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.

Workbench v2: Another Wood Installment

So, what’s been happening with the new workbench? Not much, because I needed more wood, so I’ve instead been dorking around the shop, cleaning things, and rehabbing old tools.

Last Sunday, I got the next installment of wood, and I now have all of the legs and half of the stretchers milled out:

That was the easy part. The task ahead of me is considerably tougher:

Those are two 6.5′ 4x14s that will somehow comprise the top in the end. I really have only the faintest idea on how I’m going to support these things as I’m ripping and sizing them. I suppose I could finally make some sawbenches.

And, of course, I have to glue them up. Yay.

Tapping Out a Western Plane Blade

Warning: What I talk about in this post is not considered standard practice in any way, shape, or form, and may be completely wrong.

I’ve been wanting an old wooden western-style smoothing plane for a while, and a couple of months back, I picked up an Ogontz/Sandusky coffin-style smoothing plane at the Alameda flea. It’s nothing special–beech body and a big laminated blade a little more than 2″ wide.

It had been used to a certain extent, and the most annoying thing about it was the way the blade face had been sharpened–it was rounded over. It was the “ruler trick” gone mad, I suppose. It may have been done with a grinder. A lot of old blades turn out this way and they’re not particularly easy to sharpen when in this condition. Because there’s often no set angle you can use on the stone, you can’t register it on anything. In this case, it was especially bad because it was quite convex, both across and up and down the face. Oh yeah, and it was pitted, too. Yuck.

I didn’t have time to deal with it, so it sat on the shelf until recently, when something occurred to me. Because the blade is thick and laminated like that of a Japanese plane, it might be possible to use the technique of “tapping out” to create a new flat for the face edge. I recently had to do this to a couple of blades and it seemed to me that it might be worth a try.

The problem is that I’ve never heard of anyone doing this to a Western blade. It could be just totally wrong.

So I tried it first on a blade from a big jointer that was suffering from a similar situation. To my surprise, it worked. But that was a large, brutish plane that I don’t use for delicate tasks, and I didn’t want to go blabbering about it until I’d tried it on something else, such as the smoother.

I’m not going to describe the process of tapping out because Wilbur Pan has already done that here. I used a small ball-peen hammer and the silly anvil on the back of my cheap machinist’s vise (I tried tapping on a block of wood at first, but that didn’t work–I might speculate that the soft steel in an old western blade is harder than the (typically) wrought iron used in the Japanese blades). Because the blade was rounded along the complete width, I had to tap it nearly all of the way to the sides. The result was that the high spots on the face were now the edge (as desired), as well as a spot in the center (we’ll see that later).

Before getting any further, I must give you this warning: If you’re interested in tapping something out, don’t try it on a thin Bailey/Stanley-style blade, or any blade that’s solid hardened tool steel. It will most likely crack or chip, because steel that takes an edge and is designed to cut wood is brittle. I’m going to guess that if you’re really crazy about the idea, you might be able to temper the blade first, then tap it out, then harden it again.

Now it was time to sharpen the blade and see if it worked. The bevel was in terrible shape, and there was a big nick, so I had to take it to my (horrible) grinder first. Then it was off to my Sigma Power #120 stone. First I worked the face to what I thought was a pretty good surface, then I put the thing in a honing guide, reformed the bevel at 25 degrees, and finally worked my way up through the grits on both sides. Thinking that the blade seemed sharp enough, I tested it out.

That first test did not go particularly well. I couldn’t manage to take a thin shaving, shavings kept getting jammed in the throat, and the surface left behind was ridged, not smooth. Much not to my amusement, the edge also seemed to have gotten kind of messed up.

I found the shaving thickness problem pretty quickly; the bottom of the plane wasn’t even remotely flat (it was bumpy). A couple of passes with my Veritas jointer fixed that, and I was able to get a good shaving. I popped out a little crud in the mouth, and that fixed the jams. But the surface on the planed wood was still crummy.

Perhaps my sharpening job wasn’t as good as I’d hoped it was. I took a photo with my macro lens; here is about 3/8″ of the edge:

Basically, the edge wasn’t really sharp to begin with in some spots, and there was still some pitting across the edge.

So I hit the Sigma Power #120 again to remove the pitting, and also to try to get a better bevel shape. I ended up with this after working through my stones:

There was still a very tiny nick-like thing for that one deep pit in there, but would it matter? Well, of course it would sometime, but at this point, I was more interested in seeing if all of this wasn’t a waste of my time, so I put the blade into the plane and tried it out:

Bingo. Translucent shavings, polished surface, yadda yadda. The wood on the left is beech, and the one on the right is some mystery softwood (spruce or fir, most likely). The softwood actually had some figure that the plane brought out:

Yeah, that’s a little birdseye that’s trying to come out. Strangely, I didn’t find the ridge from that little nick in the edge, but I’m sure I will sometime, so I still have to take care of that.

In the end, the face of the blade looks like this:

So in the center, it’s kind of the opposite of a Japanese blade–whereas those have the hollow in the center and are high on the edges, this one has a big annoying high spot in the center. However, that spot still gives you something to register upon when honing the face. It’s as easy to sharpen as a Japanese blade, too, because there’s much less surface area to float on top of the stone.

Well, we’ll see how this works out. As I hinted at the beginning of the post, this could possibly be one of the most idiotic things I’ve done to a tool.

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.

 

Making a Panel Gauge

One annoying gap in my tool set has been the panel gauge-sized hole. I’ve gotten really frustrated with normal marking gauges from time to time, because they get significantly more difficult to use after you extend the arm more than a couple of inches. It’s not so much a matter of the length of the stock (especially in the case of my gauges), but more of a problem with registration. Keeping the stock at a steady height when you’re worrying about a long arm is a bother. Proper panel gauges include a rabbet to register on the edge of a board or panel when you need such a thing.

I decided to make my gauge out of scrap, and after scrounging around, I found this cherry offcut from the second nightstand project:

It was already 4/4, which was about the thickness that I desired (I’d originally thought about laminating two contrasting species, but decided not to waste my time jointing faces and waiting for glue to dry). After cutting it to length and approximate height, I jointed the bottom edge and cut the all-important rabbet:

In hindsight, it would have been a better idea to cut that rabbet until after I’d mortised the hole for the arm, but it didn’t end up mattering much.

Next I cut the arm’s profile. After my previous experience with arms flopping side-to-side and fixing them, I decided to take a more radical approach to really locking the arm in place. The Lie-Nielsen panel gauge and a version of the Stanley #65 marking gauge rotate the arm 45 degrees so that there is a triangular profile on the bottom of the arm to really lock it into the stock. It’s the same concept as the ol’ “wedge crowds the arm into a corner” trick, and I thought it was worth a shot because people do seem to rave about the design.

So I marked it out a little on the arm that I’d chosen (another piece of scrap cherry), and roughed it out with my jack plane:

When I got close to the lines, I switched to my Veritas low-angle block with the chamfer guide attached:

You can see the profile starting to come through at the end.

Next, I turned to the mortise. I just banged it out with a pigsticker as usual:

Then it was time to test-fit the arm and to see if this profile really did what it was supposed to do. I slipped a couple of wedges in where the thumbscrew would eventually go, then tried to get the arm to wiggle around:

Much to my delight, it worked. Keep in mind also that I wasn’t even being terribly accurate in chopping the mortise (call it “mostly sorta accurate”).

With everything fit, I shaped the top of the gauge (entirely with a coping saw and Shinto saw rasp), then bored the hole for the machine screw insert with a brace and auger bit:

The brass screw inserts have slots for driving them with a screwdriver, but brass is so malleable that the slots are next to useless. Instead, I use a screw with a nut threaded on to drive them in. In this case, I was using a hex-headed furniture connector to ensure that my driver bit wouldn’t slip:

This works well for driving the insert, but cherry being what it is, there was a little bit of spelching near the top. Yeah, I should have probably driven this thing in before shaping, but whatever–I just filed off that layer.

(Here, I must again remark that I would love to use wooden screws and threads for this. It would work wonderfully.)

To finish off the stock, I made a “saddle” for the thumbscrew and arm as described back in this post.

Now it was time to turn to putting the blade in the arm. I used a Millers Falls #5 to drill a couple of holes in a line at the end to make the mortise for the blade:

That miniature square I got in Japan really comes in handy.

To hold the blade in place, I used a smaller screw insert in the end (who knows how well this will hold up) and a stainless steel cap screw to go in the front. I made a saddle for this as well.

The blade itself is yet another small strip of spring steel. I’ll be honest here–I don’t particularly like using spring steel for this because it does not hold an edge as well as tool steel. However, it’s such a pain in the butt to sharpen the blades that I figure I’ll keep using spring steel until I can come up with some sort of honing guide for the marking gauge blades.

And that was pretty much it; the process only took a couple of hours. Here’s the finished product:

And a close-up of the business end, showing the cap screw and various “saddles:”

With all of that said, the important question is, “how well does it work?” I had to admit that I was a little bit doubtful on how much of an improvement the arrangement with that triangular/inverted-house-shaped mortise and arm profile would bring. It turns out, though, that it’s really something. The arm simply does not budge when you tighten the thumbscrew. It’s so impressive that I may do a retrofit on my previous marking gauge.

I’m still unsure about the blade-holding mechanism, though. I just hope that it doesn’t split the end of the arm.

 

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.