images below). The bolts should be pre-drilled and countersunk (see the images below) below the surface of the bench top. I used 3/8" bolts with washers top and bottom. Use a spade bit to drill the holes.

Do not glue the bench top to the end post assemblies, otherwise you will be unable to remove the bench top in the event you wish to transport the table. You may also need to alter or adapt the bench top in order to customize it for your special needs at some later date. With a removable bench top, this will be a lot easier.

 Attach foot rails:

The foot rails should be made of 1" material to the dimensions shown in the diagrams. Chamfer the edges of the prepared boards. Fasten them to the table (be sure they are level) with glue and screws. Omit the glue if you wish to be able to fully disassemble your bench for transport or storage.

 Attach Vise:

Purchase a 7" Record-type vise and install it onto the underside of the bench top near the left corner of one side. If you are left handed, you might want to do it the opposite way (see Bench Top View). Use round headed machine bolt to fasten the vise, and be sure to pre-drill and countersink (see the images below) the holes that the bolts pass through. You may have to shim the vise under the table so that it does not stick up above the top surface of the bench top. Use plywood for your shim material.

You can make some hardwood jaw plates and screw them onto each inside faces of the vise. That way you will be less likely to mar your precious wood projects if you have to clamp them in the vise.

 Drill Bench-dog Holes:

Round bench-dog holes are the best and the easiest holes to make and use. They can be drilled with a 3/4" spurred spade bit (see the images below ) to receive a 3/4" wooden or metal bench dog. I used metal bolts (brass or steel) until a friend turned some nice maple bench-dogs for me.

Stagger the hole pattern as illustrated in the Bench Top View. Take care that you position the bench-dog holes so that they do not interfere with the vise assembly below. I find that three rows of holes allow me the most flexibility for positioning my relief panels, especially round or irregular panels.

The bench-dogs should have at least one face that is slightly bevelled under, so that the top edge of the dog bites your relief carving a little bit. This will help the dogs grip you carving panel better, and prevent the panel from lifting off the bench top when it is being clamped in place.

Finishing the Bench

I used a quick dry satin urethane product to finish my bench, because it wears well and does a nice job of bringing out the beauty of the wood. First I applied a diluted coat, left it to dry over night, and then sanded it before applying the final coat.

I also took care to avoid dripping the full strength urethane finish into the bench-dog holes. The more finish drips into the holes, the tighter the holes get. You will have to take a round file to open the holes till they are large enough to again receive the bench-dogs.

Tools that you will Need

1. Table saw or radial arm saw to cut boards to length and to make the open mortice-and-tenon joints.

2. Jointer: to flatten boards prior to planing, and for dressing the edges of the boards prior to gluing.

3. Planer: to surface the boards to the correct thickness.

4. Bandsaw: to rip boards to lengthwise, and to cut the crescent under the bottom horizontal member of the end post assembly.

5. A sander: to smooth the bench components prior to finishing. Palm sanders work well, but stay away from belt sanders: they are too aggressive, and leave coarse scratches on the surface.

6. Glue: use a good yellow carpenters glue. Be sure to keep your shop well above 60°C when gluing your boards.

7. Various C-clamps to help align the boards, and at least three bar clamps.

8. Paint brush and a can of quick-dry urethane finish.

9. Various bolts and screws, along with a 3/8" drill and spurred spade bits.

10. Lots of strong coffee. Avoid beer or other intoxicants (grin).

In conclusion

After having successfully completed your relief carver's bench project, take a few pictures of it for your photo album. Since it is your bench and you are a carver, perhaps you could also carve a little design or even your name into the bench. That will personalize it nicely.

If you get a moment, drop me a note or email me, to tell how the project went. I'm interested to know if this article provided you with all the information you needed to tackle this project, and to receive your suggestions as to how these instructions could be improved (within reason, of course).

You are welcome to e-mail   W.F. Judt