small space woodworking

Plywood Roman Workbench (Part 1)

About two years ago, I made the claim that a beginner woodworker in an apartment could make a roman workbench out of a sheet of plywood with a small set of hand tools.  I was only about four years into hand tool-only woodworking and had caught the low, staked bench fever like everyone else.  But I never forgot about that claim I made.

The total cost of this project should be about US$75 in materials.  I’ll be doing this a bit more like a how-to than usual. So here we go:

Supplies:

  • one sheet of 3/4″ Baltic Birch plywood (60″ x 60″)
  • two Douglas Fir 2×4 framing studs (144″ long)
  • PVA glue (Titebond I, in my case)
  • CA glue (Gorilla super glue, in my case)
  • 3/8″ birch dowel (for drawboring)

Required Tools:

  • Bench Plane (No. 4 or longer is best, but even a Block Plane will work)
  • Hand saw that can crosscut a 2×4
  • 1/2″ chisel and mallet
  • Brace and Bit or Drill Driver with with 3/8″ and 1/2″ bits
  • F-Style Clamps, C-Style Clamps or a bunch of heavy pieces of wood (screws would work too)

Optional Tools:

  • Brad nails and a hammer
  • 3/4″ or 1″ chisel
  • Trim Router with flush trim bit
  • Router Plane
  • Shoulder plane
  • Shooting Board

Preparing the Slab:

My local lumber yard has a sliding carriage panel saw for breaking down plywood, so I had them rip the sheet of 3/4″ Baltic Birch plywood into five roughly equal sheets.  I recommend ripping it at 11 7/8″.  The last sheet will be a smidge of 12″ wide, but you’ll trim that down later.  I don’t recommend construction grade plywood.  It’s lighter than the good stuff, it has too many voids and it’s likely to be significantly warped.

Set aside the nicest looking of the five sheets for now.  You’ll need that later.

There are a few ways to laminate the remaining four sheets into a slab, depending on your work surface.

  • I had a really flat surface to work on (my Stent Panel Workbench), so I just slathered on a bunch of PVA glue, laid down all four pieces and piled a bunch of weight on top.  Clamps would have worked well too, but you know my philosophy…
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Biggest rock is best rock.

  • If all you’ve got is sawhorses, first make sure the tops of the sawhorses are not twisted.  Wedge under them as necessary.  I would not use the biggest rock is best rock approach here and laminate all four sheets at once.  Better to laminate sheet by sheet and use clamps (with cuts of 2×4 as cauls) or screws.  Just don’t forget to drill pilot holes for the screws and remove them after the glue dries between lamination steps.
  • If you don’t even have sawhorses, I don’t know what to tell you.  Maybe find a couple of matching milk crates or just bite the bullet and buy some cheap home center sawhorses.  Sawhorses are useful for more than just woodworking.

No matter which method you choose, check periodically to make sure the sheets stay in relative alignment as the glue dries.  If you use the right amount of glue, it will grab right away.  But if you go overboard, just use clamps, nails or screws to keep everything from sliding around and keep checking until the glue grabs.  Keeping everything aligned now will reduce planing work down the line.

Unless your sheet of plywood was horribly warped, or your sawhorses were in twist (I warned you), the resulting slab should be relatively flat and true.  Take a straightedge and figure out where it’s high.  Using my workbench as a reference surface the four sheet lamination, it came out nearly perfect.  There was about 1/64″ of a hump along the length.  Flattening didn’t even take me through the veneer layer.  And four sheets ended up being stout enough (almost 3″ of total thickness).

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Looks pretty nice with a coat of Boiled Linseed Oil.

But I assume there is a bit on unevenness in your slab, so go ahead and straighten and flatten the top face of the slab as best you can with a hand plane.  Keep the setting shallow and nibble away at the high spots, checking it as you go.  With any luck, you won’t have to remove much more than the veneer layer.

Now glue that final board you set aside onto the top of the trued surface (maybe use clamps or pile a bunch of weight on it this time).  This should guarantee a flat work surface needing little to no final truing (barring any irregularities in the last sheet of plywood itself, anyway).  This also hides any unsightly tearout from the flattening process.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten to this point.  Next time, we’ll talk about cleaning up the sides and ends of the laminated slab and how to deal with any little voids.

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Fits and Starts, Part II

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

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Is that the end of the tunnel or the train?

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

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Some detail on the T&G back boards.

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

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

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

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

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

It’s around here somewhere, anyway.

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One Board Projects

In keeping with the single board project motif, I slapped together a shooting board from a large mahogany off cut that was basically twist free.  Utilizing a wedged fence, the board is about 12 inches long and 9 inches wide.  This version is based very heavily on the plans in The Minimalist Woodworker by Vic Tesolin, just without the cleats.  It’s meant for use on the low occasional workbench so it just buts up against the planing stops.

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How do you make a shooting board if you don’t have a shooting board to make it with?

A shooting board, you may remember, is a jig with a fence at some fixed angle to a reference edge that helps a handtool woodworker true up a sawn edge to that fixed angle.  90 degrees is very common for general, rectilinear work, but a 45 degree fence comes in very handy for precision miter joints.

I find the hardest part about making shooting boards is getting a consistent glue surface between the base and the deck.  My “Biggest Rock is Best Rock” approach to clamping largely grew out of this frustration.  But when your biggest rock isn’t quick big enough, improvise!

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Even with all this weight, I still ended up screwing the boards together from the underside.

The end result is quite nice.  Heavy, flat and (I assume) stable.  And the wedge is dead-square to the deck.  We’ll see if mahogany is tough enough to stand up over time.  I don’t plan on using it for bench-hook purposes (it’s too pretty for that).

Now for that palm!

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The Easy Way Out

A corollary to “Why build it when you can overbuild it?” is “Why do it the easy way when you can do it the hard way?”  The latter seems to be the theme of my latest project, a sitting bench and occasional Roman workbench.

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Cherry, plus Boiled Linseed Oil, plus Sunlight = Beauty

I could have easily glued and nailed a gusset onto each set of legs and called it a day.  That would have been the easy way out.  But I had to go make it all complicated and mortise in a stretcher that’s flush to the underside of the benchtop.  Sure, it looks nicer and will theoretically be stronger, but it’s at least twice as much work.

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This entire article is just a clip show, apparently.

I should note that there are two failure points in this setup.

The first is cross-grain movement.  I assembled the bench in my downstairs, non-HVAC workshop on a humid day.  But the finished piece will live in the HVAC upstairs living area so it should shrink a smidge.  Nonetheless, the quarter inch drawbore pegs are likely not strong enough to resist heavy seasonal movement, even if they had been rived from solid stock instead of storebought dowels.  I have a nagging suspicion that 3/8 would have been more appropriate.

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Clamp pressure was a must, even with the drawbores.

Second, the 10 degree rake on the legs seems a bit aggressive.  There is the slightest bit of flex in the legs when I sit on the bench, although it might just be the slickness of the hardwood floor.  I can imagine that heavy mortising over the legs might loosen the lap joints over time.  We’ll just have to see.

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I added Veritas bench pups to one end.

I used the bench for some basic hand planing last night and have some plans for a special shooting board/bench hook that braces against the bench dogs pictured above.

Once that shooting board is functional, I’ll move onto a Palm that fits over the bench dogs, and maybe a removable crochet/shoulder vise that does the same.  Or maybe just drop the illusion of this being furniture add a whipple hook?

Is it obvious that I’m between major projects right now?

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Nearing Completion

The second mirror for the upstairs bathroom is complete and I’m as pleased as I can be with the result. Everything seems balanced out now.

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Color match is what it is.

In making the second mirror, I took no chances and went straight to a rabbeting bit in the trim router.  There is something to be said for ultra-repeatablility and ease.

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Color match is what it is.

There are a great many power tools I’ve given up since I first started woodworking, but I would rather die than be without my rabbeting bit and flush trim bit (both of which have a place in a hand tool-focused shop).

Or, whatever.

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Working it Out

Once upon a time, I bought a twelve foot long board of 6/4 cherry that was supposed to be the top of the reclaimed cherry console table.  But as fate would have it, there was just enough of the original table to make the full reclaimed version, so this board sat in my workshop for night on a year.  I couldn’t sleep last night, so this board’s time came at about 3am.

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The basic bench takes shape.

The entire bench is made from that one board.  The top consists of two edge-jointed boards and is about 10 3/8″ x 1 1/2″ x 49″.  The legs are 2 1/2″ x 1 1/2″ and angled at 10 degrees.  The overall bench is 19 1/4″ high, which is my preferred height for sitting benches (and saw benches, at that).

The legs are beyond friction fit in their lap joints with the benchtop.  I went through two pine beater blocks with lump hammer persuasion just to get them to seat in a dry fit.  A small part of me wants to make this a knock down bench, but it is compact enough to be portable even when glued together.

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As I was making the bench, I had the Saalburg workbench in my mind’s eye.  But looking at it now, I don’t think one could ever mistake the two.  In any event, this bench is more for sitting than for woodworking.  I’m not saying I won’t bore some peg holes.  I just don’t plan do much more than home handiwork on it.

I have some sweet square head lag screws left over from a prior project that would be perfect for reinforcing the glue joint connecting the legs to the bench top.  But I still think there should be some gussets.  I wonder if it’s worth doing drawbored mortise and tenons or just simple lap joints with glue and screws.

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I remembered this time to leave enough extra to make the cutoff easy.

I’ll take some more pictures when I decide what to do.  Until then, I plan to get back to dimensioning the white oak for the lower shelf on the bathroom vanity.

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Gusset (noun)

noun
noun: gusset; plural noun: gussets
A piece of material sewn into a garment to strengthen or enlarge a part of it, such as the collar of a shirt or the crotch of an undergarment.  A bracket strengthening an angle of a structure.
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This is a gusset.

Joining two or more pieces together is an interesting endeavor.  Some joints, like dovetails or mortise and tenon joinery, have tremendous mechanical strength (especially when force would largely be applied in the direction of that mechanical strength).  Other joints, like rabbets and dadoes, offer greater strength than a simple butt joint, but nonetheless require some fasteners to achieve a durable connection.

But what about butt joints?  In theory, a face grain to face grain glue-up using a modern PVA glue with upwards of 3,000 psi in glue strength should do fine on its own.  Prudence dictates adding a metal fastener or two perpendicular to the mating surface to prevent the joint from sliding over time under normal force.  Forces are not uni-directional all the time, however.  And specific woods are not ideal for every application.

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With a 4 sq. inch mating surface, the glue theoretically asserts 12,000 lbs of force at the glue line.

Take, for instance, the above-pictured “saw bench”.  Although patterned somewhat on the Schwarz design (plans are here), it is assuredly not a piece of shop equipment.  Made from Eastern White Pine, it’s instead a portable sitting bench for a buddy who is about have a child.  I like the design, as it’s easy to knock together in a leisurely day.  Plus, it’s so damned comfortable.

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A proper Schwarz saw bench in the background.

Under no circumstances can this bench collapse with a baby in the picture.  So I added some gussets to stabilize the legs laterally.  I might not have done so in another, harder material.  In fact, had this been oak or ash, I might have instead just screwed twice into the face of the joint and put a third screw in from the bottom.  But pine splits with too many fasteners per square inch (even when pre-drilled).

So next time you need to stabilize a joint from forces in a direction other than the mechanical strength of the joint, consider adding a gusset.  It might just save a baby’s life.

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Upon Further Reflection

It’s easy to take for granted certain luxuries.  Electricity, clean water, indoor plumbing, HVAC, etc.  But there are certain modern amenities that you don’t realize you miss until they’re gone.  Like a bathroom mirror.

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The frame matches the vanity!

I’ve never made a picture frame before.  And I’m 100% certain this is not the way to frame a picture.  That’s what miters are for.  But mirrors are heavier than pictures and the frame needed to be stronger than a simple miter.  I guess I could have splined the mitres, but that is power tool claptrap.  So I went with lap joints, reinforced with pegs to match the vanity drawbores.

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New phone, new camera.

White Oak is difficult enough to work with hand tools when it’s kiln dried.  But imagine cutting 8 linear feet of rabbets with a moving fillister plane and a mild hangover.  It’s a freaking nightmare.  But with perseverance, you can turn this:

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Mildly case-hardened, but all in all not too bad.

Into this:

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Simple enough glue-up.

Attaching the mirror was a bit of a head-scratcher.  My solution was to use caulk that dries clear and just schmoo the thing in place.  Clear-drying caulk is a veritable miracle, btw.  But it requires a small bit of faith because it goes on white.

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Cork pads are probably in the wrong place, but they cover the pegs on the back side.

That’s just one of two mirrors needed.  So, learning from the process, I’ll cut the corner joinery first and the rabbet second.  I think.

Or maybe I’ll just buy a table saw with a dado stack.

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Getting it Together (the Short Version)

I had planned to write this whole post about wood movement and using tabletop anchors in finalizing the bathroom vanity project, but there is nothing I could say that Paul Sellers hasn’t said already (and better).

So, if you don’t know about wooden tabletop connectors, stop what you’re doing and go watch this Paul Sellers video.   After that, if you are so inclined, enjoy this picture of the undercarriage of the vanity.  Tabletop connectors not only hold the top on the vanity, but also anchor the entire assembly to the wall stud.

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Deep sinks are a PITA but worth it in the end.

Don’t forget to use brass fasteners in white oak.  Steel and white oak do not play nicely together.

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Extreme Vanity

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

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Glamour shot just before the sinks go in.

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

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

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

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Pre-assembly, pre-finish.

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

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

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

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