The benches are mainly for piercing work - ie cutting out shapes from sheet metal, with a jeweller's piercing saw. The semi-circle, which my Bridge studios neighbour Faye is cutting out for me here, gives you some space to work in, escpecially useful for intricate work. Clamped somewhere within the semi-circle (usually in the middle) will be a bench peg, which is used to support the piece you are working on.
It's usual to have an apron or 'bench skin' suspended under the the bench to catch sharp offcuts and the work itself, if you drop it. Traditionally, these are made of leather (hence 'skin'), so that they won't catch fire if you drop something hot in there. However, the only reason for hot working on your cutting bench is to save space and there are lots of good reasons to do your soldering elsewhere. As I have lots of space, I've decided to have a dedicated hotworking area on the other side of the room. This means I can have bench skins/aprons made of denim and so avoid using animal products which some of my customers may be opposed to.
I have to say at this point that it's hard to avoid animal products completely in the studio. For example, my welders gloves which I sometimes use when brazing or working with the kiln, are made of animal skin. It was hard enough to get heat resistant safety gloves to fit a woman's hand properly (I had to order them from America) and I don't know of another material that would be as effective for this job. However, I give a lot of thought to all the materials I use in the studio so I'm glad I was able to avoid using leather for the benches.