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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Clamp front chest 5: finishing

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Like many woodworkers, I suspect, I stick to what I know when the time comes to coat the project I’ve sweated, sworn and bled over, with finish. In my case it’s usually three coats of Osmo and one coat of homemade carnauba wax for furniture. Boats get as many coats of Sadolin Ultra as I my patience allows on the bright work.

2018, however, will be the year in which I spread my finishing wings (and get them covered in noxious chemicals which bring me back to Earth). I have a French polishing course booked and am trying something on this chest that is deeply out of character.

Usually I’m with Tony Konovaloff where changing the colour of wood is concerned, “If you want a different colour, choose a different wood.” And I’m certainly not about to start staining beautiful English oak. However I really want to keep this piece light. There seems to be a fashion for adding ‘patina’ to new wood. Black wax is rubbed into the grain to imitate age. Patina is another word for dirt. I grew up in schools with acres of oak panelling and much of it was so darkened by smoke and the paw prints of small boys that it was rather oppressive. My reaction to this is to keep oak as light as possible.

To this end I’m (brace yourself) liming this chest.

Our front hall is not a particularly light place and we want this shoe box to brighten it, not lurk in the corner slowly ‘patinating’. So rather than let the grain fill up with dirt I’m going to charge it with lime wax.

Lime wax has a bad reputation. Beloved of shabby chicists it usually gets smeared onto antique furniture that was hoping for a quiet retirement and instead had to be ‘reinvented’ by someone who finishes every sentence with a question mark. I want a rather more subtle effect than shabby chicistas usually go for. To this end I’m prefinishing all the pieces in an effort to control the intensity of the colour and keep the big blobs of wax that get stuck in the corners off my chest.

Shabby chicartistes recommend ‘opening the grain’ with a brass brush so that it accepts more liming wax. Instead I sanded to 240. Then I smeared on the wax, across the grain, rubbed it in and off and then took some 0000 steel wool to it. I would usually use a grey pad for this but I’m running low and accidentally bought a lifetime’s supply of steel wool several years ago. (Caveat:  never use steel wool directly on unsealed oak. Just don’t.)

The steel wool removes most of the liming wax. You can control it quite carefully. Then I applied carnauba wax. This uses D Limonene as a solvent and that also removes some of the liming wax. If the area you’re working on has a bit too much white in the grain you can knock it back a little by applying and rubbing off more carnauba wax.

One last polish brings up a shine and the job’s done.

 

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‘The possibilities are endless’ stage. Just shellac, rubbed out.

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The ’Oh my God, what have I done?’ stage. Applying the liming wax.

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The ‘I’m a terrible person. This oak tree gave its life for my project and I’ve defiled its memory.’ stage. Rubbing in and off the liming wax.

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The ‘Perhaps this is salvageable.’ stage. Rubbing off the liming wax with steel wool.

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The ‘Actually I rather like this’ stage. Rubbing in carnauba wax.

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The ‘I wonder if anyone will notice the hours of work I put into this’ stage. Buffing the carnauba wax.

Clamp front chest 4: dry fit

Clamp front chest dry fitProgress over the last few months has been slow and sporadic. Today I reached a milestone: the first dry fit. It wasn’t intentional; I don’t like joinery to suffer more abuse than absolutely necessary but I needed to put it together to transfer some lines to between the front, back and the ends.

This is a bit of joinery I’ve been worrying about and looking forward to in equal measure. I drew it out, at one quarter scale, before I started so I knew it should work. But those are famous last words.  The style/leg joins the front and back to the sides. A simple groove in the long grain of the bottom panels on the faces and ends  is easy to cut with a plough plane. But this groove must be carried through the leg. There are two mortices and tenons to navigate as well so it was always going to be interesting.

Fortunately it was less than exciting. Having ploughed the grooves in the front and back panels I put the styles on and marked the housing. Once I chopped them I assembled the whole shooting match in order to make sure everything lined up and to mark the grooves for the end pieces.

This gave the first glimpse of what it will look like. Of course I couldn’t resist the temptation to carry it across the back garden (hardly an epic journey) through the house (again – not a great marathon) and put in the front hall – just to see how it looks.

But that photograph will wait for another day.

Clamp front chest 3: movement

I was really hoping to get to some joinery done this weekend. But the best laid plans…

This design is definitely utilitarian but it won’t tolerate this much movement. So I’ve planed the offending pieces back into line and will give them another week to think about what they’ve done and decide whether they really want to be a part of this project…

Clamp Front Chest 1: A bit of background

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C14th Oak Clamp Front Chest. Image courtesy of Marhamchurch Antiques

It’s time to rediscover the clamp-front chest

Lurking in the furniture record somewhere between the six-board and its heir, the frame and panel, lies the clamp-front chest or hutch. Without the cross-grain problems of its older relative or the need for thicker timber, like its younger sibling, the clamp-front chest offers some opportunities for the modern woodworker.

Six board chests are either constrained by the width of the boards available or require panels glued up from narrower boards. With its grooved and pegged joinery the clamp front chest requires little or no glue, can be scaled up or down with very few problems and needs only a small tool kit with no clamps to complete.

Described by one antiques dealer as a form of ‘proto-joinery’ they are relatively simple to build. Clamp-front chests or arks, as the curved lid variants are sometimes known, appeared in the late medieval or early middle ages. Several period pieces survive today in museums, antique dealerships and private collections; their longevity is a testament to their design. Many surviving examples are from churches and country estates across Europe. Some measure up to six feet wide and use timbers two inches thick but much smaller chests, under 30 inches also survive.

The majority of existing examples date from between the 13th and 17th centuries. Six plank chests from the same period are at least as common but with one key difference. Many of the surviving chests are heavily bound with iron straps. Few such chests exist that were only nailed or pegged together without the metal reinforcement. Yet a surprising number of clamp fronts, that use only pegs or nails as fasteners, are still going strong. This highlights the advantages the design has. Six board chests suffer from cross grain movement. The grain on the end boards runs vertically but the sides, with their grain orientated at 90 degrees, move with the seasons causing splits and loosening fastenings. Often the solution was heavy, iron corner straps. Few large chests have survived without this crutch. Hutches from the period sometimes exhibit splits along their front or back boards but these are rarely terminal and some careful planning with slotted peg holes, as might be done on a clamped (or bread board) table top, will prevent them.

The frame and panel chest superseded the clamp front but it may now be time to revisit this design. It makes conservative use of timber. The rails are often the same thickness as front and back panels which can be made from several boards and need nothing more than a tongue and groove or even a shiplapped edge. The joinery is as simple as it gets. Front and back panels are given a tongue on each end, grooves are cut into the rails and each assembly is pegged together. Different solutions have been tried to keep the front and back together and the ends on. Without the material for pegs other techniques have been used: mortice and tenon stiles, dovetails on either end of a stretcher and occasionally a metal strap.

Clamp front chest drawingThe chest I’m building is designed as a boot box for the front hall but it can be scaled up very easily. The construction would work well for a tool chest or blanket box. With creative use of different thicknesses of timber in the panels you can create runners for tills or shelves as we’ll see later. I wouldn’t use timber less than ¾” thick for the uprights . You’ll be ploughing grooves, pegging through and cutting tenons in it and you’ll need the thickness but 5/8″ will be fine for the panels.

I started with the internal dimensions needed to store six pairs of shoes or boots without creating an obstacle course in our narrow front hall. Change any of the dimensions to suit your own project but think carefully about the width of the four corner posts. These must be wide enough to accommodate the groove that takes the front and back boards and have enough left to accept the wedged mortice and tenons for the side boards. Anything less than three inches will give you some concerns.

The end boards are set in from the outside of the posts so you’ll lose a little internal space. Bear this in mind if your internal dimensions are critical.

The drawing developed from the size of chest needed and the timber I had on hand. I use air dried oak a lot. These boards had been sitting in the timber yard for a couple of years before I bought them and then in my workshop for at least a year after that. I started by choosing the prettiest bits of timber for the lid, then the front, posts, ends and back in that order. The bottom can be built out of old pallets – don’t waste your best stock on the bit no one will see. In my case it will be a rather over-complicated grate to allow air circulation to sweaty shoes and to make cleaning a bit easier.

Next time we’ll have a look at the design and joinery in a bit more detail and then start planing some oak.

A few examples of clamp-front chests

Hutch chests in Kloster Isenhagen

15th Century Oak Chest Sold by Period Oak Antiques

Early medieval chest sold by Marhamchurch Antiques

14th Century Oak Chest sold by Marhamchurch Antiques

13th Century Safe Deposit Chest at Merton College, Oxford

Medieval woodworking part 4: plank chest 2

Medieval woodworking part 4: plank chest 2

My nearest and dearest tell me that I have a lot of tools (they’re too polite to say “too many”). Each one, I say in my defence, has a purpose. No two are identical.

However there’s no doubt that there is some redundancy in the ranks. ‘Efficiency savings’ could be made. Some are more flexible than others. Chisels, for example can do a host of different tasks but require more skill to do some of those tasks well. Other tools perform only one task but they’re easier to use. Let’s take cutting a housing (dado if you’re American) as an example:

  1. Knife two parallel lines, chisel a wall to guide a saw, saw to depth, chisel out the waste (using a mallet), use a router plane to level the bottom. Six tools, one of which probably didn’t exist in medieval times.
  2. Clamp or nail a batten across the board. Use a dedicated dado plane to depth. Only two tools (if you don’t count the batten) but the clamps and dado plane are relatively recent inventions. The dado plane is about as dedicated a tool as you’ll find. It just cuts housings. At a specific width. Not adjustable.
  3. Clamp or nail a batten across the board. Spend half an hour setting up an electric router. Spend ten minutes finding and putting on protective clothing (mask, goggles, ear defenders, chainsaw trousers). Spend 30 seconds in abject, gibbering terror cutting the housing. Have a cup of weak tea while you recover.
  4. Get good with a chisel. ‘Knife’ the lines with the chisel, chop out the waste with the chisel. Level the bottom with the chisel.

IMG_3081I had two housings to cut. If this were not a masochistic act of reenactment and I were using a milder wood than oak I would have taken option 2. In the spirit of the thing I tried to only use tools I have evidence for having existed at the time. Option 4 it is.

Oddly I didn’t take a photograph of the result. It works but it’s not pretty.

Here’s the start of the second housing using option 1. I convinced myself that a plane, as they say, is just a chisel in a jig. Any idiot can find a video of Paul Sellers making a router plane with a block of wood, a chisel and a wedge on YouTube. What’s that you say? They didn’t have YouTube in the thirteenth century? Arrant pedantry.

With four rebates to cut I tried the chisel method again. This is easier than the housings. It’s a lot like cutting half blind dovetails but without the worry about nice crisp tails. I did even it up with a shoulder plane. And then used a moving fillister for the other three.

IMG_3101I marked the semi-circles for the feet with a pair of compasses. All period-correct so far. I’ve seen evidence of bow saws from the period but not a turning saw as such so I decided to see if I could form them with a saw, chisels and gouge. Kerfing went swiftly. Chiselling the waste out was quick as well. Fortunately I have a very large carving gouge at a fractionally quicker sweep than the chosen curve. Again – very straightforward.IMG_3116 I don’t think that a turning saw would have saved me a great deal of time and I’m much more confident with a gouge than a thin blade in 3/4″ of oak.

I did cheat a little bit and chamfered one curve with a spokeshave. The other I did with a chisel.

The only joinery left was to peg it all together. At this point I gained a lot of respect for the medieval joiner. The rebates on the ends of the front and back panels are there to help when assembling.

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Tight when made but worked a little looser by the time the chest was assembled.

Nevertheless unless the boards are dead flat and the rebates dead square putting this together without clamps would be next to impossible. I spent a lot of time with shoulder planes fettling every joint. A modern woodworker with good glues and a rack of clamps would pull a half millimetre gap closed and drive home a fastening, content in the knowledge that it wouldn’t show its seams before the customer got it home. The medieval craftsman had to get the joints perfect just to be able to drill the holes for the pegs. Some antique dealers use the word “primitive” to describe pre-industrial furniture with little ornamentation. One should earn the right to use that word about someone else’s work.

Sat astride my low workbench, the boards resting against pegs and being held by my knees I managed to drill a couple of holes. With a dowel at each end of the board holding it fast the others went in more easily. With a now-familiar sigh of relief I went back to my joiner’s bench and my clamps for the other three ends.

There’s surprisingly little joinery in a six board chest. With a jointer, thickness planer and a dado stack in a table saw (I wonder if the dado stack will be legalised in the U.K. Post-Bexit?) I imagine it would take less than an afternoon. For the pre-industrial craftsman with a frame saw, chisel, mallet and auger it’s a somewhat greater endeavour.

With the edges chamfered and the rougher grain scraped I put on some finish. The use of linseed oil was widespread in this period but its use on furniture is, as far as I know, undocumented. In the C12th Theophilus1 wrote in his treatise for artists that using linseed oil on wood is ‘tedious’. Boiling linseed oil to speed up polymerisation was known in the Middle Ages, as was adding lead to do the same thing, but Theophilus was apparently using it raw.

1. Theophilus (C12th) On divers arts Republished by Dover Art Instruction (2000)