Author: The Apartment Woodworker

The Apartment Woodworker is a weekly blog with insights, projects and tips for making the most of woodworking with hand tools in confined spaces.

The Importance of Instructions

We are fortunate to live in the world we do now, even with all its faults. The entirety of catalogued human knowledge is available at our fingertips and we mostly take it for granted. As I write this, I have the cabinet making and marquetry chapter of Diderot’s Encyclopedia open in one tab (specifically, plate 21-2-9, but more on that another day) and a 2016 Fine Woodworking workbench article with a fantastic tutorial on how to make a tail vise using commercially-available hardware, open in background browser tabs. That second one is pretty important, because I’m making a tail vise to retrofit on a work bench and the hardware I bought from Lee Valley doesn’t come with instructions. Like at all (which is weird, because LV usually goes overboard with the literature included in their products).

So I had to turn to the internet. I first checked the Woodcraft website (they sell a similar product), but the included instructions are rather cryptic). Also, the product picture on the website has the screw backwards, which I found odd. Then I scoured YouTube for an instructional on using this hardware and came up empty. So I searched “tail vise installation guide” and bam: the FW article popped up near the top.

It’s a 10-page article and the author spends 4(!) pages detailing exactly how to build, fit and tune a tail vise. The entire article is fantastic, but I have absolutely no intention of making the workbench in the FW article. However, I give the author much credit for taking the time to explain in great detail the difficult and unintuitive part of the build (the tail vise). There is more useful information in those 4 pages than in the entirety of most other woodworking project articles. And how many woodworking articles yadda yadda the difficult stuff like some sawdust-covered underpants gnome.

This is as far as I can take it until I attach it to the actual bench.

What you see above is the “core” of the tail vise. Essentially, it’s a laminated block of wood with a recess in the middle the vise nut (which is on the inside of the mounting plate) and a rabbet that accepts the top guide plate. There is also a clearance hole drilled on the right side for the vise screw to pass through. The the vise hub screws onto the right hand side, and I may sink some dowels perpendicular to the core to give the vise hub mounting screws more purchase. I learned that trick from a Popular Woodworking video series on a Torsion Box Workbench.

The tail vise assembly is completed by adding a “dog strip” with bench dog holes (the point of a tail vise is to pinch a board between dogs, after all) and a top plate that looks pretty and covers the top guide plate (and brings the top of the tail vise flush with the benchtop to which the vise is mounted). I made the core out of hard maple, but the dog strip and top plate will be whatever wood the benchtop to which it’s mounted is made. In this case, it will be ash. But this tail vise core is evergreen, especially if I attach the dog strip and top plate with hide glue.

I would note that for the LV version, you’ll need to add some washers to the bolts that attach the guide plates. This ensures the bolts (which thread into the top guide plate) sit just below the surface.

Why do I mention all this, you ask? Well, there is a trope about men not reading the instructions. Which I’ve never understood, mostly because of my father. He was a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War and a commercial airline pilot until he retired (although a good chunk of his career was as a flight instructor). If there is a man who appreciates good instructions, it’s my father (and he passed that appreciation on to me). In fact, it’s my mother who doesn’t read instructions and it frustrates us both to no end.

So, for your own sake, read the god damned instructions. Especially if you can actually find them.

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Restorative Process

One of the first proper pieces of furniture I made when I switched to primarily handtool woodworking was a dining table. Or, at least, that’s what it was supposed to look like, because it really was more of a workbench. Made of solid ash, it had roughly 3″ square legs, 8/4 rails and a 5/4 top. Everything was drawbored together with 1/2 pegs.

For several years, I clamped my Milkman’s Workbench to it and that was my primary work area. In fact, you can see it in the banner of the website and I detailed the construction in my second ever post.

So many memories.

But many years have passed since then and my shop is now a 12×13 bedroom (instead of a dining nook). My mother claimed the old dining table for her house and my dining room has been empty (other than a console table that functions as a bar) for some time. But that’s about to change.

Dry assembly.

I’ve had a stack of paint grade soft maple for a while. Mostly 4/4 boards, but a little bit of 8/4 stock too (enough for some leg frames, at least). So I’m making a new dining table out of it, although much more delicate than the last. The legs are 1.75″ square and the top rails are barely 1′ x 3″ (and the bottom rails under 1″ x 2″). It will be solid, but far too spindly for woodworking on. There’s a number of mortises in this piece, so in addition to the usual cabinetmaker’s triangles, I’m also employing a timber framer’s marking system as backup.

I’ve never cut roman numerals with a chisel before.

As always, I tend to latch onto specific design elements that I find online (don’t @ me). For this, I’m going with the same stopped chamfers shown in this Restoration Hardware piece.

I don’t plan to permanently affix the top (not even a line of glue along one edge). Instead, the entire top will be affixed with wooden turnbuttons. Further contributing to the future of this piece merely as a dining table.

I mentioned this is paint grade soft maple and I mean it. It’s blotchy, streaked and, although curly in a few places, generally the grain is unruly throughout. I expect to paint the entire piece (probably in the same linen/coastal blue two tone as the console table bar). But as an initial matter, a couple coats of boiled linseed oil to see how the grain looks unpainted will do the trick.

We’ll see.

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Fixgasm (noun)

Fixgasm (noun): a small, heavily-procrastinated DIY project that, when completed, has a significant effect on efficiency or enjoyment of the object or space.

Example:

Finally added the spacer between the split top.

Having a split top workbench with a gap between the slabs is quite convenient for weird clamping jobs. But the gap is not so convenient for keeping tools off the floor. With a bit of time today, though, I managed to fit the center spacer to fill the gap. I’d been meaning to do this for a while and, other than the ripping of 12/4 ash to make the strip, it was pretty easy and should have been done a while ago.

Classic fixgasm.

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Workshop Update (Q2 2021)

Those of you who follow me on the twitterbook know that I recently rearranged my workshop. I think it’s really great, especially now that my main workbench is under a window (south facing as it may be). And you may notice something about the main workbench itself: it’s a forest green Moravian knock down! Albeit a split-top variety.

I also upgraded the overhead lighting, as if natural light wasn’t good enough!

With the new workbench rotating in, my eight foot Nicholson shifted against the wall where my tool chest used to live and my clamp racks still do. And my sharpening station is not on the right end of that bench, with the old sharpening station (a 4-foot Paul Seller’s workbench clone) having moved to another home. I still use the leg vise from time to time, because I love the foot-operated cog and screw parallel guide just so much. The Moravian workbench has a pinboard, which is fine but much less convenient (more on that in the future).

I still like this workbench, it’s just very large and was taking up too much room in the middle of the space.

All in all, the new arrangement improves the flow of the workshop and the room actually feels bigger despite having another 4 square feet of overall workbench footprint (it’s a 13.5′ x 12.5′ bedroom, btw).

I need to work with the Moravian workbench for a few more months to get a better sense of how it fits my workflow.

So stay tuned!

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Cultural Appreciation (Pt. II)

Many moons ago, although surprisingly still in pandemic times, I made a small sitting bench out of scrap pine (Eastern White Pine for the top and Red Pine for the legs) that used angled, rectilinear tenons and a cross-rail on each end. After watching Grandpa Amu make a new workbench several times, this was an experiment and study in how these sorts of angled tenons work. The legs splay out at 10 degree (ish) angles, but have no rake. At the time, that seemed to me a good first step and was actually doable without any guides or other jigs. Just a chisel and a bevel gauge and some caution.

This thing, that actually lives at my office now.

Shortly after that, I took a six foot piece of 8″ wide clear vertical grain douglas fir that was languishing in the lumber pile and turned it into slab top and four square legs for the next part of the experiment. Which then sat, leaned up against the wall, for almost a year. But the spirit moved me this weekend and I got back to it. For this piece, the legs would have both splay and rake (both at around 10 degrees). And it’s worked out nicely (and not just because CVG douglas fir is very handtool friendly).

That’s my new Moravian workbench behind, including the finished leg vise, in my rearranged shop.

Shortly after the original experiment, I made a couple of test mortises (also in Eastern White Pine) using the same technique as the first bench (freehand with only a bevel gauge to assist). They didn’t come out great, with the bottom of the mortise (on the underside) being wider than the top. This led to inconsistent leg angles that couldn’t be wholly attributed to the softness of the EWP top.

So what I did instead was cut a few angle guides from squared up 2×4 (more on that in a future post). That way, I could freehand close to the lines and then, in a final paring cut using the guides, get the angles dead on. At least within appropriate tolerances for a piece of furniture. I’m no machinist, after all.

On the right, you can see a couple of low spots where freehand chopping took me a smidge below the final angle.

So was it strictly necessary to go through all this fuss to make the angles perfect? Probably not. I’ve already drilled the peg holes into the top and this will live as a saw bench in my shop (replacing a pair that are about 6 years old and wearing out quickly). It didn’t need to be perfect.

But if I were to use a joint like this in a proper piece of furniture, I think the angle paring guides are the way to go. Could I eventually get good enough freehanding to not need the guides as a crutch. Sure. But that’s a lot of work and, in my view, if a simple jig works, it’s worth using.

And, for now, I’ll gladly use whatever help I can get.

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Perfection, In Potentia

Over the last year and change, I’ve been experimenting with the Moravian Workbench form popularized by Will Myers. I’ve watched the first three and a half hours of the instructional video probably 15 times. Every time, right up to when the top gets attached via blind-pegged dowels.

But up until now, I haven’t paid much attention to the leg vise assembly, because the previous benches I’ve made for others haven’t included leg vises. For the final version, though (the one I will keep), I’ve got to push through the rest of the video and figure out exactly how that part of the bench is made and works.

Pretty, right?

This particular version is 73″ long (i.e., 3″ shorter than the source material) and 24″ deep. But instead of a single slab and a tool tray, mine has two 12/4 ash slabs at 11.25″ wide each. The gap in the middle will eventually be bridged with a tool removable tool rack.

The legs and long stretchers are poplar. Along with the slabs, the short stretchers and the wedges are ash. Ash is my favorite wood, with poplar close behind. Both are cheap and readily available, making them perfect for workbenches. And, other than the slabs (which came from a single board) were already in my lumber pile.

Having made three of them now, I have some thoughts on the form and process of the main bench.

While the legs themselves are sawn from solid 16/4 poplar stock, the long stretchers are laminated from three 5/4 poplar boards. I did it this way in the douglas fir experimental version and found this easier than sawing and paring the tenons (like I did for the more accurate version I made recently).

My mortise chisels and paring chisels are all legacy Narex ones.

Also, I nixed dovetailing the lower stretcher and just mortised it in with drawbored pegs. I’ve always thought the dovetailed lower stretcher on the source version must have been added later, when it became clear the leg assemblies weren’t rigid enough without them. I may be biased, but why use a lapped dovetail for only this joint when you’re otherwise using square mortises? Because you done F’d up and needed to fix a design flaw. That, or the maker just got sick of mortises and changed it up. Which I also understand.

Oh, and I painted the undercarriage forest green. Which then made the tenons too thick and I had to widen the mortises. Sweet, sweet irony.

Small cherry Roman workbench FTW!

And, with that, it’s back to making the vise assembly. I’ve procrastinated long enough. And I have just the board for both the backer board and the chop. An 8/4 ash board that’s been acclimating to my shop for almost 4 years. It’s almost too perfect.

But every board, in the end, gets sawn up. No matter how perfect the board is.

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Face Marks

This is something I’ve wanted to post for a while, but I’ve been concerned it would come off as snooty or elitist. But I’ve finally got the nerve and here is is:

Am I the only one who takes to heart that the face mark (from the Latin: facies) denoting the reference face of a board (i.e., a tried and trued surface) should be written like the top half of a cursive, lower case “f“?

Like so, shown is corresponding square mark on the reference edge.

Maybe I’m just an elitist prick, but the rando squiggles you see in some woodworking media infuriate me. In fact, I’m not sure which is worse: the rando curly cue that doesn’t even make it to the reference edge or the backwards (!) “f” that is otherwise correct.

Is there some pre-Industrial French spelling convention I’m not aware of that F’s are written backward when not accompanied by a vowel with an accent grav or something?

There seems to be near unanimity in the woodworking community that use of anything other than traditional marriage marks should be discouraged because it can lead to assembly errors, so why don’t more people care about this?

This has bothered me for a long time. I may not be the best woodworker, but when I make a face mark, it looks like a god damned “f”.

Thanks for listening. I am prepared to lose readers and followers over this issue.

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Headlight Fluid

Working with unprepared stock is usually no fun. I prefer to work from rough lumber purchased from the yard (because it’s both more economical than pre-surfaced stock and there is more variety available). But for things where 3/4″ white pine will suffice, it’s hard to beat the home center common boards. Spend an hour digging through the pile and you’re bound to find clear, straight grain stock. And if you don’t, come back in a week and try again.

But even the clearest, straightest grain stock tends to cup and twist once it’s been in the shop for a week. Re-flattening can take it down to 5/8″ thickness or even less (depending how severe the cupping is), and it adds time and aggravation to the process.

But what if cupping and twist didn’t matter? If you’re just gluing and nailing something together, couldn’t you instead flatten the boards with some clamping cauls and go to town? The answer is, of course, “yes”. And that’s the approach I took when knocking together a quick Japanese-style toolbox for a recent trip out of town (don’t worry; I quarantined both before and after).

Like so?

We modern woodworkers get hung up on perfection, sometimes. To us, everything needs to be piston fit and machinist flat, even when it really doesn’t matter. But, in reality, only some surfaces need to be perfect. Our forebears knew this (just look at the hidden surfaces in any period masterwork). If the wood is going to restrained, it doesn’t really need to be perfect in the first place.

And so, once glued and nailed, and then reinforced with floorboards and gussets, also nailed on (and maybe even glued), any wayboard boards on this toolbox will be restrained from future movement. Might it blow apart in the future from some unforeseen stress? Maybe. But probably not.

Thing thing is solid as a rock.

And, in any event, if it does, it’s just some home center common grade white pine 1×12’s joined with glue and nails. I can always knock it apart and add some dados to keep things more in alignment.

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Secret Plans

Tell me if this sounds familiar: a friend or relation knows you can make things (in my case, out of wood) and are otherwise handy at need. Instead of paying a professional, whose livelihood depends on finding jobs like this, they ask you, an amateur to make or fix or modify something. Being a good friend/relation/human being, you dutifully pack up your traveling tool box with what you think you’ll need and, before you go, ask the person to confirm they have a decent workbench to work on, or at least a sturdy table for you to clamp a portable workbench to. They of course respond “yes”.

Then you show up. Their “workbench” is a bit of screwed together 2×4 and plywood that sways like a willow in a hurricane from the lightest wracking force. Even worse, it’s a plastic, folding card table. Or their partner won’t let you clamp your portable workstation to their IKEA dining room table. You can’t work like this, so eventually you make portable workbench that doesn’t rely on clamping to another stable platform (like a staked, roman-style workbench). But those are a pain (literally and figuratively) to move around.

Do this enough times, and your conclusion will be “why don’t I just make all my friends and relatives workbenches, so I always have one handy when they ask me to help with something?”. And your conclusion is correct. I, myself, have been secretly filling my friends’ and relatives’ homes with proper workbenches for years.

I ran out of whole 2×4’s so I laminated in some “clamping gaps” with scraps.

The bench above is a pretty faithful representation of Will Myer’s “Moravian Workbench”, other than it’s entirety constructed from Douglas Fir 2×4’s (except the wedges, which are red oak, and the tray, which is poplar). And I omit the leg vise.

Pre-pandemic, the twenty 2×4’s needed to make this entire workbench would cost about US$80 in total. Add in an oak hobby board for the wedges and a bottle of PVA glue and you’re barely pushing $100 for the raw materials. Unfortunately, with the lumber prices being what they right now, the materials would currently cost almost twice as much.

But that’s okay. A good workbench at a friend or relative’s home is worth its weight in figurative gold.

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The Last Train Home

I’ve resisted it for a while, but finally gave in to this Roubo Workbench craze (if you can call something at least 15 years old a craze). Not because I need it (I have to many workbenches already); but because I need to prove to myself that I can do it.

I was never able to sell my old workbench, so cut the back wing off the slab and set that side after plugging the holdfast holes with epoxy and covering them with poorly matching dutchmen. That repurposed wing is still about 3″ thick and 7 inches wide and will become something, eventually. Probably a mantle, if I’m being honest.

Slab Rehab!

The main slab was still about 3.75″ thick, even after several flattenings. It’s 90″ long and about 15″ wide, consisting of two boards edge glued together. It started as a single, 180″ long piece of 16/4 ash, as a reminder. And after 5 years or so seems to be pretty dry and stable. And the holdfast holes are still pretty plumb even after all that flattening. This is no 6″ thick, 24″ wide slab of green red oak. 15″ is far too narrow for all four legs to be straight up and down (the bench would be too tippy).

So that means another weird Stent Panel (i.e., stretcher-less) style workbench!

It’s still a nice slab.

I’ve made a quasi-Stent Panel workbench before, with angled back legs. Unlike the last time, though, I won’t mortise the angled back legs into the underside of the slab. Instead, just like a saw bench, I’ll dado the back legs into the side of the slab and cut an angled lap joint on the leg itself. Glue and a large lag screw will secure those back legs to the slab. I contemplated a sliding proper dovetail, but there is a ton of glue surface here (although I may cut it at a couple of degrees for a little bit more mechanical strength).

The front legs, however, need to be more solidly attached to the top due to strain from the leg vise and the holdfasts. In my previous Stent Panel workbench, the legs were merely blind-mortised into the top. A friction fit, with glue and drawbores, made a very stout joint that was nothing special to look at. But that was last time. This time, we’re doing the Roubo tenon/sliding dovetail! All these years later!

The slab was blind mortised to attach the frame on the old bench. I plugged those old mortises with epoxy and a tight dutchman.

I’m not sure I agree that this is a simpler joint than a double tenon (i.e., where the front recess is also square instead of angled for the dovetail). Well, at least the mortise part. The dovetailed tenon is dead simple to cut, if a bit fiddly to get those little front shoulders in line with the center shoulders.

Just keep track of which leg is which through marriage marks.

But it does look nice, especially after a few wedges fill up any remaining gaps. I apparently cut one of the joints a bit too tight, as a hairline split emerged along the front of the inside tenon. I don’t think it will be structural, and it doesn’t appear to have gone all the way through the slab. The glue joints are large and sound, so we’ll see if I need to drive some lag bolts in to secure it.

It does look pretty nice, though.

I had never cut a double tenon before (sliding dovetailed or otherwise). I’m now satisfied that I can do it effectively now. But if I ever do this again, I know now to make it a bit less friction fit and let the glue do the work.

And knowing is half the battle.

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