Good morning folks!
There are two tools that tend to be the nucleus for any woodshop; the table saw for power tool woodworkers and the workbench for hand tool woodworkers.
The table saw can perform nearly every thing a woodworker needs from ripping and cross cutting to joinery and dimensioning. With the the right jigs the table saw could be the only tool and the maker can still build some amazing furniture.
A workbench is a necessity for holding material steady to for various operations. A heavy and flat workbench provides a space to flatten and dimension rough lumber, layout and cut detailed joinery, assemble the pieces of a project and with a cover, the bench can be a finishing surface.
Since receiving a whole shop full of tools, my SteelCity hybrid cabinet saw has been home base in the PlaneOleWoodShop. But as I progressed through my various projects I found that I enjoyed using hand tools to refine joinery, smooth faces, etc. But without a sturdy bench I often had to rely on my table saw to hold the work piece. It wasn’t a terrible solution but my situation certainly had its limitations.
As with every project, I needed to do my research. There are many different style of workbenches such as
even a piece of plywood over saw horses.
There aren’t many plans out for these types of benches for free though. Paul Sellers has a series in which he builds a Nicholson style bench with a tool well. He does it all by hand spends time going into great detail on how to build and why to build his bench. Marc Spagnuolo has a Guild where he produces various projects for a fee. One of his builds was the Roubo workbench with BenchCrafted hardware. The cost for the guild was $100 which is a pretty good deal considering the plans and amount of total tutorial time but with the cost of the wood and hardware it would total over $1000 which was way out of my price range.
After a lot of deliberation I decided to build a Roubo style bench due to its weight, simple joinery, and overall style. But I would have to find a way to build it without specific plans. I watched Shannon Rogers’ and Jay Bates’ series on Roubo benches and both seemed relatively simple but requires some time to get it done.
I would also need to decide on what to build the bench out of; construction lumber or hardwood. Many of these benches are made from soft maple, ash, or some other really hard wood. Construction lumber offers an extremely cheap and available material that is easy to work with. The draw backs of course are that the wood is very soft, the wrong snarly look can put a dent in the wood. The 2×6 boards also contain the pith(center) of the tree meaning the board it liked up cup away from the pith giving me another hurdle when dimensioning. The last negative would be the weight; after drying construction pine is pretty light meaning the trait of the Roubo of heft went come into effect. Hardwood offers heft, hardness and of course beauty. The only problem is the cost, at $4.00 a board foot and the bench being over 120 board feet, $500 just for the wood plus shipping was way out of the budget. Construction lumber it was! So it was off to the home center to fill up on lumber.
I bought 24 2×6’s. I tried to get boards as straight and flat as possible. It helps if the pith is either small or off set from the middle. One option also would have been to buy 2×10 lumber and cut out the pith and be left with quarter sawn grain (most stable) but it wasn’t very economical. I also tried to keep the edges knot free but made a few concessions for straight lumber.
The first thing to do was flatten and dimension the lumber. So I took all of the boards to the jointer and flattened one face. I wasn’t worried about getting them perfectly flat on the jointer, especially since the 8ft boards would probably still have some bow in them even after jointing. As long as I could close the bow with hand pressure in the glue up then it should be a problem. I also didn’t worry about jointing the edges seeing as I knew there was going to be a significant amount of flattening to do any way. As you can see, my dust collector filled up 3 of these bags just from the jointer and planer. During this step I wasn’t worried about get the boards to an exact uniform thickness. I figured the thicker the better so if the board was thick after two passes then why take off more material? The only exception came with the leg boards and the outer “apron” pieces which will be brought up later.
After flattening the boards I needed to get the lamination process going ASAP to keep any wood movement to a minimum. There are a lot of obstacles to consider when doing a large glue up like this top.
- Open time for glue: certain glues only have 5-7 minutes of time before it begins to cure, hardening into the wood fibers. In Arizona heat, Titebond II has an open time of about 3 minutes which is about the time it takes just to get the glue on the board. This meant I had to do all of the glue ups at night.
- Attention to knots and grain direction: I took time to find boards with limited knots on the edges for a reason. Knots are hard to plan, hard to chisel and chip out leaving large holes. Knots are great for strength but only in the middle of the board not the edge. I also needed to be sure that all the grain went in the same direction since I would be flattening with a hand plane which relies on the grain going the same way.
- Clamps, clamps, and more clamps: Although I am blessed to have 6 24in and 2 48in Bessey parallel clamps along with a plethora of pipe clamps and f-style clamps, I still did not have enough clamps with the right size to complete the entire lamination in one try.
In sets of three, I began gluing together the flattened boards and applying as much clamping pressure along the entire length as I could with my clamp set. I did not worry much about the edges lining up but also didn’t go out of my way to allow them to be offset. I slathered the glue onto one side (remember the heat didn’t allow the time to cover both faces) and brushed it as even as I could with those cheap acid brushes you can get from any home center. After letting the glue cure over night and the next day to ensure the best lamination. The next night I took the slab out of the clamps and proceeded to glue up the next set of three board. Once the glue up was clamped I began working on the first slab.
I needed each slab to be flat and square on 4 sides (S4S) and I wanted to try to use as many hand tools as possible from this point forward since time wasn’t against me due to my glue sessions. There was a significant amount of glue squeeze out (good sign of a solid glue up) to take care of before taking a plane to the wood; I took a knock around chisel and quickly swiped away the glue with the bevel down to help keep the blade from travelling down into the wood. Then I grabbed my #4 smoother which I retro-fitted to be a scrub plane. The plane was a Buck Brothers with a good amount of pitting on both the sole and the blade so smoothing would not be it’s occupation. I cambered the blade and went to work on the slab. After about 10-15 swipes the slab was pretty much flat; there were some dips here and there and it certainly wasn’t smooth but it was serviceable for the power planer. When I finished hand planing the slabs on two sides I used the power planer to finalize the dimensions. A negative of the power planer comes when the material is 3 times wider than it is thick, which means that to flatten and square a board you must use the jointer. That isn’t a problem until you have my large 4 by 5 by 96 slab which is heavy and difficult to keep square to the jointer fence for the entire length. But since the width was just 1 inch more than its thickness, I could flatten and square two adjacent sides and run the slab through the planer on both sides to result in and S4S slab.
The last four boards on each end also housed the mortises to attach the legs. The legs would have twin tenons; one being a more traditional rectangular tenon and the other being a rising dovetail. These tenons are meant to give the bench strength, rigidity, and some style of course. I was pointed towards a video by David Barron where he explains his method for creating the mortise and tenon joinery without cutting an actual mortise.
I knew the width of the leg slab and matched the rectangular mortise’s width by placing the leg slab on the bottom board and butting the two horizontal pieces against the leg. This ensured the mortise would be the perfect size, tight enough to hold the piece against gravity but can still get it out with some persuasion. The dovetail was a bit more precarious; I cut the miters with my chop saw then made sure the bottom of the dovetails matched the length of the mortise. In hindsight I should have made and cut the leg tails first then match the apron to it. Since each mortise was sized to a specific leg, I made sure to label each mortise and leg to match; otherwise there was no guarantee the joinery would be 100% tight.
At this point I knew that to proceed, I needed to have the leg tenons cut. When building the legs I took an eight foot flatten board that matched the thickness of the four apron pieces and cut it into three different pieces; two at the same length (about 3 inches more than the total length from the top of the table to the floor) and the other 5 1/5 inches shorter. The shorter board was sandwiched between the longer boards creating the twin tenon without having to cut out the middle. The leg slabs were left at rough length until I decided my desired height. Cutting the dovetail was another challenge; it was the point where I knew hand tools would have to play a big role in the building of my hand tool bench. I couldn’t figure a way to cut the tails with power tools other than the band saw. But given the length and heft of the slab, holding it up and the locking the table at 45 degrees would have been an unpredictable and unsafe situation. So instead I took my Husky timber crosscut saw and layout tools and cut right down the grain. The “cheeks” were rough, but they didn’t need to be perfect; I used a rasp to level out a few cheeks that had a bow out of the tail.
With the leg tenons cut and shaped correctly, I wanted to try a dry fit. 3 of the 4 legs fit snugly meaning that I could get it down half way or more without any pressure. The last leg could barely get 1 inch into the mortise. To find out where tenons were getting caught I listened to the pitch when setting the leg into the mortise. Deep tones meant the tenon was setting just fine whereas a high tones meant the tenon was sticking in the mortise due to tightness. So I would hit the leg at various places and listened, when the sound was high I took the leg out and shaved it down using my rasp. I used a rasp because it was the only tool that would fit in the twin tenon. Normally a shoulder plane would be used to clean and cut into cheek, but the cheek was in between the two tenons. It took a few days of setting, listening, rasping, then rinse and repeat. The key again was keeping the mortise and tenons labeled; each tenon was fit specifically for it’s mortise.
With the tenons and mortises fitted, I could start the final lamination process. I had two mortises slabs and 4 other top slabs; I split the lamination in half by gluing a mortise slab with two top slabs. I went through the same glue up process by slathering the glue on one face but do my best to line up the edges to limit the amount of flattening. I let the slab cook over night and the following day took the clamps off, swiped the glue lines with a chisel and took my scrub plane to it to knock down offending high spots.
The final lamination was actually the easiest of them all; just two large slabs with one glue joint. The only issue was the weight and trying to move it around afterwards.
There is often criticism towards bloggers who deliver bench tutorials about how to build a bench without having a bench. Often the blogger will use a bench or assembly table to hold the work. While I did not have a bench during this build, I used my table saw for all of the assembly up to this point. Obviously I didn’t want glue to drip onto the steel table top which explains the several layers of cardboard boxes.
One way to combat any joints that do not fit snug enough, I decided to run two 3/4in oak dowels through each set of twin tenons. The oak dowels add rigidity and strength to the joints. This was another opportunity to use a hand tool where I would normally use a power tool to get the job done quickly. A brace and bit was the perfect tool to bore these holes but I had never used one nor did I own one. There were several options to purchase through the internet for used hand tools; one that comes to mind is hyperkitten. These options weren’t impossible for me but the price was still a bit out of reach including shipping and the worry about the tools functionality. The next best option for me would be local swap meets means a short trip around town and to the small town a few miles away. At one of the meets I found a serviceable brace and a few rusty auger bits.
Finally the bench top and legs were just about ready but I hadn’t even started on the the leg supports. Just like the legs, the supports joinery were built into their lamination. Each support was built from two boards; one board was longer than the other to integrate the half-lap joinery. Half-laps are strong joints that are very easy to cut but not as strong as a mortise and tenon due to only having half the amount of glue surface. The leg supports will not be taking the brunt of the force so half-laps should work just fine. Once the supports were done cooking in the glue I planed down the edges square to their faces and did any skip planning.
To cut the sister half-laps on the legs, I decided to use the table saw with a dado stack; the half-laps just seemed like grunt work that would be much faster with a power tool. As you can see from the photos, I had some issues with the dimensions of the half-lap width and went over on two legs. I was able to fix my mistakes by simply sizing a few little boards to fit into the gaps. Some glue, a little persuasion and some trimming, the gaps were filling and if I hadn’t told you, you probably wouldn’t have noticed.
The glue up wasn’t an issue here since I was only focused on the shoulder staying tight to the leg. Everything else could be pulled in with clamping pressure. I decided to glue up the base first two supports at a time to help with keeping it all square. As you could see from the photo, the support tenons extend proud of the legs by a few inches. Once the glue up was allowed to cure I took my hand saw and cut the tenons close to the leg than flushed the tenon with my scrub plane. Planing the end grain wasn’t easy and it was a bit obnoxious to find a good angle to prevent tear out. But since I kept the tenons long I was able to trim them to the exact size and didn’t allow myself the opportunity to make them too short.
I then turned my focus onto getting the bench top to seat on the legs properly. The easiest way I knew how to do this was turn everything right side up and use the tops weight and gravity to my favor. I placed the bench top onto the legs and slammed it down until the top was seated snugly against the tenon shoulders. Once the top was fully seated, I glued and sunk in a few wedges along with placing in the dowels. Just as the support tenons, I left the leg tenons long so I could trim them to a perfect fit. The bench was finally coming together and began looking like a bench instead of a bundle of disjointed pieces of wood.
The last bit of trimming up would be the table top ends. You probably noticed that I paid little to no attention to lining up the ends during lamination. Eliminating that variable allowed me to focus on keeping the edges flat, ensuring the tenon fits, etc. I didn’t have an exact bench length in mind but I did want to keep it as along as I could to at least 6-7 feet. To trim the bench top down I had a few options: power circular saw or hand saw. A power circular saw would seem to be the quicker option, but since the top was over 4in thick, I would have to make a cut across the top, flip the bench over and cut along the other side. If you have flipped this 400lb bench over, you will learn that you will do anything you can to avoid having to do it again. My cheap $14 Husky hand saw did a wonderful job of keeping a straight and square cut. What I have learned is that it isn’t always the tool but how you use the tool. In this case I used a straight edge and a layout knife to cut in a kerf line. A kerf line is when you use a knife to cut the initial fibers along a straight line. You then take a chisel (bevel down) to the waste side of the knife line which creates a shallow valley. You continue this process 2-3 times until you have a shallow but square shoulder which you can rest the saw against. A kerf line doesn’t guarantee a perfect cut, but it gives the best opportunity to keep the saw straight. And if the saw wonders to the waste side, the kerf line gives you a reference to plane down towards.
The nucleus in the PlaneOleWoodShop used to be a wonderful SteelCity hybrid table saw. After 4 months, countless late nights, approximately 1000 splinters (give or take a few), around $225 total cost for lumber/glue/dowels and many many shouted explicitives the home base for the PlaneOleWoodShop is now my Roubo workbench. It has the weight hand tools require, the strength needed for heavy chiseling, the desired style and a blank canvass for various bench accessories. When I finished cutting down and squaring the sides I decided to be done with the bench for a while a spend some much needed time with my family. More updates on the bench will be coming soon, but for now I am happy to have a place to call home in the PlaneOleWoodShop.
Thank you following along with the build. Stay tuned for more projects from the PlaneOleWoodShop. If you have any questions or advice for myself or other viewers please feel free to leave a comment below.