woodworking

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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Restorative Process

One of the first proper pieces of furniture I made when I switched to primarily handtool woodworking was a dining table. Or, at least, that’s what it was supposed to look like, because it really was more of a workbench. Made of solid ash, it had roughly 3″ square legs, 8/4 rails and a 5/4 top. Everything was drawbored together with 1/2 pegs.

For several years, I clamped my Milkman’s Workbench to it and that was my primary work area. In fact, you can see it in the banner of the website and I detailed the construction in my second ever post.

So many memories.

But many years have passed since then and my shop is now a 12×13 bedroom (instead of a dining nook). My mother claimed the old dining table for her house and my dining room has been empty (other than a console table that functions as a bar) for some time. But that’s about to change.

Dry assembly.

I’ve had a stack of paint grade soft maple for a while. Mostly 4/4 boards, but a little bit of 8/4 stock too (enough for some leg frames, at least). So I’m making a new dining table out of it, although much more delicate than the last. The legs are 1.75″ square and the top rails are barely 1′ x 3″ (and the bottom rails under 1″ x 2″). It will be solid, but far too spindly for woodworking on. There’s a number of mortises in this piece, so in addition to the usual cabinetmaker’s triangles, I’m also employing a timber framer’s marking system as backup.

I’ve never cut roman numerals with a chisel before.

As always, I tend to latch onto specific design elements that I find online (don’t @ me). For this, I’m going with the same stopped chamfers shown in this Restoration Hardware piece.

I don’t plan to permanently affix the top (not even a line of glue along one edge). Instead, the entire top will be affixed with wooden turnbuttons. Further contributing to the future of this piece merely as a dining table.

I mentioned this is paint grade soft maple and I mean it. It’s blotchy, streaked and, although curly in a few places, generally the grain is unruly throughout. I expect to paint the entire piece (probably in the same linen/coastal blue two tone as the console table bar). But as an initial matter, a couple coats of boiled linseed oil to see how the grain looks unpainted will do the trick.

We’ll see.

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Fixgasm (noun)

Fixgasm (noun): a small, heavily-procrastinated DIY project that, when completed, has a significant effect on efficiency or enjoyment of the object or space.

Example:

Finally added the spacer between the split top.

Having a split top workbench with a gap between the slabs is quite convenient for weird clamping jobs. But the gap is not so convenient for keeping tools off the floor. With a bit of time today, though, I managed to fit the center spacer to fill the gap. I’d been meaning to do this for a while and, other than the ripping of 12/4 ash to make the strip, it was pretty easy and should have been done a while ago.

Classic fixgasm.

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Cultural Appreciation (Pt. II)

Many moons ago, although surprisingly still in pandemic times, I made a small sitting bench out of scrap pine (Eastern White Pine for the top and Red Pine for the legs) that used angled, rectilinear tenons and a cross-rail on each end. After watching Grandpa Amu make a new workbench several times, this was an experiment and study in how these sorts of angled tenons work. The legs splay out at 10 degree (ish) angles, but have no rake. At the time, that seemed to me a good first step and was actually doable without any guides or other jigs. Just a chisel and a bevel gauge and some caution.

This thing, that actually lives at my office now.

Shortly after that, I took a six foot piece of 8″ wide clear vertical grain douglas fir that was languishing in the lumber pile and turned it into slab top and four square legs for the next part of the experiment. Which then sat, leaned up against the wall, for almost a year. But the spirit moved me this weekend and I got back to it. For this piece, the legs would have both splay and rake (both at around 10 degrees). And it’s worked out nicely (and not just because CVG douglas fir is very handtool friendly).

That’s my new Moravian workbench behind, including the finished leg vise, in my rearranged shop.

Shortly after the original experiment, I made a couple of test mortises (also in Eastern White Pine) using the same technique as the first bench (freehand with only a bevel gauge to assist). They didn’t come out great, with the bottom of the mortise (on the underside) being wider than the top. This led to inconsistent leg angles that couldn’t be wholly attributed to the softness of the EWP top.

So what I did instead was cut a few angle guides from squared up 2×4 (more on that in a future post). That way, I could freehand close to the lines and then, in a final paring cut using the guides, get the angles dead on. At least within appropriate tolerances for a piece of furniture. I’m no machinist, after all.

On the right, you can see a couple of low spots where freehand chopping took me a smidge below the final angle.

So was it strictly necessary to go through all this fuss to make the angles perfect? Probably not. I’ve already drilled the peg holes into the top and this will live as a saw bench in my shop (replacing a pair that are about 6 years old and wearing out quickly). It didn’t need to be perfect.

But if I were to use a joint like this in a proper piece of furniture, I think the angle paring guides are the way to go. Could I eventually get good enough freehanding to not need the guides as a crutch. Sure. But that’s a lot of work and, in my view, if a simple jig works, it’s worth using.

And, for now, I’ll gladly use whatever help I can get.

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Face Marks

This is something I’ve wanted to post for a while, but I’ve been concerned it would come off as snooty or elitist. But I’ve finally got the nerve and here is is:

Am I the only one who takes to heart that the face mark (from the Latin: facies) denoting the reference face of a board (i.e., a tried and trued surface) should be written like the top half of a cursive, lower case “f“?

Like so, shown is corresponding square mark on the reference edge.

Maybe I’m just an elitist prick, but the rando squiggles you see in some woodworking media infuriate me. In fact, I’m not sure which is worse: the rando curly cue that doesn’t even make it to the reference edge or the backwards (!) “f” that is otherwise correct.

Is there some pre-Industrial French spelling convention I’m not aware of that F’s are written backward when not accompanied by a vowel with an accent grav or something?

There seems to be near unanimity in the woodworking community that use of anything other than traditional marriage marks should be discouraged because it can lead to assembly errors, so why don’t more people care about this?

This has bothered me for a long time. I may not be the best woodworker, but when I make a face mark, it looks like a god damned “f”.

Thanks for listening. I am prepared to lose readers and followers over this issue.

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I’ve Figured it Out!

I call myself “The Apartment Woodworker”.  But, really, nowadays, I’m the “small space woodworker”.  Which doesn’t sound as cool, but it still pretty accurate (my workshop where my workbench and tool chest reside is a 12×13 bedroom).   But after all these years of woodworking (8ish?), I’ve finally figured it out: the setup for woodworking in an apartment or other small space like a proper woodworker.

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This is literally the apex of everything I’ve worked towards.

Without hyperbole, I feel like I’ve reached the apex of the intellectual exercise of small space woodworking.  It starts with the Apartment Workbench, which is constructed entirely from 10 or less home center 2×4’s and built basically like a heavy-duty sawbench.  Although the saw-bench construction might make the bench a bit tippy if the legs are too far in from the ends, the vertical legs might have a benefit: the design makes it easy to clamp onto the gussets.

When you add a couple of shop made sawhorses in the Japanese style, some F-style clamps, and maybe a strip of 3/4 plywood for a tool tray, you’ve apparently got an actual workbench.  The gusset on the legs clamps to the cross beam of the sawhorse (both front and back) and that’s your workbench.  Some lumber stored across the lower stretchers would add to the mass of the bench, but it’s not strictly necessary.  And I’d probably add some non-skin disks to the sawhorses to make sure you’re not sliding around on a slick, laminate apartment floor.

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The legs barely extend past the sawhorse.

But, all in all, it works as well as I could hope.  It’s not perfect, as the combined height of a typical sawhorse (29″) and a 2×4 slab (3.25″ or so) is uncomfortable for much besides hand planing.  But one can always clamp on whatever workholding you need beyond the palm, such as a moxon vise.  I prefer a bench around 34.75″ high for most work (I’m exactly 5’10”), btw.

But, as far as I can tell, this is absolutely serviceable for a small space woodworking bench.  It’s basically a Japanese planing bench, with some Western brute force adjustments.

Although I would recommend chopping mortises at the back end over the back sawhorse.  For whatever reason, it jumps less when you chop on the back than the front.

Maybe it was just the grass.

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Apartment Workbench Update

After several months of working on the low, Apartment Workbench, I’ve learned a few things.  First, 90 degrees is not the right angle for a palm-style planing stop.  It doesn’t hold thinner stock on edge very well, and often the mouth is too wide to grip boards on their face.  60 degrees seems much better.

Compare the old palm arrangement:

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In fairness, it’s more like 92 degrees.

To the new arrangement:

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3/8″ still seems about the right height for these, though.

In addition, 9 inches of benchtop overhang beyond the vertical legs is not great.  It’s fine in the front, where the palm interferes with things that might accidentally tip the bench forward.  But on the back, in practice, it prevents one from sitting all the way back on the bench, effectively shortening the working area of the bench when planing.  Even crosscutting on that end is precarious because of tipping.

The solution is either to move the legs further back (maybe 3 inches from the end of the bench would work) so the leverage is less OR, if you’re so adventurous, cant the legs forward so they sit at compound angles to the benchtop.

Speaking of which, that’s harder than it looks:

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This reminds of a deer, for some reason.

It’s not so much the cutting of the compound angle on the leg that’s difficult.  That’s pretty much just extending the usual saw bench birds-mouth joint with an extra angle on the shoulder.  And then some fiddling after to make sure everything is crisp.

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There is more to it, but this isn’t a how-to.

What presented more difficult was leveling the feet.  After the initial cuts marked out with the 4×4 of justice, tweaking the legs to be perfectly flat alluded me.  Perhaps it’s because it was saw horse height, and I couldn’t track the jointer plane off the other leg.  Or perhaps because of tolerance stack the compound angles resulted in something that didn’t quite match the reference angle.

But it was good practice.  And the net net on these compound angled legs is that I’m ready to move onto a proper Chinese-style low bench with compound leg angles.  I plan to take significant advantage of rasps and floats the first run at it, as the legs will be mortised in (not affixed to the outside)  And I have just the slab for it, too.

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Reclaimed from the back wing of the old ash workbench.

But more on that soon.

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Cultural Appreciation

Let me be the first to say: I have no non-American cultural identity.  It’s just the way I was raised: my family doesn’t associate with any other country other than America.  We’re just American, with no hyphens.

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s talk about Chinese workbenches.  To learn about working on a low workbench, I’ve done quite a bit of internet researching the forms and methods of low workbenches (as compared to high workbenches with vises).  And part of that research involved Chinese woodworking.

From what I’ve seen, traditional Chinese woodworking involves bowsaws (or framesaws) on the push and they also push planes (but there is a cross-bar that’s held like you’re giving someone the guns).  The Chinese workbench form seems pretty similar to other low workbench forms in that it has splayed (and sometimes raked) legs that are mortised into a slab benchtop.  However, it seems unique in that it typically has a stretcher between each pair of legs (i.e., perpendicular to the length of the slab).  It also has rectangular tenons instead of round tenons.

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Like so.

I’ve made a number of low, Roman-style workbenches with slab tops pierced by round tenons (i.e., “staked” legs, per the current parlance).  There is amazing recent scholarship out there by Lost Art Press on this form.  But there isn’t a ton of information out there on Chinese woodworking (although, I haven’t moved to print yet).

So with little more than a few pictures, I set out to give the Chinese form a try.  For ease, I only angled the legs outward at 10 degrees, same as on my sawbenches and my low workbench.  I did not try for compound angled rectangular mortises on my first try.

As always, I do my protyping in Eastern White Pine, an easy to work and abundant material that lends itself to trial and error.  The benchtop is 8/4 stock about 8 inches wide and 31 inches long.  The legs are 1.75 inches x 1.5 inches and either red pine or heart pine (they’re reclaimed from an old shack) and are much harder and than the fluffy top.  All parts are bone dry.

Although not strictly necessary, I started by boring the mortises with a brace and bit to clear most of the waste.  I chose a 5/8″ bit for 3/4″-ish tenons, which were scribed with a mortise gauge.   A 1/2″ would have worked as well, and folks are likely to have a 1/2″ bit handy in a drill driver.  It’s a lot easier to bore a hole when you’re not aiming for perfection like with round tenon joinery.  Even a wonky hole (as long as it doesn’t cross the scribe lines) is just fine.

To be clear, you do not need a brace a bit.  These are easily chopped out.  Just use a narrower chisel and leave some room to pare down to the lines.

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Just make sure to use a backer board to prevent blowout in the softwood.

After the bulk of the waste is removed, it’s just paring with a chisel down to the gauge line.  Work slowly and use the same bevel gauge to help spot the angles.  When working in fluffy pine (“bullshit pine”, as I like to call it), a flat mill file is just as good as a mortise float.  Eventually, you’ll have an angled mortise.  DO NOT reset your bevel gauge.  You’ll need it for the stretchers.

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OSHA-approved workshop footwear.

Each of the legs takes an angled shoulder at the same angle as the mortise.  Make sure the tenon will clear the mortise, mark the tenon itself with a marking gauge set a bit fat to the mortise (so you have room to pare down or crush the fibers).  Then mark the shoulder with the same bevel gauge.  Angled shoulders, especially wide ones, are pretty easy to get right if you cut away from the line and pare down with a chisel.  Undercutting is fine.

I apparently got no pictures of cutting of the angled mortises in the legs for the cross strechers.  I used the same mortise gauge setting to mark the mortises and the tenons and set to chopping by hand.  There was no way I was chopping a 3/4″ mortise with a 3/4″ chisel, even in pine, so I used my 1/2″ chisel and pared down to the lines.  The same bevel gauge sets the shoulders of the stretcher, and eventually you have everything fitting nicely.  I actually drawbored the stretchers into the legs and wedged the tenons in the top.

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Leave some room to trim down the legs.

Leveling legs can be done a couple of ways.  I prefer to use the 4×4 of truth.  Which is just a length of 4×4 the height I want (minus the height of the benchtop) with a pencil resting on it to scribe around the legs.  You could also use the level surface method, but level surfaces are hard to come by and in any event that sounds like overhandling to me.

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These angles are perfect and it still looks wonky from several angles.

All in all, I get it.  This entire bench could have been (and pretty much was) built with just three main tools: (x) a bench plane for preparing the stock, (y) a chisel for chopping the mortises, and (z) a saw for sawing the tenons.  I guess you also need a mallet, a square, a bevel gauge and a marking knife, but that’s semantics.  No lathe.  No drill press.  Just time and care and the most basic of tool kits within the reach of any hand tool woodworker in an apartment.  I’m not even sure you’d need a proper workbench (even a low one).

Even with the vertical legs and no long stretcher connecting the leg assemblies, it’s very stable.  And compound-angled legs would add additional more stability.  In fact, that’s my next attempt: compound leg angles.  But I wonder if that would require compound angled shoulders for the cross-stretcher as well.

Thoughts for another day.

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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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Back to My Roots

So it’s still a global pandemic, and I’m running out of lumber for projects.  I used up the last of my 1×12 eastern white pine for a sweet wall-leaning bookcase, which is really just for displaying my vintage Lego sets.  This was only supposed to be the prototype, but it came out so nice, I’m leaving it at that.  More on that soon.

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Space 1989-1995 FTW!

I also finished my new workbench, which is roughly in the Nicholson style.  Made of hard maple (other than  little bit of soft maple blocking under the holdfast holes), it’s 98″ long, 22″ deep and 34.75″ high.  It’s the longest workbench I’ve ever worked on, and, to be fair, it’s probably bigger than I need it to be.  Honestly, it’s probably too big for the 12.5′ x 13.5″ bedroom that I use as my shop.  I’m not banging the walls with a jointer plane or anything, but it’s definitely tight clearance on the ends.

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It has no rear apron, like a true Nicholson.

I’ve also been practicing staked furniture (mostly low benches).  I think I’ve found a layout that I like, both structurally and aesthetically.  65 degree sight line and 10 degree resultant angle.  It keeps the round mortises near the outside of the top but is still fairly stable.  There is always one wonky leg, but what can you do?

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At least, this time, it’s too little splay and not too much.

So all this is a way of saying I’ve been keeping busy as best I can.  But I need a challenge.  And I need to get back to my apartment woodworker roots.  I’ve gotten too cozy with my proper workbench and full tool chest.

So I’m hitting the reset button.  I’ve got seven Douglas Fir 2×4’s and only these tools:

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Although, in fairness, I might use my No. 4 smoothing plane.

Let’s see what we can make!

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