For something as foundational as a workbench, I didn't do much of a job documenting its construction. I want to apologize up front for the eerie cellphone photography. My daughter moved off to college and took the good camera with her. But frankly, I like the gauzy glow I get with this phone - call it instant atmosphere if you will.
Here we see possibly the quintessential simplest form of bench (not counting that Japanese carpenters use only an inclined board, or work on the floor) - and notice that there is no screw vise on this model. Roubo illustrated many benches, many of which had screw vises, but when you say "Roubo bench", this is what you mean, whether you know it or not. Very few people actually build this guy today. For one thing, we tend to do more operations in our home shops than the simple planing and thicknessing of stock that this bench is designed to do. But still and all, it's a wonder of design.
There is definitely a new appreciation for massive, minimalist workbenches. The spare beauty of the Roubo bench with a simple planing hook or the Nicholson bench with its skirt board (with dog holes) are inspirational to many people who would love to build their own bench, but get a little dizzy at the thought of buying hundreds of dollars worth of complex screw vise hardware, then having to dovetail and mill and fit and fuss over wagon vises, and face vises, and parallell guides with roller bearing nylon bushings, and removable tool trays, and...and...
So the simple "big heavy table" is very liberating. A bench is largely a table you plane boards on. Sure, there's a lot more to it, or can be, but planing boards is what it's all about. This is accomplished admirably by the minimalist benches, and the planing hook (just a big wooden snag you run the board up against) makes you admit "Well, I guess I don't HAVE to clamp it..." Stand the board up on its edge, run it against the planing hook, strike home a hold fast, and you're ready to go in a matter of seconds. The great liberator here is the hold fast - a miracle of gription that allows you to hold a board flat on the bench without having to grip its edges in any kind of complicated vise. Once you get your head around that, much of the cost and complexity of a modern woodworking bench seems less neccessary.
So anyway, I decided to build a big (8' long) and heavy (probably 400 pounds) solid oak bench on which I could do all the joinery and carpentry I might need to do, including furniture making. I decided against any of the metal vises out there. Their names are legion - but I wanted to stay in the 18th century as much as possible. I want to replicate the work of that period with the tools of that period, and that starts with a bench. I was going to use a wooden screw vise, but also wanted to use the planing hook. I didn't want to use them together on the same side though, as some do. To me this seemed to cramp the vise's style, and I could see myself needing to vise something up that would interfere with the hook. This is personal opinion, and it works for others. I just wanted to keep the vise side clean.
Unlike (it seems) most benches, mine will stand out away from the wall. I intend to use both sides. One side will have a wooden screw vise, the other will have a planing hook. I see no reason (other than space, and easy wall-hung tool access, and rock like stability) to put a bench against the wall. OK, there are at least three good reasons to put the bench against the wall, I'll admit it. But I wanted a bench solid enough so that aggressive planing across its surface wouldn't set it to rockin', and this way I have in effect two benches - one with a beautifully simple planing hook and the other with a wooden screw vise, which is handy for a myriad of operations, and doesn't take me out of my century.
The bench started as legs for a gunmaking bench that never materialized. They were built from oak 4x4's about 10 years ago, and since they were intended for gunmaking, much of which takes place at about chest height they are too tall by far for a planing bench. Luckily, I had put the fore and aft stringers far up enough from the floor so that I could cut off several inches from the legs below them and still have a gap to put my toes under as I work. Don't underestimate the importance of this. If you have to lean forward over your work, you'll tire much quicker.
The top is 2" thick oak. I had several white oaks taken down and told the miller to cut out several 2x6's for a bench top. He cut me 3. One of them was too badly bent to use. So that left me 12" of width. I called around and found some 2" oak 2x8's (which turned out to be red oak but they would work.) They were straight and dry. The odd knot meant nothing. I pegged with the top as the reference face of course, but there were still some areas that needed to be brought down with the scrub plane. I know, this is not an 18th century plane form. I should have used a try plane, but I frankly have trouble seeing the difference between a convex-edged try plane and a convex edged scrub plane.
The boards were planed and jointed (I used my hilariously tiny little Garrett Wade bench for this, just one notch better than holding them in my lap) then pegged and glued together, then clamped like all get-out. Careful jointing with my beloved 29" jointer really made this job. The drilling was done by eye - and all the pegs lined up nearly perfectly. No gauge or setup jigs required. I am a man of few talents, but after years of drilling ramrod holes 48" deep into a gunstock, I can bore with the best of them.
I decided to have the legs protrude through the top, a'la Roubo, with a simplification. A 2x4" tenon would be cut on the top, which would leave 2x4" of bearing support under the top at each leg. Of course, man handling this incredibly heavy top around while I marked out, then drilled, then chiseled the mortices was the worst part of the job.
But with careful drilling, the mortices were very tight and the look wasn't sloppy at all but rather attractive. I also like looking at the bench and immediately knowing how it works. I've mentioned this in the post on the Carter Mansion - looking at something, and immediately understanding it, is very pleasureable. I look at modern benches, with their seamless un-fenestrated tops, and I wonder immediately "What holds it together?" And I'm sure it's some concoction of bolts or screws.
The tenons get sawn flush, then planed smooth.
I decided to go with the Jorgensen metal bench planing stop. One will live on the bench top - in a mortise which keeps it flush, until needed. At which time it will be raised up and turned to it's working direction, 90 degrees from the mortises. The other two will live in the skirt board when not being used. I didn't go hog wild with dog holes - I'm going to see how few I can drill. If I need one, I'll drill it, but I saw no need to punch a dozen holes in the top when I'll probably only wind up using 3 or 4 for 90 percent of what I do.
The face vise is the traditional wooden screw affair, famed in song and story. I just copied the various good massive vises I saw others building, particularly Adam Cherubini and Chris Schwarz. Again, an immediately beautiful, obviously useful device. Just lovely. You can't not play with it. It begs you to, when no one's looking, squeeze your hand in it just to see how strong it really is. Tell me you haven't done this - I ask the coldest of you mortals.
I ran a moulding around it with my sash ovolo plane, a beauty made for me by Tod Herrli of Mississinewa Workshop. Tod has made several planes for me, and they're all incredibly nice.
A view underneath, showing the parallel guide, bench screw (the actual screw block or "nut" that engages the threads isn't in place yet) and the as-yet unsupported top. It is as solid as the sidewalk like it is, but I will, when the second skirt board goes on, add a couple of cross-wise joists just because I don't want the pegs and glue doing all the work for the life of the bench.
The almost finished bench. The side facing away from you will the the "Roubo" side, with planing hook and Nicholson skirt board. I'll get that knocked out in the next week or so. I put a coat of boiled linseed oil on the top and it looks varnished. I'll stick with BLO - it just smells better than varnish. How's that for reasoning?
Still to do: drill the parallel guide for standard stock thicknesses. Install other skirt board. Install planing hook.
Is this the be-all and end-all of benches - of course not. It's a collection of compromises, tradition, heresy, and inspiration. There are limitless ways to make a great bench that will work well. To see what can be done taking things to the next level, and still staying very traditional, watch this fantastic video by instrument maker and woodworker Jameel Khalaf. The secondary, set-in-place screw vice has me drooling. It'll take a minute or two to download, but it is very much worth the time.