Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Bench #3

About 10 years ago I built my second workbench (pictured above). Before that I worked on the one in the background (with the yellow vise) for several years. It was actually more robust than #2, but lacked the workholding capabilities. That bench was built following plans in an issue of ShopNotes magazine from the mid-90's. It had a thick top of MDF and a substructure of laminated 2x4's. But it was short and lacked a tail vise. After working on #2 for almost 10 years, I've come to the point where I'm not so sure about a conventional tail vise. Mine has sagged time after time, even after shimming it and rebuilding it. I've been researching tail vises for about a year now, and I've come up with very little info about just what's being done to improve the design. It seems the hardware hasn't changed in the last decade, and I'm still hearing complaints about tail vises. Maybe I'm not doing something right, but I think most of my woodworking contacts would agree with my assessment of the tail vise. So for this next bench I'm ditching it. Yes, I will probably miss clamping between the jaws, but I'll still have #2 if I need that feature. One thing I wont miss is that sagging section of benchtop where my tail vise is now, nor the tendency for the vise to rise up above the benchtop when clamping between dogs. More on vises later.

I built #2 after the Nelson/Fortune bench in Scott Landis' Workbench Book (Taunton Press). It was a great bench for a while, but at 38" it's a little tall for handplaning. This height has been good for detail work and routing however. Another thing I dont like about this bench is the base. It's too spindly. The bench wobbles when hand planing. That can be very irritating. The bench is also too short, at 6' long. For all its shortcomings, this bench has served me well, and has seen countless projects over the past decade. One interesting note. I built the top from a section of rock maple bowling alley approach. And no, I didn't simply plane the section flat and slap it on the base. I was nuts enough to pry each strip apart with a shovel and pitchfork. And that's what it took. 3" long hardened spiral nails do not give up their grip without protest. Never again....

When I built the Fortune/Nelson bench, there was another bench that caught my interest, but I overlooked it as too daunting a task. This was the first bench featured in the book, modeled after the design recorded by 18th century French author Andres Roubo. The top of this bench is a massive slab of solid wood, joined to the base of 4 thick legs with a through double tenon dovetail (or whatever that joint is called). I loved the monolithic character of this bench, but I didnt have the tools or skills, let alone the enormous timbers to construct it. So I waited. Last year I discovered Chris Schwarz's book on workbenches and it rekindled my interest in the Roubo bench. I'd been away from the internet woodworking scene for almost a decade, and in the mean time a sort of explosion of valuable information has occured. I was really glad to see such a renewed interest in classical woodworking techniques and tools. Anyway, this led me to plan for a new bench, and I though this blog would be a good place to share the experience. I haven't seen too many sites or blogs featuring this bench, so hopefully this will provide for a good exchange of ideas. I encourage anyone to send me corrections or criticisms along the way.

I'll be using Landis' book, along with Schwarz's text and some other sources as a guide along the way, but this bench wont be a direct copy of either author's plans, although my bench will be quite close to Schwarz's design. One change I'll be making concerns the vises. I'm planning to incorporate Roubo's sliding leg vises as pictured below. I'll also be outfitting the bench so this vise can be repositioned on the other side of the bench. I use the bench from both sides now and then, and having another vise there will be very handy. I'm also planning to incorporate an enclosed tail vise, along the lines David Powell's tail vise from The Workbench Book. This will solve the problem of sagging, and still allow clamping between dogs. Plus it eliminates the problem of the screw protruding from the right end of the bench when the vise is in its open position, since Powell's design attached the screw's nut to the dog block, keeping the screw stationary like a typical tail vise.

Andre Roubo's bench with sliding leg vise.

The bench will be built from a stiff and heavy, inexpensive wood. In my area this means Ash. When I built my #2 bench, hard maple was considered a utility wood. That was just before the big "white kitchen" craze, and now it's almost the price of cherry. I'd like to use a closed-pore wood for the top, but maple is just too pricey. Most of the ash I have is flatsawn, so once glued up, the quartersawn edges will make for a good top I think. First thing I did was to get the base built. So I started by gluing up 8/4 slabs of ash into a three-board lamination for each leg, which when finished will be 5-3/8" square. After power jointing and planing the slabs, I planed the glue surfaces with my #7 jointer until I had a totally flat surface (I never glue up straight off the jointer). The legs alone weigh 24 pounds. This is going to be a tiring project.


  1. Jameel
    You're on a good track with the lower height and thicker legs. I have recently completed a new bench and it has no stretchers at all but is really solid. Big aprons recessed a few inches from the sides and ends provide rigidity and clamping space.

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