Let me be the first to say: I have no non-American cultural identity. It’s just the way I was raised: my family doesn’t associate with any other country other than America. We’re just American, with no hyphens.
Okay, with that out of the way, let’s talk about Chinese workbenches. To learn about working on a low workbench, I’ve done quite a bit of internet researching the forms and methods of low workbenches (as compared to high workbenches with vises). And part of that research involved Chinese woodworking.
From what I’ve seen, traditional Chinese woodworking involves bowsaws (or framesaws) on the push and they also push planes (but there is a cross-bar that’s held like you’re giving someone the guns). The Chinese workbench form seems pretty similar to other low workbench forms in that it has splayed (and sometimes raked) legs that are mortised into a slab benchtop. However, it seems unique in that it typically has a stretcher between each pair of legs (i.e., perpendicular to the length of the slab). It also has rectangular tenons instead of round tenons.
I’ve made a number of low, Roman-style workbenches with slab tops pierced by round tenons (i.e., “staked” legs, per the current parlance). There is amazing recent scholarship out there by Lost Art Press on this form. But there isn’t a ton of information out there on Chinese woodworking (although, I haven’t moved to print yet).
So with little more than a few pictures, I set out to give the Chinese form a try. For ease, I only angled the legs outward at 10 degrees, same as on my sawbenches and my low workbench. I did not try for compound angled rectangular mortises on my first try.
As always, I do my protyping in Eastern White Pine, an easy to work and abundant material that lends itself to trial and error. The benchtop is 8/4 stock about 8 inches wide and 31 inches long. The legs are 1.75 inches x 1.5 inches and either red pine or heart pine (they’re reclaimed from an old shack) and are much harder and than the fluffy top. All parts are bone dry.
Although not strictly necessary, I started by boring the mortises with a brace and bit to clear most of the waste. I chose a 5/8″ bit for 3/4″-ish tenons, which were scribed with a mortise gauge. A 1/2″ would have worked as well, and folks are likely to have a 1/2″ bit handy in a drill driver. It’s a lot easier to bore a hole when you’re not aiming for perfection like with round tenon joinery. Even a wonky hole (as long as it doesn’t cross the scribe lines) is just fine.
To be clear, you do not need a brace a bit. These are easily chopped out. Just use a narrower chisel and leave some room to pare down to the lines.
After the bulk of the waste is removed, it’s just paring with a chisel down to the gauge line. Work slowly and use the same bevel gauge to help spot the angles. When working in fluffy pine (“bullshit pine”, as I like to call it), a flat mill file is just as good as a mortise float. Eventually, you’ll have an angled mortise. DO NOT reset your bevel gauge. You’ll need it for the stretchers.
Each of the legs takes an angled shoulder at the same angle as the mortise. Make sure the tenon will clear the mortise, mark the tenon itself with a marking gauge set a bit fat to the mortise (so you have room to pare down or crush the fibers). Then mark the shoulder with the same bevel gauge. Angled shoulders, especially wide ones, are pretty easy to get right if you cut away from the line and pare down with a chisel. Undercutting is fine.
I apparently got no pictures of cutting of the angled mortises in the legs for the cross strechers. I used the same mortise gauge setting to mark the mortises and the tenons and set to chopping by hand. There was no way I was chopping a 3/4″ mortise with a 3/4″ chisel, even in pine, so I used my 1/2″ chisel and pared down to the lines. The same bevel gauge sets the shoulders of the stretcher, and eventually you have everything fitting nicely. I actually drawbored the stretchers into the legs and wedged the tenons in the top.
Leveling legs can be done a couple of ways. I prefer to use the 4×4 of truth. Which is just a length of 4×4 the height I want (minus the height of the benchtop) with a pencil resting on it to scribe around the legs. You could also use the level surface method, but level surfaces are hard to come by and in any event that sounds like overhandling to me.
All in all, I get it. This entire bench could have been (and pretty much was) built with just three main tools: (x) a bench plane for preparing the stock, (y) a chisel for chopping the mortises, and (z) a saw for sawing the tenons. I guess you also need a mallet, a square, a bevel gauge and a marking knife, but that’s semantics. No lathe. No drill press. Just time and care and the most basic of tool kits within the reach of any hand tool woodworker in an apartment. I’m not even sure you’d need a proper workbench (even a low one).
Even with the vertical legs and no long stretcher connecting the leg assemblies, it’s very stable. And compound-angled legs would add additional more stability. In fact, that’s my next attempt: compound leg angles. But I wonder if that would require compound angled shoulders for the cross-stretcher as well.
Thoughts for another day.
If you haven’t already, do check out Rudolf P Hommel’s “China at Work”
There is also a YouTube series called “Traditional Carpentry in Southern China”. One of the episodes is solely about tools and work holding. And lots of practical uses in the other episodes.
Enjoy – and thank you for your blog!
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