Sunday, September 6, 2009

Roubo Bench - One Year Later

It's been a little over a year since I finished building my workbench based on the Roubo design. In that time I've had the opportunity to build a number of projects with the bench, so I'd like to share some thoughts about how the bench has performed in the last year.

One of the first projects the bench saw was a cherry bathroom cabinet with a rather large single door. The sliding leg vise, which I built specifically for holding this type of work, did a fantastic job of holding the door for working on its edges and ends. The sliding leg vise is a beast of a vise when coupled with the stationary leg vise. It's huge capacity and raw holding power have convinced me that it was a wise decision to build this vise. The wood screws from Big Wood Vise have also proven their worth over the past year. They hold extremely well, turn very smoothly, and move very rapidly. I'm really satisfied with them.

The one thing I don't like about the wood screws on the sliding vise is the length of the hub. When planing the edges of boards held between both leg vises, it's a nuisance to step around the hub of the vise during the planing stroke.

The sliding leg vise is a trade-off. It's perfect when needed, but otherwise I want it out of the way completely. Most of the time I keep it stored on the shelf of the bench. I'm glad I made it easily removable-it can be dismounted in about 10 seconds.

I also made the back side of the bench so it can receive the sliding leg vise. This has come quite handy. I can slide the vise all the way to the left and in effect I'm left with a double-sided bench with leg vises at opposite corners. I keep my bench in the middle of my shop, so I can access both sides at all times.

What can I say about the wagon vise? I love it. I have yet to find a time where I've used it and been frustrated, impatient, or found it lacking in any way. It's met and exceeded my every expectation. I've only had to make one or two adjustments over the entire year. This summer I had to remove the dog block and take a couple shavings from one side to let slide freely. That's it. Wood moves as shop conditions change, and I'm quite amazed how the vise has handled the four seasons. The capabilities of the vise are quite basic. Clamp between dogs, or clamp between jaws. But its ease of use make it the best tail vise I've ever used.

This wagon vise (like any wagon vise) does not allow open-front clamping like a traditional "moving block" tail vise. I was a bit apprehensive about losing this capability. But in the past year, I've only moved to my old bench (which has a traditional tail vise) for its open jaw maybe half a dozen times. I was a bit surprised how little I actually used this feature, since I had imagined I'd used it much more frequently. I'd say that 90% of my work can be handled by a wagon vise. Nevertheless, I'll still keep a bench with a traditional tail vise for those other occasions.

Another project that put the bench through its paces was this large console cabinet. The project presented a lot of workholding challenges, and the Roubo came through with each of them. Removing the leg vise entirely makes for an uninterrupted surface at the front of the bench and allows an unencumbered work area for assembling this massive frame member. The stiffness of the top combined with the length of the top made joining this assembly rather enjoyable. My previous bench would have been a real source of frustration with this project. To get a better sense of scale of this project, here's the finished piece on my two saw benches.

The framework of the bench is built using drawbored mortise and tenon joints. After a year of use and 4 seasonal changes, all are as tight as the day they were assembled. The flush surfaces have moved slightly, but not enough to affect performance.

The open grain of the Ash was always a concern for the top of the bench. I've said a few times that I had wished I'd used hard maple for the top because of its closed grain. Yeah, I've had to pick out some stray metal particles from the Ash top, but I've only once run into a metal bit that caused me a slight problem. Nothing serious. In all, I'm really satisfied with the Ash. It's rigid as heck and very resilient. The latter point is a matter of debate, since it makes sense that a benchtop would ideally be softer than the project wood, thus allowing the bench to take the brunt of dings and scratches. Nevertheless, I'm satisfied with the Ash as a bench wood.

Even with the level of satisfaction I achieved with the bench in the past year, I've made a couple changes recently that have transformed the bench into an even better tool.

With the development of the Glide Leg Vise I've retrofitted the bench with this hardware. I was totally satisfied with the hardware from Big Wood Vise (and I still use it on my sliding leg vise), but the Glide has proven to be a real pleasure to use. It's fast, requires little effort to use, and has oodles of holding power.

Some people think that the hand wheels look out of place on such a traditional bench, since shiny metal hand wheels are more common to power machinery. First off, the wheel is a pretty old idea. Secondly, a hand wheel is a manual control device that lends itself to the movement of advancing and retracting the jaws of a woodworking vise (just like advancing and retracting a part of a machine like a table-saw trunnion or planer bed). Tommy bars are not very ergonomic, quick or pleasant to use, but they do offer a huge mechanical advantage by means of a long lever. If the need for a long lever is eliminated--by better engineering of the vise's holding capabilities--then the replacement of the less-ergonomic control device becomes possible, in this case with a better device-the hand wheel. I think the Glide looks fantastic on the Roubo bench.

By the way, using a hand wheel on a woodworking vise is not a new idea.

This is H.O. Studley's bench. He's more famous for his tool cabinet.

Getting back to the sliding leg vise. Most the time I don't need it. But occasionally I do need some support for long boards or wide panels when I don't want to mount up the sliding leg vise. So earlier this week I built a deadman.

The great thing about the deadman is that is stays flush with the front of the bench until you need to plug in a holdfast or clamp to secure the work. I built mine from 12/4 stock so it ended up extra thick-about 2-1/2". It doesn't need to be so thick, but I didn't see the point in planing away all that wood, or resawing. The extra mass provides lots of stability and weight, so the deadman slides easily.

The deadman engages the same slot in the underside of the bench as the sliding leg vise, which has a thicker rear section. I attached two cleats behind the deadman to engage the slot using some cap screws threaded and tapped into the deadman from behind.

I built deadman so it doesn't interfere with my benchdogs. So I can slide the deadman freely along the bench at any time and with the dogs in any configuration, up or down. I don't like things interrupting the flow of my work. The sliding leg vise has this problem, and I decided to fix it when I built the deadman.

The bench as it exists now is hands down my favorite tool in the shop. I love hand planes, but those only perform to satisfaction with a fine bench below them. If you're reading this, and considering building a new work bench for fine furniture making, I can't recommend this bench design enough. It has given me a renewed sense of enthusiasm for woodworking and furniture making, and I get pleasure and satisfaction from working on it every time I'm in the shop.


  1. Nice over view of a well built bench with nice features! I like you attention to details!
    Thank you!

  2. Jameel,

    Great bench, and write-up. You should consider leveraging this Ash lumber bundle that will be at the WIA VF event. Provide folks a set of plans, for a nominal fee of course.


  3. Jameel,

    It is refreshing to see that a year back, though completed, you didn't call the bench finished. You continued to observe and evaluate the performance of your bench, which was as I recall, pretty well thought out even then.

    We do use our tools, and workflow is important. Approach is a huge part of the recipe. You not only reviewed your work, you improved upon it, even as you worked with it. You explained how the evolving changes improved your approach to the work you do.

    When we speak of improving our approach to the work, for, me, that is as good as it gets! Thank you for offering you own critical observations covering two ends of your thinking for a year.

    Woodworkers evolve, it's true!



  4. Rob, I'd be plenty happy if the bench stayed as-is for the next year and beyond.

  5. Rob,

    I enjoyed this post and your video of the sliding vise in action. I'm designing a bench now and am considering using a sliding vise as my only face vise. It would normally be parked next to the left leg, and I'd design some sort of locking mechanism to keep it there. But it could be slid or lifted out at will (and moved to the rear side of the bench if desire). I know that one problem with the sliding vise is that the parallel guide runs across the top of the shelf, so you can't really store anything on the shelf. I'd consider redesigning that so that it runs under the shelf in the wasted space above the floor. It just seems that it's better to have a movable vise than not, other things being equal. I'd consider moving my square planing stop and perhaps shrinking the left overhang of the top to reflect the different position of the vise.

    I'm curious what you think of this given all of the experience you've had with the moving vise?

  6. Jameel

    Very much enjoying the ongoing tale of your bench. It is inspiring me to build a version myself for my new workspace out in the mountains, which at 16' x 34' (inside a 36x40 four story vintage barn) will be a shock from my current 10'x 22', where my 2'x4' bench has served me well for two decades. My next one will be a lot bigger, and I am saving my pennies for the wagonsheel tail rig. My main changes will be a 60" twin screw face vice and my Emmert on the rear side, with the bench going in the center of the space. It's just my work habit.

    Sorry I didn't take the time to chat with you in Philly. Will make sure to correct that oversight at the next opportunity.

    Don Williams

  7. Don,

    A new shop is always exciting, and a new bench even moreso. I'm still in love my Roubo!

    See you at the next WIA.

  8. Excellent article - thanks! It seems that you have answered the best related to the Topic with all best example as well... Thanks again for spreading the good work in the Society ...

    Hand Tools


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