Shop Equipment

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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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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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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Back in the Swing of Things

After a decent hiatus, I’m back and exactly the same as ever! Seriously, I have one big project in the queue (a replacement dining table since my mother absconded with my old one), but instead I’ve been dicking around with the Moravian Workbench.

My first try started with a simpler design that any apartment DIYer with a miter saw and a basic set of tools (saw, chisel, drill driver) could build from home center 2×4’s. Having a basic Apartment Workbench would help, but it’s not really necessary. Just laminate the slab for the top first and use it as a worksurface.

I planed and squared the pieces before laminating, but you could get by with just sanding a bit as long as the stock is relatively straight and untwisted. The angled, through mortises for the tusk tenons were laminated into the legs as I went, which worked really well.

Probably too many clamps for this application.

To keep things manageable, the crossrails on each leg assembly were lapped in and secured with screws, rather than mortised in. This worked well on the lower and middle stretchers, but it was a bit dicey on the top stretcher and I think the bridle joint used in the original Moravian Workbench design would have worked better. In retrospect, I think using Spruce (instead of Douglas Fir) for the leg assemblies would work better for this DIY approach. Spruce is a bit softer and lighter, but still very stiff, and somewhat less prone to chipping out.

Douglas Fir can be pretty, though.

Like the leg assemblies, the joints on the long stretchers were formed with a longer middle piece to form the tenon and two shorter pieces with the angled shoulders pre-cut. Just use the same angle setting as you used for the leg assemblies. The only real joinery in this version of the bench are the mortises for the tusk tenons. I used a brace and bit, boring in from each side and paring down to the lines, but chopping is just as easy.

The long rails look a bit chunky, but it really adds some weight.

I didn’t end up laminating a new top for this. I repurposed the plywood slab from the Plywood Roman Workbench. This bench will live in the garage of a friend who has recently gotten more into DIY, so I may have gotten a bit lazy near the end. I didn’t make the back shelf, as my buddy has a kreg pocket hole jig and some extra plywood. It can be his first project on the workbench. I also didn’t make a leg vise for the bench. He’s got clamps.

Not winning any beauty contests.

So, all in all, this worked out just fine. It allowed me to explore the Moravian Workbench form without worrying about wasting more expensive lumber while I experiment.

And this practice served me well, as I make a second version that follows the actual design more closely.

But more on that next time.

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Apartment Workbench Update

After several months of working on the low, Apartment Workbench, I’ve learned a few things.  First, 90 degrees is not the right angle for a palm-style planing stop.  It doesn’t hold thinner stock on edge very well, and often the mouth is too wide to grip boards on their face.  60 degrees seems much better.

Compare the old palm arrangement:

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In fairness, it’s more like 92 degrees.

To the new arrangement:

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3/8″ still seems about the right height for these, though.

In addition, 9 inches of benchtop overhang beyond the vertical legs is not great.  It’s fine in the front, where the palm interferes with things that might accidentally tip the bench forward.  But on the back, in practice, it prevents one from sitting all the way back on the bench, effectively shortening the working area of the bench when planing.  Even crosscutting on that end is precarious because of tipping.

The solution is either to move the legs further back (maybe 3 inches from the end of the bench would work) so the leverage is less OR, if you’re so adventurous, cant the legs forward so they sit at compound angles to the benchtop.

Speaking of which, that’s harder than it looks:

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This reminds of a deer, for some reason.

It’s not so much the cutting of the compound angle on the leg that’s difficult.  That’s pretty much just extending the usual saw bench birds-mouth joint with an extra angle on the shoulder.  And then some fiddling after to make sure everything is crisp.

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There is more to it, but this isn’t a how-to.

What presented more difficult was leveling the feet.  After the initial cuts marked out with the 4×4 of justice, tweaking the legs to be perfectly flat alluded me.  Perhaps it’s because it was saw horse height, and I couldn’t track the jointer plane off the other leg.  Or perhaps because of tolerance stack the compound angles resulted in something that didn’t quite match the reference angle.

But it was good practice.  And the net net on these compound angled legs is that I’m ready to move onto a proper Chinese-style low bench with compound leg angles.  I plan to take significant advantage of rasps and floats the first run at it, as the legs will be mortised in (not affixed to the outside)  And I have just the slab for it, too.

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Reclaimed from the back wing of the old ash workbench.

But more on that soon.

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Thought Experiment

Where we last left off, I had just about made a functional workbench for the cost of seven Douglas Fir 2×4’s and some construction screws.  Before I knew it, I had a sturdy surface that (although a bit narrow, in retrospect) was ready for some serious woodworking.  There was just one problem: I had cheated and not even realized it.

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Nice looking bench, if I say so myself.

You may have noticed the Veritas low profile planing stop shown above.  They are easy to install (you just drill a couple of 3/4″ holes) and super functional and I swear by them.  But there is no 3/4″ bit in my basic tool kit yet.  Since I’m not yet ready to compromise this intellectual exercise, the planing stop has to go.  Some West Systems epoxy does the trick filling the holes.

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Faces in things.

3/4″ drill bit aside, I definitely have a regular set of drill bits and a hammer.  So instead of a commercially-available planing stop, let’s instead make a palm, which is a different type of planing stop that’s useful for restraining boards both on the their faces and on their edges.

For those unfamiliar, it’s literally just two 1/2″ boards, nailed on at 45 degrees to the length of the bench and 90 degrees to each other. I used 6d die-forged nails with the heads counter-bored a bit so I don’t accidentally ding a plane sole on thinner stock.  Narrow boards (and boards on edge) wedge themselves into the palm (a bit like a crochet), and wider boards but up against the points (like a straight planing stop).

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Not sure what additional wisdom you’re looking for here.

I think that’s all the workholding I’ll need for now.  That said, the list of tools has expanded a bit.  The current list of all tools I used for building the bench is as follows:

  • No. 5 Jack Plane
  • Chisels: 1/2″ and 1″
  • Panel saw
  • Double-faced mallet (not pictured)
  • Claw hammer (not pictured)
  • 12″ combination square
  • 4″ try square
  • 36″ straightedge
  • 12′ tape measure (not pictured)
  • Folding marking knife
  • Wheel marking gauge
  • Small folding bevel gauge
  • Birdcage (square) awl
  • Mechanical pencil, etc.
  • Medium cut straight file
  • Cordless drill driver with standard drill bits and driver bits (bits not pictured)

But I think it’s fair to say that if the entire tool kit for making a workbench fit on the top of that workbench, then it qualifies as an apartment woodworking bench.

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I plan to immediately add a large router plane, also.  I can live without it; I just choose not to.

Up to this point, I’ve just been keeping track of the tools used and putting them back in my floor chest as I go.  But a full size floor chest is not exactly within reach for most small space woodworkers.  To be honest, my full size floor chest (40x24x24, not including the casters) is probably too large for my 12×13 bedroom workshop shop.  So it’s time to make some tool storage that’s more appropriate for a small shop.

I think a tool chest in the Dutch style popularized by Christopher Schwarz and Megan Fitzpatrick is the best option here.  I’ve built two of them before (one large that was gifted to a friend, one extra small with just the angled compartment that is just a residential toolbox) and in my experience they can be built with minimal tools.  I’m not bold enough to cut dovetails pins first on a low workbench, so I’ll stick to rabbets and nails/screws for this one.  Should be plenty strong for something that will live on a saw bench up against the wall.

But here are the rules going forward for this experiment:

Rule #1A: before I can pull a tool from my floor chest, I have to first do the operation (if possible) using one of the simple tools listed above.  For example, when making the workbench, after I cleaned up one of the leg mortises entirely with chisel, I could have swapped in a large router plane to do the same job (I actually did this for one where the grain was particularly unruly).  Another example: once I hand crosscut and square a board the first time, I can thereafter use my chop saw to move things along on the rest of the cuts.

Rule #1B: if the operation cannot be comfortably (or safely) done on the low workbench with a simpler tool, I can pull the correct tool as long as it can will in the Dutch tool chest.  If the correct tool will not fit in the Dutch tool chest and the operation is not comfortable (or safe) to do on the low workbench, I cannot perform that operation and must use a different joint/feature.

Rule #2: No vises, but clamping boards to the workbench is fair game.  I have access to my full set of clamps, in fact.  I’m not that much of a masochist.

Rule #3: I have access to my existing shooting board and can do the operation on my high workbench.  I can certainly make another shooting board that will fit better on the low workbench (I’ve done it before).  However, this same shooting board used to live on my kitchen island and I see no reason to change things up now.  And shooting while standing is far easier on the back and shoulders.

Rule #4: I’m also allowed to use my benchtop drill press for the chisel rack that goes in the chest.  Yes, I could do it by hand.  But I’m not getting into this argument with you.

As of the writing of this post, I’m almost finished with the main part of the Dutch tool chest.  Here is the full tool kit to date (not counting parallel jaw clamps and the aforementioned benchtop drill press):

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Still no 3/4″ auger and bit, though.

This has been a long one, so I’m leaving it at that for now.

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Starting Out Fresh

Having laminated seven Douglas Fir 2×4’s into a roughly 72″ x 10″ x 3.5″ slab off screen, it was time to set some ground rules.  Going forward, I would only use basic hand tools to make a workbench worthy for an apartment woodworker.  Or, at least that was the goal.  Let’s see how it went.

Using just my No. 5 jack plane, I proceeded to flatten the underside and square both edges to the underside.  I tried supporting it with the buckets I was using as saw benches, but that didn’t work too well.   The buckets were just too slick and the slab rocked too much.  So I reverted to just working on the floor on a non-skid mat.  It was slower going than I wanted, and my back and knees are killing me (heyo!), but it got done.

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The sawbucks are just for staging the picture.

It took less time to dress the top, but in doing so, I realized my basic tool kit was missing something: a marking gauge.  So I’ve added a wheel marking gauge to the basic tool kit.  Eventually, the slab was S4S enough for joinery.  But before cutting any joints, a coat of “Tung Oil” to protect against any glue squeeze out when the legs eventually get glued on.

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And also some home center saw horses to raise the work.

Nine inches from the end seemed about right for the legs.  When making a saw bench in the Schwarz pattern, the legs are recessed into the sides of the benchtop via square dadoes.  Then, angled lap joints on the legs cause them to poke out at the right angle.

All dadoes start the same way: mark it, saw it, chop out the waste with a chisel.  Typically, I finish off each dado with a light pass from the router plane to ensure uniform depth and a shoulder plane to square the walls of the extants.  But router planes and shoulder planes are luxuries outside the scope of the basic tool kit.  It has been a while since I did this by chisel alone, but I got it done, even if the dado bottom isn’t pretty.  But that might be because Douglas Fir is real splintery.  The extants are square at least.

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One of four.

The only hard part about this joint is laying out the leg.  However, if you cut the top of each leg to a consistent angle (10 degrees works great), you’re almost all the way there. But that requires a bevel gauge.  Which has also been added to the core tool kit.  I won’t go through the whole process, nor could I better than Mr. Schwarz does himself here.  But suffice to say, if your shoulders line up, then you can pre-cut each leg to the exact same length and you won’t need to worry too much about leveling the feet.

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More paring just via chisel.  I would typically use a carriage maker’s plane for this job.

Part of what makes this joint strong is the large glue surface between the slab and the legs.  Use the offcuts from the angled lap joints to assist in clamping, then drive in a couple screws through each leg (parallel to the bench top, not the legs).  Be sure to countersink them a bit so the screw heads are well below the face of the legs.  Don’t worry; we’ll flush the tops of the legs later.

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I was uncomfortable with No. 10 screws and later upped to No. 12.

But the joint doesn’t just rely on glue and screws.  A couple of gussets, glued and screwed onto the legs.  When making gussets, perfectly quartersawn softwood stock will allow you to glue and screw along the entire width with minimal risk of splitting over time.  I also squared up the ends of the slab off camera, but in fairness, that’s not necessary.

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I’ve already done an ode to gussets.

And that’s it for the main bench.  Next time, we’ll reassess the full basic tool kit and begin adding work-holding.

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