Big Projects

The Abyss Stares Back

It’s come to my attention that I’ve been misquoting Nietzsche for some time (even though I can spell his name first try, every time).  From “Beyond Good and Evil”, Aphorism 146 states:

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.  

This well-known quote from the oft-misunderstood German philosopher is undoubtedly the genesis of the Harvey Dent quote in “The Dark Knight (2008)”:

You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

But, because I, like The Batman, am not a hero, let’s allow the abyss gaze into me for a moment.

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So many mortises, I feel like I haven’t cut a dovetail in forever.

Last week and over the weekend, I did in fact dig deep and bear down.  I chopped four new mortises in the leg frames for the reclaimed console table and planed and joined the two long rails.  After all was said and done, there were 20 drawbores in the undercarriage, plus another 4 in the joints between the front legs and the main slab.  And then I painted the entire undercarriage with “Linen” milk paint.

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Not to be confused with “Antique White” or “Seagull”.

But even the best laid plans don’t work out perfectly, so there was plenty of time for things to go pear shaped.  But I was pleasantly surprised when everything came together pretty much straight and square. 24 drawbores, not a single snapped dowel.  Not even a stripped screw on the tabletop connectors.

The picture below doesn’t do it justice, but the piece feels light and graceful.  And in the mid-afternoon light of a north facing window, it evokes the “Islands of New England” feel I was hoping for.  I’m building a shallow tray out of 3/4″ poplar to fill out the rest of the table top, which will be painted in “Coastal Blue” milk paint and nailed on.  The face edge and ends of the main slab will also be painted that color.  The only bare wood will be the top and back edge of the main slab.

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A shelf, if added, will also be painted “Coastal Blue”.

You may recall that I had a tripartite plan:

  • Drawbored mortise and tenon joints for the long stretchers.  ✔
  • Reinforce main slab with a board glued on below.  X
  • Skip the shelf.  ✔

As someone once said, two out of three ain’t bad.  And that’s one more batch of reclaimed lumber off the pile. We’ll see if I ever get to that leg vise and/or fixed deadman.

Unrelated, I also ended up putting an end cap on the pine bench top extension to the Stent Panel workbench.  I think it looks a ton better, even if it’s not functionally necessary.  It’s not a great color match at this point, but there are worse things in life.

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I can finally sleep at night!

Now, if I could just figure out how to do the same thing on the left side of the bench.

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Staring into the Abyss

There comes a point in every build where I have to ask myself: do I dig deep and bear down, or take the easy way out?  I am ashamed to admit it’s barely better than a 50/50 split over time.

I’ve been working for a while on a rather large “console table” made entirely of reclaimed lumber from past projects.  The undercarriage is hard maple reclaimed from one of my earliest woodworking projects: a platform bed.  Even after planing and sanding, you can still see the remnants of gross home center stain in the pores.

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Looks green, but is actually “mahogany”.

If the general shape looks familiar, it should.  And I have, to this point, worked hard and done it right.  All the joints are mortise and tenon, drawbored with 7/16 dowels with relatively aggressive offset.  Solid as a rock.  The undercarriage will be painted to cover up the gross discoloration and some tear out of wild grain.

The tabletop, however, will be ash.  Specifically, ash reclaimed from the back wing of my Stent Panel workbench.  Reflattened and otherwise cleaned up a bit, it’s 80″ long, 10″ wide and a hair under 1 7/8″ thick.  That’s more than half of the overall tabletop area and solid enough for whatever light duty it may pull as it sits under a north-facing window in my dining room.

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It’s pretty enough for its intended purpose.

The tenons on the tops of the front legs will be drawbored into mortises in the slab.  Some DIY tabletop connectors should combine to make a stout connection between the frame and the tabletop.  All while allowing for seasonal wood movement.  Some sort of full length tool well will fill out the rest of the table top, but probably won’t be good for much other than collecting junk.

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Tabletop connectors are good enough when there won’t be much wracking force.

At this point, the mortises are cut into the slab and everything fits together nicely.  But, as always happens, I now have a choice. There will definitely be stretchers on this table.  It would otherwise be too wobbly with just a single tenon and tabletop connector on each leg frame.  But how do I connect the stretchers?

Do I meticulously mark and pare shoulder lines for proper mortise and tenon joints (like the leg frames) for maximum strength and consistent aesthetic? Or do I skimp on time and process and lap the stretchers into the front and back legs, which would certainly be strong enough and look just fine?

And once the stretchers are attached, should I add a jack board mortised between the front stretcher and the underside of the tabletop to add a bit more rigidity in the middle and act as a fixed deadman?  Or do I just glue a strip of maple to the underside of the tabletop to reinforce it more discreetly?

What about a shelf?  Do I add one at all?  If so, is it birch plywood banded in maple or solid wood reclaimed from some source?

Each of these choices affects the amount of effort and time required to finish this project.

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Here I am, staring into the abyss.

So here is my hot-take (for now):

  • Drawbored mortise and tenon joints connect the long stretchers to the legs.
  • Tabletop reinforced with additional lamination below.
  • No shelf, for now.  I may also add a loose deadman one day.

Everything is a give and a take in hobby woodworking. Doubly so in small-space hobby woodworking.  But, sometimes, there is a middle ground between “dig deep, bear down” and “easy way out”.

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Plywood Roman Workbench (Part 2)

Where we last left off, we had a slab of laminated plywood that was tried and true on the top face because of some smart lamination techniques.  And, in theory, the slab would work just fine at that point.  But it’s better to have relatively-straight and relatively square edges and ends on a workbench.  So let’s do that.

So what you do really depends on your method of straightening.  Because this is meant to be a beginner woodworker project, I used a time-tested method for getting an edge relatively straight and square.  For this you’ll need a hand plane of some sort and a power router with two bits: a pattern bit (the bearing is near the shank) and a flush trim bit (the bearing is on the end).

My first step is to true up the top 3/8″ or so of the edge adjacent to the reference face with the hand plane.  I used a No. 5 Stanley, but anything will do (even a block plane).  You could in theory use a coarse sanding block or even a power sander, but that sounds like a lot of work.   Just check it with a straightedge as you go.

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Like so.

The angle between the flat top of the slab (against which the base of the router registers) and the straight portion of the edge you just planed (against which the pattern bit bearing will run) becomes the overall reference for the bench.  Go slowly to avoid chatter, especially if you’re taking of a decent bit of material.  It should have brought most of the edge into relatively squareness.  Although the pattern bit is unlikely to make it all the way.

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ice and clean.

Now, flip the slab over and switch in the flush trim bit in the power router.  The bearing on the flush trim bit will run against the surface you just flattened with the pattern bit and trim off the ledge that remains.  What you should be left with is a relatively square, probably straight edge.  It’s not going to be perfect, but it’s more than good enough for what we’re doing here.

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Pattern bit on the left.  Flush trim bit on the right.  Or vice versa.

Then repeat the process for the other side and each end.  Get the entire slab to as uniform of a width as possible and do your best to square the front end of the slab to one of the sides (the back end matters less).

You could definitely do this entirely with a hand plane, but Baltic Birch plywood is tough on O1 steel and you’d need to resharpen often.  In any event, break all the corners of the slab with a hand plane or a sanding block.  Then slap on a couple of coats of Boiled Linseed Oil or Tung Oil onto the top face, sides and ends (but not the underside).  Any penetrating oil will do, but stay away from film finishes like shellac or polyurethane.

Up to this point, I’ve used four tools: a hand plane of some sort, a power router with two bits (pattern and flush trim), a sanding block and a claw hammer (with wire brads).  That, plus some glue, resulted in a pretty straight, pretty flat, pretty square, and pretty clean slab that is 60″ long, 11.75″ wide and 2.825″ thick.  Not including glue drying time, I’m about two workshop hours into this project (plus some driving back and forth from the lumber yard).

Next time, we’ll talk about adding some initial workholding (preview pic below) so we can begin using the bench to make the rest of it.  Warning: you’ll need a saw and a way to bore holes the size of the oak dowel you purchased.

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Homemade bench dogs!

Fits and Starts, Part II

Life can sometimes feel like a series of unfinished woodworking projects.  I start with an idea and the best intentions, and something goes off the rails.  In this case, it’s the under-workbench cabinet from last year.  The case has been sitting around, taking up space in my workshop since before American Thanksgiving.  But, unable to get back to sleep around 330am, I decided to push it forward and nail on the tongue-and-groove case back.

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Is that the end of the tunnel or the train?

This was never meant to be fine furniture.  In fact, it’s sized to fit underneath my Stent Panel workbench.  But I’ve gotten used to keeping my saw benches there, so I’ve finally confirmed its new purpose as furniture.  Some 16″ hairpin legs will raise the deck to 36″.  The perfect height for a dry bar.

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Some detail on the T&G back boards.

The plan was always to dado in some shelves in one cubbyhole and add a door to the other.  I don’t think that’s the best use of the space if it’s not workshop storage.  Instead, I will add a drawer to the top of each cubbyhole and use the space beneath each drawer for book storage.  I probably should have done that stuff before nailing on the backboards, but when has patience ever been my first option?

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Probably overkill for something that won’t be mounted to a wall.

There is something profound about the process of laying out, drilling and driving nails.  I usually listen to music while woodworking, but I always forget to hit play with dividers in hand.  I guess it’s so I can hear the change in tone as the nail clears the pilot hole and bites the wood.

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Cut nails where they won’t be seen.  Die forged where they will.

It’s been a few months since I’ve cut any half blind dovetails.  They go quicker in pine, but tend to be a bit more ragged than in hardwoods.  I have a fine dovetail saw (20 tpi) that works well for those tasks.

It’s around here somewhere, anyway.

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Extreme Vanity

If a coherent philosophy exists in my woodworking, it’s this: “Why build when you can overbuild?”.  Or, perhaps, it’s “Could we? (not should we)?”.  Either way, it’s resulted in the most hilariously stout bathroom vanity of all time.

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Glamour shot just before the sinks go in.

The entire thing is quartersawn white oak.  The leg frames are entirely 8/4″ stock (final thickness of about 1 15/16″) and the top is 6/4″ stock (final thickness of just over 1 1/4″).  Everything is stub tenoned and drawbored with 3/8″ birch dowels and Titebond 1.  The long rails are even double drawbored front and back.

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It’s not a workbench, but it might as well be.

I chose to drawbore the mortise and tenon joints for two reasons.  First, there are no lengthwise lower stretchers, so it needed the extra rigidity.  Any lower shelf I make will just sit on top of the short rails of the leg frames.  But, more importantly, I don’t own any 60″ clamps so clamping this thing together would have been awkward and unreliable.

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Pre-assembly, pre-finish.

Drawboring also makes assembly less stressful.  You can move the constituent pieces individually and then assemble in situ at a leisurely pace. Sure: the assembled frame probably would have made it through the door from the hallway anyway.  But who knows (and why risk it)?

The net result is a piece of furniture with a frame that will never come apart.  Even if I want it to.

How the tabletop connects to the frame is a different story altogether, though.  More on that later.

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Alternatives to Fighting

In progressing the standing desk build, I had to make a design choice regarding how to attach the back stretcher. But, more importantly, I had a practical choice to make. The angle of the back leg on each of the two frames is slightly off. Call it half a degree or so. Near the top of the assembly, there is no appreciable difference. 30″ or so down the legs, though, it’s nearly 3/16″ off.

I could, in theory, modify the cheek depth on one of the tenons and cant it very slightly to correct for this discrepancy. Or I could just run the stretcher near the top where the bag legs are, for all practical purposes, parallel. And if I’m doing that, why not in my impatience just lap a dovetail?

Because of course dovetails.

Half-lapped dovetails are an interesting joint. I personally find them aesthetically displeasing, even when executed perfectly. But they provide a mechanical resistance against tensile force that in other joints would require some sort of fastener (dowels, screws or bolts). And, like the comparable joints (mortise and tenon, half lap joint), they have significant long grain to long grain glue surface for maximum strength.

Plus, I find them rather easy to cut once you dial in the compound angle.

Ugly or not, this particular joint is not only on the back of the assembly, so I don’t have to every look at it again. Plus, it will be painted. So I’m happy with the choice.

Now I just have to make the top.

Have I mentioned that Eastern White Pine is just the best? Because it is.

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Palate Cleanser

With the bathroom renovation fully underway, I couldn’t put off building the vanity any longer. Almost two years ago, I selected the design to generally rip off. Shortly thereafter, I purchased who knows how many board feet of 8/4 quartersawn white oak, which then sat in my workshop to acclimate for many months before dimensioning.

It’s been so long, my new workbench was still in big room..

White Oak can be very beautiful and (being both waterproof and tough) it is perfect for applications like bathroom vanities. Hard Maple works well too. But unless it’s air dried, White Oak is just too damned hard to work with hand tools alone. Based on how tough it is (and the way it warped when acclimating in the shop), I assume this stock is kiln dried. So I didn’t even bother trying to chop the mortises by hand. Instead, I utilized the drill press like a mortising machine and pared each mortise to width with a chisel. I also squared the corners, because effort.

Before and after.

The tenons were no peach either. I typically saw tenon shoulders and then split the tenons cheeks (rather than saw them). A router plane then pares down the cheeks to get a piston fit. This approach works pretty well, even in kiln dried White Oak, as long as I don’t take too much of a bite with the router plane. But fine-tuning the tenon shoulders (i.e., end grain) with a shoulder plane is basically impossible. If I don’t saw perfectly to the line, it’s chisel paring or bust.

So after getting through the joinery on both end frames, I was ready for a change. Back to the Eastern White Pine standing desk I’m leisurely making for my home office! If you’ve been reading for any amount of time, you know that I prefer to torture myself with angled back legs and this desk build is no exception.

Fluffy and delightful.

Why Eastern White Pine for desk, you may ask? Well, it’s my experience that a softer wood with a bit of flex is better in the long run for hands and elbows. I’ve been working on a quartersawn red oak desk for about five years now and I’m pretty sure I have arthritis in one elbow because of it. I’ve taken to using gel rests for both keyboard and mouse, but they don’t do anything to make up for the lack of flex.

It’s always a boon to make it through an assembly with no broken pegs.

These frames are only 34″ high overall (and will likely be down to 33.5″ when the feet are leveled). Add in two inches of bearer and two more inches of tabletop, and perhaps 3/8 of felt furniture pad, it’s still only about 38″ high. At just a bit over 5’10”, a perfect standing desk for me is about 40″ high. So where am I getting the rest of the height? From my ventilated laptop stand, of course!

The final desk won’t be quite as long or as wide as my current desk. I don’t work from home nearly as much as I used to, so there is just no good reason for a 76″ x 30″ desk. It takes up too much space. Something more like 60″ x 20″ will be plenty of real estate and will free up a fair amount of floor space.

But this new standing desk will make my current office chair pretty useless, so I need to find a decent 30″ stool with a backrest.

Find or make, I guess.

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Branching Out

I’ve been woodworking for about six years total.  Four or so have been hand tool-focused.  It’s hard to admit, but I never really went hand tool only, as I rely pretty heavily on my thickness planer.  I also use a drill press from time to time, because I have one.  And it came in handy recently, as I forayed into some more basic metalworking.

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For me, this is complicated metalwork.

After working at the new workbench for a couple of months, it became rather clear that the connection between the main slab and the extension needed shoring up.  Three posts and some 4″ lengths of angle iron at random intervals weren’t doing the trick.  It needed something more substantial.

I found myself at the home center at 601am on a Saturday (I was actually there for cleaning products), and it seemed they had freshly restocked the angle iron.  I had cobalt bits and a new countersink, so I figured, “why not?”.

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Not even I worried about clocking these screws.

Drilling through 1/8″ mild steel is not too bad (although the squiggly shavings can be sharp!).  And countersinking is messy and loud, if satisfying.  The only hard part about the entire endeavor was lining up the holes in the angle iron to not interfere with the planing stop or holdfast holes.

Now two lengths of 24″ angle iron, with screws at 1.5″ and 8″ from each end, reinforce the joint between the slab and the extension.  They also added a couple of lbs. to the workbench, which can’t be overstated.  Although I’m keeping the workbench shelf-less, I am in fact going to add a back stretcher between the angled back legs to increase the heft overall.

Speaking of which, I added some extensions to the back of the angled legs.  Now the footprint of the legs nearly matches the depth of the bench top, which makes the bench more stable when traversing or using a shooting board.  The extensions also, conveniently, create a ledge for the back stretcher to ride on (meaning I can get away with not gluing the lap-jointed stretcher in place).

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Hide glue and 3/8 lag bolts ensure it won’t ever move.

My next project is a cabinet for under the bench, which will store clamps, fasteners and other odds and ends that I use enough to keep them close at hand, but not so often that they should be in my tool chest.  I’m purposely building it in a way that can be converted to a wall cabinet if the mood ever seizes me.

Stay tuned.

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Setting the Record Straight

So I am substantially finished with my new work bench, which is a sort of reproduction of the weird, stretcherless Shaker, Stent Panel-esque workbench from Pleasant Hill.

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Sorry for the shadows.  I couldn’t find my front lighting bar.

Made entirely from Ash (other than the hard-wearing vise parts, which are Hard Maple), the main bench consists of a slab that is 86″ long, 12.5″ deep and a hair under 4″ thick.  The legs, which are cut from the same piece of timber as the slab, are mortised into the slab.  The front legs are flush with the front of the slab and double drawbored in place.  The back legs, which are also mortised into the slab, splay outward at about a 14 degree angle and are further secured with two square head lag bolts each.  The slab itself is oriented with the heart side up, with grain running left to right.

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Yes, there is a leg vise.

The leg vise is based around a 1.5″ Hard Maple screw turned using a Beall Tool Company Big Threader.  The vise chop is a single piece of 12/4 Ash with a bunch of runout (and so has a particularly nice figure on the face) that is about 6″ wide (compared to 4″ on the leg itself).  The vise hub is Ash, made roughly round by hand with a spokeshave, some rasps, and much patience.  A temporary handle of 3/4 walnut dowel pierces the hub.

The vise jaw is joined to the vise screw with a Hard Maple garter that is screwed to the face of the vise jaw.  The leg vise has a depth of about 8.5″ and an overall capacity of about 5″, but I haven’t tested its limits.  The vise works through a Hard Maple pin board, that accepts a 3/8″ mild steel rod that is epoxied into a Hard Maple Shaker-style drawer pull.  The holes need to wear in a bit, but it works quite well from the outset.  Other than the garter screws, the screws that hold on the vise nut to the back of the leg (which is also hard maple), the screws that hold on the parallel guide at the bottom of the leg, and the pin itself, there is no metal in the leg vise assembly.

The leg vise is accompanied by a Veritas inset vise with a row of holes for round 3/4″ bench dogs which are 2″ on center from the front edge of the benchtop.  I will bore a few 1″ holes in the slab for my Crucible Tool holdfast, as well as some holes in the front right leg for some Grammercy Tools holdfasts, once I figure the layout.  Please ignore the patch in the front light leg seen in the picture above, which covers a plugged and epoxied hole from an aborted bore.  I was having a bad day.

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Prior to cleaning up the drawbores and actually securing the parallel guide.

The benchtop is extended by another 10″ or so through a length of 8/4 Ash, supported by three 1.5″ square posts which are mortised directly into the slab.  The 8/4 extension is lightly glued along the edge joint and on the first 2 inches or so of each post.  Angle iron lines the underside of the seam to prevent any sagging between the posts.  Like the mains lab, the extension is oriented heart side up, with a grain direction that runs left to right.

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Cutting these dadoes was the most enjoyable part of the entire build.

So let’s talk about this style of workbench, which has been an exhilarating intellectual exercise that I do not regret.  That being said:

This is NOT the easiest way to build a workbench.  Angled back legs, as pretty as they are, are not to be undertaken lightly.  Going stretcher-less provides a bit of leeway on the exact angles, but I spent way too much time with a flashlight and a bevel gauge checking the angles on the mortises.  Furthermore, angled mortises mean angled shoulders on the tenons, which must be closely matched to get a well-seated joint.  In retrospect, I’d have been better off doing 2″ round tenons for the back legs, which would have saved me about 10 hours of fiddling.

In any event, adding the posts to support the benchtop extension was by far the most difficult and tedious part of the build (even more so than the angled mortises for the back legs).  Getting the post to stick out from the back slab at exactly 90 degrees was no trivial task, either.  It took several hours with a shoulder plane and winding sticks to get all three posts perfectly aligned.  But all the work paid off and once the extension was in place it took only a few passes with a jointer plane to level the extension with the main slab.

So why would someone build a workbench this way?  There can be literally only one answer: efficient use of the available materials.  If the only thick timber I had at my disposal was a single, narrow-ish slab, this is exactly how I’d build a workbench.  The bench is stout where it needs to be and good enough everywhere else.  But because it is not thick timber all around, it suffers a bit in overall weight.  With tools and work piled on the bench, it’s fine.  But on its own, it scoots a tiny bit under heavy planing load.

One second thought, there may be another reason to build a bench this way: atonement for one’s sins.  Because at times this build felt positively Sisyphusian.

Now to make the bench slave, after which I can officially get rid of my old workbench.

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So Close!

My new workbench is just about done.  The only thing left to do is finish fitting the bench top extension to the posts that are now mortised into the back edge of the main slab.

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My silly little workbench experiment.

When I say “fitting to the posts” what I really mean is jointing the edge of the extension to match the edge of the slab.  I marked the dadoes in the extension against the posts themselves, so it’s really just an incremental trial-and-error process to get a good seam between the two benchtop pieces.

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This is what it looks like when all pulled together.

There are a few things to address which have come to light as I use the bench to finish up the bench, most of which relate to its tendency to scoot a little bit under heavy hand-planing.

First, without stretchers or a shelf full of detritus, the bench is a smidge on the light side.  To address this, I plan to do two things to add some mass: (i) add some mild steel bar stock (or maybe just laminate on some additional wood) to back face of the the angled rear legs, and (ii) add some steel angle iron to the underside of the seam between the main slab and the extension.  The angle iron has the added benefit of shoring up the area between the posts, which can sag a little bit under heavy weight (I should have used four posts, honestly).

Second, the bench is a little bit taller overall than I’m used to (around 36.5″).  As a result, and because of the limitations of the available stock, the back legs don’t have full contact on the ground.  I’ll work with the bench a bit before I decide if I need to lower it, but doing so will have the added benefit of increasing surface contact under the back legs.    If the height ends up working out, I may instead just fit and glue some overlong wedges onto the ends of the back legs (which will slightly extend the footprint).  Either way, I plan to add some non-skid stair tape (i.e., adhesive backed, coarse grit sand paper) to everything to increase traction.

Finally, there will probably be at least one stretcher on the bench in order to reinforce the leg vise assembly.  The front leg is mortised into the benchtop and the pin board is mortised into the vise chop (and both are drawbored and glued in place).  But I still fear the pressure from the leg vise levering against the bottom of the leg will over-stress those joints.  A single stretcher to complete the triangle should be enough to enforce the mechanics while still maintaining the integrity of the stretcher-less design for the workbench.

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Probably to be added just above the level of the pin board.

All in all, this bench has turned out better than I could have hoped.  There are some holes to bore and some surfaces to level, but I am genuinely pleased with how everything came together.

In the next installment, I’ll walk through the specifics of the leg vise, which is completely DIY (including a screw I turned myself on a Beall wood threader), as well as address the disparity between the depth of the benchtop and the overall footprint of the skewed back legs.

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