Ten months and one shoulder surgery later, it’s finished. I’ve used the bench several times over the past several days), it it only took a few minutes to know that I love working on it – the height, the workholding, the stability. I already know a couple of things I’ll be changing, but I’m extremely happy with the results.
The Planing Stop
The planing stop is a sliding, friction-fit square post above the face vise. I really, really wasn’t convinced about its utility, but Christoper Schwarz insisted that it’s fundamental to the design of the bench, and it didn’t take long to figure out that he was right.
It allows you to but a board against it and start planing, without any other (more complicated) workholding required. It adjusts up and down with hand pressure, no tools required. It’s position is ideal for planing long boards, and can be used as a brace for other workholding (more on that in the future).
Its simplicity was only exceeded by the almost ridiculous difficulty in getting it made. I mean, really… it’s just a square hole in the bench. It has to be fairly accurate, but it’s just a hole.
The problem I faced was with the wood. Southern yellow pine apparently has tremendous variability in the density of the rings. That means that the downwards pressure of the chisel is concentrated in a tiny area, which causes the edge to crumble. I’ve worked with several extremely dense woods, from ebony to mesquite, and I’ve never seen anything more damaging to share edges than cutting cross-grain in this resinous pine.
From Adam Cherubini’s “Arts and Mysteries” blog:
“Interestingly, the toughest wood on my chisels is pine. If you’ve followed my logic so far, you instantly know why. The hard/soft rings of pine, especially quartered pine (the use of which I advocate), poses a unique problem for an edge tool. Pressure is concentrated discreetly, instead of spread evenly across the cutting edge. And I believe that the hard parts in pine are pretty darned hard compared to other woods (like those previously mentioned), but I don’t know that for sure.”
I think this is a good assessment. Chopping the hole for the planing stop was difficult, and I had to stop and resharpen my larger chisels twice. But it’s such a joy to use that it was worth ten times the effort. Just butt a board against it and start planing.
The Sliding Deadman
This was the easy part.
The deadman was made from a glue up of some leftover pieces of mesquite, and cut to shape on the band saw. The instructions in Christopher Schwarz’s book had recommended cutting the lower notch for the deadman on the table saw, with the blade angled to produce the notch. However, I had the bandsaw pulled out and ready, and its resaw capacity is huge – so I just cut the notch on the bandsaw right before cutting it to shape.
Same for the tenon at the top that holds it in the track. A few minutes with a shoulder plane to trim the tenon, and to clean up the edges with a spokeshave. The holes were fast to mark and drill, and viola – it popped into place.
Drilling the dog holes was easy – and tedious. The best way I found was to start the holes with a forester bit, and then switch to a spade bit at about a third of the way through. That way the top of the holes was nice and even, and the longer (and more aggressive) spade bit made fairly short work of the rest. I only drilled out one line across the front, four in the back, and one above the plane stop. It matches the Roubo drawings I’ve seen, and I can always add more later if necessary.
To Crochet or Not
This was a touch decision, just because it looks so cool. Ultimately, the answer was not. The clearance between the end of the bench and the face vise is shorter than standard, because the overall length of the bench was reduced. The reviews of the traditional crochet I’ve read have been mixed as to whether or not it’s really much of an advantage. I could have added a (slightly shorter) one, but I have a plan to retrofit one later if I decide to (stay tuned).
Now, these were a wonderful idea… and proof that sometimes, the older ways of doing things have advantages. A holdfast is just a J-shaped piece of metal; tough enough to handle being banged on without breaking. All you do is put the long end through a dog hole, set the J-end on a workpiece, and bang the top with a mallet a couple of times. It jams in the hole (theoretically), and holds the workpiece down to the table. You need to put a thin piece of wood between the head of the holdfast and the workpiece, to avoid marring the work. To remove it, bang the back side of the holdfast (by the post) and it pops out.
Holdfasts come in several varieties – ranging from beautiful hand-forged work to cheap wrought-iron versions. This is one area where I did quite a bit of reading. Reviews for included very expensive (and lovely) hand-forged ones, to some that apparently broke the first time they were set. I settled on a middle ground = utilitarian, but well-made holdfasts from Gramercy Tools.
One thing you may read is that sometimes they don’t want to grip in wood that’s this thick (about 4 1/4″). The manufacturer’s recommendation is that you scratch them up across the stems with some coarse (80-100 grit) sandpaper. That really does help. Aside from that, I had no trouble getting them to hold in this thickness.
The Lower Shelf
Adding the lower shelf was easy, partly because I deliberately didn’t do anything fancy. It’s just sections of 2×4 with chamfered edges, butted against each other and cut to fit. They sit on ledgers inside the lower framework, and aren’t attached to the bench itself – they’re attached to two lateral runners underneath them. The entire shelf lifts out, and is only held in place by its own weight.
There’s method to my madness. I couldn’t decide whether or not to do solid shiplapped joints, or to do open slats to let dust fall through. This way, I can easily remove it and replace it later if I change my mind. As it is, it holds the tool carriers I made last year for sanders and air tools, and its weight adds even more to the stability of the bench.
And now… Proof again that a lot of the most famous woodworkers didn’t live in Texas. Including Tage Frid.
Professor Frid, author of the tremendous Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking, had an amazing amount of useful commentary about different joint types and their construction, and a wonderful no-nonsense Git-R-Done attitude towards woodworking. He also recommended a particular formula for finishing benches, which advances from raw linseed oil, boiled linseed oil, BLO and japan drier, and paste wax. It takes nine days, start to finish.
This all proves that Prof. Frid never set foot in Texas, or at least he wasn’t working with southern yellow pine in Texas in the summer of 2011.
All started out well, but the result at the end of day 5 was goo. It became a sticky, uncured mess that couldn’t be scrubbed off, much less sanded. I had to resort to a scraper. Fortunately, Howard Hale (a student of Prof. Frid who teaches at the local Dallas Woodcraft) set me straight: “If the oil is no longest being soaked up by the resinous wood, the you’re done. Wait two days for it to ‘bleed’ oil up from the surface, give it one coat of straight japan drier, and wax and polish it. And that’s all.”
As usual, Howard was right. I was done in three more days. The result? I can dump super glue on the surface, spray it with activator, and pop it off with an fingernail. Gotta love that. This was for the top only – the mesquite used for the vises and other parts got several coats of oil, but that’s all.
Final Notes, and Hindsight
Yes, I love working on this bench. It only took a few minutes of watching it not vibrate to figure that out. Also, I haven’t had to stop to think about the best way to hold something, or figure out where to put clamps. Workholding is fast, easy, and instinctive. But there are some things I know I’d do differently.
Choice of wood: Wow… this is a big one. But I wouldn’t use southern yellow pine again, in spite of its availability and cost. I found it difficult to work due to its variation in density across grain – it was really hell on chisels. Also, it’s prone to warping badly. This was after months of seasoning time, but it still warped after cut and sections were glued up. I’d probably go ahead and spring for beech or maple, even knowing how hard they can be.
The Veritas vise: I really like this vise, and I have nothing bad to say about its manufacture or mechanics. But even setting aside the problems I had with the instructions, and the (comparative) difficulty of installing a wagon vise, I’d probably go ahead and get the Benchcrafted tail vise. The Veritas vise does require additional room at the end of the bench to open and close it; that’s not a problem with wagon vises.
Positioning of the tail vise: I’d move it a couple of inches inward on the bench, so the dog holes don’t get into the track of the sliding deadman (my bad).
Rouboverload. Rouboverkill. Rouboverdone. This was a much, much longer project than I had expected, and I already have ideas about changes, fixtures, and add-ons… making dogs, more planing stops, and a riser/Moxon Vise for doing close-up work. The bench is the largest hand tool I’ve ever made. Building it will always be something I look on as a turning point in my woodworking. Maybe projects will be BB or AB (before-bench or after-bench).
Much, much after.
We’ll see. Stay tuned.