A recent post by Chris Schwarz on the Woodworking Magazine Blog prompted me to write this post because it really hit home with my own personal experiences regarding workbenches. By this time, we’re all aware that the workbench is the most important appliance in the shop for doing hand work. As someone who has transitioned to doing all of their woodworking with hand tools, I’ve grown to appreciate the workbench designs that were used by 17th and 18th century craftsmen. At first glance, they may seem like nothing special. But after you work mostly with hand tools for some time, you realize that these benches were really well designed tools, not the furniture like art forms that more modern workbenches have sometimes become. They were designed to complement the tools that were used with them but they were also designed for the tools used to build them. So for the modern hand tool user, it’s nice to see these designs becoming popular again.
There continues to be one problem with the contemporary designs/plans for these benches though. They are designed in the spirit of the original drawings and descriptions in the historical texts, but they tend to employ a method of construction (lamination of the top from narrow strips of wood) that is far from cooperative with the tools that they are designed to be used with. I think it somewhat ironic that a workbench designed to be an ideal workplace for using hand tools requires the use of machinery in order to construct it. Believe me, I’ve built two workbenches to date with laminated tops. I had the help of machines for one (and it still was not fun to do) and the other I did completely by hand (can you say masochist). I can honestly say that I am not a better woodworker for putting myself through this exercise. I do believe that laminating those tops, even with the aid of machines, was the most painful experience I’ve ever had while woodworking and it is something that I will never do again.
I completely understand the perceived need to construct workbench tops from laminated strips. Traditionally, the tops of workbenches were made from a single wide, thick plank of well seasoned, air dried wood. Today, it is very difficult, to damn near impossible to find the wide thick planks necessary to build a workbench top in the traditional manner. In addition, if you do manage to find a suitable slab, you’d likely need to take out a second mortgage in order to buy it. The lack of quantity and the high price of wide, thick boards caused the commercial bench manufacturers to turn to laminating their tops in order to be able to manufacturer them inexpensively from common, narrow, 4/4 and 8/4, flat sawn, kiln dried stuff.
The marketers of the manufactured benches of course convinced every one that the laminated tops were far more stable and this belief has held today. So the contemporary solution has been to laminate the top. And while there may be a [very] little truth to the claim of greater stability of the laminated tops, the difference is minimal in my experience. A laminated top is still going to move and need occasional flattening, jut like a slab top. In my opinion, laminating the top is hardly worth the effort for the home woodworker; and it’s an exercise in self torture if you want to build your bench using only hand tools. A much easier, and subsequently faster solution is to find two or three thick planks and edge glue them together. So I was really excited to read Chris’ blog post about building a Roubo style workbench the “traditional” way, by hand, using two wide thick planks.
See, I’ve had this idea knocking around in my head for awhile now (here we go again). I’ve wanted to make some updates to my current workbench, which currently has a list of inadequacies that I talked about in Episode #9 of the podcast. I originally had every intention of just making modifications to my current bench, however, certain things (like the hardwood construction) simply wouldn’t be able to be fixed without complete replacement. So instead, that’s what I decided to do. This would also allow me to make the bench a foot longer, several inches lower, and provide for more storage space underneath by making the base longer.
So last weekend I went out and started the process by buying the supplies. I decided to make the bench from locallly available kiln dried construction grade lumber. This makes the bench affordable to build (I spent about $100 total), and easy to find the materials for. “Ahh” you say, “but what about the thickness? Won’t you still have to laminate parts if you use 2X stock?” Well, that is where my traditional workbench and Chris’ will differ.
While Mr. Schwarz will be building a bench based on the one in Andre’ Roubo’s “L’Art Du Menuisier”, mine will be based more on the benches described in Peter Nicholson’s “The Mechanic’s Companion” and Joseph Moxon’s “Mechanick Exercises”. A Moxolson bench if you will. However, what both benches will have in common, is that they won’t just be designed for using hand tools, they will both be designed to be built with hand tools. There will be no laminating required.
I know I’ll be following Chris’ build closely. My own lumber is curently getting happy in its new environment in the corner of my shop (which shouldn’t take long as it has been kiln dried and stored in a climate controlled retail store for several weeks at least). Construction is scheduled to begin right after completion of the tea table. I can’t wait!