Workbench Wednesday – A New Piano-Makers’ Vise

Recently I was contacted by my friend Justin, who was coming to town to visit his folks.  Justin is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable tools collector and broker, and was offering me a piano makers’ vise he had found (actually he has now acquired almost a dozen of them).  We spoke on the phone and he sent some pictures and I asked him to bring the best of the lot, which he did.

I bought it,  Of course I did.  It was practically a moral imperative.  It will replace the Sheldon vise on the end of my Studley-replica bench top ASAP.  Or, it might go as a face vise on the Sheldon end, diagonal to the existing vise essentially turning this into a partner’s bench.

Stay tuned.

Workbench Wednesday – A Treasured Accessory

One of the fixtures integral to my ongoing work on building Gragg chairs is this shaving beam I made when embarking down Gragg Boulevard several years ago.

When I am in the heat of battle  I need to move back and forth frequently while preparing the stock for the chairs prior to steam bending the elements, checking then by eye and small sizing jig I keep in my pocket or right there on the bench.  I found it to be tiresome, and frankly after a while painful, to get up and down from my shaving horse dozens of times a day.  Instead I designed and built this fixture that allows me to work on my feet with much less stress to my creaky hips.

The core of the device is a hunk of 4″ x 6″ Douglas fir from the scrap pile.  To that I built a cam clamp head that can grab and hold pieces of split oak (what I normally work with) so that I can shave it close to the final dimension with typical drawknives and spokeshaves, working at waist height while standing.

An additional feature at the other end is a tiny woodscrew clamp with one jaw permanently screwed to the end of the beam.  This makes it possible for me to work in both the pulling and pushing directions on the same device.  It is nearly effortless to go from pulling a drawknife on a workpiece to switching to pushing either spokeshaves or hand planes getting the piece ready for the steam box.

A series of holes for stops helps hold the workpieces in place while I am yanking on them in one direction of the other.

The entire device is bolted to the rear side of the Roubo workbench I keep up in the video studio on the fourth floor.  I drilled 1-1/2″ holes through the beam, then horizontal 1-3/8″ holes in the corresponding location on the edge of the workbench slab.  I tapped out the holes in the workbench slab and use threaded Moxon screws through the shaving beam to affix it in place.  It can be removed quickly and easily.

Like I said, this device has become an integral part of making Gragg chairs AND imparting greater speed and comfort to that process.  It may not be an overstatement to suggest that this bench accessory has become so important that my passion to continue down the road of making and revising Gragg would be substantially diminished without it.

Once while being visited by an acquaintance who volunteers at a wounded vet rehab facility he noticed that this shaving beam could be made entirely accessible to people in wheel chairs by simply setting it up between trestles rather than attached to the side of a fixed work bench.

Last time I heard from him he was making some for the shop of the rehab facility, and that pleased me even more as it could be one component of regaining healing and wholeness for vets who had sacrificed so much on my behalf.

Throwing In One Particuar Towel Leads To An Unrelated Solution

Recently while noodling with one of my ripple molding cutters in preparation for the September “Make A Ripple Molding Cutter” class, which like the upcoming “Make A Roubo Shoulder Knife” has been cancelled due to unanimous disinterest (I will soon write about the future of workshops at the barn, most of which have drawn nearly unanimous disinterest and will likely diminish for the most part), I decided that the underlying design concept for that particular machine was too flawed to rescue.  So, I tossed in the towel on that particular journey.

At the same time I was doing some cleanup and organizing on the main floor of the barn — alas when you have thousands of square feet of space the tidying is nearly an endless proposition — I decided to address the “problem” of how my lathe has been set up for the past few years.  At the time I thought I would really like having the lathe sitting on a mondo beam adjacent to two of the vertical timbers holding up the third and fourth floors.  In practice I realized that I REALLY did not like that set-up.  What to do?

Well, with the ripple molding cutter being moth-balled I suddenly had the perfect base available for use with the lathe.  So now it sits thereon, and I like the new set-up much, much better.  An additional benefit is that the new base is long enough to hold not only my wood lathe but also my micro machinist lathe.


And fear not about the fate of the mondo beam.  It now serves as part of a bench outside being used in my ongoing tactical training and practice.

Workbench Wednesday Looking Forward

Returning unapologetic after a week of spending time with the family, and even missing the ostensible subject by one day, let me spend a few minutes looking forward in the context of Workbench Wednesday.  As we last left the subject I posted a gallery of past and current inventory of workbenches either in the Barn or made by me in the barn.  But make no mistake, this does not end the string of workbenches by my hands.  So here goes a glimpse of what the future might look like.  There are many projects at various stages of development and planning extant.

Tim’s Bench

Next up on the workbench agenda is to make a massive 10-foot Nicholson-style gunsmith’s partner’s bench for my friend TimD.  Tim is a gunsmith making superb late 18th century long rifles and often teaches workshops on the subject.  For that reason Tim wanted a workbench that could suffice for both his own work but that of a student on the other side as well.  As is often the case for me the starting point is select SYP from Virginia Frame in Fishersville VA.  I’ll get this delivered to Tim sometime later in the summer, but first we have to line up two additional stout fellows at the finished bench will weigh in at just under 450 pounds.

The Mahogany and Walnut Roubo

When I first encountered the H.O. Studley menagerie in person I was particularly struck by his workbench.  While I could not imagine myself using his tool cabinet as a routine matter, I definitely saw the workbench as a valued addition to my work space.  Then, when the famed lumber store in the Cincinnati area closed I asked Chris Schwarz to get me a slab of mahogany from which I could make such a bench.  He acquired a sweet 7-1/2′ x 24″ x 4″ slab.  Subsequent visits and close inspection of Studley’s bench revealed it was not a mahogany slab but rather a laminated top with oak cores and mahogany faces.  I set the mahogany slab aside and now know that I will turn it into the over-the-top Roubo bench it was evidently destined to become.  In addition to the magnificent mahogany slab I have the necessary 6″ x 8″ vintage black walnut stock to make the legs.  This should be a real eye catcher when finished.

The Ultimate On-Site Restoration Bench

This knock-down lightweight bench is the third generation of the concept, and will include many new features but not sacrifice much of the lightness.  I started this bench a few years ago and set it aside but hope to get back to it in the coming days.  Stay tuned.

photos courtesy of Shannon Rogers

Replicating Shannon Rogers’ Joinery Bench(es)

The first time I saw Shannon Rogers’ two-part joinery bench with the tall, standing bench and its companion planning beam I offered the highest compliment I could: “Darn, I wish I had thought of that design for myself.”  At this point of my working life I cannot say that I actually need it right now, but I can definitely see a time where a differing living situation might make this a perfect fit for me.

photo courtesy of Christopher Schwarz

The Roman Bench

Since Chris Schwarz made his research into this low slung bench, and viewing Jonathan Fisher’s iteration of it, I knew this bench was something I needed to build and have around.  In great part this is because it might make great allowance for working while sitting down.  Plus, since I also dabble in fiction writing I would like to incorporate the workbench into a series of short stories I am trying to sketch about the working life of Joshua Bar Joseph, a/k/a Jesus of Nazareth, prior to his assumption of His earthly ministry.  Having this bench around to inspire me could, well, inspire me.

Curly Maple and Oak Roubo

Over the years I have compiled a substantial inventory of lumber including some pretty big stuff.  Included in this is a slab of curly maple I have squirreled away, along with some fabulous 6×6 oak for the legs of a sweet Roubo.  I have worked on the slab on-and-off for a few years, but perhaps this autumn is the time to bring this ting to the finish line.

photo courtesy of William Duffield

Replicating William’s Benchtop Auxiliary

Some time ago at an SAPFM regional chapter meeting my friend WilliamD showed his auxiliary bench-top-bench, a concept I first heard about from Steve Latta.  The appeal of this appendage is pretty evident in that it reduces the amount of bending over that is required for detail work.  At the moment I just use a nice piece of plywood sitting on a pair of shoji-work-style mini-horses.

Restoring My Piano Maker’s Bench

This thing needs a thorough going over including adding a new layer of mahogany over the current top which would first be flattened.  Oh, and the vises both need cleaning, polishing, and nickel plating.

Bob’s Slabs

My pal Bob got these 10″ x 15″ white oak timbers ( two are 10′, one is 8′) from his brother, who works for a hardwood saw mill, to chop up as firewood.  Bob thought I might put them to better use as workbenches or something and I agree.  When I look at this stack all I can see is a bunch of Roubo bench tops.

More Workbenches for A Possible Gragg Chair Workshop

Should I decide to offer a Gragg Chair Building Workshop, to which I am about 90% leaning, we will need another three or four workbenches up in the attic studio, the only place large enough to host such a class.  If I do go in this direction these benches, almost certainly Nicholsons, would would be a winter time project at the end of this year.

That’s all I can think of for now.  I might need to think about an annex for The Barn…

Workbench Inventory (to date)

Here is a quick review of our route over most of the past year.

Opus #1 (1986/7)

Opus #2 (1990)

Opus #3 (2005)

Opus #4 (2008)

Opus #5 (2011)

Opus #6 (2011)

Opus #7 (2011)

Opus #8 (2012)

Opus #9 (2013)

Opus #10 (2013)

Opus #11 (2014)

Opus #12 (2015)

Opus #13 (2015)

Opus #14 (2016)

Opus #15 (2017)

Opus #16 (2017)

Opus #17 (2018)

Opus #18 (2018)

This concludes my backward look at the workbenches in my life.  I do have another half-dozen in the works, or on the drawing board.  As they proceed their development and construction will be documented on Workbench Wednesdays, otherwise the feature will be on hiatus.

Stay tuned.


Workbench Wednesday – #18 (2018) Bob’s Tricked Out Nicholson Completed

With the basic bench being fabricated it was time to work on the “add-ons” for Bob’s Nicholson gunsmithing bench.  In truth this was a thinly disguised exercise in preparing for an upcoming workshop I was teaching in Arkansas.  In short, it was all about threading and fabricating wood screw based vises, including a mobile Moxon vise and a twin-screw face vise for the bench.

My starting point was 1) buying a 1-1/2″ Beale wood threading kit, and 2) a case of 1-1/2″ store-bought dowel stock from a home center.  My initial effort with the threader revealed that the off-the-shelf dowel stock was inadequate for the task and I impregnated the screw stock with diluted epoxy to give a cleaner finished surface after the threads were cut.

After threading the dowels I made a bunch of handles from scrap SYP construction lumber.  All tolled for Bob’s workbench and the workshop workbenches I made over 50 vise screws.

Then I threaded a bunch of the female fittings using the tap provided with the Beale kit.

In the end I had a bench with lots of clamping/work stations.  This has served as my model for Nicholson benches ever since.

Workbench Wednesday – #18 (2018), Bob’s Tricked Out Nicholson

It’s not my own bench but demonstrates a developmental step in the making of Nicholson benches at the Barn.

My friend Bob has many and varied skills that I draw on frequently.  At least once a year he comes over to fell trees for firewood, having been a timberman virtually all of his life.  I am happy to cut up the trees once they are down but am not fully confident of bringing them down where they should be (i.e. not on top of me).

Bob is also a gunsmith and firearms instructor (I will be getting some advanced training from him next month) and I’ve visited his workshop several times.  In my visits I noticed a decided lack of workbench assets there so last spring I built him a tricked out Nicholson for use on guns stocks and such.  He had some space limitations so it was a custom built 6-foot unit.

The basic bench was little different than what I’ve built before.  To this base I added a twin-screw face vise on the front apron, then added a bench top Moxon vise to be moved wherever he needed it on the top.  In fact, building this bench was the practice that let me work out all the kinks for the class I taught in Arkansas last summer.

At the end of the first day working on the bench I had it up in its feet and was ready to turn my attentions to working on the vise screws with my new Bealle threader.

But for the first day I just built it the way I do them all with the apron projecting slightly above the top battens so I could hand-plane everything nice and even.

Next week I will focus on incorporating wooden screws vises into the bench.  It will be the final installment of “looking backwards” in the bench making adventures at the barn, but never fear, there are a half-dozen new iterations coming down the pike.

Workbench Wednesday – #17 (2018) Full Size Nicholson

For our penultimate offering in the “looking back” portion of this series I offer for your consideration a full-size Nicholson.  This workbench was primarily an exercise in, “I wonder…” as in, “I wonder how fast I can build a complete basic bench.” This approach to seeing how much time it would take to build the basic workbench was predicated on leaving the full tricking out for a subsequent session.  I found the answer to be about 4 hours, not counting the time for obtaining the lumber from over the mountains.

Notwithstanding my deep connection to Roubo benches I have come to see the Nicholson as a preferable option for many woodworkers.  It is exceedingly fast and easy to build, needing only a small table saw (or even a hand-held circular saw with a Speed Square for crosscutting and a rip fence on the saw base) , battery drill with a box of decking screws, and hand saw and hand plane of your choosing to make.

As (almost) always I began with clear southern yellow pine 2x12x24′ construction lumber selected from the inventory of Virginia Frame in Fishersville VA.  They gladly cut the 24-footers into 8-foot sections for me.  Once home I ripped then crosscut two of the boards in half for stock to fabricate the legs and the cross battens for the top boards to rest on.

The assembly itself was so straightforward I need not even discuss it in any detail.  With my drill, framing square and the decking screws it was up on its feet in no time.  I made the bench with a double apron on the front side in order to provide 3″ of thickness for holdfast holes.  I dimensioned the backing apron to be at the right height for the battens, and the off cut served as the support for the battens on the rear apron.  The double thickness of battens and top boards serves the same function of capturing the holdfasts.

With my 3/4″ hole drilling jig I can go back and put holes whenever and wherever I need them.  But for now it was just a basic, fully functional full-sized (8-foot) workbench that could last several generations of craftsmen.

All the “tricking out” features would come on the final bench of this part of the series, #18, Bob’s bench for gunsmithing.

(Truth in advertising — when I ramped up the production of Mel’s Wax over in my work space I purloined this workbench from the classroom, and last week I build another one to take its place.  So maybe this posting is about Opus 17 and Opus 19.)

Workbench Wednesday – #16 (2018) Full-Size Laminated Roubo, Part 2

With the top made and soon flattened it was time to turn my attentions to the legs, leg vise, and planning stop.

I built the legs from the stock prepared and thicknessed the same as the top laminae to assure perfect fits of the leg joints.  The only real “craftsmanship” involved was cutting the dovetailed tenons on the face of the leg top.

For the leg vise I recycled an old wooden screw leg vise I had in my inventory, I often buy old wooden vise screws to keep around precisely for moments like these.  I inset the screw nut into the verso of the front left leg.

Before long the completed base was up on its feet, or in this case, upside-down on its feet, after first trimming the legs to length and removing the superfluous projecting center “tenon” from the bottom, an artifact of the original assembly concept.

The final task was to make and install a planing stop, which was itself a modified version of the traditional Roubo projecting stop.  I added a serrated-edge steel plate to the top of the stop to bite hard into the workpiece.

And with that the bench was complete, I think with about 40 hours of work in it.  It worked well for my presentation at Colonial Williamsburg, and now resides in the classroom of the barn.

With really only one more “looking backwards” workbench to showcase on Workbench Wednesdays, the feature will become even more irregular as it will occur only to chronicle new benches, of which there are four in the works.

Stay tuned


Workbench Wednesday – #15 (2017), part III; The “LC” Bench

A few months before the benches were built for and debuted at Handworks, I had been invited to teach woodworking to my colleagues in the Rare Book Conservation lab of the Library of Congress.  The emphasis for this two-day workshop was on fabricating oak book boards by hand. In antiquity the covers of a book were almost always leather covered this wood boards, usually quarter-sawn white oak.

The workshop was simultaneous delightful and frustrating.  Delightful because the staff there was congenial, skilled, and highly motivated.  Frustrating because they did not own a workbench worth lighting on fire.  At the time I vowed to rectify that situation, and by repurposing one of the petite Roubos I did.

Several months later, as other projects were winding down in the studio, I was able to find the hours to transform one of the Handworks knock-down display Roubos into a workbench worthy of daily use by my friends at LC.

The initial steps were straightforward, as I simply reassembled the basic bench as I drove home the legs in their twin sockets with a sledge.  They were so snug I did not bother with glue, I simply pinned them in place with 4″ screws and wedged any spaces.   This construct was so stout that it would hold up to vigorous use even without integral stretchers.

The top surface needed only a few minutes of flattening, first with a #5 set up as a fore plane, followed by a freshly sharpened #7, and concluding with cross-hatching with a toothing plane.  The stretchers and shelf were equally simple, just screwed in place.

In the end the “transformation” might be better expressed as “tartification” that came in the guise of a modified vintage leg vise I had in my inventory.  Given the mundane nature of the original, probably a late-19th Century unit I picked up who knows where, I felt some enhancing was in order.  The barrel head of the original was entirely uninspiring, simply inappropriate for the new setting and the artifacts it was to be part of.

I gave it some new life in its contour, and inset a large mother-of-pearl button at its center.  Just because I could.

Not to abandon the foot of the movable jaw, I spent a few minutes with a saw and a file to give it a bit of pizzazz also.

My final flourishes were a double planing stop attached to the end of the top and some sharkskin pads for the top  of the vise.

The true beauty of the bench was that with the addition of the risers underneath the legs it was suited for every person in the Rare Book Conservation group, and the petite size was absolutely perfect for the very limited space they had for it. It was the example of something turning out perfectly almost accidentally.

The second of the petite Roubos remains in the classroom of the Barn, awaiting re-fitting for my nephew’s wife who want to learn woodworking and will need a bench in their Philly apartment.