workbench

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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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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Workshop Update (Q2 2021)

Those of you who follow me on the twitterbook know that I recently rearranged my workshop. I think it’s really great, especially now that my main workbench is under a window (south facing as it may be). And you may notice something about the main workbench itself: it’s a forest green Moravian knock down! Albeit a split-top variety.

I also upgraded the overhead lighting, as if natural light wasn’t good enough!

With the new workbench rotating in, my eight foot Nicholson shifted against the wall where my tool chest used to live and my clamp racks still do. And my sharpening station is not on the right end of that bench, with the old sharpening station (a 4-foot Paul Seller’s workbench clone) having moved to another home. I still use the leg vise from time to time, because I love the foot-operated cog and screw parallel guide just so much. The Moravian workbench has a pinboard, which is fine but much less convenient (more on that in the future).

I still like this workbench, it’s just very large and was taking up too much room in the middle of the space.

All in all, the new arrangement improves the flow of the workshop and the room actually feels bigger despite having another 4 square feet of overall workbench footprint (it’s a 13.5′ x 12.5′ bedroom, btw).

I need to work with the Moravian workbench for a few more months to get a better sense of how it fits my workflow.

So stay tuned!

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Perfection, In Potentia

Over the last year and change, I’ve been experimenting with the Moravian Workbench form popularized by Will Myers. I’ve watched the first three and a half hours of the instructional video probably 15 times. Every time, right up to when the top gets attached via blind-pegged dowels.

But up until now, I haven’t paid much attention to the leg vise assembly, because the previous benches I’ve made for others haven’t included leg vises. For the final version, though (the one I will keep), I’ve got to push through the rest of the video and figure out exactly how that part of the bench is made and works.

Pretty, right?

This particular version is 73″ long (i.e., 3″ shorter than the source material) and 24″ deep. But instead of a single slab and a tool tray, mine has two 12/4 ash slabs at 11.25″ wide each. The gap in the middle will eventually be bridged with a tool removable tool rack.

The legs and long stretchers are poplar. Along with the slabs, the short stretchers and the wedges are ash. Ash is my favorite wood, with poplar close behind. Both are cheap and readily available, making them perfect for workbenches. And, other than the slabs (which came from a single board) were already in my lumber pile.

Having made three of them now, I have some thoughts on the form and process of the main bench.

While the legs themselves are sawn from solid 16/4 poplar stock, the long stretchers are laminated from three 5/4 poplar boards. I did it this way in the douglas fir experimental version and found this easier than sawing and paring the tenons (like I did for the more accurate version I made recently).

My mortise chisels and paring chisels are all legacy Narex ones.

Also, I nixed dovetailing the lower stretcher and just mortised it in with drawbored pegs. I’ve always thought the dovetailed lower stretcher on the source version must have been added later, when it became clear the leg assemblies weren’t rigid enough without them. I may be biased, but why use a lapped dovetail for only this joint when you’re otherwise using square mortises? Because you done F’d up and needed to fix a design flaw. That, or the maker just got sick of mortises and changed it up. Which I also understand.

Oh, and I painted the undercarriage forest green. Which then made the tenons too thick and I had to widen the mortises. Sweet, sweet irony.

Small cherry Roman workbench FTW!

And, with that, it’s back to making the vise assembly. I’ve procrastinated long enough. And I have just the board for both the backer board and the chop. An 8/4 ash board that’s been acclimating to my shop for almost 4 years. It’s almost too perfect.

But every board, in the end, gets sawn up. No matter how perfect the board is.

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Secret Plans

Tell me if this sounds familiar: a friend or relation knows you can make things (in my case, out of wood) and are otherwise handy at need. Instead of paying a professional, whose livelihood depends on finding jobs like this, they ask you, an amateur to make or fix or modify something. Being a good friend/relation/human being, you dutifully pack up your traveling tool box with what you think you’ll need and, before you go, ask the person to confirm they have a decent workbench to work on, or at least a sturdy table for you to clamp a portable workbench to. They of course respond “yes”.

Then you show up. Their “workbench” is a bit of screwed together 2×4 and plywood that sways like a willow in a hurricane from the lightest wracking force. Even worse, it’s a plastic, folding card table. Or their partner won’t let you clamp your portable workstation to their IKEA dining room table. You can’t work like this, so eventually you make portable workbench that doesn’t rely on clamping to another stable platform (like a staked, roman-style workbench). But those are a pain (literally and figuratively) to move around.

Do this enough times, and your conclusion will be “why don’t I just make all my friends and relatives workbenches, so I always have one handy when they ask me to help with something?”. And your conclusion is correct. I, myself, have been secretly filling my friends’ and relatives’ homes with proper workbenches for years.

I ran out of whole 2×4’s so I laminated in some “clamping gaps” with scraps.

The bench above is a pretty faithful representation of Will Myer’s “Moravian Workbench”, other than it’s entirety constructed from Douglas Fir 2×4’s (except the wedges, which are red oak, and the tray, which is poplar). And I omit the leg vise.

Pre-pandemic, the twenty 2×4’s needed to make this entire workbench would cost about US$80 in total. Add in an oak hobby board for the wedges and a bottle of PVA glue and you’re barely pushing $100 for the raw materials. Unfortunately, with the lumber prices being what they right now, the materials would currently cost almost twice as much.

But that’s okay. A good workbench at a friend or relative’s home is worth its weight in figurative gold.

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The Last Train Home

I’ve resisted it for a while, but finally gave in to this Roubo Workbench craze (if you can call something at least 15 years old a craze). Not because I need it (I have to many workbenches already); but because I need to prove to myself that I can do it.

I was never able to sell my old workbench, so cut the back wing off the slab and set that side after plugging the holdfast holes with epoxy and covering them with poorly matching dutchmen. That repurposed wing is still about 3″ thick and 7 inches wide and will become something, eventually. Probably a mantle, if I’m being honest.

Slab Rehab!

The main slab was still about 3.75″ thick, even after several flattenings. It’s 90″ long and about 15″ wide, consisting of two boards edge glued together. It started as a single, 180″ long piece of 16/4 ash, as a reminder. And after 5 years or so seems to be pretty dry and stable. And the holdfast holes are still pretty plumb even after all that flattening. This is no 6″ thick, 24″ wide slab of green red oak. 15″ is far too narrow for all four legs to be straight up and down (the bench would be too tippy).

So that means another weird Stent Panel (i.e., stretcher-less) style workbench!

It’s still a nice slab.

I’ve made a quasi-Stent Panel workbench before, with angled back legs. Unlike the last time, though, I won’t mortise the angled back legs into the underside of the slab. Instead, just like a saw bench, I’ll dado the back legs into the side of the slab and cut an angled lap joint on the leg itself. Glue and a large lag screw will secure those back legs to the slab. I contemplated a sliding proper dovetail, but there is a ton of glue surface here (although I may cut it at a couple of degrees for a little bit more mechanical strength).

The front legs, however, need to be more solidly attached to the top due to strain from the leg vise and the holdfasts. In my previous Stent Panel workbench, the legs were merely blind-mortised into the top. A friction fit, with glue and drawbores, made a very stout joint that was nothing special to look at. But that was last time. This time, we’re doing the Roubo tenon/sliding dovetail! All these years later!

The slab was blind mortised to attach the frame on the old bench. I plugged those old mortises with epoxy and a tight dutchman.

I’m not sure I agree that this is a simpler joint than a double tenon (i.e., where the front recess is also square instead of angled for the dovetail). Well, at least the mortise part. The dovetailed tenon is dead simple to cut, if a bit fiddly to get those little front shoulders in line with the center shoulders.

Just keep track of which leg is which through marriage marks.

But it does look nice, especially after a few wedges fill up any remaining gaps. I apparently cut one of the joints a bit too tight, as a hairline split emerged along the front of the inside tenon. I don’t think it will be structural, and it doesn’t appear to have gone all the way through the slab. The glue joints are large and sound, so we’ll see if I need to drive some lag bolts in to secure it.

It does look pretty nice, though.

I had never cut a double tenon before (sliding dovetailed or otherwise). I’m now satisfied that I can do it effectively now. But if I ever do this again, I know now to make it a bit less friction fit and let the glue do the work.

And knowing is half the battle.

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Back in the Swing of Things

After a decent hiatus, I’m back and exactly the same as ever! Seriously, I have one big project in the queue (a replacement dining table since my mother absconded with my old one), but instead I’ve been dicking around with the Moravian Workbench.

My first try started with a simpler design that any apartment DIYer with a miter saw and a basic set of tools (saw, chisel, drill driver) could build from home center 2×4’s. Having a basic Apartment Workbench would help, but it’s not really necessary. Just laminate the slab for the top first and use it as a worksurface.

I planed and squared the pieces before laminating, but you could get by with just sanding a bit as long as the stock is relatively straight and untwisted. The angled, through mortises for the tusk tenons were laminated into the legs as I went, which worked really well.

Probably too many clamps for this application.

To keep things manageable, the crossrails on each leg assembly were lapped in and secured with screws, rather than mortised in. This worked well on the lower and middle stretchers, but it was a bit dicey on the top stretcher and I think the bridle joint used in the original Moravian Workbench design would have worked better. In retrospect, I think using Spruce (instead of Douglas Fir) for the leg assemblies would work better for this DIY approach. Spruce is a bit softer and lighter, but still very stiff, and somewhat less prone to chipping out.

Douglas Fir can be pretty, though.

Like the leg assemblies, the joints on the long stretchers were formed with a longer middle piece to form the tenon and two shorter pieces with the angled shoulders pre-cut. Just use the same angle setting as you used for the leg assemblies. The only real joinery in this version of the bench are the mortises for the tusk tenons. I used a brace and bit, boring in from each side and paring down to the lines, but chopping is just as easy.

The long rails look a bit chunky, but it really adds some weight.

I didn’t end up laminating a new top for this. I repurposed the plywood slab from the Plywood Roman Workbench. This bench will live in the garage of a friend who has recently gotten more into DIY, so I may have gotten a bit lazy near the end. I didn’t make the back shelf, as my buddy has a kreg pocket hole jig and some extra plywood. It can be his first project on the workbench. I also didn’t make a leg vise for the bench. He’s got clamps.

Not winning any beauty contests.

So, all in all, this worked out just fine. It allowed me to explore the Moravian Workbench form without worrying about wasting more expensive lumber while I experiment.

And this practice served me well, as I make a second version that follows the actual design more closely.

But more on that next time.

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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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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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