I just returned from a week long “vacation” at our new home in the mountains of VA. I say vacation but there wasn’t much leisure involved. Just lots of cleaning, and we still haven’t finished. But we did manage to get some time to walk our 24 acres.
I also had a little time to check this out.
Compared to my current shop, this one is over 3 times larger. It needs work, but it will make a good project once the rest of the house is done. We just got back to NJ but I’m already anxious to get back to VA.
Christmas is a time of giving, right? And while my wife and I don’t exchange Christmas gifts with each other, I decided to give myself a gift this year. You could call it a New Years gift, since I didn’t have it for Christmas. But I will get a lot of use out of it in the new year.
You see, in our previous house, I had a much larger shop in the basement. There was plenty of room for a jointer, planer, bandsaw and table saw, plus my workbench, and a big area of kitchen style cabinets and counter top for dirty work and my bench top drill press. Wait, a table saw???? Sounds nothing like my current setup, right?
When we moved into our current house, I was forced to downsize. Well, maybe forced isn’t the right word. I was faced with a decision. I could keep the bigger shop setup with all of the machines and make my new home in the unheated and uncooled garage, or I could get rid of the machines and set up an all hand tool shop in a small office space attached to our family room. Since I had already been working almost totally by hand for several years before we moved anyway, I chose to ditch the machines and keep the climate control 🙂 .
But I digress. One thing that I had in my old shop that I would have to make a decision on for my new, smaller shop was a dedicated sharpening area. I only had one spot available for such a setup and I really wanted to put a standing desk in that spot for minor odds and ends and for laying drawings while I was building a project. So I decided I would pass on the dedicated sharpening area and keep my sharpening stones on the shelf under my work bench and take them out when I needed to sharpen.
I’ve worked this way for almost a decade now, and you know what? I’ve really missed my dedicated sharpening bench. So I decided that this was the year I would remedy that problem and build a new one. I repurposed the standing desk to my daughters and opened up a spot for a new sharpening bench.
Here’s the thing though. I also wanted a portable workbench for when I do demos at different places. So really what I built was a mini workbench. When it’s in the shop I’ll use it as a sharpening bench. But I designed it in such a way that it can be quickly and easily disassembled and put into the back of my hatchback. It is only 4 parts, has no hardware, and can be disassembled and assembled in less than a minute each.
However, workbenches need a solid, flat top. In order to have a rigid, heavy top in such a small package, I decided to laminate the top out of doug fir 4 x 4s. It worked, but if you’ve been reading my musings for any length of time, you know how I feel about laminating tops for workbenches. If you’re new to the blog, let’s just say that laminating workbench tops by hand for me is about as fun and probably just as painful as a DIY bikini wax with duct tape would be.
So I spent the afternoon today leveling the laminations and flattening the top. Really it was probably only about an hour to an hour and a half of work, but it was work I’m not fond of doing. Now that it’s done though, I’m glad I did it. After a few coats of varnish to seal the top up to keep it relatively clean, I’ll have a nice new sharpening bench and a second workbench for those times when it would be nice to have two.
And while I’d like to say I’ll never laminate another workbench top again, like the aging Bond, this aging woodworker now knows to never say never.
Salko asked about the setup I used to take the pictures of the marking gauges in my last post. So here it is.
The setup is ridiculously simple and cheap to boot. It starts with lighting. I use 3 utility clamp lights from Home Depot. These lights are easily moved around the shop for task lighting as well as photography lighting. The stand for the overhead “boom” light is simply a light clamped to a stick in a can.
The lamps are 100W equivalent compact fluorescent bulbs. Ideally they would be daylight balanced (6500 K) but I think I’m just using bright white (3500 K). To diffuse the light I’ve used small binder clips to attach parchment paper to the lamps. Because the CFLs don’t get hot, it’s safe to have the paper right next to the lamp without the risk of fire.
The backdrop is just a piece of poster board. I’m using black here (as I did for the marking gauges), but white works good too and I keep a piece of white around for shooting dark items. Other neutral colors would work too. You want it to curve down the back for a nice seamless background.
I shoot the “good” pictures (like the marking gauge pictures) with a tripod mounted DSLR. But quick shots for the blog like the ones above and below are just shot with my iPhone. Here’s how the one above came out.
So that’s it. Nothing fancy or expensive. But this setup has sufficed for taking photos that were good enough for publishing. I’ve debated getting a “real” photography light kit like the inexpensive one Chris Schwarz uses. I still likely will at some point. But for now, this seems to work sufficiently.
I hear some iteration of this phrase more often than I’d like to admit. Typically, it’s when I’m someplace demonstrating a technique and someone feels that they have to make a joke. It’s all good natured fun, I know, at least for the first few hundred times. It gets old though. It typically doesn’t bother me. However, it can be frustrating when the pundits chime in when the subject is specifically about period tools or techniques. This happens more often online than in person, but it has happen plenty of times during my live demonstrations as well. A genuinely curious person specifically asks how a particular task was done before power tools, and it’s inevitable that someone (or several someones) has to chime in to point out (as if it’s never been said before) that if the old guys had a [insert tailed tool of choice here], they would have used it. This really does nothing to help the discussion, and really only serves primarily to let the naysayer’s opinion about these “antiquated techniques” be heard, and make it clear that they think doing certain things by hand is simply too much work, and a complete waste of time. It certainly does nothing to provide the person who asked the question any insight to what they really wanted to know in the first place.
I often think about these statements later, while I’m working on a project, and wonder, WWRD (what would Roubo do)? The more I think about it, and the more I do this kind of work, the more I think they actually would not have bothered with a lot of the tools and machines that are typically in use today. In some cases, sure, the machine would certainly have been an asset to their work. But in other cases, I think that the kinds of things they were building and the processes that they used would have made some of our modern machinery more of a hindrance than a help. Here are some examples of how my mind works with regard to the usefulness of some of our modern machines and gadgets when it comes to the amateur woodworker’s shop.
If the old guys had a table saw…
The table saw is frequently cited as the center of the shop and the first tool that any woodworker should get. I had one. I used it when I had it. It was also the very first machine that I got rid of when I started my journey to learn “the old ways”. In my opinion, the table saw is a lousy tool for an amateur home wood shop, unless you plan to use nothing but plywood for everything you make. Table saws take up a ton of space, requiring a lot of open area on at least three sides. Decent ones are extremely expensive (I could equip a shop with an entire basic hand tool kit to build just about anything for the cost of a single cabinet saw). And they practically require one to become a full time jig maker, because other than straight line ripping, they more or less require a new jig in order to safely complete just about every other operation. I so tired of making and adjusting jigs that I was thrilled to be rid of my table saw when I finally sold it.
In my opinion, table saws really were never designed for the home shop. They were designed for a production shop, that makes multiples of the same thing, over, and over, and over. Kitchen cabinets come to mind. If all you want to do is make plywood kitchen cabinets, you should get a table saw. However, if your project interests vary, then a table saw is a really big expense that I think you should avoid. They don’t save a lot of time for one off projects. In this regard, today’s amateur woodworkers are much more similar to period woodworkers than they are to modern production shops. Period shops took orders for custom pieces. They didn’t have warehouses, they didn’t have multiple showroom locations, and they weren’t typically building pieces to spec. As amateurs, most of our work habits are similar. In my own experience, I could crosscut or rip the few boards that I needed for a project in the same or less time than I was spending making jigs and adjusting the setting on the table saw. So it was an easy choice. Bye bye table saw.
If the old guys had a jointer…
I love this one. I think this is absolutely a tool where “the old guys” would have looked at it and just walked away. Most amateur shops today are working with a 6″ jointer. So this limits safe use of the tool to 6″ wide boards and less. However, “the old guys” had access to, and routinely worked with, boards much much wider than this. And for good reason. Wide boards are so much easier to work with than narrow boards. I can hand plane an 18″ wide board flat in the same amount of time it takes me to plane a 6″ wide board flat. However, when the 18″ wide board is done, it becomes a case side. When the 6″ board is done, I still have 2 more to go, then I have to glue up the panel, then I have to plane the panel. So it’s actually way more work for me to use narrower stock than it is for me to use wide stock. The “old guys” would never had used narrower stock to save hand planing at the expense of adding two to three times more time to the process. It would be a waste of glue, it would require more time and it would cost them more money. Nope, don’t think they’d have bothered with this one.
If the old guys had a router…
Several years ago, a gentleman walked up to me while I was chopping out a mortise at a woodworking show and suggested that a router would do the job much faster. I politely smiled, continued working while I chatted with him, and finished the mortise I was working on, and a second one, before he nodded approvingly and walked away. I think he’d have still been setting up his router in the time it took me to chop those two mortises.
Routers to me are like table saws. If you have dozens of mortises to cut (think Morris chair), hundreds of feet of molding to stick (an entire house full of baseboard maybe), or a kitchen full of plywood drawers to dovetail, you might find a router beneficial. But for typical furniture projects, I don’t think they’re that useful. Chopping 8 mortises for a typical table really doesn’t take me that long. Maybe 5 minutes or so per mortise after they’re all laid out. Sticking a furniture length piece of a simple molding with a complex molding plane takes mere minutes; with hollows and rounds, a few more minutes (not to mention hand planed moldings almost ALWAYS have nicer looking profiles than routed moldings). Dovetails for a drawer or two can be hand cut in an hour or less. So thanks, but I’ll skip the router unless I open a custom kitchen business.
If the old guys had a band saw…
OK. Now we might be on to something. There are several sawing tasks that are kind of tedious and time consuming to do by hand: long rips in thick stock; long rips in really hard stock; resawing. These jobs are not simply done in the hand tool shop. Give me a 4′ length of 4/4 pine and I’ll blow through it in a minute or two with my rip saw. Change that wood to 12/4 cherry and things get exponentially harder. Maple, harder still. Sawing veneer or resawing thick stock into thinner? Doable by hand, but still time consuming, hard work, and not a whole lot of fun when there’s a lot to do. So I think “the old guys” would have gladly plunked down the cash for a band saw. A band saw would fit right in with the work flow and processes of a traditional shop.
If the old guys had a planer…
Another tool that I think would have been happily put into use in a period shop, as long as it was wide enough. The benchtop models we have today are typically limited to about 12″ wide. This is probably fine for the average amateur today. However, in my experience, if I were going to plunk down the cash for a planer, I think I’d save my pennies for a few more months, bite the bullet, and go for a 20″ wide model. This would allow planing of all but the widest case sides. When working on a piece that requires 150-200 board feet of lumber, well, a wide planer would save some time.
Of course, today, we have more choices in tools and methods that there ever have been. So we’re not faced with having to do everything the hard way if we don’t want to. We’re all free to work in whatever way makes this craft enjoyable to us and fits in with our own ideals and desires. There is no right or wrong way to do this stuff (as long as it’s safe). That’s what makes it so great. As amateurs, we’re not under time constraints (other than those we place on ourselves), and we don’t have to do things a certain way because that’s just how you do it. We’re free to experiment with different tools and methods and find what works for us and provides us with the most enjoyment.
And that’s a good thing. Because if it’s not fun, then you’re doing something wrong.
I’m making some chairs from an oak tree that was taken down in our back yard. These chairs require that some of the parts be steam bent. I’m starting with the simplest of the few chairs that I think I’ll be able to get out of this log, a post and rung rocker. The two long back posts need a gentle bend in the design I’m building. So I needed a steam box. I could have gone the simplest route and bought a PVC pipe and some end caps. That’s not my style though. I like wood.
So the next trial of the steam box will be some back bows and arm rails for a sack back Windsor chair (or two). While the stock for those parts is only on the order of 3/4″ thick or so, the bends are much more dramatic, so they’ll be a much better test of the steam box and the wood from this tree. I’m excited though. This is fun stuff!
I get this question a lot ever since building my Nicholson inspired workbench.
Has your workbench exploded yet from the twisting and warping that has undoubtedly occurred as a result of your use of those wide construction grade boards?
OK. So maybe the questions aren’t worded exactly like that. But I do get a lot of questions about using wide construction grade lumber for a workbench and how to prevent the resulting bench from self destructing. Personally I think this concern is a bit over hyped, but there are some things you should do when building your bench to make sure you don’t have too many problems down the road.
The #1 trick to using wide 2X construction boards for a workbench is to make sure they are dry before you use them. The construction grade 2X stock that many home centers carry is not kiln dried. This means that the miosture content of that stock is going to be very high. Too high to work with right away. If you can, find a supplier who sells 2X stock that has been kiln dried. I was able to buy kiln dried 2X stock for my workbench. So once I brought the boards into my shop and left them stickered there for a couple of months, I could be sure they wouldn’t move much after building the workbench. Since the boards will stay in the shop after the bench is built, the best place to equilibrate them is in the shop space.
If you are not blessed with a supplier in your area that sells kiln dried 2X material, all is not lost. You will simply need to let the boards sit and dry for much longer than you will with kiln dried stock. Bring them into your shop, stack and sticker the boards, and let them sit for several months. Check the moisture content once every week or so and don’t work with the boards until the moisture content stays relatively constant. After they are dry, you may have to re-flatten them, but if you chose your boards carefully, you may not have to flatten them much, if at all.
That brings me to tip #2 for using wide construction grade timber for a workbench. Choose your stock carefully. Even if your stock is kiln dried, but especially if it is not, you want to choose boards that were sawn as close to the center of the tree as possible. This will give the board the greatest amount of “quarter sawn” grain as possible. Wood moves the most in a direction that is tangential to the growth rings. This causes flat sawn boards that are close to the bark (those with near horizontal growth ring patterns on their ends) to cup severely when they move. However, boards sawn close to the center of the tree will cup much less, even if they were not kiln dried. After the boards have sat in your shop for several months, choose the ones that have cupped the least to use for the aprons and top boards. Those with the most cup should be ripped into narrower boards for use as stretchers and cross bearing braces for underneath the top.
This brings me to tip #3. Use the absolute widest and longest boards you can find. Wide, long boards need to come from wide, tall trees. In addition, the widest boards are sawn from the areas of the log that are closest to the center of the tree. Don’t try to save money by purchasing 2x4s for the stretchers and cross bearing braces. These boards are likely to twist and warp on you. These benches are inexpensive enough to build from wide stuff. Trying to save another $10 by buying 2x4s instead of 2x12s will make you curse construction lumber workbenches. Get all of your parts from 2x12s, and the longest ones you can get at that. If you can find 20 footers, they are likely to be flatter and straighter than 8 footers. The bench will cost you a bit more, but you’ll be happier and have a bench with fewer knots in the end.
With workbenches made from DRY construction grade lumber, once everything is assembled, movement is actually very minimal. Contrary to popular belief, softwoods like pine, fir and spruce are extremely stable, when they are dry. Softwoods get a bad reputation for being unstable because they are usually still wet when they are purchassed. Construction lumber is not typically dried to the same level as hardwoods for fine woodworking (at least not here in the States). So as the wood continues to dry, it will typically move. However, once it has been dried to the same level as the hardwoods typically are, most dry softwoods are actually more stable than most dry hardwoods. So the #1 factor in getting a good, stable and flat workbench out of softwoods is to make sure they are adequately dried before you start building with them.
I built my workbench several years ago and have been working with it regularly ever since. It does not have any kind of finish on it, so it is fully exposed to all the humidity swings that occur during the year. I have needed to re-flatten my workbench top exactly one time since building it, and even then, it had moved so little and was so barely out of flat, that it took me less than 10 minutes to do the job. I have no doubts that constrution grade lumber can make a fantastic workbench. With just a little up front preparation, you can have a workbench that will last you several generations without spending a fortune. Being built of construction grade lumber, I am also not afraid to ding it up, scratch it, spill stain on it, drip glue on it or hurt it in any way. I treat it like a workbench, not a piece of furniture, and I know I can replace the top for $20 if it ever gets too far gone. So don’t fear wide boards. Wide boards are your friends.