After very little deliberation and just a few moments of thought, I’ve made a tray to complete the refitted knockdown outdoor workbench. It is also of poplar (to match the new slab) and about as simple as a workbench tray can be. Just a wide plank with a back lip glued and screwed on.
It’s important not to overcomplicate things, especially not an outdoor workbench. So when I came across a thin-ish poplar board at the lumber yard that was wide enough (more than 14″!) to get both the tray bottom and the back edge, I jumped at it. Sure, it’s only 7/8 after flattening. But that actually maximizes the available depth (the slab is only 2 3/4″ or so).
To keep the tray aligned and stationary, I added some long battens with elongated holes and truss screws to the underside. These lock in place with a satisfying snap to the inside of the back legs and the top rails. Is it elegant or beautiful? No. Is it perfectly functional? Yes, of course. And it has the added function of keeping things relatively flat throughout seasonal movement.
With the weather getting nicer, I’m glad to have this bench back up and running. Poplar gets a bad rap sometimes, which is undeserved in my view. Not only does it paint and stain well (especially very dark gel stains which cover up the streaking and varying hues (from white to purple), but it’s stable and cheap. The rough sawn boards shown on the saw horses above cost $45 in total at a lumber yard just outside New York City.
I am not super great at interpersonal stuff. With the exception of a few traumas from my youth, I get past things pretty quickly and don’t dwell on stuff. And by extension, I don’t get attached to much (people or things).
I learned about the Sunk Cost Fallacy early in my life and I embraced the hell out of it and never let go. Which seems a tad ironic as I write it: I don’t easily form attachments because of my religious-like devotion to a core tenet of rational economic action. But I think my low-grade sociopathy makes me a better woodworker. I just don’t get attached to materials or projects because I will never let myself succumb to the sunk cost fallacy.
Late last year, I used a bunch of scraps to make a knock down workbench for woodworking away from my shop. Whether on the lawn or at my parents’ house in Vermont (which, I just realized, this morning, is a French portmanteau of “Green Mountain”), this bench has served me well. Except the slab top (face laminated Douglas Fir), which got wet in the back of the truck and cupped horribly.
So, embracing the sunk cost fallacy, rather than spending hours reflattening and whatnot, I scrapped the slab entirely (I’ll cut it up for firewood later). I had a lovely Poplar slab that is a perfect replacement and that only needed some minor attention before it was ready for the thickness planer. Sure, that poplar slab was technically for another project in the queue, but I need a workbench for outside now.
Also, I think it’s worth mentioning that the last slab was 78″ long. But making the poplar slab 76″ would leave an offcut large enough to get four table legs out of. So the new slab is 76″. That only leaves 11″ overhang on each end of the undercarriage. Oh well. Sunk Costs.
In the end, I think we could all be better at avoiding attachments. For instance, it would have been easy enough to try and blind peg the top to the existing 5/8 dowels in the undercarriage. But I took the time to saw off and plane down the old dowels and re-blind peg the top with larger dowels (3/4) that completely subsume the old dowel holes.
This post has gone a bit off the rails, admittedly. But I still need to mortise in the fixed deadman (seen on the floor above) and bore holdfast holes in the slab. And attach the Whipple Hook (which works great and is not being abandoned).
Because not all prior effort is actually a sunk cost.
When I returned from my sabbatical in 2014 and set up my apartment workshop (and started this blog, natch), I was working almost exclusively on a Milkman’s Workbench that you can see in the banner above. This was actually the third I had made, having practiced and experimented on different thicknesses and depths. But I returned to my initial woodworking roots from a couple years earlier, using the full thickness 2×4 hard maple I had left over from one of my very first woodworking projects.
So finding some downtime a weekend or two ago, I decided to finally finish a new version of the Milkman’s Workbench (made of riftsawn ash, natch) that I had been working on for a while. It’s the same length (give or take a half an inch), but there are some important differences.
This new bench uses the Red Rose Reproductions Milkman’s Workbench screw kit. In my original, I had made screws with the Beall Tools Big Threader kit (and a router) and added “hubs” with shaker knobs glued into the ends of the screws. It worked fine (in fact, the knobs gave a great grip). But the Red Rose Reproductions screws are very precise and I love the octagon handles. Not to mention the garnet groove that they put into the long screw for the wagon vise.
This new bench is a bit narrower than the original. This, unfortunately, makes it slightly tippy before it’s clamped down (unlike my original bench, which would sit nice and stable on the bench while I got the clamps in place). But it’s more faithful to the original Christopher Schwarz plans.
It was nice to make another one of these workbenches and relive a formative part of my woodworking life. And to do it in my favorite wood (ash), while that wood is still available as it slowly goes extinct because of a parasite, made it even better.
This new Milkman’s Workbench lives in my truck and, quite honestly, has never been used for actual woodworking.
I’m unsure if this counts as a properfixgasm, but I finally got around to framing out and paneling a closet that for a long time was hidden behind the old wall panels. But let’s assume for a moment the closet was already framed out and paneled. Then putting some shelving in definitely counts as a fixgasm.
This closet was, up until this very day, a receptacle for the detritus of the workshop. Clamps, offcuts and various oddments were piled up, leaning against the wall. So with floor to ceiling storage (these metal rack units work great for closet shelving), I have now emptied two (!) different smaller storage units that take up floor space in the overflow room. Getting rid of those smaller storage units will allow me to move things around a bit, which will free up more room.
And then it cascades until I might finally create a direct path from the handtool shop to the thickness planer in the overflow room.
I wonder sometimes if others have similar woodworking experiences to me. Namely, that just after finishing a piece for myself, a friend or relative will ask for it instead.
Now I try to live my life as Tolkien describes Aule, the Smith (“the delight and pride of Aulë is in the deed of making, and in the thing made, and neither in possession nor in his own mastery; wherefore he gives and hoards not, and is free from care, passing ever on to some new work.”). And I like to think that quote describes me pretty well. So many pieces end up in others’ hands, even those pieces purpose built for me, if the giftee seems particularly keen on it.
For that reason, I have been sans dining table for some time. Every time I finish one, it seems it’s claimed within a few weeks. But not this time. At least not yet.
The style itself feels a bit tacky to me. It’s a home center butcher block tabletop (birch) and the legs are poplar. Nice, clear, straight grained poplar (left over from the base of my Moravian Workbench), but still. The table is an inch too low (at 27.75″) because I was just using what’s on hand. The legs themselves are round tenoned and wedged into thick blocks. Essentially making leg brackets. Which are just screwed into the underside with torx deck screws.
I’ve been joking on social media that it’s a lazy table (third laziest, in fact). But I don’t think that’s quite right. The legs themselves are tapered octagons. And the mortises are bored at 12.5 degrees and when attached have about a 30 degree sight line. I didn’t make a full base or dovetail the legs into the tabletop or something like that. But it still took some thought and problem solving.
But that’s not really the point. Calling it lazy seems to me a bit like gatekeeping. And that’s not something I support in any field, especially hobby woodworking. All that should matter is that a person made a thing and had fun doing it (or at least is pleased with the result). I personally don’t use a table saw or a router table, but I also personally don’t give a fuck if someone else does.
There are enough litmus tests in this life. My only one is “do you have a thing that you love to do?” And as long as that thing is not hunting endangered animals for sport, you do you, bud.
And if you do hunt endangered animals for sport, you can fuck all the way off and unfollow me.
If you’ve been here more than once, you know I’m a hand tool guy. To be clear, I do have power tools that complement primarily hand tool work. My lunchbox thickness planer does the donkey work once there is a tried and true reference face and a squared reference edge off the jointer plane. A double bevel compound miter saw quickly cuts stock to rough length. And you can pry my benchtop hollow chisel mortiser from my cold, dead hands. I also have a small drill press (that at this point is used exclusively for accurate drawboring), a collection of battery-powered DIY tools (a drill driver, a circular saw and a random orbital sander), and a trim router kit for when I’ve truly given up on things.
But doing hand work efficiently is more than just leveraging power when, as and if it makes sense. When there are multiple parts to cut (there always are), it helps to think like a one-person assembly line. Each step in the assembly line is a repeated task. Sure, variety is a the spice of life. But just like a blade and fence setup at the table saw, you want to set it once, do all the cuts, then move on. It’s the same thing for body mechanics at the workbench.
So let’s talk about tapered octagon legs by hand.
The first two tapers on each piece (on opposite sides) go pretty quickly in the face vise. If you work to opposite sides, the other profile is still square and therefore easily held in the vise (in my case, a leg vise). Do that eight times.
If you have a twin screw vise that can hold tapers securely, great. Stay at the face vise. But I don’t, so I move to the tail vise. Pinched between the dogs, the legs sit flush to the bench on the tapers I had just planed to make a square taper on all faces. Do that eight times.
Now lay out the octagon(s). If you have a lathe and will taper across the entire length, you’re nearly done at the workbench. But I don’t have a lathe and I like to start the taper where the round tenon ends, so in addition to the octagon at the foot, I also lay out an octagon on the top where the tenon will go. A cradle jig that goes in the tail vise holds the work and I taper from square down to octagon at the foot and also from square down to an octagon at the top. Do that thirty-two times (16 long tapers and 16 short tapers).
That short taper makes it easier to center the round tenon cutter I have for my drill driver, btw. I use a 1 1/2″ tenon cutter, but that’s just a rough cut. With chisel, spokeshave and rasp I take that round tenon down to 1 3/8″ to ensure it’s centered on the blank (it rarely is straight off the tenon cutter). It also helps to bore a 1 3/8″ hole in some hardwood (or at least wood that is harder than your blank) with the bit you’ll use for the mortise to test the fit now and again. Do this four times.
Finally, I go back to the corners (where they were tapered from square to octagon) and plane in the full tapered octagon from the tenon to the foot. I find taking the facets down evenly first (so the facet is parallel from the tenon to the foot), and then incrementally increasing the facet width at the top near the tenon by counting strokes, works best. Again, if you taper the full length, this step is unnecessary.
It goes without saying, but I did one leg first to work out the process and then batched out the other three with the process described above. Are they perfect? Of course not. But we are not machines (and should not strive to be machines). And I enjoy the hand made aesthetic far more than machine-wrought perfection.
There is a great rhythm one can get into when batching out parts at the bench. Hehe, batching.
Just a quick update before the weekend. I finished (literally and figuratively) the joined low bench (which is what I’m calling it now). Two coats of Jacobean stain and some dark paste wax. No film finish.
It still stinks (both the stain and the wax smell the same to me) but it’s getting better and feels dry to the touch. I’ll give it a few days to cure before I sit on the thing, just in case.
All in all, I remember why I stopped staining projects. Natural wood color is nice and a wipe of Boiled Linseed Oil or Tung Oil is just so much more convenient (and less messy) than staining things. But sometimes you don’t have the wood you want on hand and have to make due. Or, sometimes, the wood you want just isn’t going to match the rest of the furniture.
I think I stained the thing so that I wouldn’t just turn this into a low workbench. I now can’t glue any blocking to the underside for holdfast holes or a twin screw vise on the side. And it’s better that way.
For a while now, I’ve been fascinated with the Chinese-style of “staked” furniture construction. Instead of round tenons, they are square or rectangular and therefore able to be made with very simple cutting tools (just a saw and a chisel, essentially). This also means that the angles can be micro-adjusted in a way that outshines even reaming tapered round tenons. So getting the fits and angles perfect is within reach of anyone, especially with some basic angled guide blocks.
If you click the links above, you’ll see I have gradually increased the complexity of the build project by project. And it is now culminating in what will be a sitting bench for the bottom of the bed. No palm or holdfast holes on this beauty. And no softwoods for margin of error.
I was tempted to go stretcherless on this piece. The entire project is 8/4 ash (the legs are actually a bit thicker than the finished top) and there would have been plenty of strength in the beefy, wedged mortises. I even considered lapping the stretchers on with some die forged nails or square head bolts for accent, but it just didn’t match the aesthetic for which I was aiming. After checking all the information available in a single internet image search for “chinese workbench” (which actually turned up two great articles, including one by The Schwarz himself), I decided to mortise in the short stretchers.
Had I done single shouldered tenons like with the original saw bench, I’d be done already. But I had to get all fancy and do double shouldered tenons. Because I’m a masochist.
With this bench, there is 10 degrees of splay but only 2 degrees of rake (remember: splay sideways, rake foRwaRds). So I assumed the tiny bit of rake wouldn’t mess with the geometry of the angled shoulders enough to matter (and that perfectly parallel shoulders would work without fettling). I was wrong and there is one decent gap among the four total shoulders. I keep the shades drawn in the bedroom most of the time, so I doubt the gap will ever be seen, even by me. I did fill it with some matching putty, though.
I am still tweaking the fit on the second short stretcher and will post some pictures of the finished bench once it’s complete (I also have to level the legs once everything is fitted). But, for now, I will think on whether to paint the base to match the walls in my bedroom or just tung oil and be done with it. Or maybe stain the base in dark mahogany to match the bedroom furniture (which is storebought, btw).
The year has started off somewhat weirdly. I was able to take a bit of time off; I even made a new traveling tool chest for my vacation. Which I am quite pleased with, although I wish it had been about 1″ deeper than it is. The upper tray, even at a full half of the total depth of the chest, is still a bit tight for a 12″ combination square. But I make due.
The case itself is pretty utilitarian; as are the tills. But the lid is definitely not. I went full groove-in-groove frame and panel with this one. I had never made a lid like this before. All my panels were in the past raised, and I made the choice to glue one long edge of the panel in place in the frame. I somehow mis-sized the piece and there was a bit too much side-to-side float for my taste.
When it came to picking tools for the actual vacation, I ended up stuffing it a bit to the gills. Glue, blue tape, a few clamps, an egg beater drill. None of these things fit naturally in the design so just get piled in. It does, however, stabilize the tills so nothing bangs around while driving. The chest itself took some heavy dings when I piled it and the travel workbench into the back of the truck (with the stock for other projects). But it held up well so far.
Speaking of the travel workbench, I need to make a new top for that. The slab cupped again (not sure why; it’s been through two flattenings). The front edge sits about 1/8 off the legs. It doesn’t rock and I may just level where the slab sits on the frame, but it changed the peg hole geometry and it’s tough to get the slab off again once it’s in place. But the bench worked great. Not sure I prefer viseless woodworking, but it can be done.
I’ll talk more about the vacation projects in a future post. Monster Hunter: Rise came out while I was gone so I got less done than I wanted, but still more than I expected.
Another year has passed. As is my heathen wont, I went to bed early last night, stone sober and well hydrated, and hit the shop early this morning. I like to begin each year on my own terms. And then ride out the downhill trajectory from there.
In advance of my regular January vacation, I’ve been making a “gentleman’s tool chest” for a core set of hand tools. Now I’m no gentleman (or so I’ve been told), but as I understand it, the “gentleman” refers simultaneously to (x) a non-professional woodworker and (y) the smaller set of tools a non-professional joiner or cabinetmaker would have in their chest. So maybe I am a gentleman.
This particular tool chest is a modest 25″ long, 11″ deep and 11″ high and will have 2 sliding tills. The planes and sharpening gear are french fit into the tool well and there won’t be too much lose gear rattling around. It’s also intended to be a general around-the-house toolbox holding my nicest spare tools so it will move around a fair bit.
In any tool storage build, like in life, there are compromises. For example, there is not any room for joinery saws in this chest, but I have modified a 10 tpi rip saw (it crosscuts too) and a 6 tpi rip saw to have shorter plates. I say modified; I cutoff about 5 inches from the toe of each saw with an angle grinder and filed off the burrs. The shorter plates are stiff enough for precise sawing as needed (and everything gets cleaned up with chisel or router plane anyway).
The full kit this holds is as follows:
Planes: No. 5 jack plane, No. 3 smoothing plane, Low-angle block plane, small router plane
Boring: Two jaw, short sweep brace, plus hex adapter, large diameter adjustable auger bit, drill bit set, hand countersink
Sharpening: 120, 220, 1200 grit diamond plates, side clamp honing guide and setup block, plus glass cleaner and jojoba oil
Miscellaneous: Warrington-pattern hammer, slotted and phillips screwdrivers, cork sanding block, foam ear plugs (lots of these)
I’m sure there is something I’m forgetting (I can supplement this later), but I find the above set of tools is everything one needs for general woodworking projects that aren’t intended to be the finest furniture. I can take rough lumber to dimension with these tools and do crisp joinery by hand without too much fuss. I will likely make or purchase a medium router plane to fit this chest, as well as a set of wooden winding sticks and a wooden straightedge.
As I write this, the second till is glued and nailed and drying in the shop. So that means only one thing: it’s lid time.
And that’s the point at which every tool chest build starts to get tedious.