Tongue and Groove

The last thing we have to do for our bench is put in a shelf. I could have done this in a variety of methods, but I chose to use some random width pine I had lying around.  I’d foregone using it in other projects because it had knots in it, but for the bottom shelf of a workbench it was fine.  It might not be as pretty, but it was economical.

In order to stiffen the boards under load, I used my Stanley 45 with the appropriate irons (a 1/4″ tongue/groove).  One of the swinging fence planes like the Stanley 48 (or especially the Lie-Nielsen interpretation) would have been ideal for this, but so far they have proved outside the reach of my limited funds.  But while the 45 takes a little fiddling, it cuts the boards just fine.

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Carefully fit the boards around the legs so you don’t have a big gap.  I put a couple nails through the ends of the boards into the rebate we cut before the bench was assembled.  While it’s not strictly necessary, it leaves me vaguely unsettled to leave them loose, though glue is right out because it would restrict seasonal expansion.  Nails,the tongue and groove construction, and a sixteenth or so of clearance allow for a little give.

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And that completes the build!  You could, if you so desired, put some sort of finish (not a slick film finish!) on it, but it’s unnecessary for a workbench.  When I asked my wife about it, she decided against it.  So I bolted her scrollsaw down to the new bench and called it done.

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Bringing it all together

The big day is here.

Eat a good breakfast and make sure to stretch.

It’s time to assemble the bench!

Putting something this size and complexity together is not an easy task, or one to be undertaken without some planning.  Has everything been properly labelled and laid out so that you can find it in a hurry?  Have the test-fits been done?  Do you have the clamps and mallet at hand?  If so, then take a deep breath…and start mixing epoxy.

I’m using a very slow-setting epoxy here (open time is rated at 4 hours).  I want plenty of time to get everything together before it starts to grab.  When you think you’ve mixed it enough, mix it some more.

I start with the undercarriage.  I put a short stretcher between a pair of legs, clamp it, and then hammer the peg through.  I want to be sure that the taper is through, and that I’ve got a full-diameter peg on both sides. If both ends are securely pegged, you can take off the clamp. Once one pair is done, move to the next, then put in the long stretchers.  Glue, clamp, hammer, repeat.

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Now, at this stage, I made a decision.  I didn’t want to assemble the undercarriage to the top while it was on my workbench.  It was too tall and clumsy.  I put the slab on a sawbench, then lowered the undercarriage on to it.  Even with only a 4′ long bench, my wife’s help was pretty darn useful in maneuvering this conglomeration.  Once the tenons were started into the mortices (make sure it’s the correct one!), I used some long pipe clamps to ease all of the legs down gradually.  There’s enough friction (the epoxy doesn’t help you in this regard like hide glue does) that the top is extremely stubborn.  But with the torque of the pipe clamps and a little perseverance, you can pull through.  Peg the legs to the top, clean up the drips, and retreat overnight.  Celebrate your synergistic success!

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Even with the fact that gluing up is a pretty familiar thing, and even though I was hustling, this still took about an hour to get everything together and pegged.  Use a fast(er) setting glue at your own risk!

Once everything has set up, there’s a fair bit of cleanup.  All of the pegs have to be cut and planed flush.  Any drips have to be sorted.  The legs need to be levelled and beveled.  I still had to cut one end true.  And there’s these great big tenons standing proud of the benchtop!  Well, we knew we were going to have to flatten this beast eventually, so now’s the time.  Cut off the worst of the tenons before you start in with the plane.

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Then, it’s just like flattening a board.  A really, really big board.  Cut across the grain with the jack until the hollows are mostly gone, then a few swipes with a jointer diagonally to make sure you aren’t twisted (when the scalloped surface from the jack is gone, do check to seen if you have any twist that needed correcting), then along the grain with the jointer to true it all up.  You don’t have to use a smooth plane for this (some folk use a toothing plane to give the benchtop more grip!), but I thought it could use it.  About the only thing left is to fill in the bottom shelf and we’ll be done!

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Belt AND suspenders

Back in the shop, we’d just finished cutting the joinery for the stretchers.  If this were a smaller, modern-style table, we might just stop there and glue everything together.  But I look at things a  little differently.

Today’s glues will probably be enough to hold everything together.  The joints are sturdy enough as it is to hold everything up.  But old benches (old everything, really) had their tenons drawbored.  It doesn’t matter if your glue is weaker if there’s an oak peg holding everything tightly.  So I glue and drawbore in something like this.

I start by boring holes clean through the mortices, about 5/16″ from the edge.  Notice that I’ve had to slightly stagger the holes so that they don’t intersect in the leg.

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Now, insert the stretcher into the leg.  While it’s held up tight, put the auger bit in the hole you just bored and use the lead screw to mark the tenon.  When you withdraw the stretcher, you’ll see a little mark in the tenon, but that isn’t where you want to bore.  Instead, move it back a little and then bore.  It doesn’t take much; in this case I’ve offset it about 1/16″.  The mark nearest the shoulder is now where we want to bore the tenon.

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Now what’s up with all this nonsense?  Can’t we just drill it all out in one operation and call it good?

Yes, you could, but it wouldn’t be as secure.  See, the hole in the tenon is offset from the holes in the mortice.  This means that the peg is going to have to twist and deform to fit through them all.  That force will draw everything together and hold it there.  If we had a hole straight through, that force would be absent, and the shoulder line can open up over time.  This is more secure, and for a workbench you want all the rigidity you can get.

The last bit of this operation is to cut out some pegs.  In theory, you want riven pegs that are then sized using a dowel plate.  I haven’t the funds to buy one or the materials to make one.  But in this case, you can squeak by without one.  If you go to your local big box hardware store, they’ve probably got a bin of oak dowels.  Looking through the entire bin for straight grain and no runout, you can usually find one or two that will suffice.  I needed some 3/8″ dowels for the stretchers and 1/2″ to join the legs to the slab top.  Once I’d cut them to length (leave some room there; I made my about 5″ long to go through a leg 3½” thick), I tapered the ends.  You want a fairly gentle taper so that it will snake through the offset holes more easily.

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Now the legs and stretchers are ready to be joined together and then to the top.  Before we do that, remember that we want a shelf.  I used my rebate plane to cut a rebate in all the stretchers so that the boards (which we’ll make later) can sit in there flush.  It doesn’t take very long right now.  But if you forget until after glue-up, you will not be a happy camper.  Next time we’ll put this monstrosity together!

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A real stretch

Once all the legs have been fit to the top slab of the bench, we can fit the stretchers.  These will not only tie the bottom structure together more rigidly, but also provide a place for a shelf.  The first part of this is to rip out some stock for the stretchers.

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Once that’s done and the resultant pieces trued up, we cut tenons into the ends of the stretchers.

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Then we have to create mortices in the legs to join the stretchers to.  When all of those are fit, we need to undertake a step that might not be readily apparent.  Those stretchers are going to meet in the middle of the leg.  Therefore, they must be mitred, or they’ll bind up.  So, all of the tenons get mitred before we go on.  Do test fit these, because you don’t want them to bind up when you’re trying to glue this whole mess together.

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Holey Rollers

Once the saw cools down from cutting all of those tenons out on our legs, it’s time to create a plane for them to go.  Cutting out all of the mortices in an accurate manner will be important when we put stretchers on, so BE CERTAIN about your layout.  Superimpose individual legs over where they need to go and mark from them, rather than trying to measure.  It’s less precise, but more accurate.

I started by knifing in all of my layout lines to prevent any splintering, then hogged out most of the waste with an auger.  I will admit to a certain amount of cheating in this regard, using electrons as allies.  When it’s your arms, feel free to be a purist.  But as my Drill Instructor once said, “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin'”.  Be sure to bore from both sides so that any inaccuracies will meet in the middle and leave your outer, show surfaces precise.  It’s all too easy to wander off a little, and with 3½” of mortice depth, it will go rather far afield.

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Once the bulk of the waste has been bored out, I clean up with a chisel, trying to keep everything as well-fitted as possible.

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Then it’s time to work on the outer mortice, which is actually rather similar to a crossing joint.  Either way, it’s got to go.  The knife lines should already be there from where you laid out your mortices.  I go ahead and use a large tenon saw to cut down to my knife lines.

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I stop a little bit shy of full depth.  This lets me sneak up on a good fit.  After splitting off most of the waste with a chisel and mallet, I ease it the final bit with my router.

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Then starts a trial and error process.  You want it to fit easily, but not loosely.  Snugly, but not tightly.  These are big joints with lots of bearing surface and friction.  If they’re too tight, it will be a real struggle to get everything together during glue-up.  So try to put it together, but if it needs more than a few taps with a mallet, refine your fit.  Remember to start working from the middle out (including the possibility that your tenon might be a little fat yet) so that your show edges are touched last.

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Eventually, the tenons will go all the way through the slab top.  When seated fully (check your shoulders!), they should be a smidge proud.  We’ll trim them flush later.  Only three more legs to go–guess I should switch batteries in the drill…

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The three (or four) tenons

Finally, after a good bit of sweating and refueling with coffee, the slab of top was done.  But it’s not much of a bench without legs, now is it?  One of the keys to proper bench building is the activity conducted thereon.  A bench that is just right for planing will be too low for sawing joinery comfortably.  In this case, the scrollsaw was to be used standing (though I may make a high stool later), and there was 9″ of saw to be accommodated.  Do your measurements before you start cutting stuff out!

I started by sawing out the twin tenon on the tops of the legs.  As these had to penetrate 3½” of slab top, the tenons were quite long.  This necessitated using a slightly larger saw than I normally use to cut them out.

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Once all of the rip cuts were done, I had to remove the waste.  The shoulders on the outside of the leg (which are on the inside of the bench) were easy, requiring only a crossgrain cut to remove the cheek.  The interior waste, however, requires a slightly different approach.  I take an auger and bore out the majority of the waste at the root (which drops out that whole chunk in one piece), then clean up with a chisel.

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It’s a little larger scale work than a lot of furniture making, but if you persevere you can congratulate yourself on a nice-looking twin tenon–

–then remember that you have three more legs to go.  Oh, bother…

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Benched

It all started with a book.

I had gotten a new book from the library on woodworking.  I didn’t know what it was really about but I got it because it was 1) new and 2) about woodworking.  You never know when something interesting will present itself.

This particular one, though, was a great deal about fretwork.  In this time, this is accomplished by using a scrollsaw, though in times past, a fretsaw (which looks like an extremely deep-throated coping saw) was used.  At any rate, my wife was leafing through the book and talking about how fun this all looked.  It didn’t require any grunt work, no sweating over a scrub plane or labouring behind a ripsaw.  And it was like playing with stencils and like using her sewing machine and…

Well, we got what the library had on scrollsaw work and she devoured it, talking constantly about how cute these things were and such.  But how would she get a saw?  It was expensive and we didn’t have any room.

Christmas came, and to her surprise the jolly old elf had left a very large and heavy box under the tree…

This was a big hit, with much jumping and squealing.  But it was only part of the problem.  See, the scroll saw (which is a pretty large chunk of machinery to shoehorn into my garage) needed a bench to sit on, one that would be rigid enough to withstand the vibrations the machine put out.  And she didn’t have one!  Now she had a saw, but nowhere to put it and now what?!

Well, you may have guessed at this point that part of my bit was to construct a workbench for her.  Actually, the first part was to make some room in my very crowded garage, but then I had a bench to build.  I thought about it, and decided to make one that was similar to a Roubo.  But I didn’t have funds to procure much at this point.  So I settled on using Douglas Fir 4×4’s throughout.  They are strong, easily worked, and inexpensive…ish.

The first bit was to laminate together a solid benchtop.  This was six pieces of timber.  There’s a lot of jointing going on at this point, and a lot of marking, as you want to make certain that all the grain is oriented in the same direction, and don’t want to get the pieces mixed up.  Gluing all those pieces together proved once again that you can never have too many clamps.

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There’s a lot of work that followed, because that entire slab of wood (it’s 4′ long and 20″ wide) had to be trued along the bottom.  I sharpened my jack and jointer planes and got to work…and work…and work.  Tune in next time and you’ll see what happens once that was finally done.