The Stickley table project was educational in a way I hadn’t expected. Although it taught me a lot about dovetails (expected), handling consistent angles (expecting), working with extremely hard, unpredictable wood (expected), it also taught me that my workbench is inadequate to the work I’m doing now (really unexpected).
My existing workbench is a set of commercial metal legs, bolted to a slab of MDF (medium-density fiberboard) three layers thick. It’s edged with oak, and has a loose, replaceable fiberboard top. It has a neat old front vise, and an adjustable end stop that actually got printed up in Woodcraft magazine (yes, they paid for the idea, which I really got a huge kick out of). It’s pretty heavy, strong enough to handle a lot of weight, and has served well for the last few years. I’ve replaced the fiberboard top a couple of times. I added a clamp-on bench jack to support longer work.
But I’ve outgrown it. It became really apparent during the Stickley table project, as I was cutting dovetails. The whole bench vibrates and wiggles when lateral stress (like sawing) is put on it. It doesn’t have enough holes for bench dogs. I like the front vise, but I really want a long front leg vise, a removable planing stop, and a sliding deadman. But mostly, I don’t want it to wiggle.
I recently read a terrific book: Workbenches, from Design and Theory to Construction and Use, by Christopher Schwarz. This is a terrific book – it approaches workbench design from the direction of the various kinds of work you’ll be doing, not just as a fixed construction. It principally discusses two different workbench styles: the English workbench and the French “Roubo” workbench. The English style is beautiful and incredibly tempting, but it would mean making a lot of changes in the way I work, and the way I’m used to clamping workpieces in particular. I’m afraid I’d be unhappy with it in the long run. And I only have room for one.
The second design is the 18th-century French-style Roubo workbench. It’s kind of a monster. Big, incredibly heavy, probably somewhat difficult and labor intensive to make, but I think it’s what I want to work on for the next few years.
It also means that I have to rethink a lot of my shop storage, because I’m not going to be able to roll cabinets under the bench (it has heavy lower stretchers). Last week, I built a couple of small new cabinets, from an idea in the May 2010 issue of Wood magazine. The cabinets are fitted to the lower shelf and bottom of the rolling tool stand for my planer. The cabinets in the article were nicely done rabbeted joinery, but mine are simple pocket-hole joinery, and are actually made of mismatched scrap plywood left over from other projects. A coat of Golden Oak danish oil evened the color out enough to make them bearable looking. Honestly, they hold wrenches and odd heavy tools… and I’d rather use my time making furniture than spend more time than is necessary to keep them from being an eyesore.
I’m also going to have to dismantle my combination downdraft sanding table and tool cart <sigh>. There just isn’t going to be room for it. The sanders will still go under the workbench in carriers, but the cart just has to go. I’ll make a smaller downdraft sanding box that can store somewhere later.
While I’m redoing the storage, I’ll go to the local Borg Cube (otherwise known as “Lowe’s”) and buy about 400 pounds of southern yellow pine, so the humidity can start equalizing in the shop. That’s going to take some time – probably about three or four weeks – and will allow me to complete some smaller projects in the meanwhile. I also still have a lot of design decisions to make – like whether or not it will have wheels and how they will work, whether it will have a front leg vise or a twin-screw vise, and so on. Stay tuned.