Shop Equipment

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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Version 2.0

Once upon a time, I made a leg vise with a cog on a wooden screw instead of a pin board.  I worked with it for about four months and can definitively say that I prefer it to a pin board.  But 1.25″ for the wooden screw is a bit thin, in my opinion.  So when it came to install a leg vise on the new workbench, I took the chance to perfect the form and use a full 1.5″ screw and a beefier cog.

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Still need to shape the vise chop a bit.

The main screw for this leg vise is scavenged from the prior leg vise.  It’s just one of those European screws marketed as a “tail vise” screw.  I had intended to make a new wooden screw with my JJ Beall Big Threader, but none of my 1.5″ dowel stock is straight enough along.  So I scavenged the screw from the leg vise on the reclaimed maple console table, which has over 12″ of thread.

The cog is 8/4 quartersawn white oak.  It’s dense and stable and was honestly the only 8″+ wide stock I had already milled.  What matters is it’s large enough that the teeth of the cog will protrude beyond the edges of the chop, so it is easily worked with your feet.

The cog is pretty easy to make, if you take it in steps.  I began my marking and drilling out on the drill press the 1 3/8″ center hole for tapping, and eight 1.5″ holes to form the teeth.  Eight teeth is plenty.  Everything gets a light chamfer with a trim router.

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I find it’s easier to do the boring when it’s part of the larger board.

It’s then trimmed to final size, first cut to square, then the corners taken off at 45 degrees.  I ended up taking another 1/8″ or so off each side, so the teeth of the cog weren’t quite as sharp.   Everything gets one more set of chamfers and hand sanding to break any more sharp edges.

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The flat face points inward, where it contacts the leg.

All that’s left is to bore the hole in the chop for the cog screw.  Don’t bore it too deep.  You need at least 1/2″ of wood for the screw to press again.  Otherwise, it might blow out if you’re really cranking down.  I just use wood glue (although epoxy would work too) and I make sure the screw is perfectly perpendicular to the vise chop.  You could angle it slightly upward (to create natural toe-in alignment), but I don’t think it’s necessary if your main screw is otherwise perpendicular.

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Keep track of your reference surfaces and alignment is a breeze.

This cog has some real heft to it.  A decent spin with the foot and the cog spins under its own momentum.  A real improvement over the 1′ hard maple cog on the last workbench.  I will say the angled chop makes it a slightly harder to get at on the right side (the tightening side).  But it’s not too much effort.

Is this method more economical than a criss-cross or a pin board?  Not really.  But it works great and I highly recommend it.  Just remember to ream the hole in the leg vertically.  Otherwise, the cog screw will bind if it’s not perfectly in alignment with the main screw.

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An Iterative Process

Not everything goes to plan the first attempt.  Any decent woodworker has internalized that fact.  Take, for example, a jointing sled I recently made for my thickness planer.  It’s a jig consisting of a tried and trued 2x4x96 with four boards glued and screwed at 90 degrees to the jointed edge.  And it worked okay, I guess, on the first try.

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Iteration 1.

See, here’s the thing: I consider myself to be a hand tool woodworker.  But after truing one face and squaring one edge of a board, bringing the other face and edge into parallel by hand starts to feel an awful lot like actual work.  That’s where a thickness planer comes in.

But for a very twisted board, even squaring that one edge to a trued face can be more of effort than I’m willing to expend.  And that’s where this jointing sled comes in.  I can clamp the trued face to the uprights with F-Clamps and send it through the thickness planer to square the edge.  A quick hand planing will address any errors and then back to the thickness planer for S4S.  Just as if I had done the donkey work of hand squaring that first edge.

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The clamps go the other way around.

But my prototype sled didn’t work perfectly.  Just clamping to the 90 degree uprights didn’t support the board enough.  Compression from the planer’s rollers bowed the wood and planed a big hump along the length.  I tried using brass bar stock to support the beam but they kept falling out or shifting because of vibration.

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And I didn’t have enough for the entire length.

In the end, I added adhesive-backed sandpaper to the uprights and used hot glue to shim under the length of the beam.  Just like a normal planing sled.  This made the whole thing quite a bit more rigid and minimized the hump, even if it did add a bit of prep time.

But it was still less pretp time than hand-planing that edge square.

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Back to Back to Back

I’m not quite ready to abandon my upright Stent Panel Workbench for the low, sitting variety.  But I am ready to correct something that’s bugged me ever since I finished the workbench in the first place: the back wing.  It never stayed flat on its own, let alone in plane with the main slab of the bench.  There is clearly some design flaw, even though I allowed for wood movement and ample support with three posts mortised into the slab.  I’ll re-use the wing (which is 86″ x 10″ x 2″ ash) for another project.

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I need more 1″ holdfast holes.

The main slab of the workbench is only 12.5″ wide.  That’s nothing to scoff at, but it’s not nearly enough real estate for tasks like gluing up panels or project assembly.  And there is pretty much no place to set down tools so they are close at hand.  So first up is a tool tray that spans half the area where the wing used to be.  After much deliberation, I’ve approached this a bit like a Dutch tool chest.  Dovetails at the bottom corners for maximum strength, nailed on back.  In 3/4″ poplar, because there was a very nice piece of 1×10 at the home center when I was buying some more 1×12 white pine for general building purposes.

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Reasonably consistent color for poplar, and a decent color match to ash once oiled.

The finished tool tray is just a hair under 37″ wide (the posts themselves are exactly 37″ apart) and 6″ deep.  There is 3.5″ of clearance below the benchtop.  This is plenty for a bench plane on its side and all the other tools I’d like close at hand.  Speaking of which, I decided to attach the tool well to the left side of the bench (the end with the leg vise), which seems like the best place to keep tools at hand.

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Because if it can’t fit a hand plane clear of the workbench top, it’s not a good tool tray.

There are a few ways I could have hung the tool tray to the bench.  But the simplest and easiest was to add some runners to the ends so it just hangs on the posts.  The posts are not perfectly in wind, so I clamped the tool tray to the bench and nailed the runners in the right position, rather than squaring them initially and planing them down to fit.  Some small blocks, nailed onto the posts, keep the tray from sliding away from the slab.

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Don’t tell anyone, but I used the 18 gauge brad nailer to attach the runners and blocks.

The ends of the tool tray are in plane with the workbench slab.  This was intentional, as originally I intended entirely replace the back wing with two tool trays.  But after working on the bench with the tool tray for a few days, it became very apparent that I needed at least part of the bench to be solid for the full 20″ of depth.

From 9 months or so of working on this bench, it’s become clear that the wing doesn’t need to be terribly stout.  It certainly doesn’t need to be 2″ ash reinforced with 2″ angle iron.  So instead I grabbed an otherwise somewhat useless 2″ pine off cut that’s lapped onto the posts.  There are a few wire brad nails acting like dowels to support the seam with the main slab and a couple more wire brads through the board into the posts to keep everything in place.  Net it, this board can move much more freely with seasonal expansion and contraction than the old wing could.  But it will be easily replaceable if I get neurotic and replace it with ash again (which, let’s face it, I definitely will).

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And the color match isn’t terrible, either.

For optics, but not functionality, I will probably nail a board to the end of the extension to bring it flush with the right end of the bench (and provide a bit more resistance to cupping, like a breadboard end).  Absolutely nothing ever happens all the way at that back corner.  It’s just to make it prettier.  I could do the same thing at the back right corner, but the end of the tray (which is flush with the bench top) is already in line with the last bench dog hole, so it’s not strictly necessary either.

I unfortunately can’t tell if the color match is getting better or worse with a second coat of Tung Oil.  Maybe I just have to open the blinds and let the sun shine in for a couple weeks.

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Or paint the whole thing black!

This is a good time to mention that 36.25″ is a bit too high for comfortable hand planing at my height (I’m 5’10”).  Even if it is better for sawing and chopping.  So I’ll eventually trim about 1″ off the ends of the legs.  Which is easier said than done, as the back legs are angled.

But I’ll give it a try and report back.

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Everything Old is New

They say that everything in furniture making is either a platform or a box (or both). And I say that sometimes it feels like everything my woodworking life is either a workbench or a tool chest (or both).  So let’s talk about the latest tool chest.

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I’m a big fan of this red color.

I’ve built a Dutch Tool Chest before. I think the form has many advantages, especially in the small home shop where the shallow profile efficiently fits into the floor plan.  I just hated squatting all the time to get at my joinery planes, which is why I switched to a proper floor chest.  But that’s not really an issue when using the plywood low workbench.  In fact, one could skip the lower compartment all together and just have the top till area.  Which I did.

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You’re already squatting when working on this workbench.

The great virtue of a dutch tool chest is how easily it goes together with much less material compared to a rectangular chest.  The joinery consists of dovetails on the bottom two corners and nails or screws for everything else (plus two rabbets if you build a proper one).  The entire case (which has inside dimensions of 11.25″ x 23″ x 15″) came together in an afternoon from a single ten foot pine 1×12 from the home center:

  • Two sides:  one board, 26″ long  and full width (crosscut at 20 degrees to form two boards)
  • Bottom: one board, 24″ long and full width
  • Back: two boards, one 24″ long and full width, one 24″ long and ripped to 5″, shiplapped (T&G also would have worked)
  • Front: one board, 24″ long and full width

The remainder of that first board became the tool rack and the skids on the underside.  If I had started from a twelve foot pine 1×12, I probably could have gotten the lid too from that single board.

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Everything is 5/8″ thick.

This tool box wouldn’t hold a full set of woodworking tools.  But it’s definitely big enough to hold everything a beginner hand-tool woodworker would own. Especially with the chisel rack and the saw till.  I even made a straightedge specifically for this tool chest.

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That’s a salvaged saw till from a prior tool chest.

As of today, it’s stuffed with my spare tools: both a No 5. bench plane and a No. 4 bench plane, a full set of back saws and most of a set of chisels, together with diamond plates for sharpening, a hammer, a chisel mallet, and the essential marking tools (including combination square).  A small panel saw that would fit too, but I don’t own one that small that is not one of my regular tools (at least not until I break out the angle grinder).

Even with all of that loaded in, it’s still light enough to carry around and fits easily in the back of my SUV.

This is another one of those “I wish I had known about it when I first got started woodworking” projects.  I would have made this entirely with screws and plywood, or rabbets and nails in dimensional pine.  No dovetails needed.  And it would even match the plywood low workbench.

Speaking of which, it’s time to take the plunge on boring the rest of the dog holes in the laminated slab top.  But I’m ready.

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Budget Twin Screw (Moxon) Vise

A good twin screw vise can do many tasks.  When clamped to the edge of a bench top, it can be used as a proper face vise for dovetailing or other joinery.  Sitting free on a bench top, it can restrain an assembly for driving wedges or be a third hand for safely splitting tenons.  In a pinch, it can even take the place of a machinist vise for basic metalworking (although I would recommend vacuuming it off when you’re done, as metal shavings are anathema to woodworking tools).

But a good twin screw vise doesn’t have to cost a fortune.  I mean, it can, if that’s what you’re into (with wooden screws or prefab hardware and whatnot).  But it doesn’t have to.  In fact, all it really takes is about US$13 worth of home center hardware and some off cuts.

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That is some straight grain, eh?

There are two typical ways to make a vise screw work without a garter that attaches the movable jaw directly to the screw.  You can affix the screw to the back jaw, and turn a nut to sock down on the moving jaw.  Like the Benchcrafted Moxon Vise.  Or you can affix the nut to the back jaw and use the screw hub to sock down on the moving jaw.  Like the Lake Erie Moxon Vise.  For this, let’s do the latter.  There is a third way, which I’ll cover briefly below.

Start with the front jaw.  Now I am sure there are people who can use a brace and bit and drill a perfectly perpendicular hole.  But I can’t, so I used the drill press.  The screw should be relatively snug in the hole (phrasing?).  This threaded rod is about 3/4″ and a 3/4″ forstner bit was just tight enough.  Inset the holes at least 1 1/2″ from the ends of the front jaw for strength.  Some people elongate their holes to permit clamping irregular work.  I don’t.

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Also chamfer the holes.

It’s super important when making a twin screw vise that the holes line up.  So clamp the front jaw to the back jaw and use the same drill bit to transfer the center of the hole into the back jaw.  I should mention that the back jaw is about 4″ longer than the front jaw for some clearance each end when clamping to the bench.  Otherwise, the clamps get in the way of the work.

After you’ve bored the hole in the back jaw, put both jaws back together, insert the threaded rod, tighten up a nut on both sides of the jaws and trace around the nut on the back jaw with a marking knife.  Then chop down to the lines about three fourths of the height of the nut.  Repeat for the other nut and use a small bit of epoxy to affix the nuts to the back jaw.

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I do not know if the orientation matters for strength, but the epoxy will help.

Balance is an important part of any twin screw vise.  Even with the narrower front jaw, it’s likely the vise won’t balance itself with the front jaw hanging completely off the bench.  So I typically add an extension to the back jaw flush to the work surface.  It adds weight and stability and is a convenient place to put down your pencil or marking knife when cutting joints.  Glue should be all you need, but maybe add a screw or two through the inner jaw to make sure everything stays put long term.

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Some not-as-straight grain.

When the glue dries, you’ll have a functional vise.  There is something called a “rod coupling nut” which is really just an elongated nut.  You could use a couple of these as floating hubs and the vise would work just fine.  It wouldn’t be super comfortable (you’d have to turn the threaded rod by hand) and the nuts would wear into the front jaw over time, but it will hold.  Want proof?

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Proof.

You could also affix one of those rod coupling nuts to the end of each threaded rod and also be done.  But I like wooden screw hubs, so let’s do that.  Start with square stock and drill into the end of the hub.  I used the drill press, but you could do this by hand.  Just clamp the work across all faces to prevent splitting.

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Drill press vise for safety.

I think it took more time wedging underneath the benchtop to get it perfectly level in all directions than it took for the epoxy to set.  Be careful not to make too much of a mess, but excess epoxy can be used to reinforce the end grain of the hub (that wears against the face grain of the outer jaw).  When the epoxy was set, I drilled through the hub across the grain and pinned through the threaded rod with a 1/8″ steel rod (fixed with superglue).  Probably not necessary, but who knows what that zinc coating will do long term?

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If these were raw steel, the epoxy would be more than enough.

Then shape the hubs as you see fit.  I put a small chamfer on each corner of the hub for starts.  I have a feeling it’ll get down to roughly octagonal by the time it’s done.  I don’t like round hubs.

And that’s it.  Clamp it to your workbench and have at some joinery.  Maybe add a coat of penetrating oil finish to all surfaces other than the inside faces of the jaws.  I may glue some leather to the outer jaw to increase grip, but it’s not strictly necessary.

 

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That’s the steel pin through the handle.

If you’ve never made a vise before, this is a good way to figure it out.

I am, at this point, nearing US$100 into the low plywood workbench project, but it feel like it’s pretty much done.  I need to bore a few more holes in the bench top (and make a few more dogs) but that’s more planning than labor.

After undertaking this experiment, I have some thoughts.  But first, now that the vise is done, it’s time to make a little tool chest on this workbench!

Or, whatever.

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Plywood Roman Workbench (Part 4)

Only by working on a low bench, like the plywood roman workbench, can you truly understand what they’re all about.  And after a week or so, I can definitely say there is something to finding the correct height for your body.  I’m just a shade over 5′ 10″ tall and I find 19 1/4″ to be the right height for saw benches.  And of the two low workbenches I’ve built in the past, one was 19 1/4″ and the other was 19 1/2″.  Both are very comfortable heights for me.  I build sitting benches within this range as well.  It’s the height from the ground to the bottom of my kneecap.

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Like this one.

But I’ve been working with the plywood Roman workbench propped up on my existing saw benches, which are already 19 1/4″ high.  That means the working height of the plywood Roman workbench is currently over 22″ high.  WAY too high for me to work comfortably.  I’m on my tiptoes most of the time, which is at least a good calf workout.  So let’s make some mini sawhorses out of construction grade 2×4’s to bring the slab to the correct working height.

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This is where we are going.

I always start with the math:

First, stand straight up with your feet flat on the floor and measure from the floor to the bottom of your kneecap with a tape measure. That is your overall target height (in my case, 19.25″).  Second, subtract the thickness of the plywood slab (2.875″ for me).  So I need to raise the slab 16.375″ (or 16 3/8″) off the ground.  Let’s round up to 16 1/2″ to make the math easy.

In the United States, construction lumber may be called “two by’s”, but it is really 1 1/2″ thick.  I dug through the stacks at the local Death Star and found two, 10 foot long 2×4’s in Douglas Fir that were relatively straight, relatively clear and relatively dry.  You could, in theory, get everything you need from a couple of eight footers, but why risk it?

Each mini sawhorse consists of six boards, all cut from 2×4’s:

  • Two foot boards (20″ long or so)
  • One top crossbeam (16″ long or so) – the freer of knots, the better
  • One lower stretcher (cut to fit, but around 14″ long)
  • Two vertical posts (total height of the sawhorse, minus 1″ [or 15.5″ in my case]) – these should come from the clearest sections of the lumber.  No knots at all, if possible.

Start by preparing the boards.  If your stock is straight and square and out of twist already, give it a quick smoothing pass and proceed to step two.  If not, and you’re feeling like a machinist, plane a reference face and square up a reference edge, then bring the opposite face and opposite edge into parallel.  I only had to take off about 1/16″ of total thickness on each board, so I’m sticking to the round numbers for purposes of this guide.

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Face mark, square mark, grain direction.  Every time.

Each post connects to the foot with a 1/2″ through tenon.  For the mortise, bore with a 1/2″ bit and pare to the lines, or chop with a chisel, up to you.  I chopped with a 1/2″ chisel to keep my skills up.  I also prefer to split my tenons, rather than saw down the cheeks.  But it is precarious work to split tenons without a vise.  After everything is fit, shorten each tenon to about 1/8″ less than the thickness of the foot board to give some clearance when it sits flat.

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One of two.

With one of the posts firmly seated into its foot, measure up to the total height of the finished sawhorse, minus 1″.  Cut off the post at this line and mark and use it to transfer the mark the other post (while in its mortise) .  This should ensure the two leg assembles are close to or exactly the same height.  Now, assemble each leg assembly with glue.  I drawbored these mortises and tenons too, but it’s not necessary.  Nails or even screws would be just fine to reinforce the joint.

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I think this shot was pre-drawboring.

The top beam attaches to the posts with dadoes that are inset from each end of the beam by the same distance the post is inset from the outside of the foot (in my case, 1″).  Determine the depth of the dadoes by subtracting from the overall thickness of the beam the height you need the beam to rise above the leg assemblies to get your final height (in my case, about 1/2″ dado depth).  Do your best to get tight dadoes, but they will be reinforced with dowels after the glue dries.  Err on the side of too narrow, as the construction lumber will compress.

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With dadoes seated.

The stretcher connects to the legs with lap joints.  You can use the finished top beam to transfer the distance between the shoulders of the lap joints.  I trimmed the lap joints to be flush with the outside of the posts, but that’s not strictly necessary.  I didn’t get a good picture of the lap joint process, but take a look here.

Glue the top beam onto the posts and seat the stretcher in place while the glue dries.  This will help keep everything square during glue up.  Then glue the stretcher to both the legs and the feet.  After the glue dried, I drove a pair of dowels through the top beam into the posts and couple of nails through the lap joint on the stretcher into the legs.  This should help with any wracking (front to back and side to side).

And then do it all over again.

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One is somewhat heavier than the other because they’re made from different 2×4’s.

I’ll be taking a slight detour in the next post to make some more workholding for future projects.

For now, Happy Birthday, America!

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Plywood Roman Workbench (Part 3)

From my experience, a large portion of work holding when using a low workbench is sitting on the work.  But any good workbench for hand tool work needs at a minimum a planing stop for hand planing and a bench hook for sawing.  So let’s add both at the same time through a pair of bench dogs at one end of the newly-squared plywood slab.  Fair warning, the list of tools needed is going to increase from this point on.

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This is pretty much all you need for most woodworking.

Let’s begin with locating the dog holes.  In my experience, a single point planing stop will work without re-positioning the wood for boards up to about 5″ wide.  So on this bench, I spaced the dog holes at 5 1/2″ on center, equally spaced from each edge.   4″ from the end seems about right as well, so the dogs can be used as a bench hook in either direction.

I used a brace and bit to bore the holes, but a drill driver works just fine.  Use the bit that is the same size as the dowel you purchased (mine are 3/4″).  Do your best to bore the holes vertically, although if you’re going to err, hopefully err on the side of angled toward you.

 

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Two squares make boring true much easier.

Yes, this is a workbench, but don’t bore all the way through in one shot and break out the underside.  One day, you’ll probably flip the slab over and breakout is unsightly.  Instead, stop when the point of the bit just pokes through, then flip over the slab and finish the hole from the other direction.  That way, you’ll have clean exit holes on each face.  Then, break the edges of the hole with a countersink bit in a drill driver, a chamfer bit or roundover bit in a router, or with some coarse sandpaper.

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I prefer chamfer to roundover for dog holes.

Now, let’s make bench dogs.  You should feel free to purchase commercially made metal bench dogs and be done with it.  I like the brass ones from Lee Valley and use them on my main workbench.  But hand made bench dogs work great too.  Start with lengths of dowel that are 2″ longer than your slab is thick.  In my case, 5″.  Now, jam the dowel into the hole you just bored.  I had to use my main workbench because the dowel I purchased was apparently a bit undersized to the hole I bored.

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Nice, straight grain.

Orientation of the relief on the bench dog is critical to strength and grip.  Align the growth rings left to right, and mark a pencil line top to bottom that is about 1/4″ from the right side (left side, if you are left-handed).  Now, saw down that line, angled in about 2 degrees, to a cut depth of 1″ or so.  Then crosscut the waste away.  I used my leg vise but you can just clamp the dog to the slab or crosscut while the peg is vertical in the hole.  Be sure to ease the hard edges of the dog with some sandpaper of any medium grit.

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That’s literally all there is to it.

If your bench dog is snug in the dog hole but moves with light mallet taps, proceed to the next paragraph.  If the fit is too tight, thin the diameter of the dog a bit with some medium grit sandpaper, checking the fit as you go.  If the dogs fit loosely, like mine were, maybe buy some cheap brass bullet catches for cabinet doors or check out this Paul Sellers how-to on making wire springs for bench dogs (it starts at about the 11 minute mark).  If you use bullet catches, make sure to locate them in a place where they will catch when the dog is both up and down.  You’ll see what I mean.

Add a coat of Boiled Linseed Oil or Tung Oil (whatever you used for the bench top, honestly) and you’re done.

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Bullet catches are useful for a bunch of applications, honestly.

Once the oil finish is dry, pop in the dogs and have at some face and edge planing.

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One advantage to having two bench dogs instead of a single planing stop is you can crosscut boards using both pegs as a bench hook.  Like so:

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Goodbye, knot!

The slab now has all the workholding you’ll need to make two mini saw horses to replace the milk crates or buckets that you’ve been working on to this point.

I just finished up the prototype using just the slab with two bench dogs as my work surface.  I’m pleased enough with the design that I’ll replicate it for the second one.

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Basically 1/2 scale to full size saw horses.

But more on that later.

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