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Workbench

 

Here is the story of my workbench.

At this point, my intent is to keep this web page fairly simple and bare bones. (We'll see if I manage that). There are plenty of other lush and detailed workbench-building-description web pages. Perhaps I'll just keep it as a point-form list of comments that I make as I go along.


0: Background Work and Thoughts

Back in 1996 I built a Work Table. A year or so later, I added a record-clone metal vise. At that point I gave in and started calling it a bench instead of a worktable.

For the most part this bench works fine -- it's flat, reasonably level, and it's there. But it's too light for any sort of serious hand-planing. Also, the more I've done woodworking, the more I've craved a decent tail vise also.

I planned to finally get around to building myself a bench over the winter of 2000/01. So when I saw a tail vise on the "Sale" table at my local Lee Valley Tools store, I picked it up. (actually I didn't pick it up, but called them up 10 days later after lots of second thoughts, and was relieved to hear that they still had it.)


1: Decisions, Decisions

Much as I'd like one, I can't justify the cost/effort of a huge solid hardwood top. (Note that I have 3 young children at home; shop time comes in very small chunks with large gaps inbetween...) Frankly I'm also not sure that I do enough woodworking at this point to really need one either.

So the top will most likely be 2 layers of 3/4" plywood. A few years ago, a friend showed me the workbench top article from ShopNotes #7. The basic idea there is 2 layers of plywood, and then thin strips of hardwood on top, glued down with construction adhesive. Constructions Adhesive stays flexible, so the top can move a bit, with changes in humidity, without cracking or self-destructing. This friend built such a bench and a few years later the top is still solid. So I'm considering this method, but I'm not sure. Plywood is cheap, flat, solid, and very easy to replace. However I do not think that my tail vise will be quite so easy to re-mount. This is of some concern. We'll see what I eventually decide.

My overall plan, after much thinking and reading (see the references section below), is a bench the rough shape/size of the Fortune bench. Perhaps not right away, but eventually I'd like to build cabinets into the base, as in the Vandal bench and the Berglund bench.

(I also want to make sure it's movable. So the legs need to come apart, and any cabinet would be in a self-contained carcass which slides into the bench base.)


2: Leg Assembly

About a year ago, I picked up a pair of pallets from work. Most pallets are made of junk wood. Furthermore, the way they're put together means that once you've somehow gotten them apart, the wood is definitely reduced to junk! However, these were much nicer than average pallets. The one pallet contained Four 4x4 Oak boards. The rest of the material was some form of fairly solid softwood, probably Southern Yellow Pine. (The skids came from Pennsylvannia). The were very heavy! Ripping them apart was a bear of a job also, but I persevered. I got all the metal out, and ran the rough wood through my planer (didn't knick a blade). I then stacked it in my shop and left it. This lumber is supplying the material for the base -- the oak for the legs, the other 4x4's for the sleds (top/bottom of the legs -- sled-foot trestle), and the other lumber for the cross-pieces between the left and right leg assemblies.

It's now early March, 2001. I still haven't exactly decided on the material for the top, but I have decided on the size, so I can proceed with the base I'm building sled-foot trestle's, as in the Fortune bench.

Oak: vertical pieces in the trestles
Pine/Spruce: Horizontal pieces in the trestles
Southern Yellow Pine(?): cross members lag bolted to join the two trestle sections.


3: Pause to Produce a "Prototype"

I paused at the beginning of April 2001 to build myself a protype.

Ok, not really. Actually what I did was put together a small bench for my son's 2nd birthday. And I tried to make the bench look somewhat similar to what I'm building for myself.

The base is just softwood (SPF 2x4's) and plywood, but it is built in a trestle fashion. The top is some Southern Yellow Pine (I think) offcuts from the main bench construction. I edge-jointed them and glued them up into a nice hefty top. I finished it in a few coats of Behrs tung oil.


4: The Top

(Early June, 2001) This is how I finally ended up building the top. It's a bit of a compromise, and we shall see how I like it.

The top is approximately 26" deep, by 62" long. There's a 18"long by 5-6"deep chunk out of the front right corner, where the tail vise will be mounted.

The front section of the top is made out of maple. I bought two 8'long 4/4 thick boards, edge-jointed them (with my #7 Stanley jointer :-), planed them to about 7/8" thick, and then ripped them into 1-3/4" thick strips. Finally, I flipped them on edge, and glued them together. The end result is that the front ~8 inches of the bench is made out of 1-3/4" thick maple. Also, by ripping the boards and flipping them on edge, the grain is now oriented such that the effect is that of having quarter-sawn lumber.

The back 17.5" of the top is made out of two sheets of 3/4" thick poplar plywood. The front and back sections aren't quite the same thickness, so I glued a sheet of 1/8" thick plywood under most of the back section, (particularly above the legs where the top is supported) so that it'd be the same thickness as the front section.

The reasoning for this hybrid top arrangement is that the front of the bench is what takes the lion's share of the beating from hammering, chiseling, and so on. Therefore, the front 10 inches (or so) should be the thickest, the heaviest, and the strongest. In The Workbench Book this is illustrated in the Hancock Shaker Village bench. It's front section of the top is thick hardwood, and the rear section is (in comparison) relatively think pine planks.

Finally, I put in a double row of biscuit's, to help align the front and back sections of the top, and glued them together. (This really helped a *lot*. First, it kept the pieces from slipping, when clamped. Second, it really helped the top come out flat, by keeping the pieces lined up along the top edge. Finally, the maple section, on the far right where the skinny part stuck out, had just a bit of a curve to it, which would have otherwise been very difficult to deal with when clamping it together.)

I think I may want to add some sort of support for the right side where the top sticks way out. If it'd been solid wood there I wouldn't worry, but could the plywood flex under load? Hmm.


5: Base tweak

(24.Jun.2001) I decided that I did want to add some support for the right side of the top, where it projects ~18" past the right side of the base. It reqired a bit of thought, as I don't want to obstruct the area under the top. I want to have room to slip something (on wheels) underneath that area -- like perhaps a rolling toolchest.

So I took another piece of 2x6 SYP and bolted it onto the back of the right-rear leg, at an angle, so that it would support the top. Until I get an updated photo, here is a rough diagram on the right of what I'm talking about.


6: Dog Holes, sigh

We all know the woodworkers advice to "Measure twice, cut once". Well sometimes, it still doesn't come out right.

(24.Jun.2001) It was time to drill the dogholes along the front of the bench. I checked through The Workbench Book to determine the optimal spacing and location -- I chose to put them 1.5" from the front, and spaced 5" apart along the front. (Both those are "on center" measurements). I checked my package of Veritas "bench pups" (short brass bench dogs) which my wife bought me as a present some time ago, to verify that I needed to drill 3/4" diameter holes. I picked out the forstner bit and installed it in the drill press. I set up the drill press very carefully, and proceeded to drill a set of beautiful holes.

However the first time I inserted a bench dog it nearly fell all the way through... That's when I discovered that the 3/4" label in the box of forstner bits referred to the bit to the *left* of the label, and not the bit to the *right* of the label. I had drilled a set of 7/8" dog holes. What a silly situation.

(7.Jul.2001) I couldn't face just leaving the holes there, and drilling a second set, so I had to either figure out a way to use the holes, or fill the holes. Both of those options required me finding some 7/8" hardwood dowel somewhere, either to make plugs to glue into the holes, or to make my own wooden bench dogs. (I don't have a lathe, so turning my own 7/8" dowels wasn't a choice). For some reason, Lee Valley Tools skips that size dowel. (they sell 1/4", 3/8, 1/2, 5/8, 3/4, and then jump to the 1" size)

However Lee Valley Tools does sell a nice assortment of plug cutters, so I picked up a 7/8" plug cutter and drilled a nice set of plugs out of some scrap oak, and glued them into the holes.

Why oak? Why not maple? Well, maple plugs might blend in nicer, but they would still be visble, and so I thought I'd rather use a contrasting wood, and have it stand out. This can now serve as a very visible reminder to CHECK CAREFULLY before I start cutting.

I then put in a set of 3/4" dog holes in between the oak plugs in the benchtop.


7: Face Vise

(26.Aug.2001) Mounting the face vise was a fairly simple procedure. I moved over the metal quick-release record clone vise from my other bench. I did need to first attach some blocking to the bottom of the bench top to build up it's thickness, and also had to excavate a bit of a mortice in the bottom of the bench top to accomadate the rear metal "cheek" of the vise. I attached the vise with some lag bolts. Still to be done sometime in the future is to replace the front wooden face of the vise. It was sized for the previous bench, and is a bit short for this new bench. That can wait for a while however.


8: Tail Vise

The last (big) job is to tackle the tail vise...

I've been reading, and re-reading the relevant section in the Fortune chapter of The Workbench Book.

It is non-trivial.

(My tail vise from Lee Valley arrived with no instructions at all. When I called them on that, they said that it was not a mistake. They did not currently have any instructions to go with them. They referred me to The Workbench Book...)

(Three years later ... Spring 2004)

Three years later I finally got around to tackling the tail vise. I've been too busy using the bench to build projects (with my limited free time) to actually get around to finishing the bench. The fact that building the tail vise looked very intimidating had nothing to do with it. Nope. Nothing at all.

Also, there is the fact that so far I've never had a bench with a tail vise. Intellectually, I might know what I'm missing, but I'm also used to getting along without it.

Regardless, this spring I resolved to make the time to get this beast mounted. I have several 'finished' photos below, but I don't have any photos of the work in progress. I refer the reader to The Workbench Book to read in detail about how to tackle this yourself.

First, I had to build up the right side of the bench to support the mounting plate. If you refer to the photo's above you'll note that my bench top is about 1-3/4" thick. I needed to bring this up to about 4-1/2" thick, in order to have enough backing to fasten the mounting plate.

Next, I had to rout a groove towards the top, to provide clearance for the top guide plate which slides along the mounting plate.

Next I had to build up the vise core to fit around the vise screw. This was made difficult by the fact that NO ONE (that is to say, no book or web page that I have so far come across) shows you the backside of the vise. All these books and websites are loaded with pretty photo's of the front of their workbenches. None show you the back, so that you can see the guts of the tail vise. The Workbench book gives a nice exploded diagram of the tail vise core, but even that lovely book did not contain a photo.

Picture's are worth a thousand words, folks.

I did bow to "woodworking tradition" and fabricate the tail vise out of a contrasting wood. My workbench top is made of maple (and plywood). So I made the tail vise out of some walnut. It is "just" a bench, and not fine furniture, so I was not particularly careful about sapwood or colour matching, as you can tell in the photo below. It almost looks like two different species of wood!

I bought the tail vise three years ago, so I think I'm well out of warranty. Still, I am tempted to go back to Lee Valley and complain. The wooden handle which they supplied, which I have not touched in the three years that I've owned the vise, does not fit. I would estimate that it is about 1/16" too large in diameter to fit into the head of the vise. The handle was in it's own package, with a part number. I suspect that they just toss one of their "stock" replacement handles (which you can find listed separately in the catalog) into the kit. Still, that is poor quality control. That is why the handle looks a bit(!) odd in the photo's below. It was just a handy piece of scrap to jam in there.

So then, overall thoughts on the tail vise?

I would have to say, that while it was a bit time consuming, and a bit fiddly... I don't think it really was that horribly difficult to mount.

I think that having no instructions, and having to depend on the guidelines of a book -- which was NOT written as a step-by-step instruction manual -- was what made the project so intimidating.

I'll have to reserve final judgement for a few months, to see how I like using it. At this point, I wouldn't do this again. If I were to build another bench right now, I'd be inclined to either get the Lee Valley twin-screw vise (the expensive option), or just mount a metal quick-release vise (the cheap option, if you can wait for a half-price sale at Canadian Tire) in the tail vise position. The downside of using a quick-release vise as a tail vise is that the dog holes would have to be another inch and a bit in from the front of the bench.

Photo Gallery

completed tail vise.

Front View, with close-up. This shows the mounting plate, and the groove towards the top for the guide plate.

Here at long last, the backside of a tail vise. There are the guts for all to see.


Weight

On other bench-building web sites, or on various bench-building posts to the Oldtools mailing list, folks generally quote the weight of their bench. I find myself wondering how they manage to weigh 3-500lb behemoths...

I'm going to try and track the weight of my bench also. I'm going to do so by weighing the individual components before they're assembled. I'll be using the highly scientific method (cough) of weighing myself on the bathroom scale, and then picking up a bench piece and reweighing the two of us.

So what is an optimal weight anyway? Or rather, what is a minimal usable weight?


Base: 64lbs
Top: 47lbs (w/out vises)
Face Vise: 20lbs
Tail Vise: I estimate it added 10-20lbs to the bench (when you included the lumber, etc)

For a grand total of ... approximately 150 lbs (and counting) That amount of weight is not enough, not nearly enough.

After three years of use, I can say that it is usable, but still it is far too easy to push around the floor. I am more and more leaning toward building a drawer unit to slip into the base. That will add weight, as well as handy storage.


Next Steps

After living with this bench for a few years, I added a set of drawers to the base, which added lot of storage, and also a lot of welcome weight to help weigh the bench down.

You can read more here: Workbench Drawers


References

This is one situation where I wonder if the References actually belong at the beginning of the document, as I made so much use of them.
  1. ``The workbench book'', by Scott Landis. (In particular the Vandal bench, in the shaker section, and the Fortune bench)
  2. Keith Rucker's Bench -- a highly detailed web building diary
  3. Bob Key's bench pages -- Please note, that website appears to be defunct as of 2013. You can still find references online if you Google for "Bob Key Workench", or you can check the "Internet Wayback Machine" archive. Here is a link to that website with a 2005 archive of Bob Key's webpage: https://web.archive.org/web/20050604233411/http://www.terraclavis.com/bws/benches.htm
  4. Peter Berglund's bench

 

Thanks for reading!