Shane Hendren, jeweler and Jewelry Tech Team member, sits at a bench and files a silver cuff.
John Sartin, a jeweler and member of Rio Grande's Jewelry Tech Team, has a plastic mallet in one hand and a steel peening hammer in the other. He walks up to a jeweler's bench and brings the mallet down onto it with a few concise whacks. Then he takes the peening hammer and begins beating the surface of the table—hammering the solid hardwood top as if it were metal. "Hear that?" he says. "It's loud."
Then he walks over to a bank of inexpensive student workbenches. Though also made of solid hardwood, these bench tops are half as thick as the first bench he "played." He strikes the top with his mallet and hammer. This time the sound has a penetrating ring that could rattle the fillings from your teeth. Now imagine hearing that for eight hours a day, he suggests.
The lesson he's demonstrating? A thicker bench top can cut the noise level in your studio by half. "That's just one example of what a good-constructed bench will do," says John.
When finding a jeweler's workbench for sale, people tend to shop around for the best price. After all, your jeweler's bench may well end up costing more than what you paid for your first used car in high school. (That's in the neighborhood of $1,000 or more.) But buying a bench on the internet makes it hard to consider how small details can have a big effect on you, your jewelry workshop and even your jewelry work itself.
The most important thing for jewelers, John says, is having a dedicated space for work, tools and equipment. But he's seen a rise in jewelers making a common mistake: Rushing into purchasing a discount bench, only to damage it or run out of work and storage space.
So before you buy a workbench online, refer to our multi-part series and learn about the different features that jewelry workers look for in a bench. That way, you'll decide what's right for you—now and in years to come making jewelry.
"One bench does not fit all," says John Sartin, and nowhere is that more true than in jewelry bench height. Conventional wisdom says that the best height for a bench will put the jewelry bench pin level with your chest while you're seated. John says that this, like all things related to benches, comes down to personal preference. He likes to have the bench pin at clavicle (just below shoulder) height. "But as long as your feet are planted firmly on the floor, just work where you're comfortable." The best size means it will fit your body and your space. Pay special attention to the dimensions that describe the distance from the bottom of the bench's center drawer to the floor—your knees will thank you.
The best jeweler's workbenches are made entirely or almost entirely of solid hardwood. They're the sturdiest, provide the best sound dampening and can take abuse like getting scorched or doused with liquid. (A bench made with particleboard, by contrast, will eventually fall apart if it gets wet enough.) The way the bench is physically put together matters as well. The best workbench joints will feature wood screws instead of staples, reducing vibration and sound. And if a bench isn't solidly constructed, motions like sawing or filing will make the bench sway, loosening up the joints even further.
"As jewelers, you're going to collect a lot of tools," says John. But being a tool junkie doesn't mean your bench should look like the junk drawer in your kitchen. "Having to dig through really slows you down. So you have to make sure you have enough drawers to grow into, while keeping things easily accessible." Look for a variety of drawer heights to accommodate different types of tools and supplies. Some jeweler's benches have rollers and drawer stops built into their drawers, for smooth opening and closing that won't jam up over time. If you're in a shared space, make sure you have at least one locking drawer in your bench to store precious metals and gems.
Handles, like so many of the elements of a bench, come down to a jeweler's personal preference. Some jewelry bench drawers come with no handles at all, and you'll have to add your own. Bar or knob handles offer the most secure grip—but they may get in your way as you work. For that reason, you may prefer a bench with recessed cut-out handles instead.
The catch tray—aka "lap tray," "sweeps drawer" or "pan"—is a deep center drawer that collects your metal shavings and scraps while you work. It's also useful for holding frequently used tools. The catch tray is usually lined with aluminum to prevent small filings from getting lodged into the wood grain. An alternative is something called a sling, bib or apron—a piece of leather that provides the same metal-catching benefits of catch tray, but can prevent gems and other small items from ricocheting out. This system, which requires a much deeper cut-out in the bench, is commonplace in Europe but more rare in the U.S.
Directly above the catch tray is a center shelf that slides out for quick access to your most-used jewelry bench tools and supplies; it can also be used to stage your components and other jewelry-making parts. Think of this top tray as an auxiliary bench top, with extra work space and storage at a closer, more ergonomic level to your body. Look for a substantial lip on the front edge to keep the items inside secure.
The heavier the work you do, the more important it is to have a sturdy, solid wood top on your bench. Not only will it support your heavier-duty work and give you more control, you'll need a thick and resilient surface in order to mount a Fretz stake set or a GRS® BenchMate plate and accessories. (Note that some bench tops come pre-mounted with an inlaid metal jewelry bench block.) This is also where equipment like a jeweler's bench microscope will live, so make sure you have plenty of space. The width of the bench top will dictate the footprint of the bench itself, as the bench top is always the widest part of the bench. So pay attention to the top's dimensions when you're making jeweler's bench plans for your studio.
Many professional bench models feature a cut-out in the bench top that wraps slightly around the jeweler, bringing them closer to their work. (And some jewelers like to use their body against the bench's cut-out to steady themselves as they do heavy work.) There are benches with deep cut-outs, benches with shallow cut-outs and other bench models that have none—which you choose just comes down to personal preference. Whatever you decide on, be sure to factor in space for necessities like a bench pin and GRS® BenchMate accessories.
The jeweler's bench pin, rather than the bench top itself, is where the bulk of bench tasks happen, such as sawing, drilling and filing. The work surfaces of the bench pin are often reversible, with a slanted side and a flat side. Benches sometimes come with a bench pin, but you'll need to add your own grooves, such as a classic center V-notch or wire notches. (The piece of the pin that slides into your bench, called the "tang," may also require adjustments to create a snug fit into the bench pin slot.) Because just like the bench itself, a bench pin is designed to be customized to fit the jeweler who uses it. Use a large skip-tooth blade to make this blank canvas all yours.
Armrests slide out from beneath the bench top to provide extra support when you're working for a long time, or when you need some extra strength and leverage. Some jewelers prefer not to use their armrests. If you're one of them, you can affix ring sizing guides or a ruler to your armrests; when you're done measuring, just slide them back into the bench.
These holes are perfect for bracing your ring mandrel while forming. If your bench came with holes that are a bit too snug for your tool, just use your flex shaft with a sanding drum to widen them. If your bench didn't come with mandrel holes, they're easy to add with a spade bit or Forstner bit.
Side rails—which line the back and sides of the bench top—come standard on every purpose-built jeweler's bench. If it weren't for side rails, your wire, components and tools would have a tendency to roll off of your bench.
Many jewelers help configure their bench to their bodies by simply using an adjustable stool or office chair at their bench. This is one item you can "test drive" to fit your preferences before you buy—do what John did, and go to a local office supply store and sit down in different chairs until you find one that feels supportive and comfortable. John says to pay attention to the length of the bottom cushion; if it's too long, it may begin to cut into the back of your knees. If you have wide hips, make sure you find seating that doesn't pinch or restrict you in any way.
The way you integrate your bench into your studio can improve your work as well as your physical wellbeing. Many jewelers intentionally create a separate soldering or buffing station apart from their main bench. That way, benchwork won't be crowded out by extra equipment, and the jeweler gets the added benefit of taking a break from the bench to move around. (Creating separate jewelry-making work zones is also a great way to put benches you've outgrown to good use.) "If I didn't have to get up and walk across the room, I would sit at a bench all day long," John says. He also has a separate forming station for heavy-duty work, which he usually performs standing up—a great opportunity to stretch his legs.