Thursday, March 9, 2017

A Tale of Two Benches, Part 2: workbench

We've been through
Some things together
With trunks of memories
Still to come
We found things to do
In stormy weather
Long may you run.

N. Young

Just like 'ol Neil and his beat up hearse, I was attached to my original workbench. Made in my scuffling days fresh out of residency, new to Oregon and fixing an old ranch house, it was my first furniture piece (like most woodworkers). The top was an discarded exterior door with left over number two oak flooring stapled and glued as the working surface. The base was glued together 2x4's. The joinery was wood screws and dowels (hope you don't spit up whatever you're drinking while reading this). And the vise was left behind by the previous owner.


Thing is though, while the base was pretty wobbly especially lengthwise, the top was (and still is) true, stable and capable of withstanding everything I threw at it and on it. Just as Orwell noted that at 50, everyone has the face they deserve, my benchtop developed a greatly prized patina.
Knowing how fond I was of my bench, when I first began ideating about a better workbench, DW wondered if I'd be able to part with 'ol faithful. Once finished with the major part of the shop rehab and DW happy with the new couch/sofa (bench 1) the plan was to make a new base and use the existing top. While picking up wood for the base at Crosscut Hardwoods, I came across a red oak glu-lam 11"W x 3" thick and 8ft long. The price tag on it was $90. After confirming that was indeed the price ( a large project's version of scrap wood was the reason for the price), that I could lift it and that it could fit in my Saab, I was on my way home with the materials for the base and with 1/3rd of a new benchtop. It's important to recognize kismet when it's happening.
As well as my old bench had served me, it had felt too wide and it needed a better vise. Twenty years of using my bench identified definite needs and wants and the glulam had only served as a firm nudge in acknowledging  that the old top was not going to satisfy the major ones.  As a college graduate in general, I read up on the topic- on-line stuff and, as an old college graduate, bought some books on the subject.
Best Workshops, Ed. Fine Woodworking had been purchased while rehabbing the shop. It had a couple of chapters which were useful once I decided to go the new workbench route. The Workbench, L. Schleining presented an overview of a wide variety of benches and accessories- more food for thought. The Workbench Design Book turned me into a Chris Schwarz fan. He is opinionated, a bit of a Luddite and prone to idiosyncrasy. I didn't follow all of his advice because I'm kinda the same way but his 18 principles for building workbenches were a great way of organizing the project and explaining my choices.
Principle No.1: Always overbuild your workbench.
While a 2.5" thick top worked well enough up to now, I knew there was room for improvement. This was especially the case when carving out mortises. Thus, even though the gluelam weighed about 100 lbs, the other sections of the top were going to be 4" thick. This would make for more effective chisel work as well as provide the thickness needed for optimal vise installation. Schwarz also notes there is no such thing as too heavy until you need to move it. Which is why it was useful to build the top in thirds. Woodcrafters in Salem was nice enough to joint the 8/4 maple and oak boards (not enough maple on stock in the lengths and widths needed). My modified MFT's were very helpful in providing infeed and outfeed support. Where as my old Jet TS may not have been up to the task, the SawStop had no trouble.

Principle No. 2: Always overbuild your workbench. (remember Fight Club?)
My wobbly, poorly joined base was the worst flaw of the old bench.
The base this time would use 5" thick uprights joined by open M&T. The spreaders were connected by Bencrafted barrel nuts and bolts. These were thicker and wider than otherwise needed. This was to compensate for the front spreaders' more posterior placement to allow for open space anteriorly. The height adjustable section may appear less stable than a Roubo M&T, but the screw jack is rated at 2.5 tons and the 1 inch pipes providing lateral support are fastened by spax screws.
Principle No.3: Question unusual designs
This is where CS and I part ways. He proposes that unusual designs lead to benches that fail to do their primary purpose optimally- hold wood tight so you can shape it with force and precision. I'm at the age where it's uncertain how many woodworking years are left. So I want the bench to be useful in some capacity after I'm done with it. The height is adjustable from 30" which is a good desk or table height to 45" inches (as shown above). At that height it requires additional support to be rock solid length wise. Most of the time, it's used at the 32 to 38 inch height; at that range, it works the way it's supposed to and lets me choose a position that's easy on my back. The other design feature is open space under the front of the bench. At this time, I prefer to stand when I work in the shop, but I wanted to have option of using a chair or stool.

Why not have different height tables, in the "horses for courses" approach CS advocates? Downsizing is in the future for us and my future shop space is likely to be the area most impacted. The variable height will be even more useful in a small space as will be the open space in the front which can serve to accommodate storage.
Principle No.4: Your bench cannot be too heavy or too long. But its top can easily be too wide or too tall.
I experience the too wide problem with my first bench as its footprint was an exterior door; 36" made for awkward access to the opposing side. I had intended mine to be 27-28 inches wide. It ended up 29 inches wide when I decided to make the back face of the patternmakers vise flush to the front edge.

Trust me, it's easier to do this after the vice has been installed than to modify the template provided to make the cavity needed.
Principle No. 5: Choose the right height-lower is better.
As CS duly notes, workbench height is deeply related to the task and the tools. And that if "you are going to be a crazy American generalist then picking the right height is a futile exercise". He then further dismissively notes that adjustable height benches are usually mounted on casters. Guilty as charged. I'm a generalist by inclination and background (I grew up in So. Central L.A. and Walter Mosely noted that folks of modest means don't have the option of being specialists). I need to make all kinds of stuff and I like to use all kinds of tools- power, Western and Japanese- thus a bench that allows that. His mentions of the Moxon vise allowing for a higher working surface led to looking into a way of integrating that idea into my bench design. But that's the subject of the next post.
Principle No. 6: Where your bench should live in the shop.
I very much share CS's regard for window light and installed as many windows as code allowed in my shop. Unfortunately, I still need overhead fixtures on to have adequate lighting, but having a component of illumination coming from window light is psychologically important.
Principle No. 7: You should be able to move your bench, but not too easily.
CS's solution are hinged casters, which he admits are ugly and depend on being able to lift 400 lbs off the ground and flip in or out with your feet- no thanks. The Footmaster casters installed allow for a locking position that is unbudge-able on the rubble mats the bench stands on and also have the benefit of leveling an uneven floor.
Principle No. 8: Your bench is a 3-D clamping surface. Anything that interferes with that will frustrate you.
At one point I was considering storage below the benchtop. DW advised against it on aesthetic grounds. CS noted that "the job of the workbench is not to store tools". Agreed. But, there was a area between the two spreaders which lent itself to storing tracks and other long and unwieldy items. Turning that into storage was useful and did not compromise aesthetics or primary function.
Principle No: 9: All benches should be able to grip the wood so you can easily work on the faces, the ends and the edges.
Here, CS gives several work holding chores as a litmus test for a benches' utility. In the interest of brevity my bench could handle all those tasks, although some were much more easily accomplished with an Moxon accessory attached.
Principle No. 10: Aprons or skirts are good to look at.
Guilty of this on my first bench as it hid the particle board/oak flooring used. I did build up the edges with 2x4's to provide adequate depth for the dog holes and to allow for using the edges for clamping. N/A for new bench.
Principle No. 11: An overhanging front edge.Do you want it?
As before stated the front 12" are free and clear except for the pattern vise mechanism. So if needed I could use a bench slave. The other face has the stretcher on the same plane even though there's no use for a deadman board. My 91 year old mom would like CS, however (makes sense if you have the book).
Principle No. 12: The tool tray.
I agree with CS-to be avoided as it would collect junk and go against P. #8.
Principle No. 13: Select the best material.
I used hardwoods for the top; as can be seen by my old benchtop, I need stuff that can take a licking and keep on ticking. CS is right about a hardwood top being expensive and tough to flatten. As the top was too heavy to be able to take to the local shop with a drum sander. Thus my excuse for a No. 7 jointer plane. Love that tool, in a sick pup, but not perverse, sorta way.

Principle No. 14: Showcase benches made from exotic materials with showy details are nice.
The base could be made from a softer species, but with mass rather than density, to make it stable. Thus the thermally treated poplar. I like the stuff for bases as it's dimensionally stable and working with sorta brown/yellow wood gets old. My attempt at showy details was limited to condor tails- my first go at dovetails. Grasshopper has much to learn, but as joinery to secure the end caps on that side it's effective and over the years, I've learned to ameliorize my woodworking sins (BTW sin is derived from the Greek harmartia which means to "miss the mark".

Principle No. 15: Basic vise knowledge.
As far as placement of the front vise, I went against his dogma and for good reason. The pattern makers vise is really grippy and my front face has dogholes which allow for securing a long board effectively when going from left to right. For shorter boards my Moxon accessory vise allows me to start from either direction with no difference in how securely the piece is held. Also since my wagon vise is on the other side, it allows me to fasten from the movable dog, then start my planning from left to right.
I put in a fair amount of research prior to selecting the vises used on my bench. Minimizing wracking
was important as my prior vise suffered from a bad case of that. At times to counteract the marked tendency of the vise to separate distally from the area nearest the vise screws required the use of supplemental clamps. Holding long pieces vertically was particularly irritating as a board of similar thickness was required to counteract the pronounced racking the vise exhibited in that usage. On the other hand it was free. In researching front vises, the Emmert vise quickly became my focus, but the expense and rarity led to looking to the smaller (if a 50 lb vise qualifies as small) replicas. If it could indeed be able to hold stuff vertically, horizontally and at an angle securely, it was likely to have solved the racking problem. But looking at the install templates, the thickness of my old benchtop and having the top riddled with hardwood flooring nails was another incentive for a new top.
I also wanted a end vise. If you look at the top photo, there is a Veritas Wonder Dog which served that function with the old vise. The traditional end vises are more versatile than the Benchcrafted wagon vise was the most elegant,  robust and had the smallest footprint. The L-shaped end was concerning due to the bench being already 8 feet long. A vise adding to that length along with the tendency of the less expensive models to buckle up precluded that choice. Aside from the mass and weight of the bench itself, installation of both vises was the most time consuming, challenging, but in the end the most satisfying aspect of building the bench.
Principle No. 16: About those dog holes.
I went with one side using round holes and the other square ones. There are many accessories that make great use of 3/4" round holes. If not needed, they can be easily plugged up with dowels. Square pegs, on the other hand, seem to be a perfect match for a wagon vise. What was really important in choosing to use both was that they be parallel to each other. If your bench is too wide (see P.No 4), it's more difficult to use them together.

The other thing about dog holes is how many of them. It's the Goldilocks thing- not too little, not too much- just right. I decided to err in the too little direction as I did not want the top to look like swiss cheese. I'll likely put a few more holes, but not in the immediate future.
Principle No. 17: Storage on the Bench.
See P. No. 9. CS noted the space between the stretchers. Storage there makes sense and it's inobtrusive.

Principle No. 18: When finishing workbench, less is more.
Watco works for me.

And old workbenches should never die, mine lives on as a countertop.


No comments: