After completing a Little John bench with a left handed set up I was struck by how odd it still appeared to me despite trying to get accustomed to it throughout the build. It made me realise that although we offer to customise our workbenches in this way, I’ve only ever built around four lefties, which is far less percentage wise than the population in general.
Those who do opt to go left handed with their bench tend to be new to woodworking, and I’ve found for the dozens of other left handed customers a standard set up was chosen because it’s what they had to become used to previously.
When I think about how easy or difficult it might be to use a ‘wrong handed’ bench, I look around and see that most of my tools are symmetrical. In fact glancing over the top of my bench right now, there’s nothing which is handed. I have to move over and check inside my tool box before I actually find a tool – my fillister plane – that would cause an issue. Of course, if need be this could be bought specifically with a left handed design.
I know left handed people struggle a lot with all manner of implements, everything from scissors and can openers, to musical instruments, riffles, computers … almost anything I can think of. So perhaps woodworking could traditionally have been one of the most well catered for activities for left handed folk? There are very few hand tools, bar joinery planes which have any bias at all.
This is likely something which developed incidentally because it’s the grain direction, rather than ourselves, which dictates so much of how we work. A woodworker who’s been at it a good while will be able to do most tasks with their ‘wrong’ hand for the odd occasion. I remember my Dad making me hammer for days with my left hand, as one day, he said, it will be needed. Confined spaces create such issues, and also when planing something very wide with stubborn grain, you can have little choice than to switch hand. It’s certainly a good problem solving skill to get used to putting a tool in the ‘wrong’ one.
After all this thinking it really begs the question, what is a left or right handed bench? And how much of it is simply down to what we are used to? As a right handed woodworker it’s easy for me to see past any difficulties a left hander might face, so if you’ve had any conundrums to negotiate I’d love to hear about it.
Update: At the present time we’re not building any workbenches for sale, however we have many resources on this website that will help guide you with your own workbench build.
Our English Workbench Video Series takes you step by step through a traditional bench build, starting out with a discussion on choosing the ideal dimensions, demonstrations of how to cut the joinery, right through to flattening your workbench top and building the face vice from scratch.
If you’d like us to guide you through your build with detailed videos and PDF plans, then you can find full details for this Workbench Series here.
In college, I got tired of looking stupid any time I had to try and hold the pool cue behind my back whenever I needed to make a weird shot, so one weekend a few friends and I went to a barely-used hotel bar that charged hourly pool rates and we spent two days playing and practicing left-handed.
After that, it wasn’t a big deal to switch hands when you needed and still do a fairly good job (a hundred times better than trying to hold it behind your back, anyway) of making shots.
I’ve done the same thing with a bench plane and a block plane, because it is easier to adjust my stance than it is to loosen the vice, re-position the wood, and tighten it back up and get back into stance. Certainly, I don’t ever have the pressing need to save such time, but it’s a nice skill to have in your back pocket.
Michael Forster says
Being ambidextrous is a great asset for a woodworker and worth cultivating. I’d be lying if I said I’m as comfortable left-handed as right but I can manage some frequently-used tools with either hand. I never worked as a site chippie, but my training did include first/second fix work back in the days when skirtings etc were fixed to wedge-shaped wooden plugs hewn with an axe. Once hammered in and left protruding by the expected depth of the plaster, they had to be sawn off plumb with a hand-saw and in some places that was almost impossible right-handed. Only answer (that I ever found): use the saw left-handed.
As a leftie, I treasure all of my left handed tools — the miter plane and the small plow plane. Everything else? I have to adapt. Mostly it isn’t too difficult, but there are instances….. Hey, I’m used to it by now.
I built my bench for left handed use and I am happy with it. I also realize that I will probably have to give it away instead of selling it, because everybody that has tried to use it wishes it was set up the other way. Such is life.
I came across an old, discarded workbench on the side of the road this past summer and because it had a vise attached to it, I dragged it home and used it to replace my rickety outdoor bench. It had its vise mounted on the left and I found this location had some serious positives going for it. In the end, however, I moved it to the right end of the bench because the many negatives that arose during planing outweighed the few strong positives it had during sawing.
As a southpaw, I am inclined to work “from the wrong end of the bench”. Other than the bench itself,with the vice location, I have found that most traditional tools are left- friendly, thus the attraction. Electric tools with their right handed switches and controls give me the willies. With the exception of some planes, broad axes, marking knives and measures that always seem to be upside down, I’ve found the problems to be of little consequence.
mike murray says
Just this morning I am sitting contemplating finding another little inexpensive block plane to convert to a shoulder plane where the blade is out even with the left side of the plane. I know this is a bit far removed from the left hand bench but it is the one case I have seen in woodworking where I wanted to have the ability in a tool to work from the other side so-to-speak. I have an old Stanley No 10 that I have put in fairly good shape and it works okay but it is big and really not one of my favorite tools. I have the wooden rabbet plane that I found in a junk shop and fixed up but I have converted it so it has a moving fence of sorts. I works good too but I don’t want to take the fence off. I still found I wanted a shorter smaller shoulder plane so I had this little True Value block plane, I cut open the right side in a fashion similar to what is on a No 10, then I removed some of the right side of the blade in places to allow for sliding the blade over to even with the edge, sharped the blue blazes out of the blade and wallah, I have a really nice handy small plane but it’t blade is out to the right side. I grab this little makeshift shoulder plane now for most clean up work on rabbets. Now to make a twin but open it on the left.
Veritas from LeeValley sells left handed planes!
In college I had to make my own left hand bench hook. Of course we also like the planing stop at the “wrong end” Finding left hand hammers and screwdrivers is still difficult despite the world wide web, lucky your Dad had the foresight!
John Purser says
Ya had me going until I hit “Left Handed Hammer”. I was still trying to figure out how the hell you make a left handed bench hook!
Laurence Pylinski says
Being of the “South Paw” persuasion I too have had to adapt to the right handed world.
It sometimes has been a challenge and I do some jobs quite well right handed but for the most part I am a left handed woodworker. I am a Professional Clay Target Shotgun Gunsmith for the last 30 years and I have my vise on the right end of the workbench and find it difficult to use a vice at the other end due to all of that muscle memory over those years.
I am in the process of building a new woodworking bench and will also locate the vice on the right end.
Richard, keep up the good work and posts as they are always looked forward to.
As a standard-equipped right-hander, I’ve often thought of adding a vise to the right-hand end of my bench because – as Mitchell notes – the “wrong end” is perfect for sawing operations. Of course, the rise (return) of the Moxon vise solves that problem – as soon as I get around to making one!?!
Dan Noall says
I wanted a wagon vise so badly I had to build my own bench pretty much around it (poor me). Wagon/screw on the left so that I’m not planing ‘into’ the wagon which would put a beating on it. I also find myself pulling a lot of planing implements, and quite often too. Moulding planes, for instance. Lee Valley is golden with their lefty offerings.
Adaptation is a way of life for lefties.
Joe Freeman says
I’m right-handed but often swap over, sometimes without realising, either due to lack of space or fatigue.
I agree with the other lefties here. We are even more than most woodworkers used to adapting. I think as you say joinery planes are the most striking examples where adapting isn’t really possible due to tool availability. Another lefty I follow http://blog.greatlakeswoodshop.com/2014/08/hovarter-vx-20-available-for-pre-order.html is planning his bench to allow his vise to easily swap ends, I think this is interesting in theory at least
Tico Vogt says
I make left-handed shooting boards just out of principle. Why shouldn’t lefties have tools made for them? If you play guitar right-handed try playing it left-handed and see how it feels.
I do find myself getting confused, though. On the face of it it’s simply a matter of reversing things, right? Yet, many botched parts have gone to the landfill because it’s actually not that easy!
Gabriel McKeagney says
You have raised a very interesting idea to me, a life long left hand’er- a Left Handed Bench…I had never thought of it but it makes SO much sense!
I have long stood at benches just wishing they were reversed but so used to being left handed I never took it any further than that. I always intended to make myself a bench and when I do, of course it will be left handed but in the mean time I improvise:)
As I look at your picture of the two benches, it became clear to me very fast which one I would want.
Denis Woodcock says
Why are tape measures made for lefties when most people are righties ?
All my wife’s family is right handed including my wife. I’ve been married for 41 years and am amazed at “her who must be obeyed” She makes curtains and pelmets for a living using some woodworking tools all right handed everything she does is right handed, cutting meat, spreading butter’ writing but eating she uses a knife in her left hand and looks awkward, put a knife in the proper (right) hand and it becomes a disaster!
I just give up!
Left-handedness is a strange thing.
I was rubbish at cricket at school, but with one exception: I could take up my batting stance either way, and would switch, mid-over, deliberately to rattle the bowler (it’s probably illegal now!). Golf and tennis: left-handed. Bass guitar and trombone right handed, but I’d catch myself miming trombone positions left-handed when learning something!
Woodwork: for many things, either hand, for example screwdrivers, but not hammers. Hand use of chisels for paring: both hands, but marking-out knife in left hand. Hand-planing I find very difficult in the ‘wrong direction’ and will try all sorts of contortions to avoid it. I have some left-handed rasps from Noel Liogier – they are really brilliant.
I have a useful collection of left-handed scissors. You may not know there are two forms now: the right-handed sort with left-handed handles, and the “compleat leftie” versions with the up- and down-blades reversed from normal too. Oddly I don’t get on well with the latter, but none of them are ever borrowed by my (less-able) right handed family.
And my workbench… built by hand 30 years ago (had almost no power tools back then, of any sort – possibly just a drill). It’s left-handed (Record 52 QR to the right). I don’t regret it one bit and would quickly do it again.
The Romans simply knew us lefties as ‘sinister’. We’re certainly weird, if I’m anything to go by.
mike murray says
Seems like a bench could be made up with the built-in hardware option for placing the face vise at either end when the person wants to switch it for whatever reason like sawing. Maybe even the Veritas vise could be on a quick change-over mounting that simply could be removed from one end and moved over to the other end and inserted in a slot or whatever. Nearly instant set-up for right-hand to left-hand.
I was mostly leftie until grammar school, when it was beaten out of me for a number of things. I never gave up using a knife lefty, and many, but not all, things work wither hand for me. Shooting a bow? Either way. Slingshot? Same. Rifle? Righty. Tried a left handed one once at a club, felt so odd I was afraid to fire it. Saw? either, but most of my handles are cut for lefty (web inset and thumb grip on handles I make) Ditto for plane totes… Lefty, even though they get about a much use righty. Only things I NEVER went, at least part time, to lefty for are writing and using a fork. I stab myself if I use the fork in the left hand, so that is where the knife stays, forever confusing and amazing people I eat with.
I think that the slingshot, bow, and rifle shooting have more to do with eye dominance rather than hand dominance. I am lucky/unlucky enough to be left hand- foot- and eye dominant. Many left handed people have a right eye dominance that allows them to use right handed things without too many problems.
Jim Linn says
Being a rock drummer at one time for 15 years means I’m effectively ambidextrous. I can use either hand for anything. Now I’m a Training Captain for a well known British airline means I have to fly from either left or right seats, sometimes in the same day. Most pilots can do that. In woodworking I often swap sawing hands if one gets tired.
As a lefty, the best thing about building my own Roubo-style bench was putting the leg vice on the right.
Bench hook and shooting board also left-handed.
Skew rabbet planes annoy, so I don’t have any.
I am a lefty and built my bench in the RH configuration. Thought my sons would take to it better. Also, I only ever used a RH configuration and haven’t ran into too many problems. I do all my work left handed; plow plane, rabbet plane, chisel, saw, bench plane, etc. The only tool that is true LH is my shooting board.
as a lifelong woodworker,and one that is about to build a new bench,i’m surprised at my own ignorance as to why the situation of the vice on the bench would make any difference.my current bench is set up for a left hander and i’m right handed-it felt like the right place to put the vice and seems to work fine.Looking forward to your follow-up on this article.
i just have a question about your benches-with the end grain of the legs against the floor-do you face the end grain with anything,or are the legs left as is? cheers Jason
I am a leftie for most things, but I do a lot of stuff right handed – playing violin and guitar, swinging a baseball bat, use of eating utensils, etc.
In woodworking my bench is set up with the vise to the right, like most other lefties. Sawing and planing are all done left handed, so the bench hook is set up for cuts on the left side of the back stop. Now, here is the strange thing..my shooting board is set up for right handed planing. !!! Eggbeater drills are cranked with the right hand as well. Apparently, it’s just how I learned to use particular tools.
Did you ever follow up with your “lots of thoughts”?