The Workbench

The Workbench

“After a while you can get used to anything.” Albert Camus, The Stranger

I’m thinking of rickety workbenches, not being incarcerated in an Algerian prison for murder, but you take the point: I have a high tolerance for ropey workbenches.
But I’ve finally been jolted into building a better bench. I’d like to extend the Camus analogy by making a parallel between my passive acceptance of the wobblyness of my bench and Meursault’s sleep-walk towards his own execution but that would require me to draw a link between him waking from his ennui by shouting at a priest delivering his last rights and my own renaissance. My shame was far more twenty-first century: flamed on YouTube for a shaky bench. Twice. It’s amazing what people can get cross about.
So before I launch into this timber framing project let’s take a look at what led up to it. It started here:

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Dad likes Workmates so much that he owns two. And modifies them. He had a blue one when we were kids. I wonder what happened to it. We did a lot of work on that bench.

Picnic bench

This isn’t the one we used. It didn’t survive the abuse.

Despite the Workmate a lot of my early woodworking was done on a picnic table. They make surprisingly good workbenches. The seats are at the perfect height for breaking down stock with a hand saw and the table-top has gaps between every slat. On some tables these are big enough for clamp. If you’re careful you can line the gaps up with the circular saw kerf. If you’re not you learn how to repair picnic tables.

Short of a decent vice what’s not to like? Some are a bit wobbly and perhaps that’s where my existential malaise started.
At school, like every child of my generation, I used the standard British joiners’ bench. One vice, a tool well and a brush. Sweeping up was as much a part of woodwork classes as learning to saw straight. It was here that I learnt to love tool wells. And sweeping.

Sawhorse workbench

Camus notwithstanding I never got used to the Japanese saw (it doesn’t help that it doesn’t match the bench hook) and my tolerance for these two terrible squares didn’t last longer than this project.

As an adult with limited storage space I went back to the Workmate but as projects got bigger space remained tight and I built a sawhorse workbench: two strips of plywood bolted to sawhorses with insert nuts in the tops. This was surprisingly robust; it barely moved. I put this down to the number of legs. But it still didn’t have a vice or any decent workholding other than clamps. So I built a ‘lightweight’ folding bench. Originally it had a crochet and no vice. (There are proponents of viceless woodworking out there: people who encourage beginners to take up a craft with one hand tied behind their backs. I have bad words for them.) So after a few years I installed a massive Record 53 on the front of my lightweight bench. This led to the hole in the workshop floor and the floorboard repair I did last year.

 

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Matriphagy is not uncommon with workbenches.

During my last project I spent quite a bit of time thinking about how I used the bench and what I wanted to keep and change.

 

Staying

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Tool tray

I like my tools on the bench, not the floor. Wells and trays fill up with shavings, reduce the usable space on your bench and allow bad habits to form but I don’t care. I like them and I’m sticking with them.

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 Holdfasts and holes

All holes will be round, or more accurately, cylindrical. With astonishing timing Simon James decided to start making 1″ holdfasts at a sensible price when I bought the timber for the bench. I’ve been using the late Richard Tomes’ 3/4″ holdfasts for several years and if Simon James’ version are as good I’ll be delighted. They are absolutely massive and won’t need much of a tap to set them solidly.

 

Tail vice

I use a Veritas inset vice and bench dogs. It’s slow but excellent value and with a clever two position dog. I’m sure a batten and toothed stop work but one can grow used to luxury as well as privation and my next end vice will bigger and better.

Portable

More on this later.

Going

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Never been used

Apron

I only use one of the holes on the apron a lot and it will be in the leg of my next bench. The others are largely redundant. I used them more before I installed the vice.

 

 

 

 

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The old bench is starting to feel a bit emasculated

Lightweight

Colin Chapman said “Simplify, then add lightness.” But he was building things to move – quickly. Two inches of ash aren’t enough to stop a bench roaming around the workshop. The legs will be four times the cross sectional area and the top twice as thick.

Folding

I’ve been procrastinating about this for years. I wanted something very heavy but portable. Hard to achieve.

I do occasional demonstrations but most of my itinerant woodwork has been done at the boatyard. For several years I thought I’d build a massive French bench with wheels and floor locks. Then I realised that although I could get it out of the workshop, across the garden and through the kitchen it would never turn the corner in the hallway of our Victorian terrace (row house).
Then Will Myers published a terrific account of building his Moravian workbench. It’s been on my list for a while and I’ve finally got a gap between projects. It has everything I want: weight, portability, a tool tray and great workholding.
Will built his from white pine. I’m making my life more difficult (and expensive) by using oak. But it adds weight and weight is good.
I have an idea for a pair of wheels that fit on an axle that passes through a dog hole. This should make the four inch laminated top a bit more mobile.

I’ve glued up one set of legs. Eventually it will have two sets: high and low, carving and joinery. Don’t hold your breath; it’s a big project. But waiting is something you can get used to.

 

 

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Use the tool in your hand


My carving teacher used to admonish me to do as much work as I could with the tool in my hand. Carvers often have a lot of tools on their benches. Swapping between them uses time. Use the tool in your hand until you can do no more work with it, then change.

I’ve just cut 13 brackets for a chest. They each have two ends with five edges at each end. That’s 130 edges. I started by using a block plane (an old Record 018  in case you’re only here for the tools!) for the straight edges and a chisel, bevel down, for the curves. The block plane wasn’t gaining me anything. The straight edges are so short that keeping the plane flat and the cut even was as much effort as doing the whole thing with a chisel. So I did.

If you’re paring end grain chamfers here are some notes.

  • Pare along and up, never down.
  • Always pare towards an already chamfered edge. That’s what the first corner cut is for.
  • Bevel down on concave curves.
  • As always – a very sharp chisel makes this a lot easier.
Sticking it to them

Sticking it to them

I rarely get the opportunity to bring out the big guns.

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This piece of ash is destined to be brackets in a chest. I started by ripping it out of a a thick board that’s been kicking around the shop for a few years. I’ve been avoiding it because it’s hard and has some particularly obstreperous late growth rings.

After squaring it I stuck a rebate in one corner using a thin iron in a plough plane from two sides. Easier than taking away all of the wood. Then I brought out the number 18 round plane. Of my half set of hollows and rounds only the 2, 6 and 8 sizes see much work. The 18s get out less than once a year and their big brothers, the 22s, have an even easier life.

Pushing a moulding plane through hard ash is energetic work and I resharpened twice, as much to give myself a break as to make wrestling it down the board easier.