Monday, February 2, 2009

Roubo Bench - part 1: the beginning

So I finally started getting back into woodworking again and one of the first things I wanted to do was to replace my old bench. What I'm using now I built when I was still back up in Michigan and it's worth describing the bench, what's good about it and what just doesn't work. It's not like we ever need an excuse to build a better bench than what we have, but it does take some extra motivation to move from "thinking about" to actually doing.

The first bench I built was actually based on the idea of doing home fix-it work. It's tall, solidly build out of construction lumber with a top made from layered fiberboard with a hard-board top. It's screwed together and has a peg-board back. Typical tinkering kind of bench. It's in the garage is works beautifully for this purpose. It was while I was looking into how to design and build this bench that I discovered the world of woodworking and got hooked.

I then looked into how to build a woodworking bench. In many ways I lucked into doing many things right, while what I got wrong hasn't been a huge handicap.

What I did right.
I built it to a good height, it holds boards well for end and edge planing with the front vise and a series of holes in the broad front skirt for use with wooden pegs to hold boards for edge planing. It's pretty heavy and doesn't rack too badly. I also made the top co-planer with all of the sides which was better than a dining-room-table-like overhang. Believe me, you don't want the overhang.

What I did wrong.
There's no good way to work the faces of boards. I did improvise a planing stop and have a cheap holdfast so I can do some of that work, but it doesn't work that well. The front vise was not the greatest and is limited for dovetailing and is prone to wracking. But the biggest problem comes from its construction, and my skills at the time.

Let's first look at what it's made of.

I went to the local (Ann Arbor, MI) recycling place and found two old solid-core doors. These were small doors probably for a set of built-in supply cabinets. They were about 5 1/2 feet tall, oak core with walnut veneer. They came with door hardware and little brass label holders. I first took off the hardware, cut the doors to 5 feet (a little raggedy as well) and then built a frame for them out of 2-by construction hardware. I found some 4x4 post legs and notched them at the top and then screwed together the top frame, screwed cleats to the inside and dropped in the doors.

I never squared the rounded edges of the construction lumber, I didn't get the dimensions quite right and as a result the doors sit a little proud, about 1/16", of the surrounding frame, and the gaps between the doors and the frame, about 1/16" - 1/8" are just a trap for shavings and dust.

I also have discovered the short-comings of a wide apron skirt, you can't clamp well to the top. It just doesn't work well to clamp to the edge of the skirt and the 10" skirt is too wide to clamp around it.

Add to that the lack of a tail vise, the rough chop in my existing vise (an off-cut of the 2x10 from the skirt) and it's a barely functional ugly bench. I'm still fond of it in a way as we've been through a lot together. It comes apart and moves easily, but only by unscrewing the huge screws that hold it together.

I really, really needed something that allows me to work to the level I want to achieve. I need heavy, I need the ability to easily work end, edge and face, and I need flat with good clamping surface.

I began to look around for bench ideas. Scott Landis's book was an obvious source and gave me lots of shaker bench envy. I then stumbled across Chris Schwarz's book at a big book store. As soon as I started to read it, the scales fell from my eyes.

The book is clearly laid out, it describes the reasons behind why benches look the way they do, and what the real needs are for a workbench. It then discusses two possible approaches to a workbench with detailed designs and descriptions on how to build the benches.

I read the book cover-to-cover and just knew the Roubo bench was the one for me.

I played around with drawings in Visio (I know, how lame, get with the sketch-up program already, I'm working on it in my copious free time) and got an idea of dimensions based on my limited shop space.

It's pretty much like Schwarz's design in the book including a wagon vise. The dimensions will be:

32" high
24" wide
60" long
Top: 4" thick
Legs: 5" x 5"
short strechers: 3" x 2"
long stretchers: 3" x 3"
Legs mortised into top

Some of the details of the design I've been working on as I go along. I'll share those in the detailed descriptions of each part.

I went to get the wood and decided to go all out and get maple. I found a good deal on soft maple and when I went to order it they told me their soft maple in the dimensions for the top was just not very good quality so they'd cut me a deal on hard maple for the 4"-thick top. Needless to say, I jump at the chance.

So, I purchased the lumber and drove home with a car full of wood and a song in my heart ready to begin.

Next, where to start?


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