woodworking tools

Low Bench Leg Joinery

I’ve been making low benches (both workbenches and general furniture) for a while now and I’d like to talk about the various ways to join the legs to the top. In my experience, some are better or worse than others, depending on several factors, including: (i) the purpose of the finished piece, (ii) the thickness of the benchtop, (iii) the materials used, and (iv) the tools available.

Let’s discuss several choices to join the legs to the top (I swear this is not a clip show):

First, we have cylindrical through tenons. The tenon can be hand carved, turned on a lathe or made with a round tenon cutter (like for rustic joinery). The mortise is bored with a large auger bit or some other boring bit.

And secured with wedges.

Next, we have conical through tenons. The tenon is hand carved with a drawknife or plane and then typically refined with a special tapered tenon cutter. The mortise is bored with a smaller bit and enlarged with a tapered reamer.

Also secured with wedges, but this is a more informative shot.

In addition, we have rectilinear through tenons, which can be cut with regular edge tools. The tenon is sawed to shape with an angled shoulder. The mortise is chopped out with a chisel. No boring tools needed.

This joint needs wedges, too. Seeing a pattern, yet?

Finally, legs can be joined with notched lap joints. The tenon is sawed at an angle with a birds mouth shoulder. The mortise is just a dado in the side of the top. Also no boring tools needed.

But instead of wedges, you need metal fasteners.

There is also the tapered sliding dovetail used on Roy Underhill’s Timber Bench, but that’s outside the scope of this article.

Let’s take these in order. This is just my opinion based on experience; others may have their own takes.

Round Tenons

Pros:

  • Relatively easy to cut: You just need an augur/boring bit of appropriate diameter (and a bit of skill to follow an angle) to cut the tenon. For the tenon, either use a lathe or log joinery tenon cutter or employ a few common hand tools (saws, chisels, spokeshave, rasps, sand paper) to round off the tenon and taper the shoulder.
  • Strong: Full thickness tenons, glued and secured with wedges, form a secure and durable joint.

Cons:

  • Hard to correct: If you mess up the angle or wallow out the mortise too much, you’re stuck with it. There is no correcting after the fact.
  • Limited sizes available: If you want a 2″ round tenon, you need to find a 2″ boring bit to cut the mortise. And a drill or brace that can use the damn thing without releasing the blue smoke (or tearing a UCL).
  • Certain materials work better: Leg stock needs to be bone dry, otherwise the tenon may shrink and need to be re-wedged in the future. Also, ideally, the wedges are made of something even harder than the legs. Finally, 2x dimensional lumber may not be thick enough for a sturdy leg.
  • Cosmetics: To me, full size round tenons just look off. If the angles are done right (so the exit holes are proper circles and not wallowed out ovals) and you use a contrasting wood for the wedges, they can be beautiful. But there are too many variables for me.

Tapered Tenons

Pros:

  • Relatively easy to cut: Same as above, except you need a tapered reamer to make the tapered mortise and typically want a matching tapered tenon cutter to refine the tenon (both are generally available from the usual woodworking suppliers).
  • Self-tightening: As you put weight on the legs, the tapered tenon will seat even further into the joint. The leg stock should still be bone dry, but as long as your legs are made of something equal to or harder than the top, the joint can sort itself out over time.
  • Easy to correct: Unlike the cylindrical tenon, where you are stuck with the hole you bored (including any wonky angles), you can correct the angles using the tapered reamer. Just take it slow and check often.

Cons:

  • Less strong: The tapered tenon has less material making contact with the top and the wedge is not full width, so for a low workbench or a sitting bench for more than one person, you may need to add a cross rail to each pair of legs stabilize things.
  • Requires specialized equipment: As noted above, you need at least one piece of special equipment (a tapered reamer) to make the mortise. Refining the tapered tenon without the tapered tenon cutter is doable but takes some practice.

Rectilinear Through Tenons

Pros:

  • Easy to cut: No specialized tools needed. A chisel, a mallet, a bevel gauge (or a block of wood cut to the right angle), and some patience will give you a clean and precise hole (that you can further refine with a file or rasp). I like to bore out most of the waste with an augur bit and pare down to lines, but this is ultimately just a square or rectangular mortise.
  • Strong: Of all the joints described, this one has the most material forming the tenon.
  • Customizable: You’re only limited by the size of the stock (not the size of the boring tool), so this joint can be used for everything from a footstool to a full size standing workbench. I would imagine this is the joint used in the workbench shown in Plate IX, Figure 68 of the marquetry entry in Diderot’s Encyclopedie.
  • Cosmetics: Rectangular tenons wedged at 90 degrees or square tenons wedged at 45 degrees are very pleasing to my eye. I think they look the best of all of the through tenons.

Cons:

  • Complex layout: Unlike cylindrical or conical tenons, you have to actually lay out both sides of the mortise. This requires carrying compound angles around to the other face. You’ll need to not only S4S the top but also square the ends.
  • Harder to correct: If you overshoot your lines, the only option is to make the tenon larger (which is easy if you overshoot side to side, but much harder front to back).

Notched Lap Joints

Pros:

  • Simple to cut: This joint can be cut with one saw and one chisel. Even the compound angled version is not particular difficult to work out. There is a reason why saw benches are the quintessential intro woodworking course.
  • Any material works: 2x dimensional softwood lumber from the home center is perfectly acceptable for the legs. Using thinner material for the top (such as 2x dimensional softwood lumber) does not materially weaken the joint, either.
  • Versatile: When using a narrower than ideal top, this joint can be used on the back legs to extend the footprint to a stable depth.

Cons:

  • Weak without reinforcement: As an external joint, glue alone is unlikely to be enough for a lasting joint. Metal fasteners and gussets are required to keep this joint together long term.
  • Legs protrude beyond the top: Another drawback to the external joint, the legs will likely be in the way for some sawing and other operations. You can fix this by laminating on boards after the legs are attached, making a de facto rectilinear through tenon.
  • Cosmetics: This is generally not a furniture grade joint. There are certain instances where it can be attractive. But most often, you’ll be using this joint for workshop stuff.

So what do you think? Did I miss anything in the pros and cons lists? Have I ruined everything forever?

I mean, yeah. Of course I have. But maybe not because of this article.

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Maximizing Usable Tool Storage Space

*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.

A full size Dutch Tool Chest is a mix of both French Fitting and Pile In organization.

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.

Everything begins with this.

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).

I like to put an awl to the left of dividers so the adjustment bar can tuck away.

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.

This is a spare saw till that I had handy. It holds 2 panel saws and 3 backsaws in a full size tool chest.

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.

Plane Till

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.

The recesses on the front board are clearance for the fall front locks.

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.

Notice the filler piece to account for a No. 3 being so much narrower than a No. 5 1/2. It will get some 1/2″ holes for more storage.

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.

Yes, it’s tight. But everything is where it needs to be.

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.

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Hither and Thither

Earlier this year, I made a little traveling tool chest to go with my traveling workbench. It works great, and it holds all of the hand tools I need for working away from the shop. But it’s not perfect. I didn’t really think through the bits and bobs I’d need to actually do woodworking. Things like a roll of blue tape, a powered drill driver (and charger), a hammer, and auger bits. Pretty much everything that isn’t french fit into the well or a till just gets piled in and must be unpacked and piled elsewhere to access to the main set of tools.

It’s a well known fact that Dutch-style tool chests are bigger on the inside (having lots of places to stash tools around the inside of the main compartment). And with some wall cabinet projects coming up, I needed some dovetailing practice. I’d been cutting mostly mortise and tenon joints as of late. Even though I consider myself to pretty good at dovetailing, it had been a while. So let’s make a Dutch tool chest.

No half tails this time. But I still got it!

Now a full size Dutch tool chest (single lower compartment) is portable enough in its own right. But I like the form factor of my current traveling tool chest and have found a full size DTC to be a little unwieldy to load and and out of the truck. So this chest, although 27″ wide, is only 18″ high. That means a full size main compartment but only a 3.75″ lower compartment. Big enough to cram in a drill driver and charger, a roll of auger bits and a brace and bit and some other bulky odds and ends, but not so big that I’m tempted to overpack. I’ve found that as far as traveling tool chests go, the more extra space you have, the more extra tools you’ll cram in. And that defeats the purpose.

It looks narrower than it actually is.

One of the beautiful design features of a DTC is the angled top. Not only does it keep you from piling things onto the chest (thereby preventing you from getting at your tools), it also means that you can put a full size tool rack on the back wall of the main compartment. You just can’t do that with a square chest. I prefer a tool rack that is 1.25″ x 1.25″, with 1/2″ holes drilled on 1.5″ centers. A good number of my tools actually require elongated holes (not just the bigger chisels), but a 1/2″ hole on 1.5″ center is good for a great many tools.

Yes: in a traveling tool chest, I still need 3 screw drivers. That’s a bevel gauge between the awl and the marking gauge, btw.

Another great part of the DTC form (piggybacking off the angled top) is the plane till. Not only can you fit a plane till into the main compartment of the chest (in this case, one that holds not only my two shortened panel saws, but also a small 12tpi rip tenon saw), but because of the extra headroom in the main compartment, the space underneath the saws on both sides of the till are usable space. In a stationary, shop-based DTC, you can just pile things in there. For this traveling chest, I’ll need to make some little trays (like the plane till, more on that below) to keep things from bouncing around. And the saw till also keeps the tool rack from sagging in the middle.

Usable space under there.

This is a traveling chest, so I don’t need to fit a full set of bench planes. Instead, I just keep a No. 5 (with both straight and cambered irons) and a No. 3, plus a low angle block plane. Taking into account the saw till, I’ve got 6.125″ of depth for two rows of plane till/general storage. That is enough (with some creative orientation) to fit everything I need, including my sharpening gear. That’s what I currently have in the square traveling tool chest well, at least.

I don’t own a table saw, and making long thin stock is tough by hand (at least without using rolls of double sided tape). So I tend to build up my tills for French fitting with 1/4″ nominal hobby boards from home center. The poplar is best; one can usually find it nicely quartersawn in 48″ lengths. Its true thickness is around 7/16. But when French fitting by hand, it’s just shooting board practice.

Still needs some internal dividers.

I think that’s it for this one. I have a new to-do’s for the rest of the weekend that will take me out of the shop.

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This Time of Year

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.

Nice to see the slab and tray matching so well, though.

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.

Like so.

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.

Aligning the legs for the eventual stretcher.

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.

Ideally, the top would be thicker than the legs.

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.

But such is life.

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Feeling Nostalgic

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.

Can you spot the 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.

Ignore the epoxy; I didn’t have the Red Rose Reproduction screws when I first made the vise block.

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.

Natch.

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Fixgasm (Part III?)

I’m unsure if this counts as a proper fixgasm, 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.

Yes, I have mostly black and yellow branded tools. No, they aren’t a sponsor.

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.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

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New Year’s Day, 2022

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.

Still one more sliding till to make.

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).

It’s also rabbeted and nailed, not dovetailed. Cauls help keep everything flat when nailing together.

The full kit this holds is as follows:

  • Planes: No. 5 jack plane, No. 3 smoothing plane, Low-angle block plane, small router plane
  • Saws: 10 tpi rip cut panel saw (18″ plate): 6 tpi rip cut panel saw (18″ plate)
  • Chisels: 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, 1 inch bench chisels, carver’s mallet
  • Marking and measuring: 12″ combination square, 8″ machinist square, wheel marking gauge, 12 foot tape measure, folding marking knife, mechanical pencils
  • 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.

Happy New Year, everyone!

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The Importance of Instructions

We are fortunate to live in the world we do now, even with all its faults. The entirety of catalogued human knowledge is available at our fingertips and we mostly take it for granted. As I write this, I have the cabinet making and marquetry chapter of Diderot’s Encyclopedia open in one tab (specifically, plate 21-2-9, but more on that another day) and a 2016 Fine Woodworking workbench article with a fantastic tutorial on how to make a tail vise using commercially-available hardware, open in background browser tabs. That second one is pretty important, because I’m making a tail vise to retrofit on a work bench and the hardware I bought from Lee Valley doesn’t come with instructions. Like at all (which is weird, because LV usually goes overboard with the literature included in their products).

So I had to turn to the internet. I first checked the Woodcraft website (they sell a similar product), but the included instructions are rather cryptic). Also, the product picture on the website has the screw backwards, which I found odd. Then I scoured YouTube for an instructional on using this hardware and came up empty. So I searched “tail vise installation guide” and bam: the FW article popped up near the top.

It’s a 10-page article and the author spends 4(!) pages detailing exactly how to build, fit and tune a tail vise. The entire article is fantastic, but I have absolutely no intention of making the workbench in the FW article. However, I give the author much credit for taking the time to explain in great detail the difficult and unintuitive part of the build (the tail vise). There is more useful information in those 4 pages than in the entirety of most other woodworking project articles. And how many woodworking articles yadda yadda the difficult stuff like some sawdust-covered underpants gnome.

This is as far as I can take it until I attach it to the actual bench.

What you see above is the “core” of the tail vise. Essentially, it’s a laminated block of wood with a recess in the middle the vise nut (which is on the inside of the mounting plate) and a rabbet that accepts the top guide plate. There is also a clearance hole drilled on the right side for the vise screw to pass through. The the vise hub screws onto the right hand side, and I may sink some dowels perpendicular to the core to give the vise hub mounting screws more purchase. I learned that trick from a Popular Woodworking video series on a Torsion Box Workbench.

The tail vise assembly is completed by adding a “dog strip” with bench dog holes (the point of a tail vise is to pinch a board between dogs, after all) and a top plate that looks pretty and covers the top guide plate (and brings the top of the tail vise flush with the benchtop to which the vise is mounted). I made the core out of hard maple, but the dog strip and top plate will be whatever wood the benchtop to which it’s mounted is made. In this case, it will be ash. But this tail vise core is evergreen, especially if I attach the dog strip and top plate with hide glue.

I would note that for the LV version, you’ll need to add some washers to the bolts that attach the guide plates. This ensures the bolts (which thread into the top guide plate) sit just below the surface.

Why do I mention all this, you ask? Well, there is a trope about men not reading the instructions. Which I’ve never understood, mostly because of my father. He was a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War and a commercial airline pilot until he retired (although a good chunk of his career was as a flight instructor). If there is a man who appreciates good instructions, it’s my father (and he passed that appreciation on to me). In fact, it’s my mother who doesn’t read instructions and it frustrates us both to no end.

So, for your own sake, read the god damned instructions. Especially if you can actually find them.

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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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