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Monday Woodworking 101 - Bench Hooks

author-gravatar joelav May 06, 2016

A bench hook is one of the easiest things to make and one of the most useful. If your workbench is a solid core door on plastic saw horses or a 700lb hard maple Roubo, a bench hook will function the same and always have a permanent spot. Let's make this pair

**NOTE** I am left handed. If something looks backward to you, it is.
Bench hooks really could not be any simpler. It's a flat board with a fence on opposing sides of each face. This lets you secure it up against the bench edge for sawing, chiseling, planing, or whatever else you can think of. I like to use plywood and scrap hardwoods because the surface does get cut into and chiseled into. They don't last forever.

My primary use for a bench hook is sawing. The fence is short of the edge to allow for the saw to but against it. Again I'm going to point out that I am left handed. For right handed people, the fence will be short on the right side. Here I am demonstrating a quick cut. The edge of the fence functions the same as if you were to put your thumb at the start of the cut. However the advantage here is I have my other hand free to keep the work piece against the fence - or in this case, take a picture. 

I also cut a kerf in the fence for more precise cuts This helps keep the saw at 90 degrees so I can focus more on "straight" and less on "plumb". Many skip this step but I find it very beneficial.

Making a pair of bench hooks out of the same thickness material lets me use them both together to support longer work pieces. 

On the second bench hook I like to use a short fence. This helps when planing or scraping thin work pieces as shown here. 

I also us a bench hook for chiseling operations. This lets me keep my hands safe from the chisel, holds the work piece securely, and protects my bench top from chisel damage. I like to flip the bench hook over and use the bottom for this 

It's also good for chiseling dados, paring tenon shoulders/cheeks, and other chiseling operations. Unlike chiseling in a vise, I have full support under the work piece so chopping operations are much better. Also I'm not pinching and possibly distorting the workpiece. A holdfast can also be used here for added support. 

Chopping mortises is also one of my primary uses for bench hooks. The fence provides additional support, and unlike having the piece in a vise, the bottom is fully supported

I'm going to start with this 1/2" plywood off cut . I've always used 3/4" plywood for bench hooks, but having an excess of 1/2" I used this. After using it I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it. It works just as well as 3/4" . Plywood is already flat which is important for a bench hook, and it holds up to abuse pretty well.

I like my bench hooks to be roughly 12" long and 8" wide. Your work should dictate the size you need, but they don't need to be huge. I'm ripping this to 12" on the tablesaw. Yes I know technically this is a cross cut, put plywood doesn't have grain direction, and the piece is longer than it is wide. So I'm calling it a rip cut. 

Now I'm going to cross cut this into my two 8" wide bench hooks. First I square one side on my sled.

Then I set my stop block to 8" and slide the newly squared edge against it and cut it. Once done, I repeat for the second bench hook. 

Here are the two sections - ready for fences.    

Even though these bench hooks are sacrificial, I like to use hardwoods for the fence. Hardwoods hold up to abuse a lot longer than softwoods will. Here I have a 1 1/4" thick piece of oak. Try to have the fence at least 1" wide, and taller than most of the work you'll be cutting into. If you don't have anything thick/wide enough, gluing two boards together works fine. 
I mark the distance from the fence to the edge of the bench hook.    

I do the same with the other but this time I am using 5/16" material. 

This step is optional but I find it helps a lot. Rather than just gluing or screwing down the fence, I like to cut a shallow rabbet. Here i am setting the depth. If I am making a lot of these I will use a dado stack. However with just two I can have them nibbled away quicker than it takes me to change blades. 

I set my stop block to the mark I made, flip the hook over so I am cutting on the right face, and remove the material. I do this for the second hook as well.

Done. If needed I'll clean these up with a router plane or some sand paper

Now I am going to cut the fence to length. I am leaving it an inch short of the overall width of the bench hook so I have some space to guide my saw. In this case the fence will be 7". I am using an existing bench hook to cut this one. 

Try to cut square and straight - but just for practice sake. Nothing about a bench hook needs to be critical - unlike a shooting board which does need to be dead square. Don't worry if it's not perfect

This is another reason I like the rabbet here. I have some 120 grit sandpaper on a block and am chamfering the edge, This will make a shallow groove for sawdust to collect instead of interfering with my workpiece.

I cut the fence for the other bench hook to the full 8" width since I won't be using this for sawing

Now I glue the fences on. Remember that I'm a lefty, If you aren't for some weird reason, glue the fence so the space is on the right side

Here I am cutting some scrap maple for the fence on the bottom that keeps it locked against the bench.

I also like to screw the fence down on the saw hook. Since I will be cutting a kerf into it, I mark where that will be so I don't saw into a screw. I've found when using 1/2" ply it's best to screw from the bottom into the fence instead of the other way around. 

I do not add screws to the bench hook with the shorter fence. Many times I plane into the fence itself and don't want to risk hitting a screw.

Once complete I glue and screw the fence on the bottom that will hold it snug to the bench 

Done. It's totally acceptable to stop here. These are two completed and functional bench hooks. However I use bench hooks a lot. Hell I used bench hooks multiple times while making bench hooks. I like to embellish them a bit.

First I am going to cut the 90 degree kerf I talked about before. It's important to use the saw you will be using with the bench hook. I use multiple saws, so I have different bench hooks for each saw. An alternative would be to cut a different kerf for each saw - but each kerf weakens the fence.

I use my trusty lime green speed square as a saw guide to ensure my cut is square and straight. While obnoxious to look it,I (and most others) find these plastic speed squares to be dead accurate. I take my time and stay on the lines.

Done! Now I have a kerf to follow when I need very accurate cuts. May people also cut 45 degree kerfs as well for cutting accurate miters. 

I also like to add a little decoration to my fence. It only takes a few minutes and is nice to look at. I lay out lines for the width of this thin padauk scrap

I chisel into each line

Then punch out the center with a chisel

I even up the floor with the router plane

I shoot one end of the padauk to square it

And I break in my new bench hook while cutting it to size. I cut this to overhang a bit. Make sure it overhangs in the rear - otherwise it can interfere with tall work pieces. 

After gluing it in, I cut the small overhang with a flush trim saw

I plane it flush with the fence

I have some amber shellac that's about to go off, so I finish the shooting boards with it. Note You don't want a smooth finish here. I intentionally did not sand before or after coats of finish. I haphazardly slapped on 2 coats so the surface is fairly rough and grippy

Done! ready to cut into once the shellac dries 

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