Benches Rising

One thing about vintage tools… they age more gracefully than I do. I was out of the shop (and derelict in my blogging) for quite a while, but I’m glad to say that I’m back on track. One of the minor projects that’s been lying dormant for a while is a riser/vise for the top of the workbench.  I had originally thought about a Moxon vise, but I had a couple of press screws in the pile and decided to use those instead.

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Construction is extremely simple, and a lot of the design was adapted from the bench-on-bench plans at http://www.closegrain.com – a fantastic blog.

The top is just sections of fir 2×4, left over from the original workbench build. The screws are veneer press screws (from Woodcraft, I think).  wood-2-of-17

The threaded supports for the screws are buried in the laminations of the top, and the front face vise is some scrap mesquite (if there is such a thing). The riser is about 28″ wide, and will just fit a 24″ board between the screws.

wood-3-of-17Two washers keep the handles from marring the face of the vise, two rubber washers (visible below, just barely) keep the front face in place when it retracts, and I sank two metal collars just larger than the threads into the mounted mesquite block.

wood-4-of-17The stands are just I-beams made out of scrap plywood. The version on closegrain.com uses dado joinery; this is just simple pocket-hole joinery. Two threaded inserts under the top and a couple of threaded knobs let the stands be removed, so the whole thing breaks down for storage. The top has holes for holdfasts for bench dogs. It’s important to make the stands high enough to allow your longest holdfasts to clear the workbench below.

wood-5-of-17If working with longer boards, the riser can be clamped in place with the workpiece registered against the front of the bench. That makes for an extremely stable arrangement.

All told? I think the press screws were about $10 each. Bushings, scrap wood, rubber washers… that was it. The build took an afternoon and an evening (including letting the glue dry).

First impressions are absolutely great. I cut some dovetails as soon as it was finished, and it was much more comfortable – and my accuracy improved by having the workpiece up closer to me instead of down at the right height for planing.

Brought to you by Oscar Peterson’s Night Train, and Pat Metheny’s A Map of the World.
Stay tuned.

Ross Henton

September 2016

 

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Finishing the Roubo du Garage

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.20110912-064350.jpg

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.

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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

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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. 20110912-070211.jpg

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.

Dog Holes

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).

Holdfasts

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. 20110912-072936.jpgIt 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.

Finishing

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).

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Before.

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Much, much after.

We’ll see. Stay tuned.

Some Assembly Required: A Tale of Two Vises (Part 1)

As the Roubo progresses from bench to workbench – maybe it’s a fine distinction, but I think it’s valid – I’ve started to think of it as the Roubo du Garage.  It’s smaller than standard (about 23″ x 60″), and has some compromises.  But since its function is workholding, I decided that the one place I would not compromise is in the quality of the workholding hardware. It was an indulgence, and a fun one.

That’s not to say it’s all modern. Both of the vises are very new designs, and one is as close to top-of-the-line as it comes.  But the most important part of the workholding is the (very) old system of holdfasts and dog holes. There’s been a world of information written about holdfasts the past few years, some of which seems contradictory, some very straightforward.

The lessons that came out of this part of the project weren’t what I expected, and included a mix of what-to-do and what-not-to do; of good design and poor; document writing both good and bad, and some really good customer service from a small company.  The bench became a mix of old tool designs and new ones.  I love the outcome, but it’s like the contrast between my chisels and my iPad (more on the iPad as an indispensable shop tool in the future). 

Now that the bench itself was built and standing, I flattened the top with the help of a new/old Stanley #40 scrub plane.  This comes under the heading of “why didn’t I get one of these years ago”.  It hogs wood off in neat little curls faster than you’d believe.  It took no – ZERO – time to learn, seconds to set, and evened up the top enough for my jointer plane in a few minutes. 

Sighting for flattening the top is accomplished with two parallel sticks called winding sticks. Each is a different color, and you lay them across the top and sight across them to see twist in the wood. Yes, it’s that easy.  No, you won’t see pictures of mine here… they’re just spray-painted angle aluminum.  When I have time to make a set out of mesquite and maple, then I’ll post them.  If you’re interested in this technique, Google “winding sticks”, or read this excellent article from Fine Woodworking. Or buy Chris Schwarz’s book (visible on my iPad).  Or almost any other book about traditional woodworking.

I must have read the section about the Roubo in this excellent book a dozen times. Including the part about routing a groove in the underside of the top for the sliding deadman before assembling it. Of course, I didn’t.  The solution was five minutes with a palm router, and that crisis was averted. The slot didn’t go all the way to the right front leg, but a few minutes with a chisel fixed that.

Part 1: The Benchcrafted Glide Vise

This was a piece of engineering I loved from the moment I saw the pictures. A heavy face vise, with the weight fully supported by two rollers – one above the parallel guide, and one below.  I watched a video of one being gently spun open and closed.  And I was hooked.

The first thing I’ll say about the company is this: They told me eight weeks. I had it in three.

When I unwrapped the parts, I was really, really impressed at the quality of construction and the beauty of the product.  When I downloaded the instructions from their website, well… that’s when the qualms started. The instructions are twenty-seven pages long. Fully illustrated. Some of the hardware required cutting threaded holes in the table with taps. It also sat in its box for three months while I recovered from my shoulder surgery.  It kind of hung on the horizon, and intimidated me from a distance.

I decided that I’d make the assorted workholding pieces (the chop and parallel guide, tail vise, deadman, and planing stop) out of mesquite. I have a love/hate relationship with it. I love the way it looks, the weight, and the way it handles when it cooperates. I hate how it dulls tools and can be difficult to work.  But I made the drive up to Woods of Mission Timber, and spent some time sorting out the pieces I wanted – including 8/4 stock for the vises.

The piece I selected has some small cracks that don’t go very deep, and won’t compromise the strength of the chop.  It also had a large-ish knot about halfway through the thickness.  For decorative work, I usually fill mesquite flaws with powdered copper and epoxy; for this, I decided on epoxy and some black ink – making a solid, polished black fill.

After cutting the shape of the chop, I pried the knot out and mixed the epoxy.  The knot came down the side of the chop about halfway, so I stuck some blue painter’s tape on the side to keep it from spilling out.  I poured the epoxy in and let it set.  Interesting lesson: epoxy gets hot when it cures.  The more you use, the hotter it gets. This was about a quarter of a cup, and was too hot to touch for quite a while.

Once it set, I pulled the tap, ran a router around the edge of the chop to make the chamfered edge, and scraped the excess epoxy off with a card scraper. It sands and polishes right along with the wood.

The parallel guide was cut with a simple tenon on one end, and a matching mortise cut into the chop at the bottom.  3/8″ holes are drilled along the length to insert a pin to keep the chop of the vise from racking unevenly when tightened.  The parallel guide was locked in place with drawbored pins of rived white oak.  I noticed after it was finished (too late) that it’s slightly out of square with the chop… just a couple of degrees, not enough to make any difference to the operation of the vise, but enough to annoy me because I know it’s there.


The wheel and screw are mounted to the vise with machine screws into threaded holes. I’ve tapped threads into metal in the past, but not into wood – and I was a little skeptical.  No longer.  It’s much easier than tapping into metal, and holds extremely well.  There’s no need to tap the holes a quarter-turn at a time – drill the pilot hole, attach the tap to a hand drill, and let the tap feed itself. Backing out the tap three or four times through the depth of the hole was sufficient to keep the threads clear of chips.  Two things, here – first, put no pressure on the tap; just let it thread itself. Hold the drill loosely, and let the tap do its work. Second, don’t let it hit bottom – it will dig in and spin, and strip the threads out. Know when to stop.

The rollers are easy to make with a bandsaw.  Templates are available on the Benchcrafted website, and can be printed and stuck to the blanks. Cutting and assembling them is short work. The longest part is drilling out and shaping the slots for the mounting bolts.

The process of mounting the rollers, the vise, and the acetal bearing the screw rides on is exacting, but not difficult if you follow the instructions carefully. Which is the second thing I’ll say about Benchcrafted: they know how to write instructions. I’ve done a lot of technical writing, and their instructions are clear, concise, accurate, and have useful information about places you might get into trouble.   The instructions were perfectly and completely accurate in every respect.

At first, I had some difficulty adjusting the height of the rear roller bearing… or so I thought. As it turned out, I had the slot for the parallel guide a little too tight, and it was trying to drag slightly. A few minutes with a rasp cleaned out the high spot, and it worked perfectly. It functions exactly as described – which is high praise.  It spins freely and grabs tight.

The hardware comes with a 3/8″ rolled steel pin to make make the locking pin for the parallel guide.  All you have to do is make a handle.  Or, better yet – I decided to use that Crown burnisher I recently decided that I really hated and threw into a junk drawer.  It makes the perfect $19.95 parallel guide pin. And I laugh every time I look at it.

It wasn’t the simplest assembly I’ve ever done, but it worked great and I love the results. I wound up using it to finish some of the remaining work on the bench, and it works better and smoother than any vise I’ve ever used.  It’s exactly as good as the company – and the reviewers – have said. Not many new devices seem to live up to that.

This is the first of two vises… and the other story isn’t quite as pleasant. Stay tuned.

Oh, before I forget: music was Greg Howard’s Stick Figures, and Rob Martino’s One Cloud – both music for the Chapman Stick. Great albums, both of them.

Ross Henton

Soiling the Till, Round Pegs, and the World’s Biggest Pencil Sharpener

Till is kind of an interesting word. It isn’t always short for “until”, and it doesn’t always mean turning the soil for planting. It has a third, and very different meaning:

till (noun)
1. a drawer, box, or the like, as in a shop or bank, in which money is kept.
2. a drawer, tray, or the like, as in a cabinet or chest, for keeping valuables.
3. an arrangement of drawers or pigeonholes, as on a desk top.
Origin: 1425–75; late Middle English tylle, noun use of tylle, to draw, Old English –tyllan (in fortyllan, to seduce); akin to Latin dolus, trick, and Greek dólos bait (for fish), any cunning contrivance.

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I love my tool cabinet, even if it’s just a simple box with holders. It has a huge amount of space and saves me a world of frustration. But ny collection of saws has grown to include several detail saws (coping, gent’s, flush-cutting, and jeweler’s), my bowsaw, a couple of wonderful old Disston panel saws, a Japanese Dozuki saw, and a set of beautiful Lee Valley carcass and dovetail saws. They accumulate like dust bunnies. Fitting some of them (particularly the panel saws) into my tool cabinet was going to mean a lot of rearrangement, so I decided to move them into their own storage and use my tool cabinet for planes, chisels, and the various other tools which also accumulate. (I blame eBay.)

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Antique saw tills could sometimes be extremely ornate. They occasionally had complex moldings, curlicues, detail carvings, Queen Anne legs, and… well, you probably get the idea. Some were just rude boxes with slots. I wanted something that was functional, simple, (roughly) matched my tool cabinet, and could be made with scrap I had on hand. The result was certainly simple: two sides, two back rails, a custom holder for the smaller saws, and a front rail. No bottom; I didn’t want it filling up with dust. No nails or screws – not because I have anything against them, but I had some walnut dowel scrap handy and thought it would be fun. It took a couple of hours to make, a handful of scrap red oak, and was some good hand joinery practice. A couple of coats of Watco golden oak danish oil, two coats of spray shellac, and that was it. Cost = $0.00 USD. It looks new – but I’m looking forward to having it get dusty and scarred with years of use in my shop.

Not all pegged joinery is that simple and painless.

The Roubo-strocity has to be really, really solid. I don’t want any wobble or shifting – that’s why I’m building it in the first place. That means the mortise and tenon joinery should be reinforced with pegs, using an old technique called drawboring.

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The joints in the table are enormous. I drilled the bulk out with a forstner bit in an older Dewalt drill (not my good and nearly-new lithium-ion Dewalt, but an older Dewalt 14v that occasionally wafts smoke from the motor housing). Be warned – drilling this many deep holes with a hand drill can burn it up; it’s better to use a drill press. But in this case, getting the legs up onto the drill press was going to be a bit of a hassle. Also, the mortises in the table top absolutely had to be done on the floor – lifting it to the drill press was an impossibility. I could have chopped everything out by hand, but that’s a lot of work, and my shoulder isn’t up to that yet. A piece of blue painter’s tape around the shaft of the bit let me get the holes to a mostly-uniform depth, and my indispensable Oddjob (in the picture, not the one with the bowler hat from Goldfinger) helped me ensure they were deep enough to accept the tenons.
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Once the bulk was removed, I cleaned up the edges of the mortises with a mallet and chisel, assembled each joint, and drilled the holes for the pegs. draw boring means that the holes in the mortises and tenons were slightly offset – about 3/32″ – so that when the peg is driven in, the joint is pulled together. That means drilling the holes through the mortised piece, assembling the joint, marking the center of the hole on the tenon, disassembling the joint, drilling the offset hole in the tenon, re-assembling it, and driving the pegs in. Yes, it’s a lot of work – but seeing the peg pull the joint together tight was magical. I absolutely love this technique. Joints made this way are extremely strong, and can be assembled without glue. The joinery attaching the top to the base isn’t glued, so if I ever need to break the table down to move it, I can always drill the pegs out, knock it apart, and reattach the top later. Christopher Schwarz wrote the definitive article on the technique, and I highly recommend it.

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Since the drawbored holes don’t line up, the ends of the pegs have to be tapered. I could have whittled them to shape, but these pegs are 3/8″ rived white oak, and it’s tough. The easiest way I found was to sharpen them on my benchtop disc sander. It took about 20 or 30 seconds each – and saved me either cutting myself or having to get a bigger pencil sharpener.

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One thing’s for certain. This bench is going to be solid. I don’t think anybody’s going to walk off with it if I leave the garage door open.

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The astute among you will probably have noticed the slot cut in the lower leg in the detail photo (above). In case you’re wondering, that’s to accept part of the vise hardware. Which brings me to the next couple of topics: flattening the top, and installing the vises – a Benchcrafted leg vise, and a Veritas sliding tail vise.

More to come.

Ross Henton

Catching up and first class

First off: sorry for the long hiatus! Back in November, I suffered a severe shoulder injury, and my woodworking wound up dead in the water for weeks. We thought I could get by without surgery, but alas… Twas not to be. So for the next several weeks, I’m going to shift the focus of the blog to tools and ideas I can write about with one arm in a brace.

Before surgery, the Roubo progressed – largely to the help of my friend Rafe. While waiting to be able to work, the whole (unmounted) top of the bench warped. We had to cut it into sections, joint and plane it, and reassemble it again. Then I had time to make the legs and stretchers, and mount the base. It’s actually starting to look like a bench. The top is mostly flattened, and the first mounting holes are cut for a Benchcrafted leg vise.

Which reminds me: I’ve decided on a Benchcrafted face vise, and a Veritas quick-release tail vise. Extravagant, but this bench is gonna rock. It’s short for a Roubo – about 6’6″ x 231/2″ but I can fit it into my workspace, and hang 24″ casework off the sides.

When my arm is back in the game, I’ll finish flattening the top, shelve the stretchers, and build the sliding deadman, face vise, and tail vise out of mesquite (just because it’s beautiful).

Upcoming Class

I’ve been invited to teach a class in western New York on July 2nd. The class will be on the advantages of adding hand tools to your power tool workshop – and will cover sharpening, chisels, planes, files, saws, safety, the joys of making your own tools, and whatever else we have time for. Teaching this class is an especially great honor for me, because it’s the first class being offered at the new Lawson Center of Boating Heritage on Chautauqua Lake. It will be split between lecture and demos, as my arm allows… But I promise you’ll get your money’s worth!

Hopefully, I’ll see some of you there. Next entry: more on drawboring, new tools, new saw till, and more. Be there!

Embracing Plan ‘B’

Good news: the first two sections of the table top mated properly.

Bad news: the third section is far too warped to be usable <sigh>.

This left me with a couple of options: either build a new section and work it  to match the curvature of the first large glueup (to be flattened later), or work the edge of the large section to match the new one.  The problem with either of these options isn’t working the edges to mate – it’s moving the new section on and off the stack to check it every few strokes of the plane. These things are heavy.  And doing them edge-on won’t let me see any potential problems at the bottom.

So, plan B: I’m going to build up the rest of the top one or two boards at a time, attached to the larger section.  Each board can be aligned with clamps, as there’s enough flex to a single board to allow them to mate. The theory is that it should be finished by the weekend, and I can move my attention to the legs.

Note: What I’ve done is set the slab on its edge, resting on the fixed end of the clamps. I raise the clamp head, and lock the head in place on the bar with a small plastic clamp long enough to spread the glue and align the next board. Then remove the plastic clamp and lock down the head.  This works well, since the head of the clamps won’t lock in place on the bar while the clamp is open.

That was, at least, the theory. Then I came down with an awful sinus infection, and can’t stand to kick up that much dust at the moment. So this will take a little longer. Then the remaining large (warped) section will be cut down into legs, and can be squared properly once they’re at a shorter length – cutting the section in half will automatically reduce about half of the warp. It’s much easier to square shorter sections than longer ones.

Meanwhile, my pre-release copy of Christopher Schwarz’s The Workbench Design Book, a companion volume to Workbenches: From Design And Theory To Construction And Use arrived. Tremendous book, chock full of excellent ideas. I’ve already seen at least three changes I’m going to make to the design of this bench before I go much farther.

Cross your fingers that my sinuses clear up. I’ve got wood to cut.

Today’s shop music was the Beethoven Cello Sonatas Op. 69 & 102 (Maisky/Argerich), and Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits.

The Roubo: Construction, Changing Directions, and How Stuff Goes Wrnog

It’s been a while since my last post.  Most of you who have followed this blog from the beginning will recall that I’ve said that I don’t like to work around spinning blades when I’m not in the right frame of mind for it.  This has been a bumpy year – my wife and I both got laid off, then rehired, then I moved to a much better position elsewhere… I’ve been in CCNA class two nights a week since June… one of our dogs was seriously ill… and so on. That kind of uncertainty doesn’t add up to being properly cautious, no matter how therapeutic the work itself may be.  But life is good; everything has settled down again. I returned to the shop a few weeks ago, then got interrupted again, and today I’m back at it with a vengeance.  I came out of the shop intending to sit down and read the exciting chapter on EIGRP ‘K’ value routing metrics again. But Angus says I’ve studied enough, and need to update my blog… so he’s staked out my backpack and my books.

Fortunately, my woodwork isn’t a vocation. It’s a hobby (or an avocation, if you’re feeling charitable).  I can work at my own schedule, and come and go from it as I see fit.

This charming philosophy came back and bit me from behind, as you’ll see here.

Catching Mice

First, a slight change of direction.  I’ve talked about tool sharpening as something you might as well learn to enjoy, since you’ll have to do a lot of it.  I’ve sharpened with water stones for several years now, with decent results.  But I’ve never gotten around the fact that there’s a good bit of hassle involved if you’re short on space.  I’ve had to fight for every square foot of space, and setting up a permanent sharpening station has never really been an option.  I have to haul out my stones, carefully stored in slightly chlorinated water so I don’t have to wait for them to soak.  Then spread newspaper out, set the blade or chisel in the jig, and work through the stones in progression.  I’ve also sharpened freehand – took an excellent class on the subject – but my results have always been a little inconsistent. And the mess of slurry created by the stones is terrible; it gets into everything, and water seems to go everywhere no matter what I do. And on my first day back in the shop after the infamous mesquite Stickley table, I dropped my 6000 grit stone and it shattered.

I sighed, closed up the shop, and drove down to Woodcraft to buy a new one. And then I discovered that somebody really did build a better mousetrap.

Instead of a new stone, I splurged on a Work Sharp 3000.  If you read any commercial woodworking magazines, you’ve probably seen the ads.  It’s a sandpaper sharpening system, using interchangeable flat glass wheels with adhesive-backed sandpaper.  And guess what? It works as advertised. It’s fast, lightweight, apparently accurate, easy to maintain, quiet, and doesn’t make a huge mess of slurry.  My only complaint is that I did have to buy a third glass wheel so I can accommodate the six grits of sandpaper I need to use – from 120 to 6000 grits. I’ve used it for several weeks now, and I don’t think I’ll be going back to my water stones very often.

One tip, if you decide to use one of these: some of the grits are the same color, and it can be difficult to tell the finer ones apart – especially the 3600 and 6000 grits. So I started labeling the edge of the disks with a Sharpie and an arrow indicating which grit is on which side. End of confusion. I’m sold on this thing.  I got into woodworking because I wanted to build things, and I love good tools. Not so much because I wanted to spend my days sharpening them.

A Reason to Hate the French

When I decided on the Roubo workbench, I really had no idea what I was getting into.  I love the design, and having looked at a couple, I knew it was what I wanted. But it’s a monster of a build.  The lumber (southern yellow pine) was easy to come by at the local Borg Cube, and not terribly expensive. It sat stacked on one side of the garage for almost a month while the moisture in the wood equalized.

The top of the bench is a 4 1/2″ thick slab of laminated boards.  The bench design depends heavily on sheer weight (sorry, accidental pun) for its stability.  Before ripping the boards to width, I cut them to rough length on the miter saw. Every inch I can save off the overbalancing length of the lumber makes the long rips easier to manage. Part of this project is about learning the mechanics of handling huge pieces by yourself safely.

That means proper support at all stages of every operation. Infeed support, outfeed support.  My shop stool with its support riser makes great infeed support, and my recently built roller stand is the outfeed support.  It made the cuts accurate, free of binding, and much safer. Then the individual boards were planed and jointed square, and set aside.

The benchtop is made from three sections, rather than trying to glue up the whole thing at once.  That would be nearly unmanageable, because spreading the glue takes some time – and even slow-setting glue would be getting pretty tacky by the time it was done.  Also, the bigger the glue-up, the more stuff can go wrong, and then you have a real mess on your hands. Applying the glue is the point of no return for most projects.

But this was simple construction: boards glued up into slabs, then three slabs glued together. What could possibly happen?

How Stuff Goes Wrnog

No matter how well the moisture in boards is equalized, the act of resurfacing them allows the moisture level to change. That can cause twist and warp.  Christopher Schwarz recommends in Workbenches, from Design and Theory to Construction and Use surfacing only the wood you need for that day – and once it’s glued into the big slab of the top, it’s pretty stable. The design of the bench is such that any racking will only make the legs tighter.

But leaving the three glued-up sections sitting around for a month while I was out of the shop wasn’t part of the plan. And it was a bad, bad idea.

Everything was absolutely fine until I tried to mate the three sections. They were true and square a month ago. But I discovered this week that each of the three 7″ thick sections had warped independently, and wouldn’t mate anymore. They’re too thick and heavy to force them into true with clamps, but the moisture of the glue and the fact that I allowed them to sit for a month was enough to let them warp.

My first though was to see if I could run the sections through the planer again to try and true them up, but it won’t work for two reasons. First, a planer will only get faces into parallel; it won’t remove twist and warp well unless you run the sections through on a flat sled, and these are far too big for that without spending a lot of time building one. And it would have to be really big. And second, even if that were feasible, they’re about an inch too wide to fit into the planer.  I could do it on a jointer, but my jointer isn’t big enough to handle these.

How Stuff Gits Fixed

So the answer was to go back to the old, best method and bring them back into true with a hand plane.  It was feasible, but a lot of planing – less than I’m going to have to do to flatten the top when it’s finished, but more than I expected to have to do this morning. Also, it wasn’t just a matter of flattening the sections. In this case, what I wanted was to get them to fit together to be glued well, so I was less concerned about a perfectly flat surface than I was in making them fit.   It was a great exercise; I had to mark the areas that needed to be planed down, then work those areas, then try the fit again, and so on. The problem is that these assemblies are heavy – and that meant lifting them on and off each other and flipping them constantly to work the edge. “It’s not impossible… it’s just hard work.”

But the first two sections fit well and are glued up. And my planing skills are a notch better than they were this morning. When it came time to touch up one of the plane blades, it only took a few seconds on the Work Sharp. It left quite a mess behind, but no sawdust… just nice, clean shavings.

A note here: I recently picked up a Wood River #4 plane off eBay.  I’d read some really mixed reviews of it, including one that said that the one the reviewer examined in the store had its bed out of flat by almost .002″, so he didn’t buy it. (How he managed to measure .002″ deviation down the length of the sole while standing in the aisle in Woodcraft escapes me.)  These planes have taken quite a beating in the reviews, mostly on the grounds that they’re A) not any good because they’re made in China, B) not as good as the Lie-Nielsen planes, and C) not as good as the old Stanley Bedrock planes.

Yes, the Bronze LN #4 is better, but it’s also $350.  Yes, the old Stanley Bedrock was a wonderful, well-made design. And if I’m buying them sight-unseen off eBay, they may have mechanical problems I can’t foresee. I’ve used vintage Stanley planes that were junk, and some that were great after a considerable amount of time and restoration work. And yes, the Wood River is made in China, and I prefer to buy American when possible.

This Wood River #4 was $30, new in the box ($119 retail).  What you may have heard about the lateral adjuster being flimsy is true; it’s not great. But the plane is accurate, feels right, cuts well, and I’m extremely pleased with it so far.  Made in Cincinnati, China, or on the Moon, it’s a well-made tool at a very reasonable price point. I have some LN tools, and I dearly love them. But this was a $30 investment that’s going to pay off very well. So don’t believe everything you read. Try one out before walking away.

And there’s been a payoff to the delays.  Since I decided to build the bench, two new vise designs have come on the market that I’m probably going to incorporate.  When I started, one wasn’t available, and I’d never heard of the other.

I’m tired and a little sore. Next section will be more difficult, because it’s going to be even harder to lift on and off repeatedly while fixing the problem. That’s okay. It’s a hobby, after all.

Oh, before I forget. Today’s shop music was Stan Rogers: Live in Halifax, Mozart’s 40th Symphony in G Minor, Gin Blossoms: Greatest Hits, and the Bach Cello Suites (Rostropovich).