Sunday, September 19, 2010

Bench update

Final work on the bench - it's basically finished now.  The final skirt board is on (a clear 2x12 from sappy Southern Yellow Pine) and I'll peg it into place in a day or so, then drill the holes for the holdfasts.  I'm going to get at least one pair of holdfasts from Peter Ross, who was master blacksmith at Williamsburg for many years, and has now semi-retired to an idyllic setting in central North Carolina, not far from Roy Underhill's Woodwright's School in Pittsboro.

Here you can see the bench over on its side to make it easier to fiit the skirt board in place while at the same time coordinating the "joist" across the middle.

It's inserted without glue, nails, wedges, or ceremony into each skirt board and is made from an oak 1x5.  Dead simple and dead solid.  You can see how simple the legs are also, and hopefully if you wanted to construct a similar bench you could figure it out from the photos alone.  It ain't rocket surgery, as they say.

Let me encourage you to do this - perhaps not on this scale - but in this style.  Let me encourage you to think of a bench more as a massive, simple table with rudimentary vise hardware, and less of a CAD designed work of art with a geometrically flat top and expensive machined vises and everything pretty enough to be furniture.  I guess if that's what you really want, that's fine, but that's not what this stuff is about, and it's an aesthetic at which our forebears would be amazed - and quite possibly laugh.

I'm going into detail on this bench because I believe it's (1) a tremendously versatile, durable and traditional design and (2) it's dead simple and nothing to get too overly analytical about.  I've alluded to it before, but I believe modern hobby workshops look the way they look (which is a bunch of dangerous machines crammed into a garage) because of a chain of circumstances that the woodworker is confronted with:

1.  You need to crosscut and rip stock to build projects, whether it's a bluebird box or a mahogany highboy.  Whatever else you do, you rip and crosscut first.

2.  You have a handsaw but its probably not set up properly - it's probably not sharp for one thing.  A sharp handsaw will cut through 2" thick oak by virtue of the weight of the blade alone.

3.  Let's say you actually have a handsaw - where are you going to rest your boards while you size your stock?  Chances are you don't have saw horses, or if you do, they're the tall Home Depot kind made to be worked on with circular saws.

4.  Your present workbench is probably covered with tools and miscellanea - cans of paint, boxes of screws, etc. and to clean it off would take an hour.  Then, when you got it cleaned off it would be taller than the saw horses, making it way too tall for proper sawing.

5.  You get confronted with these barriers a few times and you realize "I need a place to cut boards."  So you clear some space between the eight snow tires and the clothes dryer and buy a table saw, because...well, isn't that what you do?  (I mean, Jim has one, and man is it ever nice!)

Back up.  Rethink this.  Clear out some space.  Get rid of stuff - sell stuff - make room.  Build a good solid, simple bench as heavy and as long as you can make it, and up to about the height of your wrist watch.  Yes, that short.  Make a couple of saw horses the height of a chair seat.  Yes, that short.

Now, bingo - you have a place to saw boards!  You have a place to plane boards!  Your handsaw suddenly makes sense, and when you get it back from the guy that sharpens them it cuts through stock so fast it makes you dizzy.  You clamp it down on top of your bench and that short work height makes sense as you're able to lean over your plane and dang how the shavings roll off.  Epiphany.  It dawns on you that THIS STUFF WORKS.

You better believe it works.  A proper bench is the great enabler of so much good work and embodies so much capability. Don't let misconceptions about its construction be a hurdle foisted on you by the perfectionism of others.

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