I made a comment on a recent post about how I ever managed to live without an impact driver for almost a decade of woodworking. I’d like to expound on that a bit more.
As folks may know, I build a lot of workbenches. I haven’t actually built one for myself in a while. I’ll find a design that seems intellectual stimulating, build it, and then gift it to a friend or family member. So whenever I’m at the lumber yard, if there is a particularly wide and clear slab of 12/4 or 16/4 lumber (typically ash, poplar, douglas fir, or red oak), I can’t usually help myself. The pile of slabs was becoming a problem, so I made a full size lumber rack. Not one of those wall hangers (Bora, you’re great, but I am constantly worried my entire wall is going to tumble down). A proper, free standing, rolling cart.
There are probably 250 star drive construction screws of either 2 1/2″ (65 mm) or 3 1/2″ (90mm) screws in the entire assembly. As much as I’d love to say I drove each with a brace and bit, I in fact used an impact driver. It’s just so useful and effective (if a bit loud; I wear foam earplugs for work like this). To put it in perspective, I wore out not one but two (!) of the included star drive bits in the boxes of screws. I know these aren’t of the highest quality, but still.
I used a lot of what I learned from the television easel project in making this project. That is, the lumber rack is a series of posts set into a foot that is offset from center based on the calculated center of gravity when loaded with lumber. With a 24 inch foot and 13″ or so of shelf, I calculated that the post should be centered at roughly 8″ from the back of the foot.
So each post of the lumber rack was comprised of the following, all 2×4 framing lumber, glued and screwed together (a la Naked Woodworker workbench) after drilling clearance holes for the screws.
One vertical beam at 72″ high (part of this is a tenon that laps into a dado in the foot)
Four shelf spacers of 15″ high (although the top one is cut to length)
Three shelf bars at 16″ long
One foot beam at 24″ long
Two foot spacers, on at 6″ long (back) and one at 14.5″ long (front) [these create the dado around the vertical beam tenon)
With the posts made, it was time for the base. I started by joining the two end posts with an 84″ long beam, and added a 27″ long end cap on both (creating an enclosed mortise for the tenon on the vertical beam, rather than just a lap joint). Then I added spacers between the ends and the middle post (to form dadoes) and tied everything together with an 87″ long cap beam on top. The back cap beam also created a convenient catch for storing a few things vertically, leaning against the posts.
After adding a long rail to plumb up and tie together the tops of the posts (with spacers to make more dadoes), it was time to add some bearers beneath the post feet. These, made of 2×6 (instead of 2×4), would both (a) further support and secure the posts and (b) give a wide surface (away from the joinery screws) to attach some heavy duty casters.
The last step (aside from knocking down the rough corners with an orbital sander) was to add a diagonal brace to each post, reinforcing the base of each post. I’m not 100% sure these were needed, as the posts were each secure and restrained by a tenon that lapped into each foot assembly, (x) cap beams front and back on top of the foot, (y) a bearer below where the casters attach, and (z) a shitload of glue and screws on the general base assembly. But they make me feel better and this thing will have about half a ton of lumber at the outset. It was either this or add some rachet straps, which looked ugly(ier) to me.
I am sure (because I checked) there are plans out there for prettier lumber racks. And I absolutely could have spent 10x the time and 2x the money mortising 4×4 posts and drawboring everything. I wish I could say otherwise, but other than a combination square and a marking knife for some more precise cuts, I did not use a single traditional hand tool on this entire project.
But when you need a giant lumber rack, and you’ve got handy a chop saw, an impact driver, some 2×4’s, and a giant box of screws, you do what you have to. I even think I learned a thing or two in the making.
And, most importantly, I can at least walk around in my basement again.
Another year on the Gregorian calendar has passed and I’m back in the workshop. As I always say, “ABCD – Always be Carpen them Diems!” And today, like every other New Year’s Day, is no different.
My first project of the year is making a panel saw from “scratch”. Those quotes are doing some pretty heavy lifting, as the plate is taken from a 26″ vintage Simonds 10 TPI crosscut hand saw. I’m not in the mood to cut new teeth today. The plate is in very good shape but the handle was a mess. Clearly an aftermarket job, the slot for the saw plate was at like 10 degrees to the handle and it made for terrible hang.
So first I made a new tote. There are a ton of good tutorials on the yutubs about this, so I’m not going to offer any real pointers here. However, a small oscillating spindle sander (I have the handheld one from Wen, which seems to be a knockoff of the Triton model) makes the job a lot quicker. I don’t have a band saw, so bringing the outline of the tote into flat on the OSS (instead of by hand with rasps and files) is a godsend. Especially on quartersawn hard maple.
Once the outside was shaped, I took my cues from the BTC Hardware Store Saw and busted out the trim router with a chamfer bit. Once the hard arrises are sanded down, it’s just as comfortable as full rounds. Plus, the intersection of the chamfers made a cool lamb’s tongue-like feature at the bottom of the tote, without having to do an actual lamb’s tongue.
When I make the next hand saw tote, if I use this pattern again, I will lighten the chamfer along the front (seen left, where it meets the saw plate). That heavy chamfer, as cool as it looks, nearly overlapped with the top saw nut and left a fragile edge that will probably break off soon.
Next I had to modify the plate to fit the tote. That vertical dotted line on the pattern to the right of the saw nuts shows where the plate seats into the tote. Problem is, the sourced plate did not have a straight line at the heel. That means it’s angle grinder time. I just use a scrap of plywood as a fence (learned that one from Pask Makes) and go to town. I also nibbed off the corner at the heel.
The angle grinder leaves the plate rather work hardened at this point. Files still work, but you really have to draw file to get down to fresh steel. I pop it in the saw vise and use the same jig for jointing the teeth. It’s important this be straight and true so it seats nicely in the tote.
I didn’t get pictures of it, but I next cut the slot in the tote for the plate. You can freehand this (like the guy who last owned the saw did), but three is a better way. Just clamp to a flat surface (like a benchtop) another panel saw with a thinner plate and a fine set to the bench with a spacer underneath that centers the cut. Then draw the tote, flat against the bench and cut the slot as deep as you can. You can then finish the cut by hand in the vise, as the portion of the slot you already cut will guide the saw the rest of the way. Lee Valley has an excellent guide on this. If the slot is slightly off center (mine was by about 1/32″), just plane down the thicker side.
Now came the part I was dreading. When re-handling panel saws in the past, I used the existing handle as a pattern and located the saw nuts exact where they had been on the previous tote. For this, I was starting fresh and that meant drilling new holes in the plate. The spring steel plate. With a cheap benchtop drill press.
I had previously drilled 1/16″ pilot holes through the tote and bored the initial recesses for the saw nuts. So I started by clamping assembled saw onto the drill press table and locating the 1/16″ holes, which I then drilled through the plate. I then set the handle aside, recentered the drill press on each pilot hole in the plate, and clamped down the plate to the drill press table. You do not want a spinning hand saw plane. Then I just worked my way up from 1/16″ to 7/32″ incrementally until there were three 7/32″ holes in the plate. In truth, I cooked about four 7/32″ drill bits. It’s just too much for my little drill press to handle. But they were cheap drill bits (scavenged from various box store sets).
All that was left to finish the tote was drilling out the saw nut holes (9/32″ for the slotted nuts and 1/4″ for the medallion and bolts) and tweaking the depth of the recesses. I think I set the recesses in a little deep, but it works. Some boiled linseed oil really makes the quartersawn holographics of the hard maple pop.
I still need to hack off some of the toe to get the plate itself down to about 19″ of tooth line. That, in my experience, makes the plate stiff enough to not need a half back or magnetic guide for basic joinery. Plus it gets rid of that kink that always develops about 5-6″ from the toe of every 26″ hand saw. And, of course, that will allow it to fit in the toolbox.
The hang of the saw is a bit toe heavy, which makes me think it should be a medium rip (8-10 TPI). I find that useful for crosscutting wider, thicker stock on the saw bench and still able to rip efficiently at the vise. A saw like that is a workhorse for my travel toolbox. Once the BLO dries, it’s time to carpe some more diems and reshape the teeth.
But, for now, Happy New Year and I hope you find some time in the shop soon. Thanks for being a reader and stay tuned for some new and exciting things this year.
I am by no means an innovator. Folks have had small shops in the past and they will have them in the future. I invent nothing, as the saying goes. But because I am a hobbyist woodworker who strives for a manageable tool kit within a finite shop space, I don’t always have the exact tool I need at hand.
Take, for instance, the timber framed saw horses I’m making as a gift for a new homeowner (and close friend who will inevitably ask me for help on home improvement projects). I’m using the Richard Maguire design (he calls them saw donkeys, lol). Which means beefy tenons with drawbore pegs to keep everything cinched under the extra strain of having no lower stretcher.
The most important part of a drawbore is ensuring the peg can pass cleanly through the joint, flexing but not plowing or crushing as it’s pounded through the offset holes. That’s why it’s important to observe the three finer points of successful drawboring: (i) don’t use too extreme of an offset on the tenon hole, (ii) use a longer taper on the front of the peg, and (iii) ease the entrance to the hole on the tenon. The fourth point (in my experience) is to wax your pegs, but some folks like to glue their drawbored pegs in. I don’t.
When doing smaller drawbores for furniture, I have a couple of machinist alignment pins that work great as drawbore pins where 5/16″ and 3/8″ pegs are used. You assemble the joint, insert the drawbore pin, and the taper of the drawbore pin draws the joint to full closer and also reams (really compresses, but still) the entrance of the hole on the tenon (thus fulfilling finer point (iii) above and illustrating the purpose of finer point (ii) above).
For these sawhorses, though, the pegs are 5/8″, and I’m not even sure they make a machinist alignment pin for that size. So, instead, I use a countersink bit to ease the start of the holes in the tenon. This is functionally the same as properly using a drawbore pin.
I almost always use a hollow chisel mortiser for these big mortises, but the tenons are cut by hand.
In fairness, I do use 5/8″ pegs for a lot of workbench and workbench-adjacent building. So maybe I would be justified owning an appropriately sized drawbore pin. But drawbore pins are single purpose tools. My countersink bit, however, has many uses across the full gamut of my woodworking. And I’m not sure a drawbore pin of the right size would have much effect on the oak, ash and maple that I use in my workbench building activities. So I will continue to use my countersink bit. And I could probably take the drawbore pins out of my toolkit entirely.
I learned all of the above finer points of drawboring through trial and [lots of] error. I’ve had pegs fail to flex through the offset hole, split down the middle and blow out the back of the board with the mortise (and in doing so fail to cinch the joint together). I’ve had pegs fail to flex through the offset hole and snap (making the usual solution, to drive a new peg all the way through the joint, unavailable because the peg didn’t clear the offset hole cleanly). And I’ve had pegs that made it through the offset hole and still do both of the same.
But if there was one of the rules that each situation could have been fixed by, it’s probably finer point (iii): easing the entrance to the holes in the tenon. And when all it takes is a countersink bit, that’s a pretty efficient solution.
In my day to day life, I am attorney. My practice focuses on Mergers and Acquisitions and Complex Corporate Governance (with a fair bit of Commercial Contracting and Emerging Companies and Venture Capital matters). While I love what I do, not everything in my day job is intellectually stimulating. It’s true, there are sometimes novel (to me) issues that need sorting. But the typical deal is, well, pretty typical (at least after about 15 years). So woodworking often fills the void of intellectual expansion for me.
A person I care very much about asked for a lap desk to make her home office (read: couch) more comfortable. While I myself am a work from work person, I appreciate a good thought experiment that I can sort out with my hands. So I made a lap desk with non-right angle corners.
I personally think dovetails are best. But I also like finger joints. Not the cross cut sled on the table saw version, but the hand cut, assembled-like-dovetails variety. Contrary to popular belief, it is much harder to saw square in two directions than it is to saw angles. Or at least it is to me. And, when cut right, finfer joints can look wonderful and only need a couple of nails to be as permanent as well-fitting dovetails.
Making these angled finger joints was an exercise in working things out. Sure, I could have just searched YouTube for a tutorial (James Wright has an excellent how-to on angled dovetails, btw). But I chose to work it out myself. And, dagnammit, it worked pretty well.
In my (admittedly limited) experience, this is one place where it pays to have deeper baselines (and protruding pins/tails to pare down) really pays off. I tend to scribe base lines exactly to part thickness for regular dovetails, but that doesn’t seem ideal for non-square corners.
In any event, after sawing the pins, my process for angled corners is to chop down, on the bench, from the higher side perpendicular to the baseline. This high side is the inside corner all around. Then, I discovered, it’s better to pare in the vise, in small bites, instead of trying to get the angle correct with chisel and mallet on the bench. It takes a bit longer, true. But the fit is far better when you sneak up on it in small bites.
And, so, I had an intellectually stimulating time at the bench making a thing for a person, using a technique I had not done before. It only took an hour or so (after stock prep). And now I know how to do it, for all time.
I just need to chop off 5″ from each foot because apparently a 15″ high lap desk doesn’t really work for non-giants.
*Editors note: This is James’ first attempt at a long-form woodworking article. He is aware it is a departure from his usual format and tone.
There is an idiom, often attributed to either Benjamin Franklin or the anonymous Shaker craftsman, that goes, “A place for everything, [and] everything in its place”. I doubt Old Richard Scary actually came up with the phrase. I also doubt the Shakers would disagree with the notion. After all, if you can be one thing, you should be efficient. And for those of us who have small shops, this is more than just an aesthetic; it’s a way of life.
There are, as far as I can tell, there are two main approaches to tool storage in woodworking (although I would imagine these concepts apply to all crafts and shops). The first, just keep it open and pile everything in, works fine for things like full size, stationary English floor chests with banks of sliding tills and ample room for everything. The other, divide it up and create slots for individual tools (sometimes called “French Fitting” [double capitalization intended], which is the term I will use for the rest of this article), excels in chests that will travel or where space (read: organization) is at a premium. I prefer a hybrid of those approaches, but skewed heavily toward the latter.
When there is a place for everything, and everything is in its place, the tool you need is more likely to be easily findable and at hand. In addition, the tool is likely to remain set, tuned and sharp, having been protected from jostling against its neighbors. This is especially true for chests that get moved around, loading in and out of the car or dumped on the lawn for some sunshine woodworking. But even for stationary chests that live inside the shop, there is a level of French Fitting that I believe benefits everyone. It goes without saying that this is a handtool-focused approach. I only use a few machines, and each of them directly complements my handtool-first approach. If you are a machines-only woodworker, please feel free to keep reading. But this article might not have as much utility for you.
In my workshop (which is a 12×13 bedroom), I work out of a large Dutch tool chest (a “DTC”) in the Schwarz design from 2013. The chest lives to the left of the leg vise, pretty centered on the left wall of the room. In the main compartment of the chest (the “Well”), each of the primary tools (e.g., bench planes, back saws, hand saws, chisels, and other frequent-use tools) lives in a rack or a divided till and no other tool fits on that slot. A tool comes out, does its job, and goes back to its home. Directly below the Well is a drawer that holds longer, more fragile tools (e.g., rasps, paring chisels), as well as other small tools that wouldn’t fit nicely into the main well. This drawer is not French Fitted. And, honestly, it gets pretty cluttered.
The rest of the chest is two open compartments where tools are just piled in. The middle compartment holds tool rolls with augur bits, plane and joinery floats and gouges, plus the boring tools (braces and eggbeater drill). The bottom compartment holds a quarter set of hollows and rounds and my joinery planes, plus some drill and driver bits and sharpening slips (and a hammer that doesn’t fit anywhere else). A few odds and ends are strategically stashed throughout the chest.
But, like I said, that chest doesn’t ever move. When I woodwork outside or get called to a buddy’s house to fix something, I ask so much more of the tool chest I bring with me into the wild. That chest must not only hold (and organize) everything I need to do the job, but it must also keep everything secure and safe through the bumps and bruises of lugging it around. So let’s talk about French Fitting a DTC-style traveling tool chest.
Chisels and Other Handled Tools
When I begin planning tool storage in any tool chest, it starts first with a rack for chisels and other handled tools that attaches to an inner wall of the chest (the back wall, for a DTC). Christopher Schwarz has covered this topic in depth previously, but in my experience, starting with 1/2″ holes at 1 3/8″ centers does the trick. I like a 1 3/8″ x 1 3/8″ pine board for the rack. Although many tools will fit into the 1/2″ holes, a good portion of the holes must be elongated to fit, among other things, wider chisels. So a drill press is your friend here. Map out your strategy for this and pay attention to the width of the tool above the rack. For example, two marking gauges side by side will probably crowd each other even with 1 3/8″ spacing. So maybe find something with a narrower handle to put in between them to space things out. I like my chisels on the right side of the rack; others prefer the left side. Just don’t put them in the middle, though (for reasons that will be come clear in a bit).
Before I hang the rack to the inside wall of the DTC, I need two measurements. The first is how much below the top of the rack the largest chisel (in this case, 1″) will hang. Add 1″ to that and you get a rough height for the gap from the floor of the well to the underside of the rack. That extra inch should ensure both that your largest chisel will never hit the floor of the Well and also there is clearance for other, longer tools (e.g., a sliding bevel or brad awl). The second measurement is how much space that leaves to the top of the chest. If there is not enough clearance for the tallest tool in the rack, lower the rack until it the largest chisel doesn’t dig into the floor of the well but there is still clearance for the chest lid to close. Now affix this rack to the back wall of the chest with countersunk screws. I like to drive two from outside of the chest about 1″ from the ends of the rack, and one from the inside of the chest centered between the narrow chisel and the next tool to its left. This rack carries a lot of weight so attaching from both sides helps distribute the pressure.
Saws and Combination Square
After the tool rack is attached, it’s time to make the saw till. When traveling, I carry three saws: a 12 TPI rip cut back saw (the Veritas ones are pretty nice and very durable), an 11 TPI rip cut panel saw (it also crosscuts) and a 6 TPI rip cut panel saw. The saw till I prefer is U-shaped and joined at the corners with either dovetails, finger joints or rabbets and nails. Pine is just fine here (and for eveything else), although any wood will work.
The saw till has slots cut with the saws that it will hold (3/4″ on center spacing works great for most saws) and its height is just whatever will friction fit below the tool rack (it adds even more support to prevent the tool rack from sagging). Remember to leave at least 2″ beneath the lowest slot and (at least for the backsaws) don’t make the slots so deep that the saw teeth don’t bite into the till itself. If there is room, I also add a 1/8″ slot for a combination square.
For this saw till, you can can just make ends and screw them in place from the outside of the chest and from the underneath. But I find a bridge in the middle makes the saw till easier to affix (and remove, if needed). Regardless, space the ends based on the saw plate of your shortest saw; an overall width of 2 inches less than the length of the saw plate should work for most saws. When you screw it in place, it should be roughly centered and tuck under the back till just 1/8″ or so. If done right, this saw till has the added benefit of also supporting the middle of the tool rack, which can sag over time.
General Small Tools
The tool rack and the saw till have now created 3 zones of tool storage. The front of the well is for planes and other large items (more on that in a moment). And on each side of the saw till (remember, you left at least 2″ beneath the saws) there is now a great place for general storage. I fill these zones with H-shaped semi boxes that are flush to the front of the saw till. The top of the H is a dead zone that protects the edges of the chisels and other edge tools as they hang down below the tool rack. We’ll call these the “general tills”.
These general tills are just friction fit into the spaces on each side of the saw till and will get closed off later. These general tills are a great place for things like nail punches, drill driver bits and other small items that don’t have edges to protect and can be piled in. You can also use the now-closed-in area below the rack and between the ends of the saw till for specialty storage. I keep my small router plane and dovetail guide there (both are tools I rarely use while outside or on site) that won’t damage anything if they rattle around a little bit.
We’ve now come to the most important part of the operation: the plane till. This is entirely based on the bench planes (and other items) you’ll have in the chest. In the case of my traveling tool set, I use a No. 5 1/2 and a No. 3, which (conveniently) fit in a single row of plane storage, so the second row in the plane till can be for other things. In a full size tool chest, you’ll probably need both rows for planes (I use a No. 7, No. 5 and No. 4 in my main DTC, for example). In fact, the length of these two planes, plus dividers, dictates the overall length of the tool chest itself.
Rabbets and nails are the order of the day when making the saw till. I used to dovetail these, but it’s too easy to undercut a baseline and get a bad fit lengthwise. If I used a table saw, I’d probably make these out of 1/4″ stock all around and just brad nail everything together after cutting VERY shallow rabbets. But with hand tools, 1/2″ stock feels better all around (except for the thin middle dividers).
When locating the divide between compartments that will hold planes, I find an extra 1/8″ of length all around works well for getting Bailey-pattern planes in and out of the plane till. For instance, a No. 5 1/2 is 15″ long and 2 3/4″ wide, so the compartment ends up being 15 1/8″ long and 2 7/8″ (or a hair under) wide. Don’t make them too tight, though; the difference between “secure” and “difficult to remove” is basically 1/16″ in each direction. Just FYI, the knob on smaller planes (like the No.3) extends past the toe. I learned that the hard way.
Aside from ensuring your planes sit snugly, the only other critical measurement here is ensuring the ends of the plane till take up whatever space is left between the front wall and the general tills, thereby locking everything in place. If you do have to build up part of the till to fit a smaller plane, glue that spacer to the plane till. That makes a pretty meaty strip for boring some more 1/2″ holes for extra general tool storage (when I get around to it, my nail punches and marking knife will live there). Just make sure the spacer is the same height as the rest of the plane till.
The last part of the plane till is (to use a Rex Krueger term) the “key”. It fits into the space between the general tills and the plane till and closes off the second row of the plane till. But don’t glue it to either the plane till or the general tills. As long as the fit is reasonably tight, it will lock everything in place but still allow you to pull the tills out if needed. I like like to add a couple of spacers to the back of the key, which complete the general till box and keep the general tills from pinching in on each other.
All things being equal, the Well should now be perfectly organized for the tools to be kept in there. There is space on the walls for pouches and magnets and whatnot to hold additional tools; just be sure not to obstruct anything coming in or out. You’ll probably need to remove a saw or two to reach the less commonly-used tools (like that block plane on the left side), but that’s just how traveling tool chests work. Success means striking a balance of security and accessibility.
With a little bit of thought, though, it’s possible to easily store everything you need for meaningful woodworking while also keeping your tools safe from the bumps and bruises of moving the chest around. All the same principles apply to shop storage, if you are so inclined (and I would posit that the edge tool rack and saw till are important for ANY type of tool chest, even with banks of sliding tills for everything).
This is all just a suggestion, of course. Use whatever organization method fits your style of work and tool set. I just want your tools to be safe, secure and ready when you need them.
And that’s it for now. Next week, we’ll examine in more detail the “just keep it open and pile it in” method. Natch.
Around these parts (Fairfield County, Connecticut), it’s warming up. This time of year, I’m finally able to drag my workbench outside and get real some woodworking done. My outside workbench, now with new slab and tool tray, is in fact getting quite a workout. I can get a bunch done with just a pair of holdfasts and a few clamps to secure the work. Proper vises are great. But they are not absolutely necessary if you’re not cutting English style dovetails.
One of my goals for this year is mastering tapered tenon joinery for staked furniture. Or at least becoming facile with it. I have experimented with reamer and tapered tenon cutter before, but in situations where strength was not a primary concern. Chairs and stools are higher leverage projects (literally and figuratively) than credenza bases and side tables.
So with a nice weekend, I might as well make some chips on the lawn with a drawknife and spokeshave to prepare some leg stock for refinement. I resolved to take the tapers further than I usually do off the drawknife. I also spent more time with the spokeshave before introducing the tapered tenon cutter. I’m not sure it was faster than doing more rough work, but the results are more consistent than my prior work.
These legs are ash, which was split off from a small timber that checked badly while it was drying I’d have preferred the leg blanks be closer to 2″ square, but you work with that you’ve got (these are 1.65″ square). I’ll add some stretchers between the pairs of legs for extra rigidity.
I am also working through some old boards, some from as early as 2014 that I’ve been dragging from shop to shop all these years. Among that is a red oak 2×12 (nominal size 1.75 x 11.25). It’s about 65 inches long and I could never bring myself to cut it down into smaller boards. So as I figure out how to be precise with compound angled joinery, I might as well make another low bench. The top had cupped and bowed pretty badly so by the time it was flattened, it was only 1.5″ thick. You may not think half an inch of red oak means that much, but it does. This is a sitting bench, not a low workbench, so the little bit of flex means added comfort. But if this were to live in the shop, it would need a 2×4 glued and screwed to the underside for extra support.
I do all my boring and reaming by hand with a brace, so it’s much harder to overshoot an angle or a depth with the reamer that way. But it’s still important to check your angles and go slow. Doing so will ensure the exit holes on the top (ie, visible) of the seat are of consistent size and shape. In the end, some irregularities aren’t fatal to the structural soundness of the piece. But looking nice is important too.
So this is a very long way of saying, if it’s nice outside, I will drag a workbench outside and get a tan while doing some rougher work. It’s harder to rake shavings off the lawn than to sweep them up off the floor.
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.
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 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.