The workbench

This month it seems that workbenches are all that are being built all around me . In fact more workbenches are being made in my workshop at the moment than pieces of furniture. That’s probably due to the arrival of two new students – James and Neil. In response to many requests from readers who have seen and commented on the workbenches made by our students I will tell you how we go about making them.

Many years ago in the early 1980’s I moved down to Devon and made friends with a nearby cabinetmaker who used to, and in fact still does, run courses in cabinet making. Some weeks later a friend of his rang me in anguish one evening saying that this chap was going through a nervous breakdown and would I like to take on a couple of his students. My short immediate answer was ‘No’, but after a little thought, and consideration of my bank balance, I rang him back and said I would give it a whirl. Two guys arrived complete with workbenches. These chaps had finished Six Months of their course with this tutor and more or less all they had made was an oil stone box and a workbench in six months. They were however, very beautifully made workbenches. We’ve cut that inappropriate amount of time down to something approaching 6 weeks without any undue compromise in quality, but I’m sure our friend would blather on about our use of biscuits. I have incidentally carried on taking students since that date, and much to my surprise enjoyed and very much benefited from the experience.

I have incidentally carried on taking students since that date, and much to my surprise enjoyed and very much benefited from the experience.

This bench is very similar to the benches that came with my two first students. It is a very simple structure – very heavy, absolutely stable with a tail vice at one end and a conventional metal vice at the other. The purpose of the bench is as an absolutely flat, rigid, solid work surface. It’s a gigantic holding jig that holds the piece of work for you, enabling you to set yourself in balance so that you can cut the joint or plane the piece of wood or do whatever other operation it is that you require. It is possible to make fine furniture using the kitchen work surface and a Workmate but frankly I don’t think it is very likely.

The undercarriage of the bench is made from four inch Iroko we use this material because its one of the few hardwoods we can find in four inch kiln dried form and we have found that one or two large boards usually supplies all the timber one student will require with very little waste . Students often are silly about wasting wood when they arrive, hoarding little bits and bobs about their person that should have gone in the stove weeks ago. It takes a few months to teach them that wood does grow on trees and its O K to waste a bit if the really good figure is in the middle .

Although this timber is quite expensive it usually comes in with two straight edges sawn and can be ordered in appropriate widths and lengths to make the cutting out quite efficient and economical. I don’t use this timber for anything other than bench frames as although it machines and handles quite well it has a peppery rather unpleasant dust that irritates all sorts of bodily orifices so just wear a dust mask, ahhh… choo!

The two end frames are made into as large a section approaching 4×4 as you can get. What exactly that comes out at depends on your timber. During the first stage of the operation, plane your cross rails to the same thickness as the legs. This is done to aid marking out and joinery. At this point we give students a choice, they can either go the difficult way and do nice mortice and tenon joints or they can bang 3 biscuits in each joint and walk away from the task inside a morning. When my first two students were arrived they had through wedged tenons with a fancy bevel leading down to the polished end of the tenon. This joint was very decorative but also very foolish as it involved each student in immeasurable fiddling about When that was multiplied by 8 it involved these students in weeks of immeasurable fiddling about. Needless to say whilst there was one bench in the workshop with this very attractive detail everyone wanted one. Now I’ve managed to expel it from the workshop, nobody bothers about it and they just go on and make furniture, which is what they are here to do in the first place. Your rails are now jointed to the legs, though before assembly reduce the thickness of the side rails. What we do is run a mighty chamfer down the corners of all four of the corners of each of the legs and we then reduce the thickness of the rails to meet that chamfer.

One of the benefits of this huge bench is that when you nudge it, it doesn’t even vibrate – it just sits there rock solid, or it should do if you make it right.

The front and back rails are a little more difficult. Because this bench is “Knock- down” this is a through wedged mortice and tenon. Its one big mighty tenon with a nice big wedge that sits above the joint and as it is driven in exerts pressure on the lower part of what becomes a large dovetail and locks the whole joint up. I’m sure if I wanted to I could reduce the mass of these components but I think if I did that I would risk the stability of the structure. One of the benefits of this huge bench is that when you nudge it, it doesn’t even vibrate – it just sits there rock solid, or it should do if you make it right. The key to this joint and every other joint is marking it out correctly in the first place. Use a mortice gauge and mark the tenon and the mortice using the same setting. A well set up mortice gauge has short round pins that don’t actually penetrate very deep into the timber but leaving a nice clean mark. You can cut the mortice in a number of ways we use a small morticer but it manages to chop out these dirty great big holes relatively cleanly and accurately. The chisel is all important it’s a matter of setting the chisel slightly behind the auger.

Now to the big tenon with this joint the aim is to get a sliding fit that is not loose. Cutting the shoulders of the tenon again your marking out is critical either do this with a router guided against the fence or do it across the table saw. Saw the cheeks of the tenon shy of the line then plane to a fit using a nice big shoulder plane. The colour of the Iroko will change from rather yellow brown to a very pleasant dark brown within a few weeks of exposure to daylight. We use a Danish oil on a well prepared surface usually papered to 240grit.

Making a bench top is your next challenge. This is usually made these days from 3 inch kiln dried Maple. Again we are able to get it in reasonable widths somewhere between 6 – 8 inches wide and generally two boards make the bench top and a further board makes up the back rail at the back of the tool well. I like a bench with a tool well because it’s a useful place to keep the inevitable clutter away from the area where you are working. Also if you have a very wide bench with no tool well you will invariably have arm ache when it comes to flattening your bench. Generally benches are flattened, say twice a year, in the spring and autumn and then given a light cleaning up after each major job. The purpose of the bench top is to be absolutely dead flat especially around the area immediately in front of the tail vice. Imagine trying to hand plane a thin 2 mm laminate on a wobbly bench top. Every time you run your plane over the job a laminate would accommodate itself to the wobbly surface of the bench top and transfer that wobble to the surface you are attempting to plane. Accurate workmanship can only be achieved with a dead flat bench top. Now you have got to joint up the two boards that you are going to use to make the bench top. Cut one of them a deal shorter than the other. It doesn’t really matter how long the bench top is. Most of our benches are about 7 ft. but the front board is shorter by the amount of your tail vice. Again how much shorter doesn’t really matter you can design your tail vice to suit the timber available. One of the main things is the wider board of the two could do with being your longer board as well. The stability of your tail vice will be enhanced by this. Have a look at the way the tail vice is designed now and route a groove to accept a stub tenon sliding in it.

The colour of the Iroko will change from rather yellow brown to a very pleasant dark brown within a few weeks of exposure to daylight.

Now a joint at the two boards that are going to make your bench top. This is a tricky bit of planing. We usually now set up our jointer which isn’t a big machine only about 3 ft long to give a very fine, clean cut. The fence is set to an accurate right angle and then each of those two mating surfaces are passed over the jointer until we are getting a clean square edge. I believe very strongly that you can chase your tail if you attempt to do this all by hand. If you are using a relatively short jointer with a relatively long board what almost invariable happens is that the two ends of the joint will touch first and you’ll be left with a gap in the centre of something like half a mm. That is exactly what you want because the ends of your joints should be under compression when the cramps go on. Now because these boards are relatively thick we tend to take two or three stop plane shavings out of the centre of the joint so that again as the cramps are put on the outer edges of the joint are put under compression. I usually recommend two plywood splines are put each about 10 mm down from the top and bottom surfaces. This is usually a routed groove and spline planed to be a nice comfortable fit. Make these stop grooves, by the way, these shouldn’t be seen when the ends of your bench are trimmed to length. Do a dry fit with everything and check it always with cramps in place and you shouldn’t be able to see any gap in the joint at all anywhere. If you can, sit down and think about it before you start wafting a plane around. Once the bench tops have been cleaned up, its time to fit it and the back rail to the underframe assembly. First check that the underframe assembly isn’t in wind by boning it up. This is done with a pair of winding sticks. Site across these then check the two areas on the underside of the bench that will be in contact with the top of your underframe. If necessary plane across these areas to bring them flat and true and parallel with one another. Don’t just bolt it down and hope for the best. You should now have two very solid and rigid surfaces. They are completed by planing the whole thing dead flat and true. This involves getting a straight edge and a bench light and working over the whole thing in all directions. You approach dead flat by going for a slight hollow then make a series of parallel straight cuts down the full length of your bench. Last finally drop in the three MDF boards that we used for the tool well. We don’t mess around with ends for the tool well and we have three pieces because it’s useful to be able to take one out if you want to apply a cramp in the middle of your bench. And that is something you can’t do if you haven’t got a moveable tool well.

Your end vice can be fitted by mounting it on a decent sized block and burying the back jaw in a dirty great routed slot which keeps it totally encased in timber. Your front jaw can also be covered by a wooden block. If this is of a decent size and usually there is a bit of 4×4 knocking around you can extend the size of the jaw by 3 or 4 inches. Next month I’ll tell you how to make a tail vice. By then we might have got round to making a stick or two of furniture.


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