What’s the Right Height?
Truth is, there is no universal answer to that question. However, I’m guessing that most people end up with a workstation that’s probably too low (more on that later). When building a bench for a garage or workshop, the distance you allow between the floor and the workbench top should be custom tailored to fit both your body height and the type of work you plan to do. First let’s look at why you should even care about such things.
Why is Height Important?
Doing any kind of manual work puts stress on the body. Nothing wrong with that, really, if it includes a healthy mix of moving, stretching, pulling, and pushing. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen while standing in front of a workbench, where we can easily spend hours going through the same motions over and over. The most common hazard from this kind of repetition is lower back pain, which usually comes from working on a bench that is too low. Over time, this kind of muscular stress can cause serious back problems that are difficult to fix. If you’re in the planning stages of your project, it’s well worth your time to stop now and think about designing your bench to fit both your body height and the type of jobs you plan to do there. If you already have a workbench that’s not really the ideal height for you, I’ll show you a couple tricks to remedy that problem. But first let’s take a look at how to find that perfect height before you start building a bench.
Step One – Match Workbench Height to Body Height
The basic rule of thumb is to make the top of your bench meet the bottom edge of your shirt cuff. This will give you nice, workable surface for most general types of work. For someone like me, who stands about 5’ 10”, setting the top at 36” is just about right for most jobs. Now remember that when designing your bench, the height is determined by both the length of the legs and the thickness of whatever material you use for the top. My EZ Workbench Planner can help you calculate exactly what these numbers should be, and is available as a PDF download here.
Step Two: Match Workbench Height to the Job
After you’ve found your ideal bench height using the “shirt cuff” method, you might need to adjust that number for more specific types of work. For example, my ideal height for most jobs is right around 36.” However, if I’m primarily doing jobs like sanding or carving wood, I want the top to be somewhat lower, so I can lean over my work and use the weight of my arms and shoulders to help push the tools. In this case, I’ll subtract 6” from my ideal height to make the bench closer to 30” high. On the other hand, if I’m primarily doing jobs like fixing mowers and putting together toys for my kids, I want the top be a little higher. This will keep me from having to bend over my work, and make it easier for me to see what I’m doing. In this case, I’ll add 6” to my ideal height to make the bench closer to 42” high.
Adjusting the Height of an Existing Workbench
Most of us already have a workbench sitting in our garage or basement, which may or may not be the ideal height for the work we want to do. This problem has a fairly easy remedy. If I discover my bench is too low (which is usually the case), I can always add something to the bench top to raise the work surface – like a box, a scrap piece of wood, or even a new layer of plywood. I might also consider raising the height of the entire bench itself – by placing something sturdy under each leg, like concrete tiles or wood blocks. If I discover my bench is too high, I can always place something on the floor just in front of the bench to stand on – like concrete tiles, rubber mats, and rugs. I might also consider trimming the length of each leg, to bring the entire workbench height down to an acceptable level.
Other Tips for Using a Workbench
Getting the right workbench height is by far the most important thing you can do to prevent lower back pain and muscle fatigue. But let me mention a few other tips that can make a big difference in making your work more productive, more effective, and just more fun.
Avoid Standing on a Cold Floor
Concrete is notorious for sapping heat from the body, especially in cold climates where basement and garage floors can get very cold. As tempting as it might be to head to the shop in your socks or bare feet, be warned that a bare floor can give you a good chill – usually before you even realize what’s happening. Try to get in a habit of putting on a reasonably thick-soled shoe before working on a concrete floor. You’ll be more comfortable, and you’ll get more work done. For the ultimate comfort in working at a bench (especially in the cold months), you might consider buying a heated floor mat, which you can find online at a variety of different workshop supply stores.
Keep Pegboards in Short Reach
Most people put their pegboards along the back of a workbench, since it makes good sense to have all of your tools right where you need them. However, if your workbench has a particularly deep top, the stretch you have to make to pull those tools down could add some stress to your back. As general rule of thumb, I try to hang tools no farther away than the length of my arm. This ensures that my back stays upright when pulling things off the pegboard, especially when reaching for the heavier tools. My arm length is right about 30” so I’m careful to avoid locating pegboards behind workbenches that are deeper than 30 inches. If you want to build a bench than this, consider locating your pegboard somewhere else in the shop.