Workbench v2: Finished

The vise installations meant that the bench was nearly complete. I did some other minor preparation, such as plowing the grooves for the (as of yet nonexistant) sliding deadman and sawing the legs to length, and then I was ready to assemble. I’d never actually assembled the bench, and for a while, I wasn’t really sure how I’d do it. Thinking about it made my arms hurt.

Thankfully, I came to my senses at some point, and when I was ready, I set out two 2x4s to support the benchtop. With the help of SWMBO, I put the top upside-down on these boards:

Then I was able to put all of the legs and stretchers in for the first time. Everything fit perfectly:

Getting the bench right-side-up simply involved turning the bench on its side (there’s another board underneath the leg here to protect the roller bracket):

And one final lift to get it on its legs for the first time.

Next, I installed and fine-tuned the chops of the leg and tail vises. The description of that is in those preceding posts (meaning that, yes, I was done with this business before I posted those). It was fun to use the new bench for finishing itself! However, there was one little minor vise item that I hadn’t done, and that was to make a handle for the parallel guide pin. I’d considered making this completely spartan (basically, just a block of wood with the pin in it), but then I noticed that I had just enough wood in what remained of the piece of cherry that I’d used for the roller brackets, and made a really quick-and-dirty handle with my saw rasp:

Finally, I sawed off the uneven ends of the bench and it was done:

The front view, somewhat encumbered by the lack of space in the shop:

There are a few minor things left to do, such as the sliding deadman, the shelf, and maybe a tool rack. I can do those at my leisure.

Thanks again to Bill K. (who supplied the douglas-fir) and everyone else who helped me with this. Now it’s time to get back to making furniture.

Executive summary:

  • Dimensions: 72″ long, 18″ deep, 30″ high.
  • Profiles: Top: 3.5″ thick. Legs: 3.5″x5″. Stretchers: 3.5″x6″ (approx).
  • Wood: Old-growth douglas-fir (frame, most of top), beech (front of top, leg vise), yellow birch (parallel guide), cherry (roller brackets, parallel guide pin handle).
  • Vises: Benchcrafted Glide leg vise, Lee Valley/Veritas quick-release tail vise.
  • Knockdown construction: Captured-nut joints for legs/stretchers, angled (unglued) mortise-and-tenon joints for legs-to-top.
  • Built entirely by hand except for some lameness mentioned in the leg vise post.
  • Weight: A lot.

Workbench v2: Tail Vise

Right on the heels of the leg vise installation, I did the tail vise. I’ve never had a tail vise, but I’ve always wanted one. As it turns out, AJCP&R got me the Veritas quick-release version about two years ago (thanks again!), but it had to sit in its box for all of this time, waiting for this new bench to be made. That day finally arrived.

There’s been a bit written about the Veritas vise, but what I don’t see much out there about how versatile it is if you’re willing to play around with the shape of the chop. For example, although it’s designed to be used in conjunction with a wide front apron, that’s not necessary. In addition, you don’t need a whole 17″ of free space for overhang on the end. I broke both of these rules in my installation and I got away with it.

For those who have never seen the vise hardware, it consists of a the vise itself and a mounting plate that you attach to the bottom of your bench. The mounting plate provides the accuracy you need to keep the vise chop just far enough away from the edge of your bench to slide freely. You’re supposed to place the plate 1/4″ from the chop edge, all the way at the end of the bench. I didn’t do that. I discovered that you can get away with moving it about two inches away from the end of the bench, as long as you don’t obstruct the holes for mounting the chop (and you could even do that a little, if you’re willing to give up a bit of the vise’s travel):

The 1/4″ on the front side, however, is a (mostly) hard and fast rule. Here’s how the vise looks aligned on the mounting plate:

Notice that some of the vise hardware slips underneath the end of the bench. Also, some of the hardware on the other side (near where the leg will go, on the right side of this photo) protrudes in that area. I was able to do this because I decided to make the chop deep enough so that this little bit of hardware could slip behind the leg. You could do even more by widening the chop a bit more, but I personally wouldn’t recommend more than four inches because otherwise, you might put the hardware in the way of holdfast holes or something. As long as you don’t have anything silly up there such as a top stretcher between your bench legs, you should be fine.

OK, so the hardware fits. The next rule to break was the wide front apron. Because I designed this for a deep chop, I was able to make the inside of the chop wide (for the mounting screws), but the outside (the part that goes along the front of the bench) would be just the same 3.5″ beech that I used on the rest of the bench. Here’s a view of the chop upside down:

Oopsie on the blowout for the washer holes at the edges, but it hardly matters. At this point in the bench build, I was starting to starve for wood–I had very little douglas-fir of substantial size left. So for the backing piece, I milled and glued up two smaller pieces, and then glued those to the beech.

When it was upright and finished, it looked like this:

I had sort of a hard time trying to decide where to put the dog holes. In the end, I actually followed Lee Valley’s instructions and put the centers 1″ from the front of the bench. I could put in another row if necessary, but somehow I doubt it will be.

This vise really was a snap to install. You have to be quite careful when installing the mounting plate, but it took me longer to the make the chop with all of the milling and glue.

Workbench v2: Leg Vise

With the large frame components done, I could now work on the bench’s vises. Like everyone else in the known universe, I got a Benchcrafted Glide leg vise for the front (thanks SWMBO!).

The installation is not what I’d call easy, but it’s not ridiculously difficult, either. The first step was to put the holes in the chop (a big chunk of beech I found in the pile), and the leg.

For the chop, you’re supposed to put a shallow hole for a washer around the screw clearance hole–a 1.75″-diameter hole. The only thing I had in that size was an expansion bit. Now, those bits are not known to be terribly good even in soft woods, much less something like beech, but thankfully, this thing needed be just 3/16″ deep, so I used it mainly for the cutting spurs to get the circle.

Now, the main screw clearance holes in the chop and the leg are supposed to be 1.5″ wide, and I didn’t happen to have a No. 24 bit, either. I was all ready to wimp out and turn to the dark side, and in fact, I’d brought the chop and the leg to my friend Jasen’s place to make use of his drill press and Forstner bit. However, while preparing, I poked through his box of auger bits and found a No. 24 Irwin solid-core bit. Arrangements were made to abscond with the bit, and so mad props to Jasen for letting me do so!

I used my 14″ sweep monster (a Millers Falls #730). For those of you who have never seen a bit this large, consider the following: The brace’s chuck was just barely able to hold the bit, and only because they tapered the shaft thinner near the end.

This is the type of job that you have to break out the squares to keep the bore straight:

This is a big job, and it was no small amount of effort to turn the brace. The most difficult part of it, however, was to keep everything straight while exerting enough force.

Once the hole was through, I knocked out the waste in the outer washer hole–my Veritas mini router plane struck again:

So, when everything was said and done, I had two holes: one fancy, one not-so-fancy, both big:

After this, it was off to mark, drill, and tap the holes to attach the handwheel and screw to the chop. This is a particularly tricky job–you really need accurately lay out and drill those holes. (Thank goodness for auger bits.)

Now, a suspicious reader may have examined some of the photos above and noticed that I was using a peculiar piece of sacrificial wood underneath the chop for blowout prevention and lead-screw continuity:

This might qualify as the dumbest use of cherry in history, but notice the check (actually, compound checks) in the center. This precluded me from making a saw handle or something nice with it, but after I finished wrecking the center, I sawed off the usable wood on the sides for the Glide vise’s roller brackets:

This is sort of more silly luck than clever, I’d think–this offcut was the only thing I had around that wouldn’t require sawing up another board just for a couple of 6″ blocks.

I should also mention that with this bench, I am not trying to use a bunch of different woods to make it a showcase piece–I just want the thing to work. So, having now used three woods (the other two being douglas-fir and beech), I figured I’d use whatever I could find for the parallel guide, and I found none other than the last offcut of that nasty birch that I used as a secondary drawer wood on the second nightstand project.

Another thing that you may have noticed is that the hole in the leg isn’t horizontally centered. This is where I might eventually look like a goat, but I decided to try something a little different with this vise. Looking at the design of a leg vise and the diagonal one that Schwarz used in the “English Workbench” in his first workbench book, it dawned on me that the spot with the highest and most stable gripping power on a leg vise is directly opposite the parallel guide. On most of them, that’s in the center of the chop at the top, but that’s not where you would clamp a number of workpieces because the vise screw is in the way.

But on the diagonal vise, you don’t have that problem. So for better or for worse, I decided to put the parallel guide off to one side of the chop, and in doing so, move the “grip sweet spot” (or whatever you want to call it) off-center at the top of the chop, so that it wouldn’t be right above the screw. Here’s a shot showing the mortise for the parallel guide and a dowel leading to where that spot will be on my bench:

The off-center hole in the leg is part of the design. The idea is to place the spot with the maximum force somewhere around the area where the side of the leg meets the top.

In addition, by moving the parallel guide over to the side, I could move the guide’s clearance mortise in the leg over to the side. There, the parallel guide would slip neatly alongside the giant lower side stretcher rather than above or below, sidestepping one of the common issues when installing a leg vise.

It’s easiest to show this in the nearly finished installation:

Now, at this point, I should mention that more often than not, when you try to get clever, you end up shooting yourself in the foot (especially if you’ve never done this before). To put it lightly, this configuration does not come without difficulty. In addition to having to be extra careful with your layout, you’re also introduction an element of imbalance to a vise that really seems to have been designed to be horizontally symmetric. It goes without saying that when you go tinkering, the chop will want to lean in one direction, possibly binding the vise screw and sliding the parallel guide up against its clearance mortise.

To my surprise, it’s been working well so far. It took some fine-tuning, but the the parallel guide rollers, when set just so, seem to do a good job at supporting a good deal of the weight of the chop. The acetal bushing that comes with the Glide is also instrumental in keeping the chop inline. As an extra measure, I reduced the weight of the chop a bit by sawing off a bit of the lower right, but this may have just as well been to be able to use the offcut for something else.

I still might get burned by all of this, so let’s see what happens. I’m really due with this project–I also lucked out with the length of the vise screw and parallel guide. When vise is closed, they are about 1/8″ from hitting the inside of the rear left leg of the bench.

Now at this point, I have to make a confession: I used a power tool in the vise construction. It’s not what you might think, though. You see, the Glide vise requires you to tap threads in wood. Miraculously, I somehow already had the four taps required for the job (picked them up at a garage sale once but never used them), and I had everything I needed to drill the initial holes for all of the taps by hand. However, what I didn’t have was a tap wrench with a collet large enough to hold the two largest taps. At that point, I had to either buy another tap wrench or think of something else. The taps fit in a brace chuck, but the action on a brace can be a little bit too wobbly for this job. I decided that I didn’t have the stomach to go out and buy some (likely crummy) tap wrench for just this time, so I’d actually follow the instructions for the Glide for a change. I chucked the two big taps into my cordless power drill and threaded the holes with the dark side of the force.

It felt kind of dirty.

Workbench v2: Captured-Nut Mortise and Tenon Joints

With the legs made, it was time to move on to the stretchers. The method I used was a combination of knockdown and mortise-and-tenon joints. I first made the joints with very short tenons. These are primarily for quick alignment of the joint during assembly.

Then I bored holes square into the legs and had them come out right in the center of where the mortises were. (In reality, I did this before making the joints, but you get the idea).

The idea is to slip a bolt into the hole and into a captured nut in the stretcher.

The trickiest step was to bore precisely into the endgrain of the tenon pieces. To do this, I assembled the joint, secured it with clamps, then went through the existing hole down into the tenon piece below:

I was surprised at how quickly the Jennings bit flew through the endgrain. I recall having a lot of trouble with endgrain when I did the first bench, but I suppose that having a halfway decent complement of bits and knowing how to sharpen them goes a long way.

Next was to make the mortise for where the captured nut would go. I hit it first with my Irwin 20 (1.25″) bit in my 14″-sweep brace (maybe you could call it the Irwin Workout from Millers Falls):

I didn’t go all the way–the captured nuts will not be visible from the outside of the bench.

Then I made one side of the hole flat for the nut and washer to register against. This was an easy job with a big “pigsticker” mortise chisel:

Finally, here is how the joint appears in the end with the bolt, nut, and washer in place:

If this looks a little ugly, it is. This side of the stretcher faces the inside, where no one can see it. Therefore, I didn’t bother with anything other than rough planing (especially important to me, given how quickly this wood dulls blades). The mortise shape is somewhat interesting, and that’s something to maybe file away. But on the other side (the face side), it looks like a normal (tight) mortise-and-tenon joint.

Next: Leg vise.

Workbench v2: Top, Legs

The past few weeks have primarily involved milling, milling, and more milling. Oh, right, there was also a trip to Pennsylvania. But after all of that excitement, I was able to glue the top. I used every medium- and heavy-duty clamp that I had for it:

Then I glued that piece of beech to the front, flattened the top, then flattened the bottom.

I’m not going to talk too much about this flattening and milling process because it was exhausting enough just to do it. The main reason was that the douglas-fir just ate up my plane blades–I constantly had to resharpen them. I’m not sure why this is the case, but it might have something to do with the hardened resin in this old wood. In any case, dull blades are next to useless on this stuff, and sometimes it takes a little while for it to dawn on you that you’re working with dull tools.

In any case, I was finally at the point where I could fit the legs. I’ve been thinking about the joints for the legs for a long, long time. I can’t say that I understand the monster through tenon joint illustrated in Roubo’s book. Schwarz only seems to say that “well, this is how it’s illustrated there, so that’s what I’m gonna use,” and that’s all fine and good, but I still don’t get it. Sure, you want a tenon, but should it really be through? That makes the top more difficult to reflatten. Plus, the through joint creates a weak point in the front left, especially if your wood over there is suspect to begin with. Roy Underhill illustrated what happens to that sort of thing at WIA.

Believe it or not, I like Underhill’s rising dovetail idea better for this kind of joint. Not that it’s any better with the weakness in the wood, but there is one property of it that I haven’t really seen anyone talk about in conjunction with a leg vise. If you think about it, because the top sinks down from the front, when a leg vise clamps something into place against any part of the top, it wedges the top into the leg.

As cool as that joint looks, I still did not want to use a through joint for my legs, so I just used angled mortises and tenons so that the top would still sink down from the front. I used a very slight angle (using the “eh, that looks about right” calculation with the sliding T-bevel), and before I started, I made a couple of guides to help. Here’s one that helped me guide my brace and bit as I wasted most of the mortise.

After boring and chopping out most of the waste, I registered the chisel face against this guide to pare out the sides at the angle necessary.

One advantage of making mortises this large is that you can shove a T-bevel into the mortise to verify that you got the side correct:

Here’s a finished joint (this time for the rear of the bench). It’s only a little more than an inch deep, and I do not plan to use glue, but I figure that the mass of the top will be more than enough to keep it in place:

If I’m wrong, I’ll use fasteners to wedge the joints into place.

It was a fine sight when I completed all four joints for the top:

These joints, however, didn’t really take much time (despite having only my fine-toothed joinery saw available to cut the tenons). Sure, I had to be a little more careful with the angles on the joints, but compared to process of preparing the top that I’d just been through, it was nothing.

Next up: Getting the stretchers in place, and installing the vises.

Workbench v2: Milling the Top

At the end of the last installment, I had the workbench top-milling task to deal with. I’ve never worked with anything this large before, so I didn’t quite know what to do. A little rough experimentation revealed that the grain reversed on the faces of the timbers about two-thirds of the way across, where the face became tangential to the growth rings (a common occurrence in this type of sawcut).

In light of this, I decided to rip the timbers at the point that the grain reversed, so that I could match the grain direction across the entire width of the top (it also didn’t hurt that there were a lot of monster knots on the “thin” side). That would give me two roughly 8″ sections that I’d be able to mill and glue up.

The first thing I needed to do was support the timbers while ripping. I had a choice between making sawbenches or just going out to get a couple of 2x4s to fill in the sawhorse brackets that I had on hand (I’d long since scavenged most of the pieces I used the last time I used the sawhorses). I opted to defer the sawbenches again and got the 2x4s.

Ripping six feet on two of these timbers was a chore, but not quite as bad as I’d expected. It helped that I sharpened my big rip saw before. In the end, I had to make four of those cuts (two at the point where the grain reversed, and two more at the ends to eliminate some excessively bashed-up wood).

So then it was on to milling. Now I really had no clue what to do. The first thing I tried to mill the edges was to fasten some handscrews in an odd arrangement to hook it to the end of my bench:

This was quite a secure arrangement, but it didn’t work for two reasons: First, there was too much junk in the shop to the right of the timber to get a jointer plane over there, and second, the timber was now far too high off the ground for me to reasonably bear down on.

After some fretting and sulking, I reminded myself that Toshio Odate wrote about how Japanese carpenters secure stuff both big and small against a wall (or something). Looking at pages 6-7 of his Japanese Woodworking Tools book, I tried to think of how I might be able to do this with with western tools. The one really important thing, it seemed to me, was to be able to keep some clearance between the end of the timber and whatever you’re securing against.

In the end, I came to this arrangement with the same sawhorses that I used to rip the timbers:

One end of the timber rests on a board with a clamped stop, and that board sits on top of the sawhorse with one end secured against a timber in the house. Here’s a look at the stop:

This is really nothing special, but it surprisingly worked quite well and I was able to mill and joint the timbers with no further ado.

Well, the “ado” would not apply to the task of lugging these timbers all of the the place as I ripped, milled, and flipped them around. Ugh.

After I was finished jointing, I put the timbers side-by-side on my bench to see what I now had to deal with. Combined, they were 16 inches, and looking at this surprised me. I’d been thinking that I wanted 20″ across the top of the new bench, but now I wasn’t so sure. I believe that I’m going to trim that down to 18″, so now I need only one more 2″ wide strip to go across what will probably be the front of the bench.

The difficulty: Right now, I don’t have any pieces of douglas-fir in the appropriate size. The offcuts from the big rips are really a bit too knotty for my tastes (big knots in long-seasoned douglas-fir are essentially indestructible). I thought of getting one more timber, but then I had this other idea. I happen to have a piece of well-seasoned 8/4 beech that’s just the right length and width. Would it make sense to use that in the front? It doesn’t dent as easily as douglas-fir (even the excessively old stuff that I have).

Seems to me that (or some other piece of hardwood) would work. Oh well, I won’t be able to work on this for two weeks now, so I’ll have that time to think about it.

Making a New Mallet: Thagomizer Jr.

My trusty mallet, Thagomizer, has really been taking a beating in the last year. I think I’ve had to glue it back up about four or five times now. With some extra time on my hands, it was time to build a replacement.

I liked a lot of things about the mallet, but did some silly things when I made it. The handle turns out to be a little too short, and for whatever reason, I put a finish on it. I guess I was on a varnishing kick back then; come to think of it, I really didn’t have anything else to varnish at the time. (I used rottenstone on this? Really?)

However, what interests me most is the question of if I could make a new one last longer. Everything on the original was very durable, except for the top of the head. It picked up a habit of splitting late in life. My first step was to take a good look at what had happened:

Notice that the face has become concave after repeated pounding. The fractures are all mostly in the top 1/3 of the head. I suspect that what’s going on here is that smacking something (like a holdfast) on the upper part of that concavity put a lot of shear force along the top, and that’s why it did what it did. Back in this post (way back when no one ever read this blog), I explained that I wasn’t going to put a bevel on the top because I was being lazy. So perhaps those bevels aren’t there just for show, and I knew one thing that I needed to do in the new one.

Because I didn’t have any really thick stock at the time, I built the old mallet by face-gluing pieces of wood. That turned out to be pretty durable, so I did the same thing this time, using the same trick to get the hole in the middle, except that I was considerably less meticulous about it:

I used a bunch of scrap wood this time (but from the same board as the old Thagomizer!), and decided that I cared only to (sorta) align the pieces on the bottom of the head because I’d just be chopping off massive pieces anyway. This might look a little stupid, but not nearly as stupid as what I did for the new handle:

I had the perfect piece of scrap, but it was just a tad too narrow, so I glued another piece of scrap to the end to get what I needed (and sawed most of it away in the end).

So I had the head and handle parts glued up, and it was time to shape everything. Here again, I was considerably less meticulous than last time. I sawed most of everything on the head, did the final passes on the top of the head with my jack plane with the deep camber, and chamfered the sides with that plane as well. As far as the handle goes, on the last one, I’d been all enthusiastic about using a spokeshave. Well, that spokeshave enthusiasm doesn’t happen nearly as often to a man who has a Shinto saw rasp in his hand. (Save the spokeshave for more delicate tasks.)

When everything was said and done (in a far less amount of time than the original), I had Thagomizer Jr.:

The top of the head is beveled down, the corners at the top are considerably chamfered, and the handle is a couple of inches longer. The head weighs a little less than the original, but the extra handle length probably brings it to about the same weight, but with a different balance.

So I’m ready to start beating on stuff now. Here’s a comparison of the original and new one:

Time and use will tell if the alterations do what they’re supposed to do.

 

Workbench v2: Getting Started

It’s time to get down to that new workbench. Everyone and their uncle is building a Roubo this year. Consequently, I’ll just be another voice in the din of people blogging about their Roubo builds, but hey, I’ll have a new workbench at the end.

I got the first pieces of wood for this project late last year. A fellow BAG has a pretty serious quantity of reclaimed douglas-fir sitting around and was gracious enough to offer it my way (thanks Bill!). This is big stuff–basically 4x12s and 4x14s supposedly taken from a warehouse. Reclaimed douglas-fir has many advantages, but two of the biggest are that it’s quite hard (yet easy to plane), and it’s really, really stable.

The boardstimbers had a layer of cruft on the faces, consisting of oxidization, dirt, and who-knows-what. After cutting roughly to length, I sawed off the crud. That process looked like this:

I’ve decided that I will do this project completely by hand, just so that I can say that I didn’t wimp out with a bandsaw (or something of that sort of masochistic nature). Freakishly-looking disembodied arm aside, I’ve been doing all of the heavy-duty ripping like this, and it’s really not that bad (Remember how I mentioned that reclaimed douglas-fir is really stable? That helps). The timber is held steady by the front vise of my current bench.

Getting rid of the grime this way yields funny cruft veneer:

I could probably sell this stuff to an artist.

So after sawing, I finished sizing up everything with the usual cast of planes. With the wood I had on hand, I got three major components of the base: two legs (front and middle) and a stretcher (rear):

The plan for the legs is 5″x3.5″ and the stretchers will be 6″x3.5″. I won’t be thicknessing the stretchers precisely because there’s no need. You can tell how the scale compares to my current bench from the preceding photo.

And now I’m out of wood, at least for big stuff. Time to get another load!

[edit: It planes easily, but as I learned later, this wood dulls plane blades very quickly.]

Goofs Illustrated: Workbench

When it dawned on me that I needed a workbench, I really didn’t know my requirements. The only thing that I knew for sure is that it had to be really strong, pretty heavy, and be able to resist racking forces. I hadn’t studied workholding all that well, but there is so much conflicting information on this subject that it probably wouldn’t have helped.

Now that I’ve used the bench that I made for about four years (and read about many other kinds of benches), I have a much clearer picture, and, well, it’s time to evaluate how I did. Since this post falls under the “goofs” series, you probably have an idea of how this is going to go.

However, let’s start with something that really worked for me: the base.

It’s a very simple knockdown design secured with bolts and captured nuts out of douglas-fir. In general, bigger is better when building the base. I used lone 2x4s for the legs on my first build, and despite looking a little flimsy in the front-to-back direction, it still worked fine. One of the reasons is that I used big 2x8s as stretchers in the front and back. That created so much surface area that a simple butt joint secured with the bolt meant that it never, ever racked side-to-side.

However, it was still a little on the light side for what I wanted, so when I moved out of the apartment and to my first shop, I replaced the legs with 4x4s and the side stretchers with 2x8s.

That change removed any doubts I had about this design. The Schwarz slightly poo-poos knockdown construction, complaining that you have to tighten up the bolts from time to time. I have not run into this as an actual problem. It’s just not that hard of a thing to do, and it’s not like it happens all of the time, either, especially when your wood is reasonably dry and stable (think douglas-fir), and you have an enormous joint mating area. I may have done it twice during the whole time I’ve used my bench.

With the added mass, I didn’t have a problem with the bench moving around as I used it in the old shop. I do have that problem when using the frame saw in the new shop, however (but not when planing or anything else). It’s primarily because the polished concrete floor is significantly slippery. I need to put down some really grippy rubber feet to fix this (or something of that nature).

I also put an improvised shelf in almost immediately–just a piece of plywood suspended over two boards. I put my larger bench planes there. It’s a great feature to have on a bench.

The top I used was a mixed bag of results. On one hand, it’s thick enough to take a pounding and it’s reasonably heavy. On the other hand, it really didn’t want to stay flat, it still could have been a little thicker, and it’s too deep. Let’s look at these one-by-one.

When I bought the top (an Ikea countertop made from beech), it was quite flat, but it started sagging at some point. I don’t know when that was, but it was pretty severe by the time I decided to flatten it. If I’d been paying attention, I would have flattened it earlier. It seems to be OK now, though. Sure, you have to flatten all workbench tops, but I have a feeling that something a little thicker wouldn’t have moved so much (unless it was a solid hardwood slab).

Yes, thicker would have been better. Being beech, the top was fine for taking a pounding as long as you were working near a leg (and that’s what you’re supposed to do anyway). However, a thickness of not even two inches has two weaknesses. The first is that it’s not as heavy as it could be. That’s not such a big deal, but the second issue is that it was difficult to mount the front vise. The model I have really wants something thick, and if you don’t have that, you have to improvise. I did so in an odd way; I’ll talk about that in a bit. But let’s not forget about the lack of dog holes in the front–I couldn’t put any in at that thickness.

The final problem with the top is that it’s too deep. That wasn’t a problem at my old shop, with the bench flush against the wall, but it’s no longer in that configuration, and I have a lot less room to walk around now. And stuff accumulates at the rear of the bench. Given the shop’s current transitional state of tool storage, there’s not much I can do about that, except that if I didn’t have that space, I’d actually be forced to resolve the tool storage issue and not have this problem in the first place.

Now, let’s talk about the junction between the top and base. Much has been written about the advantages of aligning the top and base along the front of the bench, and they aren’t lies. I should have done this and it’s still an option. Were I to do this, I’d need to bring my front vise chops into alignment as well (see below). One thing I’ll say about the top overhang is that I wonder why I put in an overhang of a half-inch at the rear of the bench.

Yeah, that’s just weird.

The top is attached to the base with flimsy L-bracket-style hardware. Strangely enough, it works. The top is so heavy that even with the most measly of lag screws holding things together, it never moves. It doesn’t vibrate. This still surprises me, given what the benchtop has to endure. Were I doing this over again, I’d probably do mortises just to keep it aligned (it’s a pain to put the top back on when you move from place to place), but I wouldn’t do Schwarz-style through mortises. They just don’t need to be that deep. However, it should be secured in some way just to keep the top from jumping around.

Keep in mind that this particular junction matters a lot more if you’ve got a leg vise. With a leg vise, you’re typically applying (very strong) pressure from the legs to the top, so something flimsy like my current setup wouldn’t work. However, if you’re using a front vise, that’s mounted on the top alone, so it doesn’t matter as much. I have my own ideas for the ideal joint in this situation, but they are just ideas at the moment.

So, speaking of workholding, I learned a lot about it from this bench. Before I even installed the front vise, I used a Veritas Wonder Dog, homemade bench dogs, clamps, and a handscrew to get things done. I still haven’t installed a tail vise-like thing (see below). You don’t need too many dog holes, and I prefer the round ones because they’re just more flexible.

You don’t need an end vise, but they are faster to move into position. If you decide not to do an end vise, you should probably put a couple more intermediate dog holes at the end, and bore a second set of aligned holes so that you have two points of pressure for the double-wedge method. You will use this method eventually, even if you have a wonder dog, because the wonder dog is hard to use with thinner boards.

And then there’s the matter of the front vise and the overhang.

My install of the front vise is, to say the least, one of the stranger features of the bench. Due to the way that the Jorgensen front vises are designed, you secure it through the front and underneath (other manufacturers have you do it all from the bottom). And here’s where the thickness of the bench got to be an issue again. The vise wants a certain thickness that I don’t have, so I ended up shimming the bottom and the front of the vise. The result looks strange, and in use, it’s got some “special” working qualities. If I were doing this again, I would glue a thick strip of hardwood or douglas-fir to the front of the bench as an apron-like thing, inset the vise into that, get everything flush to the front of the bench, and be done with it.

The major issue is the overhang. Much has been written about the advantages of having the top flush with the front legs, so I won’t bother with repeating that here. But another disadvantage is that if you have a front vise sticking out with so much overhang like this, if you put something really heavy in there, the bench gets to be a bit front-heavy. It’s not enough to have it tip over, but it is enough to get the rear legs to very slightly lift up when you’re doing a heavy sawcut (not coincidentally, the most likely thing you’re going to do when clamping something very heavy).

Despite the strangeness, the front vise does a pretty good job, about as well as you can expect for a vise of this design. The quick-release design is polarizing. On one hand, it’s very fast. A half-turn back and it releases. On the other hand, you can’t use the vise for spreading operations, as you would be able to on a model with the little release trigger. One common complaint about these types is that the guide bars make it difficult to secure boards vertically (for dovetailing, for example). The good news is that the guide bars of this model are well-made, so the racking is kept to a minimum. I hardly ever need to use spacers to even things out.

An advantage by accident is that having the vise protrude so much allows you to get behind the cut when you’re sawing tenons.

So that’s the bench evaluation–that’s what I’ve learned from this one. There are lots of things I could do to improve this bench, but I won’t. Why?

Because I’ve got the green light to make a new bench. And I’ve already started.

Five Years of Galoototron

It’s been five years since I made my first post on this blog. At that time, it was on Livejournal, and I was doing it just because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Apparently, I’m still posting, so because it’s been a nice “even” number of years since I started, I figure I ought to do a review post because I have nothing better to do.

(You won’t see too many of these posts on this blog, so bear with me.)

Before starting, I should mention something about the name of the blog. It doesn’t mean anything. It was just something that rolled off my tongue. It is a dippy name, it’s difficult to remember, and I’ve always been open to changing it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of anything better at the time, and that condition persists to this day.

The first post is my introduction, but perhaps there’s a little more that I can add to it. At that point, I had never done anything resembling semi-advanced woodworking. In hindsight, this was a natural time for me to start because I’d finally gotten some measure of stability in my life after years of grad school, moving across the country, working in crazy environments, and living in cramped places. I’d moved into that particular San Francisco apartment not too long before. It was nice and roomy, I lived alone, and I finally had some extra time. Sure, I’d like to have started earlier in life. I didn’t, so there’s no point in thinking about that.

Regarding tools: I don’t know what was going on in my mind, but I must have been researching old tools quite a bit. For example, how did I know that I needed to sharpen my own saws at that time? My initial tool list wasn’t too far-off. I still haven’t bought a shoulder plane unless you want to count the mini Veritas version. And although I have a miter box, I haven’t used it (I haven’t even sharpened the saw). But I had one special tool right-on, and that was the Winchester handsaw I’d picked up (but never used) in 2003, three years before starting. It was a long time before I actually sharpened that thing, but ever since, it’s really been one of my favorite tools.

That a very common style of saw is special to me may provide some insight into the type of woodworking that I like to do now. I feel that I went after too many planes in the beginning, and did not realize the amount of work that saws do. In time, I began to appreciate saws more and more, and even made a few of my own.

I thought that I would be very project-oriented when I first started. I had the idea to make bookshelves–perhaps I believed that I’d make them within a year? I was wrong. I still haven’t made a set of bookshelves (I did make a prototype). What I did instead was learn the process of milling wood and basic joints. The first larger thing that I put together was my workbench, followed by tools such as my mallet and scrub plane.

But about a year and a half into the process, I slowly made a dovetailed box, and that got things rolling. Though I didn’t have much time to work on it, that box went together more smoothly than I expected, and I still use it. By this time, things were changing in my life, and soon enough, I moved from the apartment to a house that actually had room for a shop. I spent the first few months trying to get organized there:

Then I started to build projects in earnest. The first big one was the shoe rack, which took some time but ultimately was a success. That was followed by the prototype bookshelf, the stool, and the first nightstand–I did all three of those projects in less than a year. At the same time, I made some shop improvements such as the saw till.

Incidentally, I switched the blog to the galoototron.com domain about a half-year after I moved to this shop. It was September 2009, and this shoe rack post was the first on the new domain. Before the switch, no one other than some family and friends knew about the blog, but then I started to tell a few more people (such as Luke Townsley at unpluggedshop.com) about it. Suddenly a lot more people than I really ever expected were reading this thing. That’s about as far as I ever went to promote it, though, and I don’t have plans to change that. I do appreciate all of the comments that I get from fellow woodworkers.

In retrospect, the two years I had in that shop were pivotal. I went from dorking around with tools and wood on a somewhat irregular basis to building projects. I gained speed and confidence in my joinery. The shop itself had a lot to do with this. No longer did I have to be completely fastidious about cleaning up after each session–I could leave a small amount of shavings or sawdust on the floor and it didn’t matter. Because I had enough room, I could put down my work at any time and pick it up again whenever I had the chance. This helped me establish a work pattern; I’d come home from work and have fun with a project for as little as 10 minutes or as much as an hour and a half before finishing for the day. I could even do a little in the morning before I went to work.

Of the projects I built in that shop, the nightstand seems like an obvious choice for a favorite, and it is. However, the little stool is a co-favorite:

The nightstand was the last project I completed there. Then, in the span of a few months, life got really busy, and after that, I moved again.

The new place also had room for a shop but it was more “raw”–as part of a garage, I really had to work to define the space. The old shop had room for me to put tools on tables all over the place. It was mostly disorganized, but I sort of knew where everything was, so I managed. There was no room for that in the new shop. To make up for it, I was allowed to hang cabinets, racks, and hooks on the walls and ceiling to my heart’s desire.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get the new shop organized quickly enough for my taste. Part of this was a chicken-and-egg problem; the tool cabinet is an example of this. My first task in the new shop was to get some of the tools on the walls, and I had to finish the cabinet so that I could put tools in there. Unfortunately, my tools were all packed away in boxes (from the move) that surrounded the workbench. I really had no idea where anything in particular was and I didn’t have places to put them temporarily.

At the same time, I also had more furniture to make. The second nightstand project kicked off this year, and it turned out to be far more complicated and time-consuming than I expected. (And I’m still working on it, but I’m almost done.)

Every now and then, I add to the wall storage in the shop. That situation isn’t fully resolved (see below), but it is much better. Things are getting done, and I have to say that I prefer the new shop to the old one.

Also, I’m making a concerted effort to work out some of the annoying little stumbling blocks that I have to deal with from time to time. The two biggest problems I come across are tool and project storage (both temporary and permanent) and workholding. I have plans to solve those soon.

Going forward with projects, I have a long list in front of me. The most pressing, according to those in the know, is an entertainment center. We’re also looking at the rest of the living room–coffee table, bookshelves, who knows what. With the exception of our couch, the living room furniture is crap and it makes sense to concentrate on that room. Whatever I do, I’ve decided that I’m not going to make anything as brutally complicated as the second nightstand project(s) for a while.

But then again, I may just make more complicated things. Here’s how.

The title of this blog is no lie. Everything I do is by hand, and that includes stock preparation. I didn’t go down this road out of principle or some other similarly silly reason. I did it primarily out of interest and necessity–the apartment I once lived in was no place for power tools.

Unfortunately, it turns out that flattening, thicknessing, and resawing by hand is a lot of work. A large majority of my time and effort goes into stock preparation. That’s not even mentioning how much time I spend sharpening plane blades as I go. It’s getting out of hand. I can flatten a board quickly now (and wow am I glad I learned), resawing isn’t so incredibly horrible when you keep your saw blade sharp, but that last step of getting down to final thickness is totally bogus when you have to repeat it dozens of times, even with my scrub plane that can take off 1/16″ at a time.

So I think I’m going to get myself a stupid lunchbox-style thickness planer sometime in the new year. I’ll continue to flatten stuff by hand–it’s a great way to get to know the wood and the board that you’re about to use–but when it comes to getting that other side down to something reasonable, I won’t think twice about feeding it to a machine. I’ve got furniture to build and I do not have the time to lollygag.

However, the blog remains the same. The preceding paragraph (I hope) will be the only mention. I don’t plan to write about it when it happens, and I’ll continue to do all joinery by hand.

At this point, it would be remiss not to mention that I’ve had help. Schwarz says that the modern woodworker works alone and I think he’s wrong. Even if one never meets another woodworker in person, and even if one never takes part on a discussion forum online, the modern woodworker has an incredible resource mass available. It’s sometimes easy to overlook that a person wrote what’s on your screen, and when you learn something from someone, that person is very much with you in spirit as you work.

And wow, have a lot of people been working with me in spirit in my shop. There are just too many to list, but I’d really like to thank anyone who’s written anything that I’ve learned from or even read.

Also, there are the BAGs (Bay Area Galoots). Several of you have really helped me out in more direct ways–lending me tools, giving advice, being generally cool, that sort of thing.

Now, back to the work on the new nightstand projects. Progress has been (inexplicably) made.