It’s time for me to embark upon that woodworking rite of passage that is building a workbench. The more I incorporate hand tools into my work, the more I need a sturdy bench that excels at work holding. I’ve been mulling the design over for a while. I just moved into a new shop. The Wood Whisperer Guild is about to build a Benchcrafted Split Top Roubo. The time is now!
My bench will be a fairly straight forward French (Roubo) style design with leg and wagon vises. Look at the cover of Workbenches: From Design And Theory To Construction And Use (a fantastic read) and you’ll have a pretty good idea what’s in store. Why this design? Take 1 part weight, 1 part utility, 1 part time tested, and season with a dash of damn sexy.
Deciding on a front vise took me a while to puzzle out. I debated between a leg vise and a twin screw vise. The twin screw vise wins hands down for dovetailing wide boards while the extra depth of a leg vise wins at almost every other task. What finally tipped the scale in favor of the leg vise was all the talk of Moxon Vises and Joinery Benches. Those offer great answers to both the work holding and height issues with dovetailing and similar joinery. So, I tossed one of those on the project list and went with the leg vise.
The end vise was a much easier choice. Since the leg vise is so versatile, the only real use I see for the end vise is to work with the dog holes to hold boards while working their faces. A wagon vise excels at this while not succumbing to the sagging and racking issues many of the other end vises have.
For the actual vise hardware I chose the leg and wagon vises from Hovarter Custom Vise. These combine a traditional vise design with a clever quick release mechanism which does not require any separate latch to engage. Also, I won’t lie, I wanted to do something a little different than the hoard of guild members who bought the Benchcrafted hardware.
Split Tops Are Not My Bag Baby
There’s been a lot of discussion about the split top design. The sited advantages are: clamping options, tool holding, and a built in planing stop.
The ability to insert a clamp into the middle of the bench is a very interesting idea but when it comes down to it, I don’t think I’d use it for much more than assembly. Holdfasts can take care of many of the jobs where having a clamp in the middle of the bench would help. A split top assembly table? Now there’s an idea.
The integrated tool rack is neat but hardly a reason to build a split top alone.
The built in planing stop seems like pure fantasy to me. I don’t know how the rest of you work but idea that, at any given time, there will magically be a clear space in the center of the bench running its entire lenght to lift the stop out and flip it around seems astronomically unlikely. Plus, what are you supposed to do with all the tools in that handy tool rack?
On the negative side, the split top seems like it would be harder to flatten with handplanes. It also requires extra stretchers at the top to support the two halvs. This requires the use of metal fasteners to attach the top (something I’d like to avoid.)
Last fall I took a course on japanese joinery from Jay Van Arsdale. The japanese are experts at building structures with no metal fasteners that can last for centuries and survive earthquakes. This is not unlike the stress a typical bench sees so I’m going to embrace these methods. In particular, I plan on attaching the long stretchers to the legs with a shitage kama joint (pictured above.) Have a look at Jay’s site for another example. This joint provides knockdown ability without any hardware.
Wood choice is an important design decision of any bench. You need something that is strong enough to take a beating and stiff enough to resist sagging in the middle of the top. On top of that a french style bench takes a metric (it’s french after all) butt load of wood. After searching the local lumber yards I settled on Douglas-fir which is strong and cheap. I ended up with a large collection of 2x10s and 2×12 which I stacked in my shop to aclimate a bit. I’m not going to wait for the lumber to fully aclimate as Chris Schwarz mentions several times in his book that it’s not necessary for success.
A big bench requires big tools. Big saws, big chisels, big bottles of glue and more. Look at the chisel over there. Man that thing is massive!
For the saw I opted to go the japanese ryoba route instead of purchasing one of Bad Axe Tool Works’ Roubo Beastmasters. Why? While Mark’s saws are amazing, they are spendy ($275 vs $40 for the ryoba) and have a long wait list. If I’m going to drop that kind of dough on another Bad Axe saw, It’s going to be a saw I’ll use more often like their upcoming miter box saw. Plus, all my experience with japanese joinery is using a ryoba, so it “makes sense.”
Now that the craziness of the holidays is over, work on the top can start this week. I’m super excited!