Wood: workbench

Like many sewists, I’ve been making masks during most of my free hours. I’ve gradually turned a pile of scrap fabric into a pile of masks (don’t ask — all given away for now). But I’ve reached the point of saturation. I don’t like doing production work as a tailor or seamster or sewist (what is the right word, anyway??) and masks are no exception.

Plus, I’ve brought my sewing machine and parts of my fabric stash home from the workshop. And officially I’m not supposed to be working over there. So, here I am, working on something else for a change.

I don’t think I will ever be anything other than an amateur woodworker. It’s as demanding a skill set as a sewist needs in their field — and the tools are probably 3x as expensive, particularly for good hand-tools. But — I like the work, and I enjoy the finished products. However, the key missing element from my current woodworking skills is that I have no place to work. There’s no woodshop at my house. The basement is too low-ceilinged for me to work down there. There is no garage. There is no unheated back porch. And there is no place to put a workbench of high enough quality to work on, for the kinds of things I want to make.

Enter Rex Krueger. Rex is some kind of YouTube carpentry maven in Ohio. He’s been doing a woodworking channel for a while called “woodworking for humans” which believes that with a small number of cheapish tools, it should be possible to make high-quality objects of broad appeal and usefulness — And to boot strap a space from nothing, to a successful amateur workshop.

I’m down for that. That’s what I was trying to do with the design lab all those years ago, and that’s what I have done with my sewing workshop. This is just building up a different set of skills.

One of Kreuger’s videos works around that problem. It details the process of making a Roman style workbench. This is a low bench, where most of the workholding is done with knees and with body weight. The oldest benches in the world, based in Europe around the first and second century A.D., follow this model: a thick plank 3 1/2 to 4 inches thick, 10 to 12 inches wide, and supported on either four or eight legs using what is known as staked construction. It’s also replicated in ancient designs seen in Pompeiian frescoes, in Renaissance woodcuts and in medieval paintings (see St. Joseph trying to teach Jesus a trade other than miracle-working). Based on Chris Schwarz’s book Ingenious Mechanicks, Rex’s design uses “big box store” purchased lumber to make the main body of the workbench strong enough and thick enough to support my serious bulk. Glue holds the 2x4s together, provided that they’re planed down to eliminate daylight between boards (and then clamped with sufficient ferocity to hold them together for 24 hours of drying time).

However, as both Krueger and Schwarz point out, the critical problem for woodworkers is “workholding” — how do you hold a piece of wood steady and stable, while you reshape it with very sharp tools? If you get this wrong, you will do yourself or someone else very serious injury. The solution, in one form or another, for two thousand years, has been a workbench. But the 19th and 18th century benches require skills to make, serious skills. But it’s impossible to acquire the skills necessary to make a 19th century or 17th century style workbench, without having a stable workbench in which to practice. It’s the thing the apprentice system was more-or-less designed for — but how do you get started if you have tools, and books, but no teacher with a workbench of their own on which to practice?

Seven 2x4s stacked together, with a 'carpenter's triangle' drawn on them in pencil.
Seven 2x4s will form the body of the bench, the ‘weighty section’ that holds the work effectively. I’m going to make my bench about 6 feet or six and a half, in order to avoid the worst of the knots in this Douglas Fir, a common but heavy softwood usually used for house construction.

I am just about done with the shaving part. I can’t see daylight between the relevant sections. I’ve marked the start and end of the bench, and I have a pretty good idea of where certain features, like the bench dogs and the stop block are going to be. There is usually a curved hook on the bench, called a crochet, that I am not going to make right now, but will come at a later date.

The unfortunate bit, is that the weather is not going to cooperate. Ideally, wood glue should be worked in temperatures above 55°. It is that now, but it is supposed to go below freezing, or only just, tonight. If I glue up my parts now, they will crack. The resulting elements of my workbench will not only be harder to work with, with all the glue stuck in place, but they may also twist or break out of true and ruin the work that I have already done. It truly is as both Chris Schwartz and Rex Kroger say: you need to learn skills to have the necessary wherewithal to build a workbench; but it’s hard to acquire the skills without the workbench to begin with.

I am making a lot of shavings. Unlike Schwarz (who uses thick-thick slabs of hardwood for his Roman benches), and Rex (who is clearly able to select wood at a more leisurely pace than I am in the midst of a pandemic), I had to make do with the boards I found during a fifteen-minute trip to the “big box store” while looking for toilet paper. Thank you, Coronavirus!

The bench is low and short enough to the ground to make storing it in the shed in the back an option, although it limits woodworking to sunny weather only. I am planing the parts on the two Saul benches that I made to Chris Schwartz his specifications a couple of years ago, when I had ambitions of being a more professional woodworker, and couldn’t find a job. Now they are supporting me, and the bench, while I make shavings.

Happy Easter, all.

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