When I started woodworking, I was learning and practicing with very rudimentary tools. I would use the saw of a swiss army knife for cutting. For smoothening, and there was a bucket-load of smoothening to do, I would use sand paper. And there was no question of chiseling other than a strangely sharpened screwdriver head. It isn't as if I did not have the tools; I did; the problem was that the I didn't have a bench. Because of this handicap, I bear scars, both large and small, deep and shallow all the way up to my elbows. There are even some on the big toe of my left foot. I would watch carpenters and try to emulate them, but somehow it never worked out. All that changed when I made myself a bench.
I took a week off from my hectic job, bit the bullet and went out and bought timber... The most effing warped stock in Mumbai, I'm sure. And then I fought to clean it up with a wooden randa (handplane). I finally managed to put together a servicable work table. To be honest, it was very much like a new born gazelle, wobbly as f___ and I would use it by pushing it up against the wall. But a new chapter had begun. I had reached! I used that table for 7 whole years until recently I graduated to a knock down type. Right now, I write this article on a laptop which sits on this very first table that I made. It does surprisingly well as a writing desk ;)
So finally I come to the point (those of you who follow me, know how much I like to meander down memory lane). Mumbai is full of small apartments, lucky is the woodworker who can afford space for a nice, big sturdy table and a well established space to work wood. Ehem. So the solutions we must find are naturally space saving, small, compact and light. What follows are my opinions on the subject.
Which type of bench
According to me workbenches fall into 3 categories
Collapsible: Small and light
These workbenches are generally small and light. At the end of the day, they are folded up and shoved in a corner or under the bed, probably right next to the large box containing your woodworking tools. In my forays through the internet, I have collected a few that make sense (I've used them) or could make sense in Mumbai, the collection keeps growing.
My first workbench was of this type. Because the weight must be kept down, the workbenches tend to wobble due to inadequate bracing or the hinges just cannot take the load and constantly loosen up. Hence these tables are best suited to light work, chiseling, carving, assembly, etc. But with some innovative techniques can be used for heavy sawing and planing. I would clamp a long board to the top of the table and push the end of the board against the wall in the direction I was planing in. Hence even though I was using the workbench, the shearing forces I applied while planing were not being taken up by the workbench and instead they would be transferred to the wall through the board temporarily fixed to the table top.
Knockdown: semi permanent
These workbenches tend to be medium sized and can be fairly heavy. They are made up of a number of individual members which need to be installed to get the workbench up and running. Often the table top, the legs and the bracing members are separate and are even stored separately. In my house, the legs go under the bed, the top, leans against the wall and the bracing timbers go between the wall and the wardrobe cabinet. Each individual has to be brought out and the whole unit must be fixed with bolts or wedges; which takes a fair bit of time. Typically this workbench would make sense when your parent or spouse is a little more accommodating. For eg. my darling-est ;) wife will allow the table to be up until a large amount of stuff collects on it, which invariably happens. Once I deem that I am a step away from being thrown out of the house, I quickly take apart the workbench and return its parts to their various hiding spaces. Then a week of collecting brownie points follows. I make chai in the morning, squeeze the toothpaste tube from the bottom and keep the toilet seat down. The workbench is erected again in about a week and the cycle continues. Here is what I've collected from all across
Some of these workbenches are really solid and Merwyn, a student and now a friend, has even made a few attachment like a side vice to augment the functions of the workbench.
Permanent: you lucky dog
And for those who are blessed with the space, there are the permanent workbenches. These tables are sturdy and heavy; the center of activity in the woodworking space. Those of you from Banglore, Pune, Delhi must have these. Nothing less should be settled for. We Mumbai-ites will look enviously at your beautiful workbenches. A large number of designs exist for this category, I've collected just a few here. These workbenches normally have storage in the form of shelves below the table top and vices of various kinds will be permanently and solidly affixed to the workbench.
In conclusion, I need to bring you around to the fact that your passion for woodworking, and this holds true for any hobby, must overcome all obstacles. It is possible to work, like me, out of a small 1 bhk in Mumbai. I even take classes in the bedroom. Woodworking classes only. It does require a wee bit of innovation and some logical sense to create a workbench suited to your space, your needs and your context.
Come to me with a passion and I will help you with a solution.