I’m left-handed… in fact, I’m so left-handed that I’d probably be burned at the stake not 4-500 years ago. A quick side-fact: “Left” in Italian is “sinistra” – sounds a lot like sinister. Don’t believe my left-handedness? I (obviously) write with my left hand. In my house, the computer mouse is always on the left side of the keyboard. My wife got sick of moving it back all the time, so she puts up with it. I throw balls with my left hand. I open cans and use scissors with my left hand. Up until I started flying jets, I even flew predominantly with my left hand. Then I started flying a jet where the controls were against the right side of the cockpit – so the force adjustment was automatic. Believe it or not though, it was easy to pick up because I could fly it no other way.
Like that same ground-up training that I experienced in a “right-handed” jet, I find that it’s easy to switch between hands in my infancy of hand-tool work because I haven’t built any habits yet. Though I feel more comfortable using my left hand over my right hand in woodworking, I haven’t noticed too much degradation in switching from left to right. It’s not like trying to write with my right hand (in which case my 4-year-old would be more legible), or eat with my right hand (in which case I’d starve, but my pants and the floor certainly wouldn’t go hungry).
I built my workbench off of Bob Lang’s 21st Century Workbench design with the intent of making it a “left hand” bench. After reading Chris Schwarz’s book on workbenches, it took me a little bit to figure out and understand what the difference was between a “left hand” bench and a “right hand” one. All I knew is that, since I’m a die-hard south paw, I wanted a “left handed” bench! I started building my bench. Prior to mounting the top onto the base, I drilled 2 holes to mount the tail vice… and then when I test mounted the top, I realized I drilled the holes on the wrong side making it what Chris described as a “right hand” bench in his book. I was horrified and faced with 3 courses of action: 1) I could attempt to cut out really thick dowel blanks to plug the holes and redrill on the other side, 2) I could just chop where I drilled, sacrificing maybe 6″ in table length, and drill on the other side, or 3) I could just press and have a right-hand configured bench. I didn’t want to shorten it nor mar the bench top this early with plugs; I went with COA 3.
So what’s the difference between a right-handed and left-handed bench? It’s only where you put the vices. Ultimately, you want to be pushing into the vice holding your piece (like the image on the right). In this, you are pushing into the friction rather than trying to pull the piece from the friction. If I plane left-handed from my twin-screw vice, I’m essentially pulling the board (via friction) from the vice (like the image on the left).
I’ve now been using my “right-handed” bench for over a year. My horrified vice misplacement was a farce; to this day I have absolutely zero regrets in choosing COA 3, rather than reconfiguring it to be left-handed. First, I’ve not found that planing opposite the vice (as in the left picture) pulls the piece from the vice – the twin screw vice actually holds the pieces pretty well, especially if you use the entire length of the vice to grip the piece. Second, I’ve found that it’s quite natural to swap from planing left-handed to planing right-handed when I do face problems. In fact, my sawing is more true with my off-hand (right, in my case) than it is with my accustomed hand because my off hand allows the saw to do more work with less interference (whereas my dominant hand, I think, subconsciously tries to over-guide the saw).
Perhaps, for the first time in my life, I’m giving up championing my left hand and advocating for an ambidextrous stance. I’ve only been hand-tooling-it-up for about a year now, so part of it is because I haven’t had time to form strong muscle-memory in woodworking. But I’m hoping I can keep up the ambidextrousity.
And now for the bottom line: Don’t be set or intimidated on left or right hand tools or styles. Your body will learn to use what you present it with (especially if you are early in the hobby).