Olly Writes

Woodwork, writing, walks, DIY and more!

Workbench Recap

Back in the Summer of 2009, I built ‘my own’ workbench from British beech and briefly documented the build process on my previous blog, over on the UKworkshop site. Sadly, this function of the site is no longer available, even to viewers – which is a shame, as I used to see a fair amount of traffic coming through to this blog from there… 😉 For the not-too-distant future, I’m considering a couple more upgrades for my ‘bench, which would basically involve splitting the top in two (so that I could centralise the tool well) and fit a wagon vice on one end; all as detailed in the brand-new issue of British Woodworking magazine. For a preview on that article, if you haven’t seen this issue, take a look at Nick Gibbs’ blog. In the mean time, I thought I’d keep you entertained with a second look (for some) of how it all went together. Of course, for those of you who haven’t seen this ‘bench before, I hope there’s something you can take away from it all.

It all started when I flattened my car following a routine trip to Interesting Timbers

First, I’d like to thank Popular Woodworking editor Robert Lang, who’s 21st Century Workbench video went a long towards  inspiring the design of this, my first “real” workbench. My discovery of this creation, thanks to Steve Maskery, came only a month or two after I’d begun the design work… Yes, I remember feeling as though I had everything sorted, until I first saw that video. Well look in to these features more and how I implemented them as we go.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while then, you’ll know that I had a habit of buying far too much wood – on this occasion, I think I ended up with something outrageous like 11ft­³ of 3in thick beech in the back of my car!! That’s not accounting for the smaller quantities of 2in or 1in boards that also came along for the ride. My plans had called for a workbench 6ft in length with an overall height of just over 3ft. When I arrived at the yard, I found that all the 2in stock was only 8ft long, meaning I’d be wasting as much as 2ft/600mm on the top alone. A 3in thick top, comprising of lengths of ex.3x2in stood on edge and stack-laminated for both stability and to save myself approximately £2 per 1ft³, plus VAT… As the 3in timber came in lengths measuring 9ft plus, I thought this would be the best way to go… I’m still yet to do all the maths on this, out of sheer terror of discovering what I could’ve saved…! Knowing that I intended to build a ‘chunky‘ beech dining table later that year, I wasn’t so worried about having all this extra stock… Until the time came to hand over my card and pay, that is!! 😀

Working with sawn timber of this scale can, initially at least, prove to be a problem all in its own. How do you manually feed such a large lump of wood through a stationary machine, when it almost broke your car and you’re barely able to lift a single length all on your own?! My solution was to keep the wood still and move the tools; putting my recent acquisition of a Hitachi C9U2 circular saw to very good use. An excellent saw and something I really could not have built this project without. Even the world’s largest table saw could not have helped me, here!

Throughout this build, I encountered several issues with the wood wanting to split wide open – quite literally – even though I have approached the sawing operation with car; leaving it all alone for several weeks before machining. These offcuts, below, represent some of the very worst. Some of these defects were apparent at the timber yard when I bought the beech – and, subsequently, added value to my previously anticipated for waste allowance and spares.

One of the lengths I’d prepared for the top (finished size approx. 100x75mm) needed to a bit of repair work with some PVA, as I didn’t have any longer stock spare to replace any part of the top.

As you can see, the components that make up the full 700mm width of the top were joined using 6mm plywood splines, fitted in to pairs of grooves routed in to each of the mating faces using my hand-held ½in router and a slot-cutting or bearing-guided grooving bit.

Flattening the top after the initial edge-jointing procedure (before the end-caps were fitted) presented its own challenge, as the used Stanley no.6 that I’d purchased at the same time wasn’t in any kind of shape where it was ready or capable of flattening a large surface constructed of rock-solid English beech. So, a flick through one of the excellent books from WOOD Magazine provided me with an alternative solution using a hand-held router – one which turned out to be a great success, in fact.

But, of course; like most normal people, I started off building the supporting frame, first…

If you’ve watched the video that I linked to at the top of this post then, you should be able to see where Mr.Lang’s ideas rubbed off on to my own design. Dog holes in the legs and rails basically allow me to clamp ‘anything‘ to the front face of the frame. All the rails (and the front edge of the top) are finished flush with the front of legs, which provides a flat reference or clamping surface. This also meant that I could use bare-faced tenon joinery, where you only need to cut one shoulder and one cheek for each joint – halving time otherwise spent cutting tenons!

Each of the end frame is entirely glued together, with the draw-bore dowelling method used to reinforce each joint, pull the shoulders up tight and, most importantly of all, free up some of my sash cramps! Some of the features you can see (particularly on the feet) are purely decorative. That wide mid-rail on each end helps to brace the workbench frame and to resist any tendencies for racking. Also, as they finish flush with the legs on their inside faces, these rails can be used to provide a fixing point for any carcases or other units fitted below. Although I appear to have lost the photo for this, I did fix 22mm thick blocks below each leg that allow the workbench to sit stably on an uneven floor.

All-four of the longer front and back rails were fixed using knock-down fittings. In this instance, I used long M10 coach bolts fitting through the end of a tenon, leading in to a square recess where they could be secured by a matching washer and nylon locking nut. Initially, the square-holes I cut weren’t large enough to allow for a 17mm open-ended spanner so, I had to elongate those recesses in to rectangles that would allow me to fit and use a ratcheting socket driver with ease.

Every tenon in this project was cut using one of Wealden’s awesome Tenon Cutters for your router. They must be run at a low speed – particularly if you’re using the router freehand – and, even without a scrap piece to prevent breakout on the rear edge, they leave a beautifully clean shoulder cut, with none of the ‘fluffiness‘ commonly associated with ordinary straight cutters. I only wish I could find the photo of the router jig I used to cut these joints… It’s something I made myself; essentially, it’s a box-like structure that contains the timber, while the router runs over the top.

Back to the top…

Each end was finished off with a “breadboard end“-style end-cap. A long and continuous mortise was cut using my router and a long-shank cutter. I then used my router to cut the tenon shoulders by working off each face of the top using the side fence (my Hitachi circular saw was used to square-off each end). Dowels were used to hold each cap in place and I ensured that each of the outer holes in the tenons were elongated to allow for natural expansion and contraction with seasonal changes in humidity. Also, because of this, I only applied glue to the centre of the tenon joint and central dowel. On average, the top moves about 3mm each way, in and out.

With dog holes already drilled in the front faces of all frame components, it made sense that I added more holes to the front edge of the top itself, since it was going to finish flush with the rest of the frame. As I was going for a “left-handed” workbench with the front vice towards the right, I added these extra holes along the left-hand end.

All dog holes in the top were formed using something know as a Wood Beaver auger drill bit. I accidentally stumbled across this on eBay while searching for a a flat bit, or similar, with the critical diameter of 19mm – ¾in drill bits are very hard to find in the UK, or so it seemed, at the time… 20mm holes are apparently too large for some of the work-holding accessories from Veritas and others, which are based on imperial measurements. However, after purchasing the bit, I wasn’t convinced that the Wood Beaver would be up to meeting some of Armeg’s claims… Until I tried it out! It cuts ferociously fast so, it would be very wise to hold on to your drill with both hands! In fact, these bits may be better suited for use on slower speeds or, even, cordless drills with the torque up high (I was using a corded SDS drill). What’s more, it really does leave a perfectly clean cut once it breaks through to the underside – not even a hint of splintering. It was up to the task of drilling dozens of 70mm deep dog holes in bench top and still, after all that hard work, it’s sharp enough to draw blood. I only wish I’d positioned my dog holes at 150mm centres and not 200mm,  which would have been more convenient for some accessories, including the Veritas Wonder Dog.

My original, “ingenious” idea for an end vice arrangement was to fit two of them to the left-hand end, so that I could use them simultaneously like the jaws on a scaled-up Wormkate… However, I’ve since realised that I am dissatisfied with this arrangement (even after cutting the wooden jaw in two) – more on that in a future blog post, once the Wagon Vice idea is under way. On the front, I fitted an old [£25 on eBay] Record 52½E, which I’ve been very happy with – even though I did end up moving it in a bit, a few months ago… As I haven’t ever tried a wooden vice, I cannot comment.

That just about covers all the essential details of the design and construction of my “first” workbench (…I’m certain it won’t be the last!!). There’s also a back rail that creates the tool well [picture missing, again!] which is dovetailed in to the end-grain of each end cap with a single, large dovetail pin. All surfaces were finished with several liberal coats of Rustins’ Danish Oil.

Here are a couple of finished shots, which you may well have seen before:

Search this blog and you’ll find even more; developments and modifications that have already taken place in the time since this workbench was finished:

If you have any questions or, if there’s anything else you’d like to know then, please comment or get in touch. You may also find the Workbench folder in my Flickr album to be of interest, where there are dozens of other photos from this build that I haven’t included in this post.

…Oh, and this was my previous workbench:

Thank you for reading. I do hope that you have learned or have been inspired along the way. 🙂

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2 responses to “Workbench Recap

  1. Walnut Weasel 06/02/2011 at 02:02

    Wow. Nice looking bench. I hope mine works out half as nice.

  2. JC 09/02/2011 at 22:49

    The new one looks nice!
    There’s nothing wrong with a well-used bench, but your old one was apparently getting out of hand!

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