Workbench

Right Tool(s), Right Place(s)

My studio space in the barn is a work in progress.  It has been so since the first day I put a single, raggedy workbench in there several years ago even before all the walls were up, and the process will continue as long as I work there.

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I find that the fluid nature of shop organization is one of the threads binding craftsmen together, and a source of celebration when we gather together.  Fortunately for me, I do not have the urgent requirement for maximized cash flow velocity generation from my work space, since my primary source of income these days is in the crafting of words while sitting on my recliner.

And, since I have been limited in the scope of my activities recently I have been reflecting on, and to some degree changing, the spatial flow for the studio.  One of the advantages of this long lead time of several years of working there is to evolve a better sense of what the space should be to best serve my needs.  And now I am making those changes, albeit slowly as there is only so much you can do on one leg.

I’ve already written about the reconfiguration of one corner to more optimally serve as my bench for doing the “fussy” work I encounter frequently in the conservation and restoration of decorative artifacts, and increasingly the repair of vintage gun stocks.

Other issues have nagged me, and are now in the process of being resolved.  The first of these was my inadequate space in a single location for the residence of my hand planes. I liked the space I had chosen, directly over the planing beam, but I needed to consolidate all my inventory, which involved several steps.

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First, I started undertaking a serious evaluation of many of the planes marginal to my work, deciding what to keep and then tossing aside planes that took up space but were not part of my working regimen.  Down they came and out they will go.

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That cleared some space, but not enough.  So, I added more shelving without adding more shelves.  How?  By simply doubling the depth of the shelves in situ.  Why I did not do this from the git go remains a mystery.  Then I removed the silly brackets holding my Stanley/Bailey planes and hung them on the wall.

Presto!  The result is twice as many planes in the same visual space.

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The next move was the consolidation and moving of my Japanese tools from a nearly inaccessible place on the east wall to a cabinet in the remaining niche over the planing beam.  With saws on the outside and more saws, chisels, planes (and space for more on the inside) I am pleased with the result.  (You needn’t scold me that I have the planes upside down in storage — I do not care)

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Two final (?) issues to be resolved are the rat’s nest of a space halfway down the long north wall,  which had become nothing more than a pile of stuff, some good, some less so, but all in the wrong place.  This hodgepodge will be replaced in October when I build my Nicholson bench prototype for the rescheduled Refinisher’s Group bench-build (probably May 2016).  This can serve as another work bench and my sharpening station.

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And I keep asking myself: with such a wealth of windows, why do I keep covering them up with stuff?  Without a good answer other than, “Because you are an undisciplined slob,” I have begun to deliberately move many of the tools that were blocking the view to somewhere else, like alongside the overhead beams.  That one will take a fair bit of trial and error to bring to fruition.

But I am determined to travel much less in the coming year or more, and pouring my time and creative energies into the barn and homestead.  This will allow much in the way of improvements and I am anxious for them to unfold.

Recycling the Exhibit Parts

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When closing down the HO Studley exhibit, one of the things I had to do was remove all of the exhibit paraphernalia from the exhibit hall, including the exhibit case for the tool cabinet, but also the platforms for the workbenches.  This required me to rent a large cargo van to fit it all in for the drive back home.

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I haven’t figured out what to do with the exhibit case, but the platforms are already recycled into terrific assembly tables.  Inasmuch as they were exceedingly stout well-buily 4×8′ platforms with 12″ skirts, all from cabinet-grade tulip poplar faced 3/4″ plywood, they were easily transformed into these new accouterments in the barn.

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For each platform-now-table I took a single 8-foot 4×4 and cut in into four identical sections to serve as the legs.  At each corner I screwed a leg into the two converging aprons, then affixed big casters to the bottom of each leg, flipped it over, and viola, a new and lovely work table!

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I moved one into my main workshop to serve as a workstation for either conservation or assembly projects, and the other is currently  against the wall in the classroom.  But since they are both on wheels, it is 100% likely that they will simply be moved from place to place depending on the needs of the moment.

It sure made me glad I am no longer bound by the 220 s.f. footprint of my former shop in the basement of the Maryland house.

Coming Together — Studley’s Workbench Replica

Integral to the in-production book Virtuoso and the upcoming exhibit on the same topic, I am striving to make it more than just a tool peepshow.  You are gonna learn something even if you do not want to!

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Part of that learning experience will be the exposure to the remarkable Studley workbench and vises (above), including a display of similar contemporaneous vises that have been loaned for the exhibit.

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To carry the weight of these six vises (somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 pounds)  I built a fairly faithful replica workbench top, sitting on a base made for the exhibit but which will be swapped out for a cabinet base at some point.

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About the only semi-tricky part of the bench build was dropping the end vise dog slot with my 3-1/2 hp plunge router, the only power tool that makes me nervous.

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With multiple measurements and confirmations, I cut the channel from above and below, and the vise and its dog yoke dropped into place cleanly.

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Now I can put the router beast away until I need it again in several more years.

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To increase the didactic function I left the front edge of the replica bench unfinished so you can see the core construction.  As soon as the unit is back home the already-constructed front edge will be installed.  Another thing to occur after the exhibit will be to dispense with the glossy finish applied for the display (four coats of Tru-Oil, then buffed) through the vigorous use of a toothing plane to leave the surface I prefer.

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I don’t have any pictures of the finished bench with all the vises on it.  I mounted them when it was upside down, but could not budge it to flip it right side up until I had removed all the vises.  So, you will just have to wait on that visual for the exhibit itself.

Coming Together (the Studley Benchtop Replica)

Now that Virtuoso: The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley is actually in production, one weighty anvil has been lifted from my neck.  However, another anvil still sits there for another six weeks, that being the exhibit of the Studley collection.  From now until then I am all-Studley-exhibit-all-the-time as I continue work on the exhibit components and attend to the multitude of details that have to all fall in place perfectly.

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The replica workbench top continues apace.  I got the top smooth enough (more about that in a day or two) to seal it with my preferred benchtop finish of 1/2 tung oil with 1/2 mineral spirits, and about 2% japan drier.

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I like this finish as it soaks into the wood deeply and provides a nice robust seal to the wood.

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For the exhibit the top will be pretty smooth, but once it gets back home I will achieve my preferred top surface by cross-hatching it with a toothing plane, a technique I learned from my long-time friend and colleague, and Roubo project collaborator, Philippe Lafargue.  But for now it is nice and smooth.

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I fabricated the exhibit base for the top from three 1/2″ Baltic birch plywood boxes, fitted them to fastening battens, and temporarily assembled it in order to layout all six of the vises going on it for the exhibit.

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One of the beauties of this exhibit is that it may be the only time in their lives that patrons to a museum-quality exhibit will get the chance to touch and manipulate historic artifacts, namely the six vintage vises hanging from the new bench top.

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If you would like to experience the bench top in person, and oh by the way see the entire Studley Collection, there are still tickets available here.

 

The 80-Minute Nicholson Workbench

Like many in the woodworking universe, I am a benchaholic.  We revel in the design, construction and use of exquisitely elegant workbenches:  Roubo, Nicholson, torsion boxes, Moravian, Scandanavian, etc.  Sometimes I fear that our fascination with these remarkable tools can be off-putting to those who are just starting out in furniture making, or at least do not yet have such-and-such a bench.  I have spoken with folks who tell me something like, “Well, I would like to begin serious woodworking but I’ll have to wait until I get the time I need to build a (fill in the blank) bench.”

I’m probably guilty of promulgating this mythology to some degree, as I have waxed ecstatic about this or that response to workbench design, building, or using.  If I have done so and you have found it a hurdle to your work, I apologize sincerely.

Two recent developments for me have been a brisk wake-up call.  First was watching Mike Siemsen’s brilliant video “The Naked Woodworker,” which is now part of the ensemble of references I steer all new woodworkers towards (along with “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” and James Krenov’s “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook”) and the companion  Siemsen youtube video on using the bench he builds in the video.  Folks, they are solid gold.  Mike is such a down-to-earth guy that his persona often inadvertently obscures his own giftedness at the workbench.

Second has been the recent revival of my own conservation projects, some of which are taking place in my old studio in my daughter’s house basement (which has been nothing short of total dishevelment for the past year).  Of course, when I transferred the contents of my workshop from there to the barn, I left myself with only the barest of bones regarding tools and supplies necessary for maintaining a house, not for building or restoring furniture.  Among the voids in the space was the hole left by the workbench that is no longer there.  Increasingly I found myself frustrated by not having any real workbench to use.

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With Mike’s inspiration fueling me, I took a new look at my workspace and the assets there.  No, I did not have a workbench, but I did have this crude work-table along the wall.  Built after supper one night several years ago, its only real function to this point was to hold stuff.  I had a Zyliss vise on it, and it served my needs for the tasks of house-work.

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Today these needs and Mike’s inspirations prompted me to retrofit this table, making it into a spare but fully-functional Nicholson bench.  The best part of the whole venture was that it took only about 80 minutes of work to accomplish the transformation, using a couple of boards from my stash in the lean-to shed.  Cleaning the bench off took nearly as long as the new construction.

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I first laid down the old table on it back and screwed a 10-inch wide apron on the front.  Ideally I would have used a 12-inch wide apron, but there wasn’t a 2×12 out in the shed.  So, with my battery drill and decking screws a new apron was in place.  The step of planing the top overhang to be even with the apron surface took the most time of the whole project, and was really an unneccessary step had I been building this from the start.  But I wasn’t, so I had to plane off 1/4″ of excess overhang.  I suppose I could have sawn it, but I just set up the fore plane to cut pretty aggressively and knocked it out.

I added a 2×8 backing board behind the apron to allow for use of holdfasts, which are the key to the use of a Nicholson-style bench.  I drilled a dozen holes for holdfasts on the front then flipped the bench onto its top.

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While upside-down I took some 2×10 scraps and screwed them to the underside of the 2x top, for the same purpose as the skirt backing board – it allowed the utilization of holdfasts.  Also while it was upside down I screwed new 2×4 skids under the legs to raise the bench height a little.  I prefer my workbench height to be taller than a lot of folks, to be even with the top of my wrist while my arm is hanging down, it’s just the way I work most comfortably.

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After turning the unit back into its upright stance, I drilled holes in the top for holdfasts.

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Then I got to work.  I still need to install a crochet on the apron and a planing stop through the top, but for now I need to get back to my projects.

Even if you count the time I spent construction the original table, at this point I have a simple and highly functional woodworking workbench for less than three hours (!) and a few pieces of wood from the shed.  Now I’m trying to figure out how to make the presence of this bench a “selling point” if this house ever goes on the market.

Replicating Studley’s Bench Top 1

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The time had come for me to render the truck load of lumber into the replica of Studley’s workbench top.  For the base I am  going to construct a (hopefully) mostly invisible stand for the exhibit, since I simply do not have the time to replicate the base that is part of the bench currently.

The first things I noticed when preparing the stock were 1) the white oak from Iowa is some of the hardest material I have ever seen.  Even taking only 1/64″ cuts with my DeWalt planer, it was just about killing that machine.  It is almost a shame to bury such magnificent lumber inside the core of a laminate slab, but that’s what I get for replicating the unit as precisely as I can determine.  I should note that this construction is based on my many hours of examining the original; the owner would not let me cut up the original to confirm my premise.  2) by working character, density, and odor, I found the “African Mahogany” to be nearly identical to Spanish Cedar, and were it not for the interlocked ribbon grain I would have sworn that was what the lumber was.

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In assembling the slab I reverted to an old gluing technique from the pattern shop, where we often glued complex constructs together by clamping the pieces with nails or screws, then removing these fasteners when the glue had set.  Not having enough clamps of the correct size, and not wanting to build a press to accomplish the task, I did the same this time.  It didn’t really matter for the core or the underside of the slab, but gluing the top lamina was a bit more of a challenge as you will see in a coming post.

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Using my planing beam I first cleaned up the edges of the oak core boards and started to glue them together with yellow glue.  First I pre-drilled holes the size of the screw threads about six inches apart throughout the entire length of the boards, then screwed them together with deck screws and washers,  The efficacy of the tactic was apparent with the fairly even glue squeeze-out.

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I made sure to make the boards off-set to add even more strength to the completed structure.

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Once the two core lamina were assembled, the structure was exceedingly strong and heavy.  Almost immediately I began with the underside face of the slab.

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Repeating the same steps as before, after removing the screw-clamps I glued and screwed the African Mahogany boards in place, shooting the edges by hand first.  It was long past dark when I headed down the hill for supper, but the first three of the four 3/4 inch layers were in place.  Already it weighs a ton.

Sty tuned.

 

 

 

 

Folding Portable Workbench – Making the Torsion Box Grid

The core of the folding portable workbench functionality — light weight combined with high stiffness — calls for the “slab” to be in reality, a slab-like torsion box.  To combine these two seemingly irreconcilable features, I constructed the torsion box from 1/4″ baltic birch plywood faces and grid, with 1/2″ baltic birch plywood perimeter.

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Using a power saw and a clamped-on rip fence I cut the 1/4″ faces to size, then cut the 1/4″ grid web elements and the 1/2″ perimeter exactly the same width so they would establish a planar surface when assembled.  Once these strips were cut I clamped them together and planed them to be perfectly identical.  The ultimate strength of the bench depends on it.

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For the grid itself, I simply divided the spaces inside the torsion box into the units I desired, then cut sough of the grid web elements to that number.  For example, since the torsion box top is 20″ x 60″ I used a roughly 5″ increment for the grid, meaning that I needed three long web elements and 11 short elements.

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Laying out the grid to this number of units, I took the three long elements and clamped them together and marked out the spacing for the half-lap/slots that would allow for the perpendicular elements to cross over each other, then did the same thing for the eleven short elements.

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Since the “joinery” at the cross-point need not be joinery at all — the two elements simply need to fit past each other, as the true strength of the beam (torsion box bench top) is established only by the character of the glue line of the web element to the faces of the box — I used my recently acquired miter box and a 1/4″ chisel to quickly chop rough openings for the intersection.

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Up next – laying out the screw holes for the vise and assembling the grid.

 

Magnificent

Last Friday on my way to the annual banquet of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers at Colonial Williamsburg I took the opportunity of my foray into “civilization” (or is it “out of civilization?”) to make a number of stops purchasing materials and supplies for ongoing and upcoming projects.

Perhaps the most important of these stops was at Virginia Frame and Builders Supply in Fishersville, just a hundred yards or so from I-64. Virginia Frame is renowned for having large, long, and lovely lumber in stock. I bought some 24-foot long southern yellow pine 2x12s, mostly clear and some even select. Since my pickup has a 6-foot bed, the folks at Virginia Frame cut the 24-footers into 8-foot sections and we stacked and strapped them into the bed for the long ride to Williamsburg then back to the mountains.

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This September I will be hosting ten members of the on-line forum Professional Refinishers Group, a treasured mostly-virtual community to which I have belonged for many years, for a week of workbench building. The lumber from Virginia Frame will serve as the raw stock from which I will make a Roubo prototype and a Nicholson prototype, to work out all the bugs in the fabrication process. Once I do I will order the same lumber as necessary for all the workbenches being built in September.

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There was rain on my trip, so when I got back Saturday afternoon I spread out the boards to let them dry, then yesterday morning I stacked them to allow them to sit properly before I build the benches in February and March. I love working with southern yellow pine, and these boards are magnificent.

But first I have to make a replica of the Henry O. Studley workbench top for the upcoming exhibit.

The (Nearly?) Perfect Portable Workbench

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Recently my friend Bill wrote me to ask if I had any thoughts about portable workstations, as he was about to embark on a project requiring him to work in the gallery of a museum.

photo courtesy of Joshua Klein

photo courtesy of Joshua Klein

I was able to help him, and in fact together we built a new bench for him to serve his purposes. I enjoyed it so much I built myself yet another one and am documenting it in great detail here.

 

Note: Like the “Parquetry Tutorial” this entire series of blog posts will be edited and packaged for download as a complete PDF once I have finished it.  WordPress is being obstreperous about the spacing of this post, but it will be corrected in the PDF.

 

Working as a furniture conservator requires me to frequently work “on-site”, that is, I go to the furniture rather than bring it to my studio. There are many reasons for this; the legal liability of transporting very valuable objects, the cost of renting a truck and hiring someone to help out (I usually work alone), the ability to call it quits at the end of the workday, etc. Regardless of the reason, I often found myself working in unfamiliar, and usually unequipped, surroundings.
Thus, several times a year I would move lock, stock and workbench to a new location. Loading and carting big sawhorses, plywood sheets and cardboard boxes full of supplies to the new site is a truly odious activity. Over the years of scraped knuckles and bashed shins carrying sawhorses and plywood up or down three flights of tight, winding stairs, I vowed to find a better way of setting up a temporary work station. Obtaining the perfect portable workbench was my original goal, but by the time I finished it turned out to be just one of several aspects to my quest.
In the end, that process of finding a “better way” resulted in the design and fabrication of a new workbench to make the task of working in a portable studio more manageable and productive. Through several generations of prototypes over twenty years I have it now refined to the point where I am not sure what more there is to improve.
What did I want?

 

The only thing I was sure of was that my sawhorse and plywood routine had to go. But what arrangement was to take its place? My first step was to acquire a suitable workbench. Being a lazy fellow, my first actions were to look around at the market to see if any of the available “portable” workbenches were suitable. I discovered only two real options; a small version of the European-style butcher-block-top bench, or a Workmate. I looked at a couple of the former, and own one of the latter.

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I found the portable Eurobenches to be too small and unsteady for my use (and quite frankly, too “cheezy”). In addition, they still weighed-in at over 100 lbs., simply too heavy.

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I tried my Workmate on a couple of projects, but it wasn’t exactly what I really wanted because it was too top-heavy and the work surface was too small. My search for a manufactured bench to suit my needs wasn’t exhaustive, but nevertheless, in the end I decided to design and build my own portable workbench.

 

The process of attempting to procure a new portable workbench began with the question of exactly what I wanted out of the bench, regardless of its source. When I decided to make my own, I had only to review those requirements and build to fit them. But back to the original question; what were my specifications for the bench? The answer was simple; 1) the top had to be perfectly flat and at least 2’x4′ (any smaller and I might as well stick to my Workmate), 2) it had to have an integral large capacity vise sturdy enough to take a modest beating, 3) the bench had to be very light, compact, and easy to set up and take down because I didn’t want to have to assemble a kit each time I moved, and 4) it couldn’t cost a fortune in time or money to acquire. It was also important to remember that the bench wouldn’t have to stand up to immense weight or stress, since the pounding necessary during general joinery is rarely required in a conservation project. Any heavy work dictated by a particular treatment would still have to be done at home.

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The bench I ended up with was not an example of exquisite handworked joinery, but it did require precise machine woodworking .

In the next episode I will begin to walk you though the step-by-step process of making one for yourself.

My Main Roubo Bench (for now…)

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This was my first Roubo bench, built from leftover timbers that were part of the original barn in Illinois. It’s been several years since I built it, and I never really did get the top finished all proper. Now it is.  Using my scrub plane on opposite diagonals I got it pretty darned flat. At that point I slathered it with some of the Schwarz bench varnish of 1/3 polyurinate, 1/3 tung oil, and 1/3 turpentine. I did it at this point because two of the timbers turned out to be eastern white pine and were a bit soft compared to the southern yellow pine; I hoped the softer timbers would be firmed up by impregnating them with the varnish. They did, but only after a week or so, which was way longer than I was willing to wait.

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I followed the scrub plane on the varnished top with a toothing plane, on opposing diagonals again, checking to make sure everything remained flat. I prefer the tightly checkered surface of the toothed top as it grabs the work piece a little better than a smooth surface.

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In the years since fabrication the entire unit has twisted a tiny bit, so I have a thin shim underneath one of the legs to keep it from rocking.

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I have not installed a leg vise, even though I have a vintage one ready to use. I’m just trying to see how long I can keep on using the bench as is, with my workpiece-holding functions solely with holdfasts.

Above the bench I finally built racks to hold a multitude of tools, mostly files, and am hanging saws and the like off the joists with nails.

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No doubt this may soon be supplanted by the group of in-process benches in line awaiting my ministrations, including a 5″ solid maple top with white oak legs bench; my French Oak Roubo Project bench, which is slowly being uncovered by the ongoing archaeology within the barn; a pair of Roubo benches also made from salvaged barn timbers (although I am almost certain to hang an Emmert K1 off one of them); a mahogany slab and black walnut legs Roubo bench (I was originally going to use this for a Studley bench, but have now decided to build a Studley bench the way Studley built it instead), and finally the true Studley bench.

I’m thinking I may need to install some of my existing or future benches up on the fourth floor.  That’ll take a passel of stout guys even with a compound block-and-tackle.