Tag Archives: left-handed

Sinister Workbench


I haven’t seen a lot of left-handed, or ‘sinister‘ workbenches out in the wild. I suspect most are from the mid 20th century or later with the assumption that earlier southpaws were likely forced to work right-handed much as a lot of the left-handed folks in my family were forced to learn to write with their right hands in school. If my woodworking research friends have actual information to the contrary I am interested to learn more about left-handed woodworkers. Given that in earlier times craftsmen usually made their own benches it seems logical left handed benches would be easy enough to make unless the social stigma and/or dominance of right handed tools outweighed the convenience.

3/4 view of workbench
3/4 view of left handed Tage Frid workbench by Paul Van Pernis

My friend Paul Van Pernis, former president of the Early American Industries Association (EAIA) , recently reached out to me and shared that he built a pair of left-handed workbenches based off of Tage Frid’s original plans — one for himself and one for his youngest son.

Paul Van Pernis at the EAIA Annual Meeting 2015 holding my son Bradley. :-)
Paul Van Pernis at the EAIA Annual Meeting 2015 holding my first son Bradley 🙂

Paul did an great job building his bench and it sounds like it has served him we’ll for 20+ years. It was great to see all the finger joints and other details much as what Frid had in his book and FWW article.  The bench-top and vises look like they have all held up great.

Detail view of the shoulder vise
Detail view of the shoulder vise

Paul’s original note about his workbench, how he acquired the materials and built them was too good not to share:  (Shared with his permission):

The bench is still my primary bench.  I use it all the time. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of my son and I together at the bench. It’s not like my wife to take a lot of pictures of me or my kids down in my basement workshop.  The wood was milled at a local mill just 25 miles south of us in Mellen, Wisconsin called North Country Lumber.  I knew the owner of the mill and his brother.  I took care of their families when I was still practicing family medicine.  I told the owner Bob Stilen that I was interested in building the benches and asked him if he could provide me with some 8/4 clear hard maple select or better.  He was surprised that I knew a little about trees, sawmills, and furniture grade wood, but said he could get the wood.  He called me about a month later and we agreed to meet at the saw mill the next Saturday when I wasn’t on call.  The mill was closed, but both Bob and his brother were there when I got to the mill.  After a cup of coffee and a lot of bad jokes and stories from a couple of real northern Wisconsin characters (think the movie, Grumpy Old Men) I got a private tour of the mill and the drying kilns.  Then he showed me the wood he had selected for me.  It was a gorgeous pile of absolutely clear northern Wisconsin hard maple all cut to 8/4 thickness, kiln dried and planed on two sides. The boards were all 8 feet long or better and many of them were 12 inches wide.  It was drop dead gorgeous wood!  I was thrilled and had a smile from ear to ear.  I asked how much I owed them for the wood and both of them said to me, “Take it it’s yours. You’ve taken such good care of our families and especially our mom (she was elderly and one of my residents in the local nursing home), this is our gift to you.”

It was a wonderful gift and very typical of the good people who work hard and live well in the woods of northern Wisconsin.  Bob Stilen started the saw mill on his own and had grown it into a significant business that employed about 80 people and was supplying hardwood to several furniture manufacturers throughout the U.S.  They practiced great forest management (select cutting only) and gave good jobs and good salaries to their employees.  Both Bob and his brother have passed away, but the sawmill is still in business.  A lot of the teenagers in Mellen get their first summer job piling lumber and stickering it came off the saw.

I brought the wood home and have great memories of the time my youngest son and I had making those benches.  My youngest son is now a Prebyterian minister in Howard Lake, Minnesota and still likes working with his hands.  He and his wife are the ones I built the bed frame for that you saw in the picture I sent.  My other memory of building those two work benches was that I burned out the ¾ horse motor on my old 1978 Sears table saw trying to rip that 8/4 hard maple.  I replaced it with a 3 horse Baldor electric motor and switched from 110 to 220 and after that I had no problems.  I retired that table saw about 18 months ago (it went to the son of a friend a local farmer from whom we buy 1/3 of a pig each fall) and invested in a Sawstop table saw which I really love.

My guess is that we built those workbenches in about 1990 or 1991, so they’re at least 26 years old. As benches do, they’ve acquired a few scratches, gouges, and dings, but they are both still doing well.  After working with the benches there are really not any significant things I’d change about them.  So, that’s the story.

Warm Regards,

Here are a few more photos of the bench from Paul:

If you built your own Tage Frid inspired bench, either from Frid’s book and/or article or my recent revisit in the February 2017 issue of Popular Woodworking, I’d love to hear your story as well.

Take care,
-Bill Rainford

P.S. Check out Paul’s excellent series of blog posts on various planes from the Stanley Model shop over on the EAIA blog here.

P.P.S. I’m the webmaster for the EAIA website as well so if anyone has a  relevant story they’d like to share with the EAIA, please feel free to contact me.