The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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This should be the last time.

Back in September I almost built a new workbench. Almost? What does ‘almost’ mean? Well, I sawed the material to length, created the recesses for the lap joints and front apron, bored out the holes for the through-bolts, and did a complete dry fit for the base. I purchased a shiny new floor mat and even went as far as to find a new home for my “old” bench.

So, what stopped me? I was once again asked the question: What is wrong with my current bench? The answer is: Not a damn thing. So maybe the real question should be: What started me? Unfortunately, I don’t have a simple answer to that question.

One reason could be the fact that I’ve had the material for this project sitting in my garage for well over a year and it was burning a hole in my pocket. Or maybe I was just bored. Another reason is I have been intrigued by the idea of a split top bench with a wide front apron for some time, sort of a hybrid design combining my current bench with my favorite features of Paul Sellers workbench.

The split top workbench is apparently very popular at the moment. For many, I guess the reason is that in theory it is much easier to work with two smaller tops (in terms of clamping, flattening etc.) than one large one. For me, I loved the idea of a mini, built in tool rack built right into the bench top, where tools like chisels and saws and marking gauges/knives could easily be placed within reaching distance yet kept in an organized fashion with the cutting edges safely placed. Of course, a tool rack could also be fastened to the back of the bench, but why not have both?

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The slab planed down smooth…

So, as October rolled in I glued up a new slab to serve as the second half of the spilt top, planed it smooth and even on all three edges, removed my tool tray (more on that in a moment) and attached the new top. To cap it all off, a few weeks ago I bored the holes through the top of the bench for 5/8 oak dowels to fasten the top to the base as well as attached some ‘L’ brackets for added support. Lastly, I planed down some Douglas fir construction lumber (left over from my “other” bench) to use as two new ends at either side of the bench to tie it all together.

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Slab installed and initial plane work finished.

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Right side of bench showing the built in tool rack in action…

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Left side of bench showing pegs and new end board. The bench top originally had a slight chamfer, so I filled the gap with glue and saw dust…

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A lengthwise view of the bench showing off some of my new, old tools…

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A promised pic of some of the tools I gathered over the past few months…

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A really cool Luther hand cranked grinder I picked up over the summer…

I can say without reservation that I will put my bench up against anybody’s as far as appearance, functionality, and ease of construction. Of course, there are benches made from hardwoods that look stunning, even better than some fine furniture, but I guarantee that you couldn’t build one in a weekend or even a month of weekends (unless of course you have access to some very high end equipment). With basic machinery and hand tools my bench design could easily be constructed over the course of a Saturday and Sunday using anything from construction lumber to fine hardwoods. Maybe most importantly, if I built this bench from scratch tomorrow, I could probably do it for just around $350 including the vise hardware and the holdfasts. In fact, I like this design so much that if I were better with programs such as Sketch up I would create detailed plans and offer them free of charge.

So when all is said and done, is this change an indictment of tool trays? Absolutely not. Every so-called detriment of tool trays: they’re messy, they take up valuable bench top space, they get in the way, etc. did not apply in my experience with the one on my bench. I have but one problem with tool trays, and that is they are a bit difficult to incorporate into the design of a bench. I prefer a deep tray along with a wide base. Trust me when I say that having both is not as easy as it sounds. My ideal solution is constructing a tray and attaching it to the back of the completed bench, and the tray could be removable depending on personal preference. In fact, I very nearly did that during this process but decided that it would push my bench out farther into an already cramped work area.  If I had larger work space the sky would be the limit. And for the record, the current dimensions of the bench are just under 34 inches tall, 24 inches deep, and 75 inches long.

This coming weekend I will finish the bench by boring in a row of dog holes closer to the front of the bench top. The back row of holes has served just fine for most tasks, but I’ve found that using joinery planes, such as a plow plane or a fillister, would be much easier with a closer set of dogs. I may also make that slotted tool rack which runs along the entire back of the bench. Because I am planning on relocating one of my wall mounted tool racks to make room for a new wall cabinet/plane rack that I am currently making, a tool rack on the back of the bench may be helpful in the meanwhile.

As far as my “new” bench is concerned, I may or may not assemble it fully and find a place for it somewhere in the house. More than likely I will organize the material into a ready to assemble stockpile and set it aside for that glorious day when we move to a house where I can have an actual workshop.

This old workbench

Over the weekend I made two improvements to my workbench. The first was a new handle for the leg vise, and the second was a new board jack, or “sliding dead-man”. To be honest, both of these improvements were more for aesthetic reasons than for functionality. Don’t get me wrong, the new handle is longer and therefore offers more leverage, and the new board-jack is wider and offers more spaces for support, but neither additions were absolutely necessary for an increased overall functionality of the bench.

The new handle project is something I detailed in my last post; the board-jack I made on Sunday afternoon. It was a very quick project. I still had a decent-sized section of board left over from making the leg vise, so I used the table saw to cross cut it to width, I planed it square and smooth, and sawed and chiseled out a channel at each end to ride along the rails on my work bench. It took just 15 minutes. In fact, it took longer bore the holes and apply the finish-boiled linseed oil and wax, than it did to make the part. On that topic, I used a 7/8 bit to bore out the holes rather than the traditional ¾ because I thought that I had a 7/8 dowel in my bucket. It turns out that I did, but it was only 6 inches long; so I will have to pick up another (or make one myself) next weekend.

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What prompted me to write this post wasn’t a board-jack, however.

After every project, I will generally give the workbench area a cleaning. Most of that involves dust and shavings. My bench has a tool tray, which contrary to popular belief rarely gets dirty. It has a lot of tools, pencils, knives, and other items in it, but that is the reason it is on the bench. When I was taking a photo of the new board-jack, I accidentally snapped a photo of the cleared bench top. I didn’t notice it until I had walked out of the garage and was upstairs about to charge the cell phone. I then went back and took two clearer photos, the reason being to make a point about my tool tray. But as I was doing that, I noticed that my bench looks exactly like the “theoretical woodworking workbench” I have in my mind’s eye. Now, that theoretical bench will very likely appear a bit different from woodworker to woodworker, but at its core it would function the same.

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I have a firm belief that a woodworking bench needs to look like a woodworking bench to work properly. Of course you can get away with two sawhorses and a door, or a kitchen table, or what have you. Some people may even thrive on that approach. I can’t and I don’t. I’m a fan of conformity and uniformity, because those virtues exist in nature and in the man-made world for good reason. All good woodworking benches share the same features and they have for a long time. And though aesthetics aren’t always important to functionality, I’d much rather be working on a nice looking bench than two trashcans and an old door.

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So, yeah, it’s important to me that my woodworking bench looks exactly how I think a woodworking bench should look. Making aesthetic improvements to a woodworking bench may seem silly, but it really isn’t. It’s good practice to incorporate both form and function. And while I would never go out and drop thousands of dollars on material for the sole reason that it would make a nice looking workbench, I am going to try to make what I have look as good as it possibly can.

 

I made a dowel

When I came home from work this afternoon I found myself a little restless. Usually when I work on Saturdays I come home from work and try to unwind, in particular after busy days like today. Today was different. Maybe it was because I had gone to the gym and I was all wound up. Either way, I was full of what my mom would call “nervous energy”.

The first thing I did was clean and wax my table saw bed. That didn’t take long, as I try to keep on top of it to begin with, and since I’ve been using DampRid in my garage that has helped as well. Next thing I did was a little sharpening: a few chisels and my jointer plane iron. That wasn’t enough to ease my unease, and then I recalled an exchange I had with fellow woodworker and blogger Wesley Beal. He had mentioned making tool handles etc. as good projects for the winter months. Great minds must think alike, because back at the beginning of the summer I had purchased some wood to do just that. Today, I wasn’t necessarily in the mood to make a tool handle, but I did want make a new handle for my leg vise.

When I made the new chop for the vice a few months back I had saved some of the cut offs because they had very nice, straight grain. One piece in particular I had felt would make a good handle for the vice. So that was the board I decided to use.

Way back when I took my first ever woodworking class with Chuck Bender at the Acanthus Workshop. After Chuck bored us for an hour by rambling on about “the craft” things actually got interesting. One of the things we did was make a dowel from a board that was out of square. We had to first plane the board square, we then had to turn it into a dowel. At that point, I had never really planed anything, but if I remember correctly, I did a pretty good job of not only squaring up the board, but turning it into a respectable dowel that rolled evenly across the workbench top. Though that was five years ago, I remembered the lesson, and today I put it to use.

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The first thing I did was cut the board to length with my home center Japanese Ryoba saw, which I chose for no other reason than I hadn’t used in a while. I then squared the board, used a compass to mark the diameter of the circle (which I copied from the original vice handle-though I made it a hair larger). I then continued to plane the board until I was very close to the arc on all four sides. Before I went any further I drilled in two 1/2″ holes on either end with a forstner bit for the stops.

Making the dowel is fairly easy. It is basically chamfering the corners, then making chamfers which meet the other chamfers, then easing over the edges. All in all, it took around 30 minutes to get the dowel formed and rolling cleanly across the bench, which I’m happy to say it did (Chuck was a good teacher).

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I then began the final fitting, which took around ten minutes. For that I set the block plane to take a very fine cut, and gently eased of any high or rough spots. I won’t sit here and tell you that the dowel is a perfect circle, because it’s not, but it is certainly close enough.

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For finish, I added a coat of boiled linseed oil, let it dry for a few hours, and then coated it with some furniture wax. I cut off two short pieces of a 1/2 oak dowel to use as the stops, and with that the new handle was finished.

The truth is I didn’t need a new handle, the original worked just fine. I’m not a particularly anal person, but I did want the new handle to match the vise chop, which it now does. And I didn’t do this just for nothing, I made the new handle four inches longer, which will make it a bit easier to use. But the best part was after I attached the new handle, I had a brief sense of accomplishment. I then cleaned up the huge mess, sharpened the block plane to a razor’s edge, and suddenly I was no longer restless.

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Phase 3

Last night after work I did something I haven’t done after work in some time; I woodworked.

The cooler late-summer evening weather has finally allowed me to actually spend a little time in the garage in relative comfort. When I arrived home last night I hadn’t planned on woodworking in the least. But something told me that I should really get that leg vise re-attached before something bad happened to it. Maybe that something was past history, maybe it was the fact that when I entered my garage I noticed that the leg vise had been moved, and the person who had moved it wasn’t me. Either way, I decided not to delay, as the only thing I had left to do was attach the parallel guide.

Planing it flat and smooth

Planing it flat and smooth

Over the weekend I had finished the bulk of the work. The new chop needed to be planed flat and chamfered, and for that task I used the “big three”: Jack plane, jointer plane, and smooth plane. It took me roughly twenty minutes to get the chop finished, and I was actually sweating a little after the fact. There were shavings everywhere, and for the first time since I installed the tool tray it actually was a mess. Still, it was oddly relaxing and satisfying work, and the chop looked pretty good after all was said and done. I lightly sanded it with some 220 grit paper and then attached leather to the face with wood glue. I let that dry overnight and on Sunday morning added a coat of linseed oil. Once the linseed oil was dry I attached the screw to the new chop and installed it on the bench so I could mark out the mortise for the parallel guide. Once that was done I called it a morning (Sunday was a special day at my house not meant for woodworking)

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Leather “gripper” glued on

Chamfers added

Chamfers added

Last night I drilled out the holes for the parallel guide using a drill press, planed it with a smooth plane, added some chamfers, and sanded it down. I then used the finished guide to lay out the mortise on the chop, as after the dimensioning it was a slightly different size than it was when I first laid out the joint. For the guide I used a scrap piece of oak, and because it was slightly thinner than 3/4 , I could not use a ¾ chisel to chop out the mortise. That minor inconvenience notwithstanding, I had it done pretty quickly. I made the tenon 1-inch long for added strength, and I thankfully achieved a near perfect fit. I even impressed myself with the fact that the bottom of the mortise was almost perfectly flat before I stretched the router plane to its limits to finish the job. Clamping a parallel guide to a chop for glue-up is not necessarily easy, and I probably could have inserted the dowel used for the stop and used the leg of the workbench as a clamp, or I could have trusted the “snugness” of the joint to hold. Instead, I pre-drilled for a couple of pocket screws to use as clamps, and I like the idea of having a mechanical fastener at this critical joint. After, I added a coat of wax, buffed it off, added another, and attached the vise to the bench. And I can honestly say that it looks great.

Attached and ready to go.

Attached and ready to go.

I had planned on letting everything dry overnight, by my impatience got the best of me, and somewhere around the witching hour I decided to give the new vise a test run. My first impressions were very favorable. The first and most obvious feature is the much wider face. The new chop is almost 3 inches wider than the previous one, and that creates a far greater clamping power/surface. I clamped a board with very light pressure, barely applying any force to the vise handle, and the board would not budge an iota. In fact, it was so tight I could have used that clamped board to actually lift the bench (that is in theory-I only lifted it a hair as the bench is not light). I planed a few shavings just to give it a try and it worked perfectly. Another obvious feature is the fact that the new chop sits just 1/16th of an inch lower than the top of the bench, rather than nearly an inch and a half like the old vise chop did. This will allow me to clamp narrower and/or thinner boards much more easily.

A less obvious feature is the improved parallel guide. On my original vise, I used a board 20 inches long as the parallel guide, for the new guide I used a board only 14 inches in length. Firstly, I’ve never clamped a board  more than 10 inches wide or 6 inches thick in the vise, and secondly, the shorter guide is lighter and was much easier to keep straight and square when I was attaching it. Part of the issue may have been the fact that when I originally made the vise five years ago, I was still very much a beginner woodworker. The mortise I chopped out for the parallel guide then was not nearly as crisp or perpendicular as the mortise for the new guide. To put it bluntly, I am much better now, and that new guide is much improved in both construction and function, which is easily noticed just by the way it sits and much more so when the vise is in use. There is not a hint of crookedness, drag, or sag. It is much better than the original in every way.

All in all this was a relatively fast and simple project, but those are usually my favorite. To me, there is nothing better than making something useful that also looks pretty good. For some reason or another I put off doing this for more than a year. Now, I’m glad I took the time to do it, because I know it will improve my woodworking as well as improve the functionality of my bench. In any event, Phase 3 is finally complete and I actually have a few furniture projects planned for the upcoming months. The only part of this project that bothered me is the fact that the new vise looks much nicer than the rest of the bench, and it has me considering…..

Coming around again.

This past summer has not been a good one for the Slightly Confused Woodworker. It started off with much promise, and the weeks leading up to Independence Day were great. But, inevitably things began to crumble, at first slowly, and then quickly. Sure enough, circumstances mostly out of my control, including work, health, and weather, started to take their toll and the summer soon slipped into a meaningless void of lost hopes and nostalgic longing. Last summer, maybe the worst of my existence, was lost in much the same way, the only difference being the weather was much nicer. I had the first health scare of my life (I wasn’t actually scared, more like pissed off), and as that summer faded into history I vowed to never lose a another again. Sometime, early in July, that vow was broken. It was not my finest hour.

Though I didn’t plan on doing much woodworking this past summer, I did plan on thinking about it. I actually purchased for myself a nice sketch pad and artists pencils and supplies so I could draw some decent renditions of the furniture I would like to build. Among the things I drew were a wall clock and a bookcase, but that is where it stopped. I had hoped to have at least ten or so sketches of future projects in that pad, what I have is two. Still, there may be a little bit of hope peeking its annoying head over the horizon.

September rolled in with the hottest weather of the season, and on Labor Day I wasn’t going to woodwork, but I woke even earlier than usual and decided to do what I enjoy doing for a change. Back at the beginning of the summer I purchased a 2 x 10 piece of Douglass Fir to use as the new chop for my leg vise. Because it was still wet when I purchased it, I sawed it in half and stickered it in my garage, every few days alternating the two boards. Thankfully, both boards dried nearly flat, so I chose the one which looked best and went from there.

To start, I removed the original leg vice from my bench and used it to mark the hole for the screw as well as the parallel guide. I drilled the hole with a 1 inch forstner bit, and then laid out the cut lines. I then used the table saw to cross cut the board to final length. For the shape of the chop, I’m sticking with the traditional “crutch” shape, with the top being wide, and the portion of the vice under the screw being the same width as the leg of the workbench. I’m not really doing this for any particular aesthetic reason, only to keep the weight of the chop down.  The top of the vise will now be flush with my bench top, which is the whole reason behind this change. So I once again used the table saw to rough out the shape, sawing as far as I could, then finishing the all of the cuts with hand saws and a chisel to clean it all up. I had thought about adding some decorative touches to the chop, but I will likely add just simple chamfers. Leg vises take a beating and there is no need to ornately decorate a piece of soft wood that will get punished every time it is in use.

New leg vice still in rough form.

New leg vice still in rough form.

I only have to plane the chop smooth and make a new parallel guide and the vise will be ready to install (Ironically, I will need to re attach the very leg vise I’m replacing to do this). I will once again glue a piece of leather to the chop face to help with grip (it really does work). To finish the vise, I’m going to use a two coats of linseed oil and a coat of wax. With luck, and a few spare hours, it will be finished and installed this weekend, and while this little project may not mean much in the grander sense, it was pretty nice to go into my garage and woodwork for a few hours unhindered nonetheless.

The lowdown.

This morning I did something which I rarely do; I read my own woodworking blog. I’m not sure exactly why, but I decided to check out some past posts. I guess I was looking to see if I had changed any regarding my woodworking philosophy, and the answer to that would be both yes and no. I might add that I actually really enjoyed most of what I read. I’m not sure if it’s proper to say that but I said it anyway.

One of the things I had noticed in the photographs of myself was that if I was standing at my workbench I was sort of craned over the bench looking a lot like the guy on the cover of Led Zepplin !V. I probably don’t have great posture, but I also don’t slouch anything like the guy in my woodworking “action” photos. The clincher came when I was looking at woodworking photos on Instagram and noticed the same thing among most of the woodworkers I saw. It led to the question: Are woodworking benches too low?

My bench is a shade under 34 inches high. When I’m not craning over my bench I am just over 5ft 11 inches tall, which I would consider average height. The conventional wisdom of the day when I built my bench was the lower the better. So I made my bench 33 inches tall, which fell into the height to bench height ratio that was recommended by the “experts”. Later, when I modified the bench top, it left me with my current workbench height. The new height is slightly more comfortable in my opinion, but here is what I noticed: the muscles in the middle of my back are often sore after I am at my workbench for a few hours. Here is something else I noticed: When I am at the work table I made for my job, which stands at just over 36 inches high, my back feels much better.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that the conventional wisdom of 5 years ago sucked. It made the mistake of copying a workbench that was made for the style of an 18th century woodworker who was also likely shorter in height than the average man today. A low workbench may be optimal if you use it to dimension thick boards by hand all day long using a large, wooden bodied plane, but it does not work for sawing, chiseling, carving, shaping, or just about any other hand tool task I can think of. I can only speak for myself, but I rarely dimension boards by hand, and I never do it with a large, wooden bodied plane, and even if I did it wouldn’t be an 8 hour long task. The other hand tool tasks I mentioned happen nearly every time I woodwork.

While I am not going to make any attempt at modifying my bench, if I were to make a new one I would probably make it at least an inch taller. Just around 35 inches tall seems like the perfect height for a guy my size. That added height would make sawing and chisel work easier, and shouldn’t really effect any hand plane work, in particular edge jointing. If you don’t believe me maybe you should check out Paul Sellers theory on workbench height. He is 5ft 10 inches and uses a bench 38 inches tall and that doesn’t seem to bother him in the least. I’ll take his word for it. What I won’t do is let somebody else do the thinking for me ever again. That never works out well.

Leg man

When it comes to woodworking benches, I am a leg man. I think the legs/base are more important than the bench top, though that probably puts me in the minority in the circle of workbench experts. Nonetheless, my workbench has stout legs along with a leg vise. The leg vise is my favorite feature of the bench. There is more than twelve inches of space between the bench top and the screw, meaning I can easily clamp a board sixteen inches wide with no problems. A leg vise is extremely strong, relatively inexpensive, and easy to install, and most importantly it does a nice job. However, my leg vise does have one problem.

When I changed the configuration of my bench top several things happened: The bench top lost 6 inches of width and gained 7/8 of an inch in thickness. To make matters worse, the chop of my leg vise, which is made of oak, was damaged when a large piece of pipe fell onto it, so I had to remove 1/4 from the top. This left me with a chop that is more than 1 inch lower than the bench top. Originally, the chop was just 1/16th of an inch lower, virtually flush. This placement allowed me to clamp thinner stock yet still have the ability to plane or saw it without interference. I need to replace the chop of the vice immediately, in particular for the next few projects I have planned. But replacing the chop isn’t so much a concern as choosing which wood to use.

Low vice. You can still see some of the damage on the right corner.

Low vise. You can still see some of the damage on the right corner.

As I was saying, my current chop is oak. It has worked well, and I probably could go back to oak even if I just want to run to a home center and laminate two pieces together to get the needed thickness. At the same time, rather than spend $65 on a vise board, I am wondering if a 2×10 piece of framing lumber would work. Douglas Fir is strong yet flexible enough to serve as a leg vise; at least I think it is. I could easily pick through the stock at Lowe’s and find a nice board, clean it up, and shape it into a nice chop. The cost would be negligible, I am just not completely sure whether or not it will hold up. On my current vise I added two coats of boiled linseed oil to the chop, and other than the fact that it’s too short, it looks pretty good. I would have to think that a few coats of linseed oil and some wax would protect the chop and keep it in decent shape. I know that woods like fir tend to splinter, but I think it’s worth the risk.

In any event, if anybody has an opinion or some advice on the topic I would appreciate it. I know I like to pretend that I know everything, but I’m the first to admit when I need a little help, from time to time that is.

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