Find the most ERGONOMIC Workbench Height for you

Posted in Home Improvement on June 8, 2018

As I started designing my own workbench, I had to carefully think about an ideal workbench height. I could only find arbitrary numbers, but nothing specific for my own height.

The ideal workbench height should be measured to your own needs. Your best reference is your body! Go get your work footwear and find what is the measurement betwwen your elbow height and the ground. As a rule of thumb, this measurement equals to a woodworking workbench height between 32" and 38" for people between 5'8" and 6'2". For more details on WHY you should choose this method, keep on reading below.

Why fixed 34 inches?

According to Wood Magazine, the "standard" workbench height is 34" in order to match most table saw heights and double as an outfeed table. Hand tool woodworkers use even lower 32" height for extra leverage during hand planing or chiselling sessions.

I'm 6'0" tall and that sounds like bending constantly. Just like every other "modern" construction "standard" such as sinks, kitchen countertops, and so on.

While I do understand that smaller shops need multitasking tools in order to make the best possible with the little available space, how many small wood shops have the budget and the space for a full blown cabinet table saw or a hybrid table saw? Marius Hornberger from Youtube is certainly an exception - and he doesn't look as tall as an average German.

I am more realistic and I believe most hobbysts are currently using smaller benchtop table saws. (I know I am.) My solution was to build a small cabinet to prop up my table saw, plus it doubles up as storage space for all my blades, push sticks, and a smaller crosscut sled.

Why fixed 38 inches?

Paul Sellers swears by a higher 38" workbench height that can serve people as tall as 5'11", and higher 42" workbenches for people who are taller - 6'2" or even 6'4". He speaks from experience both owning a factory in the past and as a woodworking teacher in the present.

I agree with what he says about the "standard" height being too low. Even traditional hand planing doesn't need such a low bench. Since a sharp plane will naturally tend to force the plane sole downward, most of the force applied is forward, and only minimal force is downward.

However I disagree with Paul Sellers when he says most people "adapt" to a 38" workbench height. Adaptability is good in the short term, since it gives you flexibility to stay productive and overcome obstacles no matter what your circumstances are. In the long term, adapting permanently to a bad situation can bring bad consequences as well. If you live in a big city, you have adapted to days of the year where the smog is literally killing you - one inspiration at a time.

This is why I believe you should measure your elbow height and custom build your workbench.

Why the elbow height?

The elbow height is the most ergonomic workbench height rule. It approximately corresponds to the "belly button" rule of thumb, which is another staple in woodworking. However, measuring your elbow ensures your arms and shoulders have the motion and the reach necessary for your style of woodworking:

  • Heavier woodwork that demands downforce, such as working with hand tools, requires worksurfaces from 8" to 16" below your elbow height.
  • Lighter woodwork, using power tools, and detailed woodwork, such as cutting joinery, asks for workbench heights from 8" to 16" below the elbow height.
  • As a final note, precision work, such as working with electronics, requires elbow support - add 2" to your elbow height and you are good to go.

Any final notes on workbench height?

    • Sure!

      • Consider your type of woodworking. If you often build bulkier items such as furniture, go for a lower workbench. This avoids excessive strain in your back when moving your workpieces around and in your shoulders when you are working against gravity to raise a tool and drill a hole or hammering a dowel.
      • On the other hand, go higher if you mostly make small, detailed boxes or wooden toys.
      • If you want to store items under your workbench, remember to leave 6" of clearance for your feet, both in height and in depth, so you can get closer to your workbench instead of keeping your feet too far and having to lean in an awkward position that forces your lower back.

Are there Health Hazards for Working Standing?

Standing is a natural body position, so in principle there are no problems. The issues begin when we need to be rigid in certain positions performing certain tasks for prolonged periods of time.

This limitation in body positions leads to less variations of posture and movement, which can cause issues such as blood pooling in the lower regions causing sore feet, swollen legs, and varicose veins. This pooling also causes to heart to overwork - since more blood is "stuck" in the lower areas, the heart needs to work harder to pump blood to other areas of the body.

Other health problems derive from poor posture and include general muscular fatigue, stiffness in the neck and shoulders, and lower back pain.

How to avoid health problems?

If you need only two items, remember these: wear comfortable (and safe) shoes and vary your posture. Diversity is key!

      1. It is very important to change body position and posture frequently, so you relax muscle groups and promote blood circulation.
      2. Another important element to pay attention when changing posture is to keep a symmetrical posture, which brings balance to the entire spine and distributes your weight evenly in your legs and feet.
      3. Wearing safety footwear that is comfortable and allow wiggle space for your toes, in both height and width, also helps.
      4. A slight heel may help decreasing strain in the Achiles tendon, but remember to take that into consideration when measuring your workbench height.
      5. Anti-fatigue mats are also helpful in decreasing impact, especially when standing over hard cement floors. The way they work is by slightly allowing your body to sway, the mats allow you to move subtly and that already causes you to change body position, circulate your blood, and move your muscles.
      6. Excessive cushioning in mats also causes fatigue, so don't go overboard - cork, wood, or rubber are the best materials.
      7. And use slanted edges to avoid tripping on the mats.
      8. Keep a seat nearby to take occasional rests, too!
      9. Finally, remember to walk while you are working, especially to circulate the blood pooled in the lower areas of your body. Walking as little as ten steps is already helpful in decreasing the pressure in your leg veins.