Sunday, February 28, 2010

A collaborative effort--Shaker Bench

Last year I got a call from Ron Brese of Brese Plane. He wanted to discuss a new bench for his woodworking shop, and incorporate Benchcrafted vises into it. Over the past few months Ron designed his new Shaker-style bench and built the red painted cabinet base pictured above. At Ron's generous invitation, I went down to Thomaston, GA for the last phase of construction; building the top and installing the vises.

After almost a week of long nights, Ron and I got the bench about 90% finished. As I mentioned in an earlier post a couple weeks ago, watching Ron at work was a real pleasure. It's not often you get to see an accomplished tool maker use his own tools to construct a piece of furniture.

Christopher Schwarz says in his excellent book Workbenches... that the Shaker bench has an "indescribable appeal". The legacy of the Shaker craftsmen seem to be expressed in this bench design more than any other bench style. Continental benches (trestle base, overhanging top) are too ubiquitous to carry such an aura. English benches are rather plain and never gained the widespread popularity of the Continental style. How many modern-day bench makers offer an English-style bench? Maybe it's because so few Shaker benches still exist, or ever existed (due to the short span of that community) that this feeling has developed. Perhaps its also that Shaker benches are maybe the only truly American style bench.

In The Workbench Book (Taunton) author Scott Landis writes about the distinctive feature of the massive Shaker bench at Hancock Village:

"The order and cleanliness provided by the enclosed base cabinet had many practical dividends for the workbench. The problems of racking and sliding, which are inherent in an open-frame base, are automatically resolved by the rigidity of the casework and the sheer weight of its structure. Loaded with tools, as it presumably was, the cabinet anchored the whole bench to the floor and to move it would have taken a small army."

The cabinet on Ron's bench is as rigid as any Roubo base I've seen, including the several I've built.

Ron comments:

"My former bench included an enclosed case for the base and this works well in my limited space. For me this is sort of the ultimate version of that style bench. Seeing the famous workbench that resides at the Hancock Shaker Village in person verified to me that this was the bench that I wanted to build. The advantage to this style construction is that it really simplifies the build of the top and I like the look of the top made of 3 wider boards as compared to a lamination of several 8/4 thicknesses. Having a stout cabinet to support the 2" thick top really makes this possible. Besides the wonderful work holding capability of this bench I visually enjoy the contrast of the red base to the natural color of the maple top. I was quite lucky in that the maple that I purchased for this project possessed a nice honey to medium brown color. This bench is the first thing I see when I walk in my shop everyday, standing at the ready to assist me with my work."

A recent J-style smoothing plane perched on top of Ron's new bench.

There are some aspects to the Shaker bench that prevent options for every workholding situation. The most significant is the ability to use holdfasts in the top, since the cabinet below would interfere with the shaft. There are ways around this. See the Lee Valley Hold Down with short shaft. Ron's top overhangs the base by several inches all around, and provides ample clamping opportunities. Ease of construction is also a plus of this bench design. The top is 2" throughout, with a front section at 4-1/4" containing the dog holes and vises. The cabinet base, with its several solid, vertical dividers provides lots of support for the top. The back of cabinet is finished with lapped solid pine boards.

An interesting note about Ron's Glide Leg Vise. He opted to install the roller brackets on the inside of the cabinet's end, making the vise hardware completely invisible from the outside. A handy access panel at the end of the base cabinet allows ready access to the guts of the vise. Ron reports his innovative arrangement works as smooth as silk.

I'll never give up my Roubo, but as a second bench I am seriously considering building a Brese-Shaker style bench. I enjoy the open base of my Roubo for storing bench appliances, but the cabinet base of Ron's bench offers oodles of storage, and that's something that any shop can use more of. Plus, I'll readily admit it (I take pride in being a practical woodworker, perhaps falsely so), who would not be inspired by having a bench like Ron's greet you whenever you head to the shop.

Ron and I shot some video during the build. This is an HD video. To get the full experience, click on the "full screen" icon in the bottom right, then make sure "HD ON" is selected (bottom right) once the window fills the screen.

Brese Plane Shaker-Style Bench Video, Part One

Brese Plane Shaker-Style Bench Video, Part Two