Benches - to cutout or not to cutout

Hello there Orchidians… The recent bench discussions lead me to
wonder what folks find are the pros and cons of the cutout. I’ve
never worked on one, and will soon be building a bench and had
planned on the cutout…simply, I suppose, because I assumed the
bench had evolved that way for good reason. But as I read these posts
by those who’ve used them and prefer a straight edge I realize my
blind assumption needs a bit of examination.

So! Pros/Cons of either, especially from those with bi-bench
experience, would be greatly appreciated.

Jessica, sipping whiskey in San Francisco

I’ve worked in many places over 25 years, and only once had my own
bench. That one was homebuilt, a bit crude, but was straight across.
I’ve used both, currently using a cutout one. For the most part, I
don’t find a huge difference, and can adapt to whatever is put in
front of my. The only thing, I think, that would lean me toward the
cutaway is reach. With a Benchmate pin that swaps out to their
various clamps, vices, etc, having the cutaway puts me closer to the
rest of my bench top without excessive reaching or moving. With a
straight benchtop, I’d have to back up just a bit further and reach
more. Not a big issue, I suppose, and I would actually recommend
making the choice in a bench on lots of other factors. For me,
drawers close at hand is important. As important to me as the bench
is how it is set up relative to the space. One irritating thing in
my current situation is having to keep my torch to the left. I use
it with my right, and it is a nuisance. Just the way the room is
layed out. I like to have a kind of booth effect around me to keep
the major tools and machines close at hand. Jim

Ok, I know I’m in the minority. I was trained on the metal leg work
benches available from Frie Borel, Gesswein and many other
suppliers. Matter of fact I spent the first five years of my career
on this style of bench. It is very simple and easy to keep
organized. It has a large(25") metal bottom pan that lays on your
lap. A tool rack mounted on the front of the bench drawer allows
easy access to all pliers. The work surface is a little shallow so I
usually put a piece of 1x6 on the back to mount the light and flex
shaft stand. These benches are inexpensive and also available in a
double work station version.

The reason I could never get used to the cut out is that I do a lot
of channel setting. I use a traditional chasing hammer and stake to
set my stones and I like to keep my upper arm pretty much
horizontal. I seems that no matter where I drill my mandrel hole
either the bench pin or the cut out gets in the way of my arm. This
also hold true for bead setting and many flex shaft operations. An
elbow rest placed about 8" to 10" either side of the pin at the same
level of the pin is very comfortable.

Again Peter is right. There is no correct or incorrect style. I have
seen very well made pieces come off of both benches. It is just
that personally I feel the simpler the design the better.

John Sholl
Littleton, Colorado

Dear Jessica, To cut or not to cut, that is the question… I’m for
the curved cut-out because I’m a professional jeweller. I work with
precious materials. I simply cannot afford to let my platinum and
gold and silver filings fall on the floor where they are going to be
walked all over the workshop, dissipated and lost. Then there’s the
little gems that are difficult enough to find when they do fall onto
my tray or into my basil skin, let alone onto the floor!

To further tax our collective habits, how many of us prefer the use
of a basil skin or a flat shelf beneath our cutout? Personally, I
prefer both and have modified my bench so that I have a shelf with a
smaller cut-out, beneath which is tacked my basil skin. Because I am
also a diamond setter, any small gems that I drop tend to roll
predictably into a specific area or fold of the basil skin which
makes them easier to find.

Despite some post-modernist opinions to the contrary, there isn’t
too much wrong with tradition when it comes to vocational practice. I
recently saw a contemporary, beautifully designed jeweller’s bench
(oh, and it had a cut out, by the way) with a fancy turntable built
into one of the shelves, and all sorts of dinky little accessories -
and it costs over $5000 Australian. It was wonderful, and if I was
starting afresh, I’d be tempted. As an extra I could spend a further
$1500 on a state of the art LED lighting system instead of making do
with a common old incandescent light bulb or fluorescent light - or,
heaven forbid, that totally free resource, daylight.

I teach a range of master classes in technique within the jewellery
industry and also do some teaching for advanced amateurs. There are
few things more frustrating than to turn up at a venue to run a
jewellery class and be confronted with nothing but a row of
rectangular tables to work at. At one stage of a demonstration
recently I was kneeling on the floor, attempting to hold metal
against the corner of the table so that I could get my file around
it! (I know, I’m stupid to put up with this)

For the flat benchers, my reference above to “basil skin” may seem
arcane. A basil skin is a softly-flexible sheep skin which is
traditionally tacked to the underside of the jeweller’s cut-out bench
top to collect filings and fallings. The word “basil” is a jeweller’s
version of the older word “basan” which you will find in your Oxford
dictionary described as “a sheepskin tanned in oak or larch bark”.
Rex Steele Merten.

especially from those with bi-bench experience, would be greatly

Hi Jessica, I’ve had bi-bench experience and have to say without
reservation, I love my Frei Bench. The cutout accommodates the
bench pin in such a way that you can sit close to your bench while
working over the scrap drawer. It also can accommodate your graver
ball and/or benchmate tools more conveniently. Also, addressing a
previous post about benches, the reason I love my Frei bench is
because the construction is of a nice heavy solid maple wood (oak is
available also) that literally takes a pounding. The drawers have
quality hardware that rolls real smooth and are easy to take out if
needed. On both sides of the cutout are retractable arm rests which
are great when doing a lot of piercing. Anyway, that’s my 2

Marta Irvin in Sacramento

Hello , My thoughts are that a cut-out serves two major purposes

1; to better collect in the catch drawer below the filings and cut
off’s of precious metal and any other dropped items .

2; it can allow greater ease of access to the commenly used and
changed hand tools which can rest on a cut out shelf above the catch
drawer .

Mark Clodius
Clodius&Co. Jewelers

Friends-- I have just returned from Virginia Beach (New Approach
School) and my stone-setting class. I have 500 emails waiting, which
could take a while, but I want to tell you what a great time I had.
We set stones in 11 different rings, everything from gypsy and flush
to pear shaped in prongs and hanging chanel. The class moved very
rapidly, but only as fast as this great group could handle. It was
everything I had hoped it would be. I also came back with some cool
new tools, as well as 20 pages of notes and wonderful new skills.
Blaine is a wonderful teacher. I’d call it a 100% success. I even
feel that, with enough patience and care, I could flush-set a
trillion. Talk about flushed with confidence!


I’d like to add another “twist” to the question of benches and bench
design. One reason I’ve stayed away from a traditional bench is that
I like moving around a lot while I’m working. I have a soldering
table/station, which is across the room from my polishing area, which
is down the wall a bit from my fabrication/bench-pin area, which is
in a different room entirely from my designing area. This gets me up
and walking, standing, sitting, moving and seems to decrease the
fatigue factor for me. Sitting in one small area for many hours can
be really tiring.

My fabrication area, by the way, has as its base kitchen base
cabinets, raised about 3 inches, with a thick plywood top, covered in
some areas by masonite/hardboard. Other areas expose the well-oiled
plywood, and have cutout holes for holding various things (like my
tumbler barrel, ring mandrel, etc.) when I need an extra hand. (Corks
plug the holes when I’m not using them.) On the front framing of the
cabinets, we’ve mounted a long 2x4 just under the level of the top –
this holds the bench pin and the bench vise beautifully. A “skirt”
(now I’m finding out the “real” name for it is something else, I
guess) hangs underneath the bench pin to catch those errant pieces
that my fumbly fingers miss. In the “cabinet” part I store all my
less-frequently used things, spare supplies, etc.

I really like this setup, particularly the higher-than-normal
cabinet surface to work on. I find that over time I’m preferring to
stand while doing a lot of my work, but it’s also not too tall to sit
on my bench stool (a former drummer’s “throne” which is ergonomically
padded and height adjustable – highly comfy and improves your

Now I obviously realize that some store setups, in particular, just
aren’t practical for this type of working style – but I’m curious
whether there are others that have avoided a traditional bench for
similar reasons?

Karen Goeller

    I like moving around a lot while I'm working. 

Me too. I used to use a cut-out because in New Zealand people here
generally use the British/European tradition, but after I travelled
to the US and saw many straight benches with sweeps drawers instead,
I decided when renovation time came around to build 7 new benches
with straight benchtops and sweeps drawers. I like them (as you do
whe you are using one method). There is more benchtop area, and I
too move around a lot more than the typical sedentary goldsmith. I
spread designs out on the bench, I arrange all sort of stuff there. I
also make jewellery there, so the benches are more all-purpose

B r i a n A d a m a n d R u t h B a i r d

Like Karen Goeller, I strongly prefer a separate soldering area. Not
only do I have to move around more, but I like an immaculate
soldering area, and tend to have a messy bench. I’ve been known to
set the bench on fire when soldering at it, so a non-wooden
soldering area is safer.

I also like to work at a height about halfway between table high and
normal bench high. That way, I can look down on a piece and get a
better view without standing up over and over.

Karen Hemmerle


I used to have a bench with a cutout but I found that I kept
knocking bits of me on the corners of it. Now I have a ‘U’ shape of
straight benches - a rough / jewellery bench with a bench pin, a
lathe bench at the end and a watch assembly/repair bench which is at
a higher level and I scoot between them on a wheeled typists chair.
Bearing in mind that I am always in danger of dropping important and
sometimes irreplaceable bits of watches, it is important that I have
an efficient catch mechanism. This takes the form of a woodworker’s
white apron about 3 feet wide to which I have sewn a couple of loops
at the bottom corners. At each of the places I regularly work on the
benches I have a couple of large cup hooks screwed into the
underside with the open sides pointing outwards towards me. Now, when
I move position I just hook the loops onto the relevant cup hooks to
give a relatively safe catch surface integral with myself. The reason
the cup hooks point towards me is that, on the frequent occasions
when I forget to empty and unhook the apron before I move positions,
the loops will pull off the hooks slightly before the neckband
garottes me!!

Best wishes,

Ian W. Wright
Sheffield, UK

I've been known to set the bench on fire when soldering at it, so a
non-wooden soldering area is safer. 

With limited workspace, I’ve fireproofed my small soldering area by
placing half-thickness firebrick on the masonite bench surface and
surrounding the area with a sheet metal shield.You could also use
the firebrick as a shield. Better safe than sorry. Dee

Hi Ian - This is great info! I think catching tiny dropping items is
one major problem I have with my current straight-bench setup, and
your solution sounds like a great workaround. I’ve seen those aprons
before, but yours has obviously been better thought out; I’m exactly
the sort who would forget to remove it before I moved away. My other
concern is whether the cutout would give me better or worse ergonomic
value, not sure how to know this one without actually trying to work
at a cutout, though!

Jessica in SF

I guess since I started this thread I should comment a little more.
In the 30 years that I have been a professional jeweler, I have used
many different benches, straight, cutout and some funky ones. As
human beings we are all creatures of habit and usually like what we
use and sometimes don’t have any room for alternative ideas. This
said, here are my thoughts. I started out when I was 14 years old on
a straight bench , one that my dad (who was a master hand engraver,
jeweler and watchmaker) used for many years. When I finally bought a
cut out jewelers bench, (a real jewelers bench), I was very excited.
I used it for 2 years and hated the limited space. On my straight
bench, the bench pin is in the middle so I have elbow room on both
sides. My sweep drawer and tool drawer are the width of the bench so
there is much more room. I find that I sit straighter so my back
does not hurt as much. It is great for using the benchmate,
especially the shelf that holds the engraving block. The bench top
has more space, and I have no problem catching all of my sweeps in
the drawer. Between the tool drawer, the sweep drawer , and (if you
remember from my first post) the two shalow drawers right under the
bench pin, I have great arm rest at different heights. I have
trained 3 very good jewelers and they all used my old cutout bench
until they built their own straight benches. I finally gave away the
cutout bench and haven’t even thought about it until this thread
started. This all said, you can’t go wrong either way, whatever
works best for you. It is very easy to build a fairly good straight
bench cheaply. You might try it and if you don’t like it buy the
cutout. I was lucky enough to have both at the same time to use.

Good luck
Bill Wismar
enjoying the 70 degree temp in Denver

HI Jessica, The one main advantage of a bench with a cutout is that
it gives you somewhere to rest your elbows for the ‘fiddly’ work,
however, as this didn’t work for me due to the volume of rubbish and
unused tools my benches tend to acquire between enforced cleanups, I
found another solution. I made a couple of shaped ‘flaps’ of wood
padded with foam and covered in vinyl which I hinged to the front of
the bench either side of my normal working position. Most of the time
these are folded away but, when I need to have the elbow rests, I can
hinge them forward and secure them in place by rotating flat steel
bar braces which I have pivotted to the underside of the bench with
screws. This makes the flaps quite firm and the padding makes them
more comfortable than the hard wooden bench!

I think the use of bench cutouts originated from the need to pack
workers into a small space in the old-time workshops and was
justified by saying that it meant that the worker could easily reach
everything on the bench. It did, of course, make it easy to fit the
catch-skin in an effective manner. The only time I really appreciated
the use of a cutout bench was when I saw silversmiths and pewterers
working with a gas torch fixed to the left hand side of the cutout so
that they could use both hands to manipulate their work under the

As to the apron, rather than using loops and cup-hooks, you could
use Velcro on both the apron and bench which may be even safer - it
just wasn’t easily available when I set my bench up!

Best wishes,
Ian W. Wright
Sheffield, UK

Dear Ian: Could you describe more completely the bench arms or
moveable “flaps” you describe in your post? In particular, how you
hinge them so they can be moved out of the way when not in use.

I’ve been designing, in the back of my mind, a similar system, but
haven’t gotten too far with it.

I’ve been using the cheap portable “clamp-on” bench pins, one on
each side, angled, for arm stability: easy to take on and off. But
they aren’t very sturdy, and they’re not padded!

I’d really appreciate more details…it sounds like just what I
need! – Lin Lahlum

This has been such an education - thank you so much to everyone who
has shared their experiences. There are many factors I wouldn’t have
thought to take into account before building a bench (or ordering the
’Bench Exchange Special from Rio…maybe they should give us a
discount? Heh.).

Now my only complaint is that I can’t make the Bench Exchange photos
larger to really see how everyone has their spaces set up! Reading
the tidy bench posts and others in the archive is of great help, but
for me seeing is understanding.

(If anyone out there wants to email me a larger version of the photo
you have posted on the Bench Exchange pages, please feel free to do
so off-list!)

Jessica, on a lovely clear post-storm night in San Francisco

Progress Machine & Tool in LA carries a very convenient arm rest
devise that swivels. You rest your forearms on a padded area. I saw
them in Tucson and I find them very helpful.