Workbench

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.

Workbench Wednesday – #15 (2017) Pair of Petite Laminated Roubos

The genesis and endpoint of these benches could hardly be more disconnected. The starting point was the 2017 Handworks toolapalooza, where I was to be one of the exhibitors in the giant Festhalle.

My recollection from the preceding iteration of Handworks was that the in-house tables were fairly lightweight folding units more suited for a wedding dinner than as working benches for demonstrations. With that memory in mind, and recognizing my own need for a sturdy foundation for demonstrating polissoirs and wax polishing, I decided to build a dismantle-able workbench that would serve my needs. Two additional data points influenced the proceedings profoundly. The first was my arranging to ride to Iowa with a friend in his SUV, the exact brand and model are lost to me now. Once I got the interior dimensions from him I knew the size of the bench I could build so that it fit inside the vehicle. It was basically 60 inches long by 20 inches wide. Since the legs would be removable the height was negotiable.

Then I learned that I had a prized center aisle location so that my “booth” would be fronting two aisles of foot traffic. Suddenly I needed two workbenches for the space. Oh well, they were certain to be useful after the fact as smallish work stations back in the Barn.

I set about making this pair of petite benches following the procedures I had adapted and incorporated into my own practices having learned the concept from David Barron’s video about his bench. Mine were not so elegant but every bit as functional.

Stay tuned to see the endpoint of the project.

Workbench Wednesday – #13 (2015) 8-foot Nicholson

Thanks in great part to the exhortations of Mike Siemsen and his 2014 video The Naked Woodworker I decided to build myself a full-sized Nicholson bench in 2015.

As an aside, I found Mike’s video on work holding without vises or clamps to be a spectacular example of didactic media.

As has become my wont I used some excellent Southern Yellow Pine 2×12 stock for the bench.  After completing it I absolutely came to the conclusion that this is the simplest high-performance bench there is, and recommend it often to folks wanting to make a first workbench.  The basic chassis is simple enough and very quick to build, and there are a number of options and add-ons I have incorporated in later  versions.

The beauty of the Nicholson bench is that is so simple, and frankly easy, to build have the completed bench can be put to work in less than a single weekend, even taking time to worship.  Except for gluing the leg laminae together, the entire bench was build with decking screws.

Cutting up the lumber takes abut a good hour at most.

I start the actual assembly by gluing together the legs, using screws that were removed after the glue dried.

I cleaned up the edges of the legs with a #7, then screwed the outer aprons to the legs.  I immediately moved on to the inner aprons for the front and back, notching them for the cross battens of the top.  The strategy of using two laminae of aprons and more battens than probably necessary results in a lot of area that is amenable to using holdfasts throughout the bench, mitigating the need for vises and such on the basic bench, which was indeed was my goal for the project.

 

The overall assembly proceeded apace, requiring only a couple hours of dedicated time.  One of the things I did to streamline the process was to affix the aprons such that the protruded about 1/16″ above the leg tops so that they could be easily planed even and with nice clean edges, as is being done by my pal Tom here.  Actually, I recall spending more time chatting with ham than we did building the bench

 

A nice advantage to this procedure is that the top planks can be held to the aprons to plane the edges of the top, again resulting in a nice crisp edge.

The battens fit nicely into the already notched inner aprons, and I like to have way more battens than are strictly necessary.

After a couple weeks of settling into the atmosphere of the barn I flattened the top with the standard bench planes, then finished with a toothing plane.  In the end the bench was hoisted up to the fourth floor to be used alongside the laminated Roubo for video sessions.

The basic bench is a winner, and I recommend it as a starting point for new woodworking studios.  I like it so much I have built several more, both for myself and for friends.  I got my time down to about 6 hours for the basic Nicholson, with another dozen hours for tricking out.  Stay tuned.

Workbench Wednesday – Gravitating Towards FORP

Since setting up my studio in the barn more than a half dozen years ago I have concentrated my small objects d’art conservation projects and related fine work on a tiny Sjoberg workbench in the corner underneath the propane wall furnace.

Over the past year I have increasingly gravitated a variety of work to the massive French Oak Roubo Project workbench I began five years ago and finally got it assembled this year and placed on the opposite wall underneath some windows.

In the past couple of months I’ve found the little Sjoberg to be too constraining and am working almost exclusively with the FORP bench.  Yes, it was originally designed and built with heavy-duty furniture making in mind, but my comfort in using it this way is a revelation, and working in front north facing windows is spectacular.

Workbench Wednesday – #12 (2015) Putting the Studley Replica Top to Work

After returning home from the HO Studley exhibit and reassembling the pastiche workbench I changed my mind about completely rebuilding the base.  Though the base I built originally was for the exhibit only, to display the  construction of the top slab, I found that it was actually a pretty serviceable structure for the daily use of the top.  All it needed was a little more bracing for longitudinal triangulation and it could go to work as an every-day workhorse.

I added a stylistically-appropriate skirt and sure enough it was ready to go.  The large uninterrupted flat expanse of the slab made this a favorite for assemblies and related projects where the space was particularly helpful.  There was the hole left from mounting one of the piano-maker’s vices for the exhibit, but I could live with that.

Thanks to the generosity of DrDan I had a piano maker’s face vise already in-hand, and augmented with the Shelton vise the bench could be configured to my liking, more or less.  The wheel vise remained as installed in the exhibit picture, and the Shelton was used as the end vise.

The only down side was that the top was thicker than the Shelton could accommodate in terms of the retractable dog in the moving vise jaw.  At this point I had two options; excavate the underside of the bench slab or make and extended dog to project past the top surface.  I chose the latter.

 

I disassembled the dog and replaced it with a new one fabricated specifically to work with the slab thickness.  I made the new dog from rosewood.

 

Installed the vise works just fine, or as fine as a Shelton can.  The bench is placed in the geographical center of my shop and gets used on a daily basis, performing its duties skillfully.  That is, if an inanimate object can perform, skillfully or otherwise.

Workbench Wednesday – #12 (2015) Studley Replica Top Completion and Exhibit

With the laminated slab top assembled the task at hand was to get the Studley bench pastiche ready for the May 2015 exhibit. The purpose of this bench was to show the to the exhibit visitors the construction method Studley used for the top (the top was the only remaining structure remaining from the original work bench) and to hang several vises analogous to those of Studley’s.

I fabricated a pair of torsion-box end “legs,” joined to the underside by a pair of box cleats, and fitted together with a stretcher adequate to the task of it serving as the exhibit element.  I smoothed the top with planes and scrapers, and varnished it nicely for the exhibit; once back home that would be undone as it was a surface unsuited for real work.  With the edge trim affixed to two sides to better elucidate the structure, it was ready to hit the road.

It served its role well in Cedar Rapids.  Now it was time to get it back home and put it to work.

 

Workbench Wednesday – #12 (2015) Studley Replica (Top) Construction

The main point of this bench was to replicate Studley’s construction of the top for display at the 2015 exhibit of the HO Studley collection in Cedar Rapids, concurrent with the 2015 Handworks event in nearby Amana IA.  I had to guess at the details of the actual construction of the top since the owner of the Studley collection would not allow me to take a large core sample or cut a chunk out of the original workbench top.

 

Being limited to the observations I noted last week I charged ahead  The white oak I’d purchased from Jameel’s supplier was about the hardest stuff I have ever worked, it was rosewood hard.  After coaxing it through my lunchbox planer I assembled the two core  lamina using PVA glue and decking screws with washers.  Assembling laminate structures in this manner was a technique from four decades ago during my time in the foundry pattern shop where we glued and screwed or nailed everything together so we didn’t have to use clamps.  When it came time to sculpt the pattern for the molders on the foundry  floor we went back and removed all the metal fasteners first.

I repeated the procedure for the underside face of the bench.  C’mon, it was the underside.  Who cares if there were dozens of screw holes?  I know I certainly did not.

The show face consumed pretty much every clamp I owned in order to avoid the screw holes.  In the end I had a terrific flat and stable slab, just like Ol’ Henry did.  He was right about that, too.

Workbench Wednesday – #12 (2015) Studley Replica (Top)

On my first trip to visit the HO Studley tool cabinet I was quite expectantly anticipating the absolute headiness of the experience of being in the intimate presence of this iconic artifact.  The drive was a test of restraint as it was a long one and I had to reign in my excitement or I would be exhausted by the time I got there.  It was all I could do to avoid the temptation of non-stop daydreaming that would splatter me on an underpass, or calling literally every woodworker I knew to ask them, “Guess where I am going?”

When I arrived and met Mister Stewart, and he ushered me into the room containing the tool cabinet, I literally felt tingles.  Indeed, the tool cabinet and its contents were as amazing as I had psyched myself up for, hoping that I would not be disappointed.  I wasn’t.  But, much to my astonishment I realized that the workbench was every bit the masterpiece that the tool cabinet was.  I won’t blow smoke up your shop apron and tell you I spent as much time examining and photographing the bench as I did the tool cabinet, but it was a lot more than I was expecting.

I cannot really see myself using a tool repository like Studley’s for my everyday work, but I definitely could see me using the workbench all day, every day.  It was as you might expect from Studley, both ingenious and exquisite and all I kept thinking the day I drove from Studley to Cincinnati for WIA 2010 was, “I gotta make me one of these.”  Eventually I worked through Chris Schwarz to acquire a slab of mahogany 4″ thick by 28″ wide by seven feet long to make the top.

I got the slab home and nestled into the barn awaiting the decks to clear so I could begin.

Imagine my surprise when on a later return visit to continue documenting Studley more fully and I was able to study the underside of the bench, and more particularly the holes into which the alignment pins from the under-bench cabinet fit, I discovered that the bench top construction was not what I had expected.  Suddenly I had a giant mahogany slab available for another function; Studley’s bench was a laminated construction.

With Jameel Abraham I went to a lumber dealer he patronized and bought what I needed for the bench top.  It was select white oak for the core and mahogany for the faces.  Notwithstanding the “mahogany” was no such thing, at least I had materials to begin the replica bench to include in the exhibit.

Lest you lose any sleep worrying about the abandoned mahogany slab (it was true swietenia, not the phony pastiche that is often sold as “mahogany”), fear not.  I have plans for it in the not-to-distant future.

Stay tuned.

Workbench Wednesday — Bench #11 (2014), Portable Bench 2.0, Part 3

Back at home after GroopShop 2014 Bill continued to assemble, finish, and augment the folding portable workbench we had built as a demo for GroopShop.

After installing the folding diagonal leg braces he gave it a trial run and found it to be too light for his tastes.  Plenty sturdy enough but too light to work with comfortably.  So, he made a shelf to fit between the lower cross braces of the legs and serve as a storage space, clearing the space around the bench and adding mass to the overall unit.  The shelf was made using the exact same technology as the top.  Like the top it was amazingly light in relationship to its strength and utility.

One of the really cool features is that the shelf fits neatly in between the folded legs underneath the top.  As you can see he even has room for a second shelf if ever one is needed.

After painting the leg units black, it was going to be used in a museum gallery after all, he set it up and found it to fulfill his needs precisely.  I don’t think he ever found the need to install the vises, but the set-up for them remains in place and ready to go any time he needs it.

I believe he uses it regularly as a wonderful assembly table in his own shop, ready to be folded up and easily transported to a new on-site project where it is needed.

Sometimes improvement occurs as a flash of inspiration, sometimes through an incremental grind.  This bench concept was a bit of both, and the improvements I made in this version carried over into the next folding workbench model, which I believe is workbench #20 or 21 in the series.  I will be recounting the changes in great detail.

I do not have a workbench problem.  I have a lot of workbenches.  Big difference.

Workbench Wednesday — Bench #11 (2014), Portable Bench 2.0, Part 2

With everything cut and fitted for the top it was time to git ‘er done and put it all together.  Following the layout of the grid already traced on the the underside of the first face, a glue line was rapidly distributed along the delineated route.

As soon as that was done the grid was set in place, and the top of the grid was also doused with glue and the second face of the bench top was laid onto it.

By my rough estimate this provided almost 50 liner feet of 3-inch deep I-beam construction for the whole thing.  It was not going to fail until there was enough stress placed on it until the wood literally exploded.

Using the sophisticated engineering for which The Barn is famous, the top assembly was clamped and the glue allowed to dry.

While that was occurring the folding legs were assembled and attached.  Nothing special, certainly no elegant joinery.  Just good precise work.

At that point Groopstock 2014 was done and Bill took the unit home to finish up.

Stay tuned.