Frank Klausz’s Workbench

Frank Klausz’s new [in 1987] workbench is rooted in a venerable European tradition.

The following is excerpted from “The Workbench Book,” by Scott Landis.

First published in 1987, “The Workbench Book” remains the most complete book on the most important tool in the woodworker’s shop.

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The Workbench Book” is a richly illustrated guided tour of the world’s best workbenches — from a traditional Shaker bench to the mass-produced Workmate. Author and workbench builder Scott Landis visited dozens of craftsmen, observing them at work and listening to what they had to say about their benches. The result is an intriguing and illuminating account of each bench’s strengths and weaknesses, within the context of a vibrant woodworking tradition.

This fully illustrated guide features more than 275 photos of beautifully crafted workbenches as well as complete plans for four benches. “The Workbench Book” explores benches from around the world, from every historical era and for all of the common (and esoteric) woodworking specialties.

This 248-page hardbound edition from Lost Art Press ensures “The Workbench Book” will be available to future generations of woodworkers. Produced and printed in the United States, this classic text is printed on FSC-certified recycled paper and features a durable sewn binding designed to last generations. The 1987 text remains the same in this edition and includes a foreword by Christopher Schwarz.


I met Frank Klausz before I met his workbench. He was seated next to me in the front row during a lecture giv­en by Ian Kirby (Chapter 6). Klausz himself was scheduled to speak about wood finishing the next day. Kirby’s talk centered on his workbench, an example of which he’d brought along. Although the bench had evolved out of Kirby’s own English tradition, from Klausz’s Hungarian per­spective it was hardly a cabinetmaker’s bench at all. It had no tail vise and the front vise was of the metal, quick-action per­suasion. Klausz fidgeted through most of Kirby’s talk, and at the first break he sprang from his chair and led me to the bench, where he passionately ennumerated his objections.

To understand the depth of Klausz’s convictions, you need to know about his background. Thirty years ago in Hungary, at the age of 14, Frank began his woodworking career in an ap­prenticeship system that had remained essentially unchanged since the Middle Ages. What was unusual about it, even by Eu­ropean standards, was that Klausz entered into a formal, con­tractual apprenticeship with his own father. “I paid the high­est price for my trade,” Klausz explains. “Once I apprenticed, I didn’t have a father, I had a master.” And a stern master at that. Of the half-dozen workers in his father’s cabinet shop, it was Frank who was taken to task if something wasn’t quite right. Perhaps wary of his own son’s competition, the elder Klausz withheld certain construction tips until the very end of Frank’s apprenticeship. Watching his father work, Frank asked, “How can you do that so fast?” His father replied, “After ten or fifteen years you’re gonna be a pretty good beginner yourself.”

At the end of four years, Frank became a certified journey­man cabinetmaker, on his way to becoming a master (which required one year of work in each of three different shops). Ten years later, Frank and his wife, Edith, packed their lives in three suitcases and left Hungary. Like the journeymen of old, Frank was on the road-except that his only tools were his hands and head, not chisels and saws in a toolbox strapped to his back. By 1969, the couple was living on Long Island, where Frank ran through a succession of jobs – carpentry, casework and so on – trying to find his way back to the work he’d trained to do. It was five more years before he could set up his own shop in a two-car garage in New Jersey. Finally, in 1985, Frank and Edith built the shop they’d been dreaming of.

I went to visit Frank in his Pluckemin, New Jersey, work­shop and to meet his workbench in the flesh. My first and most startling impression was of the workshop itself. I had primed myself for an old-world sweatshop, with young appren­tices chained to their benches. In Hungary, Frank’s father had two small workrooms-one for the benches and another (un­heated, even in winter) for the machinery. When lumber had to be cut from a 20-ft. log, the workers fed it through an open window at one end of the machine shop, across the bandsaw and out again through the opposite window over rollers placed at the sill.

Klausz’s own shop couldn’t be more of the ‘new world.’ The single-story, cinder-block building sprawls a full 100 ft. in length. Painted off-white inside, it is bright and airy, with windows on all sides and large skylights. If Frank had mill a mast for the Constitution, I doubt that he’d even have to open a window.

Frank takes me on a quick tour of the shop to show me their work. While one of his four employees might be building a set of computer cabinets of walnut-faced plywood, another could be restoring an 18th-century English grandfather clock or stripping an office desk. At the far end of the building, we pause for a moment while Frank sprays the handrails for a casket he has built for an elderly client, whose house he has almost entirely restored. In the old country, Klausz explains, there was a cradle-to-grave relationship between the craftsman and his client. As his last commission for the deceased, the cabinetmaker would appear at the funeral, in his Sunday best, to drive the nails into the lid of the box. Clearly, a workbench in this shop needs to be versatile.

According to another old-world tradition, Frank explains, workbenches were passed on from one generation to another. The woodworker was the custodian, not the owner, of his bench – just as he was the custodian of the knowledge of his trade. The workbench took on a life of its own; it became somehow larger than the sum of the men who had planed upon it.

For Frank that chain had been broken. He had brought no workbench with him from Europe, and had to use commercial­ly made benches for years, never having the time to make his own. But, when he found that there weren’t enough bench­es to go around in the new shop, he decided to build one. “The reason I made one is that you can’t buy one good enough,” he told me. It seemed to Frank that commercially made work­benches were growing smaller and lighter, even as they got more expensive. I also suspect it was Frank’s way of saying he’d come home.

Klausz, with a glued-up tail vise joined with hand-cut dovetails.

There wasn’t any guesswork or design involved when Frank built his bench. He didn’t reinvent the wheel. “It’s a copy,” he says. He had measured two benches at his father’s shop, a third in Vienna and another in Belgium. They were all within an inch of each other. “Apart from little touches like the stops and oil dish, the only difference I found was that some crafts­men treat their benches with loving care and some don’t …. Except for the metal vise screws, my bench is the same as my grandfather’s…. [The design] is so well worked out – if it hadn’t been good, Grandpa would have done something about it.”

When a customer enters Frank’s shop, he encounters the workbench, which also functions as a desk and business coun­ter. Even if the visitor doesn’t comment on the bench, it’s a fair bet he’s noticed it. If Klausz could fit his workbench in his wallet, he would hand it out like a business card – it is his best foot and he puts it forward.

Klausz begins to explain his workbench by underlin­ing a point too often overlooked-location. As the most impor­tant tool in the shop, the bench’s placement with respect to work flow (of materials, to and from machines, for finishing and so on) is crucial. Lighting is also important, and ideally should cast no shadows on the benchtop. Hand tools should be readily accessible. Frank’s are kept in a wall-mounted cabinet, only 5 ft. from the shoulder vise of the bench.

Of equal importance is the auxiliary set-up table near the bench, shown below. This low table is the right size (40 in. by 60 in. by 27 in. high) for all kinds of gluing, assembly or fin­ishing. Anything that’s too messy or large for the workbench can be done on the table, leaving the benchtop free for trim­ming joints and other last-minute tasks. Rather than clutter­ing the main bench with drawers, Klausz built open shelves and storage bins in the base of the set-up table to hold hard­ware, small power tools and accessories.

This 27-in.-high set-up table is a versatile companion to Klausz’s bench. It helps organize hardware and portable power tools, and pro­vides a nearby, convenient surface for gluing and finishing. Hard­ware is stored in 12 plastic bins, and three drawers pull out from be­neath the 40-in. by 60-in. particleboard and plywood top.

In my travels I’d seen several variations on Klausz’s work­bench, variously referred to as Scandinavian, Danish, Swedish and European. These workbenches all have as a common de­nominator the ‘dog-leg’ shoulder vise. I thought I had heard most of the arguments for and against this vise; as far as I had been able to discover, the only craftsmen who liked it were those who had trained on it, usually in strict apprenticeships.

I posed the same objections I’d heard to Klausz: The vise isn’t strong enough to withstand heavy clamping pressure. It’s awk­ward to work around the large corner. The pivoting clamping board often has to be held with one hand to keep it from bind­ing as it’s wound in and out. You can’t clamp a board any­where on the bench for crosscutting.

Frank’s initial response was a reflex: “If you’re a cabinetmak­er, if you do casegoods, frames, if you plane, saw or sand wood, if you do dovetails … I can’t see anything quicker or better.” Later, he explained that the floating clamping board grips well on tapered stock, and one end of a long board (or a door) can be clamped firmly behind the screw while the other end is sup­ported by the portable bench slave, shown at right. But it was only when I watched him dovetail a drawer that I truly began to appreciate the shoulder vise.

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Through dovetails are one of the traditional cabinetmaker’s preferred joints, and when Frank cuts a dovetailed drawer he puts the bench through its paces. “Good craftsmen,” Frank says, “not only do things well, but do them with speed…. If you want to make a good joint, you can do it just about as fast by hand as with a machine, especially if you’re doing just one.” With the drawer parts milled to length and thickness, Frank uses a mortising gauge to scribe the thickness of the stock across the ends of the boards. Then he slaps the first piece-the drawer front or back – upright in the shoulder vise.

The quick-action feature of a Record vise is nice, Frank ad­mits, but he rarely has to move the screw on his vise more than a single turn. Because there are no guide rods or screws running below the vise, a long board such as a drawer front can be clamped through the opening, not just gripped in the top few inches of the jaw or along one edge. The work won’t twist and there’s no need to block the other edge of the vise to keep the jaws parallel. (The clamping board pivots on the end of the screw to accept tapered work, and it should move freely without needing to be guided by hand.)

Klausz uses a bench slave (top) to support on end of a long board clamped in the shoulder vise. When he cuts dovetails (bottom) he clamps the board vertically in the shoulder vise, directly behind the screw. There are no guide rods to interfere with the work. He aligns his arm and body with the direction of the cut and, standing above it, he can keep an eye on both sides of the line.

At 33 in. high, Frank’s bench is lower than I’m used to, but the shoulder vise helps to compensate by allowing you to clamp work securely at many different heights. If it’s too high, it vibrates; if it’s too low, it’s uncomfortable. Frank holds the top edge of the drawer front about 4 in. or 5 in. off the bench­ –
a comfortable sawing height – and clamps the board tight. He wheels around to grab a backsaw from the tool cabinet and begins cutting pins – without stopping to lay them out. In about as much time as it took him to rip a bageI on the band­saw during a coffee break, he defines all the pins at one end of the board with six sawcuts. Once the pins are cut on both ends of the drawer, front and back, the action moves to the other end of the bench. Frank C-clamps the part to be chopped in front of the tail vise – never on it. The force of the mallet blows is transferred directly through the leg to the floor. Whether he’s working on one drawer or six, all the parts are stacked and staggered, one on top of another, so that he has ready ac­cess to all the joints. At one point, Frank demonstrates how, during a full day of this work, he would drop to his knees to rest his back (there’s a rubber mat in front of the bench to provide a cushion). This places the work at his chest, instead of at his hip, and gives him a closer view as well.

To chop the pins, Klausz stacks the drawer sides and clamps them to the bench in front of the the vise.

Next, with the parts laid out on the benchtop, he marks the tails from the pins. Then he’s back at the shoulder vise to cut them out. During these operations, the tool tray holds the mark­ing gauge, hacksaw, pencil, square, chisel and mallet-out of harm’s way but easily retrieved. The tray isn’t a repository for yesterday’s project, and Frank keeps it swept clean. Cutting dovetails by eye requires having your wits about you, or it won’t be long before you’re cutting pins on one end of a board and tails on the other. A clean, orderly benchtop is essential.

With the vise snugged tight, Klausz sets the benchdogs with a few smart laps on the end of the board and the head of the dog. A piece of scrap protects the board from the face of the metal dog.

Before the drawer is assembled, Frank planes the machine marks off the inside of each piece. He moves back to the other end of the bench and gently closes the tail vise on a drawer side, using a piece of scrap between the metal dogs and the ends of the board. It doesn’t take much pressure. The benchdogs do two jobs: they grab the wood and, because they’re an­gled, pull it down. Their down-clamping action is important, especially on thin stock, which will chatter if suspended in midair. To make the most of this feature, Frank taps down on each end of the board in front of the dog, seating it on the bench. He prefers metal dogs to wood because of their strength; they’re more effective at pulling the work down, and he can knock the dogs up an inch or more above the benchtop without having to worry about flexing or breaking them. The dogs can also be reversed and used to pull apart a piece of furniture. For this reason, the dogholes are cut at an 88° angle – ­any steeper and the dogs might slide out of their slots.

Klausz reverses the dogs in their holes and opens the tail vise gradually to take a chair apart for repair.

“When I plane, I use my body weight and just push down,” Frank explains. “This gives me hours of easy planing, without pushing and shoving.” The bench has to be the right height for this. To demonstrate his formula for bench height, Frank stands next to the bench with his arms at his side and his palms turned down – the benchtop grazes his palms. He is 6 ft. tall and his bench is less than 3 ft. high. Frank planes in two motions – a long, cutting, power stroke and a feathered return as he tilts the plane slightly to lift the blade off the wood and to resume position for the next cut. The bench doesn’t move under the pressure of his strokes.

Sometimes if a piece is small, Frank glues up right on the bench, spreading a cloth to protect the top. But more often, he turns to the set-up table behind the bench. A quick swipe with a wet rag removes any errant drops.

When the glue is dry, he planes the drawer sides by gripping the frame in the front jaw of the tail vise. The other end of the drawer, which sticks out from the vise, can be supported at any height by the bench slave.

To finish the job, Frank planes the top and bottom edges of the drawer flush. He reclamps the drawer flat on the bench between dogs-using the front doghole in the tail vise when he can and keeping the vise opening small. “You want to have the workpiece on the bench as n1uch as possible, not on the vise,” he says. “It puts less stress on the vise itself. The strongest sup­port is up front, over the legs.”

Klausz’s drawer demonstration answered many of my doubts about the shoulder vise: It doesn’t need to be immensely strong, because the screw is always centered behind the work­piece. Whatever inherent awkwardness exists in its design is at least partially offset by this convenient feature, which can­not be found on any other conventional front vise. The clamp­ing board rarely binds in everyday use, because generally it is adjusted in small increments, and it’s the only vise I know of that clamps non-square stock as easily as square stock.

This flip-up padauk stop is all that is needed to hold most boards for crosscutting.

I had one final reservation, though. There’s no easy way to clamp a board for crosscutting anywhere on the bench. “You don’t have to,” Klausz says. All that’s necessary is a small stop, and he flips up the pivoting bench stop at the right end of the bench and pushes a board against it to demonstrate. Its loca­tion on the right end of the bench is also more convenient for a right-handed worker than crosscutting off of the left end.

If my own reservations about the bench were mainly re­solved, it was clear that Frank had none at all. “If you’re a cab­inetmaker, you should have a bench like this,” he said.

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