Chris Schwarz's Blog

Another Way to Build a Bench with Hand Tools

I’m embroiled in building a Roubo-style workbench using massive slabs and hand tools. Actually, I’m embroiled in my head. I’m in Maine this week on business and quite anxious to get back to Cincinnati and my awaiting hunks of punky cherry.

In the meantime, I have an interesting bench design to share with you that was built using only hand tools and some unique ideas that are well worth considering , just in case some of you are thinking about going down the same path as I have.

The bench shown in the photos is what I’ll call a Proto-Roubo, and it was built by… well I cannot tell you his name. He asked for anonymity. I can tell you that it’s not Norm Abram. But we’ll call him Norm just the same.

Let’s a take a look at the unusual features of this behemoth.

It’s made entirely from laminated Southern yellow pine 1x6s. According to Norm , and I agree with him , this is a great solution for the all-hand-tool woodworker. If you pick good stock that is fairly straight, you can laminate the 1x6s face-to-face without having to dress the boards. And there’s no ripping and little crosscutting. The trick is to use the bowing or warping in your favor.

I do this with 2x material all the time. Here’s how this works. Say you have two boards that are bowed along their lengths. You take the two concave faces and clamp them together. When you clamp the center of the two boards, the ends close up tight.

“I believe this approach is valid for hand tool woodworkers,” Norm writes, “and I am somewhat perplexed why it doesn’t get any airplay.”

Next up: The bench has no stretchers. This might seem radical, but it’s not. Early benches , from Roman times up until Roubo , frequently show up in paintings without stretchers between the legs (that’s why I’m calling it the Proto-Roubo). The bench relies on the rigid connection between the top and legs.

Here’s what Norm has to say about that:

“I’ve never encountered any wracking (I really mean this). When I built the bench, my hunch was that stretchers were not needed. This is because a single set of robust joints is often sufficient. For instance, many European-style benches have wide stretchers and no substantial joinery between the base and the top. Conversely, my bench has very robust joints between the base and top.”

The lack of stretchers makes the bench easier to build. And if your joints are loose between the legs and top, you can always wedge them. That’s what Roubo did.

Norm does most of his work at the right end of the bench (he’s left-handed). For working with small pieces he has the massive face vise on the left end of the bench.

And in case you are wondering, this bench has the following measurements (this sounds a bit like a Playboy centerfold data sheet): 8′ long, 18″ deep and 32″ high. Hooo, baby.

I think this bench is extemely well thought out, and is an excellent solution for the hand-tool woodworker who doesn’t want to beg time on his or her neighbor’s jointer and planer.

– Christopher Schwarz

21 thoughts on “Another Way to Build a Bench with Hand Tools

  1. Phil Gilstrap

    So I was looking at the photo of your bench with the detail of the vise, and I"m wondering…is that a MOUSE hanging there from the handle and what did he do to deserve such dire treatment? Did you string him up as an example to others not to chew your veneer stores? Did he nest in the scrap pile? I know you have to watch them little critters lest they poop in your varnish, but hangin’seems a little severe. Perhaps a period of supervised probation first, maybe some community service, before you get all capital punishment about it.

  2. Roy F Turner

    When I laminated my bench top I made special clamps with 3/8"x 36" all-thread and nuts from Lowe’s. The "jaws" were pieces of 2×4 about 10" long with holes for the all-thread drilled near each end through the widest surface, centered far enough apart to fit over the laminations. When I clamped, I inserted the all-thread through the holes of the 2×4 "jaws" and put one jaw on each side of the laminate with the all-thread above and below. I put 3/8" socket adaptor on my drill-driver and tightened them up. If you use this method, go easy because these clamps have a lot of power. Cost for five clamps: about $20.00, maybe less. Hope this helps someone on a budget like me. Chris, I bought your book and built your bench – you inspire!

  3. Tim

    Hey Chuck:

    I too have been having a hard time finding SYP in Chicago and I’m curious to see how DF works out for you. There are a couple of woodworking forums out there where you can easily post pictures of your work. It’ll be a lot less work than creating a blog.

    Tim

  4. planewood1

    Greg,
    I’m having a hard time myself locating SYP in NJ. I looked on the big orange box stores site and apparently you have to go west into PA to find it. The more west you go, the easier it will be to find. DE or North NJ may work. That is just on their site. You can check others.
    I settled instead for DF, which I got at an actual lumber yard. I bought 2×12’s and ripped them down the middle. I did so for two reasons:
    1) I just sharpened a hand saw and it cut so well, I couldn’t stop. It didn’t take all that long to do.
    2) The 2×12’s were much better than anything smaller. Bought less wood, had better results.
    As soon as I can figure out how to create a ‘blog’, I’ll document the bench build as I go. I have a few ideas I’m working on to assist the single-handed, hand tool only building process.
    Chuck

  5. greg

    Is southern yellow pine available in New Jersey? An internet search turned up one place as a possibility. When I call I only get an answering machine, and the business name sounds like a builder rather then a lumber yard. Thanks.

    Greg

  6. Bruce

    Thanks Chris and Norm! Like others have said these are some great ideas. Norm do you have any drawings? Or some better shots of the rail between the legs on the end? And I’m also wondering how regular holdfasts work in the thick top.
    Great looking bench!

    Bruce Lambert

  7. Luke Townsley

    Al, screws seem like a good idea for the clamp poor. The top could be laminated a board at a time taking out the screws as the glue dries. In fact, I bet the top could reasonably be built without glue just using screws or even bolts.

    Another alternative would be to assemble the bench with hide glue in a steam sauna to give you the necessary 12 hours of open time to apply glue to all of the laminations and get the clamps on!

    Seriously, though, this bench makes a lot of sense for someone working with just hand tools and helps get through the problem of building a bench without having a bench since you don’t do any planing work until the top is glued up and by then you have a solid surface to work on. Also, the legs could be be let into spaces left in the laminations in the top foregoing any difficult joinery tasks.

  8. Al

    Boy oh boy- am I glad I built my bench before I knew anything….. I just picked the straightest stuff I could find at the home center and went home and started gluing things together. I gave no thought to wind, twist or warp, and since I only owned three clamps, I used a drill and drywall screws to clamp two boards together at a time for glue-up so I could do all 7 sublaminations at once.

    When I glued the sub laminations together to form the top, I put them all together at once, putting light clamping pressure on them first and then kneeling on top of the assembly to press it against the floor to keep things straight while I put the final pressure on the clamps.

    All the joints were poorly cut because I persisted to use a gents saw that I bought at Home Depot that I later learned was filed crip cut (at least that’s what it looked like when I finally learned to file my own saws)
    Ever try to cut a 1 inch deep tennon shoulder in a 2×6 with a gent’s saw? I’d rather try the old "if you hold a skunk by the tail it can’t spray you" trick than do that again.

    Anyway, now that I know so much, I could never build the bench that I’ve been using for the last several years, because I would know that it simply wouldn’t work and would be a collossal waste of time……

  9. Ed Furlong

    Megan:

    Thanks for providing the details from the OED; Webster’s 2nd international has similar uses, although W2I specifically mentions:

    Rack v. intrans. 2. to become forced out of shape or out of plumb;–said of the frame of a building or other structure.

    This seems to be more in the sense that woodworkers use rack.

    As a past beachcomber, I think of wrack used historically as "beach wrack"

    Thanks for keeping us on our toes–words have meaning!

  10. Norm in Baltimore

    Hi All.

    Thanks for the kind words Chris!

    The bench is pretty straightforward to build. Although the joints look intimdating, they are not too difficult to cut. To make them, I used a panel saw, a rip saw, a brace & bit, and a few chisels. Notwithstanding glue-up, I believe that this is a bench that can be built in a couple of day-long sessions.

    I think the term "wracking" isn’t quite appropriate here. When I wrote "I’ve never encountered any wracking", I meant that there is no movement or displacement between the top and the legs. In other words, the entire bench (including its joints) behaves as a "rigid body" (if I remember correctly from physics, the distance between any two points in a rigid body remains unchanged over time).

    After reviewing the definitions provided above (thanks Megan), I believe "racking" would be the more appropriate term. This is because "wracking" seems to convey a sense of damage, while "racking" seems to convey movement under strain – but not necessarily damage.

    What do you think Megan?

  11. Megan

    Ryan,
    I am indubitably a pedant (just ask my co-workers)…but a lazy one, it seems. I didn’t check the OED last night when editing, despite having the same question. Now I’ve read through all meanings of "wrack" and "rack" and it seems "rack" is the more correct term, as there are references in the OED to separating the joints of a body (e.g. "put him to the rack").

    However, I think a spirited defense could be made for "wrack" as one definition is "to render useless by breaking, shattering, etc…."

    Despite siding with you in support of "rack," however, I’m going to leave it alone in the entry – otherwise this brief foray into the dictionary will make no sense!

    Here are the relevant citations, from the 1989 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, for anyone not yet asleep:

    Wrack n1
    2. Damage, disaster, or injury to a person, state, etc., by reason of force, outrage, or violence; devastation, destruction.

    5. A thing or person in an impaired, wrecked, or shattered condition.
    c. A damaged or injured part; damage, impairment. Also fig. Obs.

    Wrack v2
    b. To render useless by breaking, shattering, etc.; to injure or spoil severely; to destroy.

    Rack v1
    b. intr. To undergo stretching, strain, shaking, or dislocation. Chiefly Sc. in early use. Now rare.
    c. trans. To pull or tear apart, separate by force, break up. Also in extended use. Also fig. Now chiefly U.S. with apart, up.

    2. trans.
    a. To stretch the joints of (a person or a part of the body) as a punishment or a form of torture, usually by means of a special apparatus (see RACK n.3 2b). Now chiefly arch. and hist.

  12. Ryan S

    At the risk of entering into pedantry…

    Is it not ‘out of rack’ or ‘racking’ rather than ‘wracking’? "To wrack" means "to destroy", where I thought "to rack" is "to pull out of square". I see these used interchangeably quite a bit.

    I see the term "racking load" used in structural engineering, but it doesn’t look to be directly related. I’m having a hard time finding a formal definition of ‘rack’ related to ‘square’, but that seems to be the correct convention. Anyone?

  13. Luke Townsley

    Nice write-up, Chris. I will probably be looking at building another bench this summer and really, really like this one. There are two things I didn’t see in the article that leave me head scratching.

    First of all, what is an appropriate way to do the glue up of the top? Is there a way to do it without a king’s ransom in clamps?

    Second, why wouldn’t you use 2x material and halve the amount of glue and possibly reduce the number of clamps?

  14. AAAndrew

    Now I understand the reason for the complex dovetailed joint between the leg and top. This is the only reason I can see for such complexity. I did put stretchers across the front and back but the legs are only loose tenoned into the top. Mine is solid and never wracks, but I would love to not have those stretchers across the bottom. They make some work and all cleanup much more difficult.

    I also used the opposite bend and twist trick for glue up. I had my boards cut s4s but that still was not precise, and some did still bow and twist a bit between cutting and glue up. With 2x material, since you’re going to have to plane the top anyway, I’ve never felt I needed to get rid of the rounded over edges before glue up. I just glue up, then flatten it all.

    Thanks for sharing "Norm", and thanks Chris for continuing the evolution of our knowledge of stuff that was forgotten by most 100 years ago.

    AAAndrew

  15. AAAndrew

    Now I understand the reason for the complex dovetailed joint between the leg and top. This is the only reason I can see for such complexity. I did put stretchers across the front and back but the legs are only loose tenoned into the top. Mine is solid and never wracks, but I would love to not have those stretchers across the bottom. They make some work and all cleanup much more difficult.

    I also used the opposite bend and twist trick for glue up. I had my boards cut s4s but that still was not precise, and some did still bow and twist a bit between cutting and glue up. With 2x material, since you’re going to have to plane the top anyway, I’ve never felt I needed to get rid of the rounded over edges before glue up. I just glue up, then flatten it all.

    Thanks for sharing "Norm", and thanks Chris for continuing the evolution of our knowledge of stuff that was forgotten by most 100 years ago.

    AAAndrew

  16. adam

    I like this idea a lot! Thanks for posting. I have a different take on why the absence of stretchers is good:

    IT MINIMIZES THE CHANCE OF ME TRYING TO BUILD SOME SORT OF SHELF/DUNGEON WHERE I CAN MOMENTARILY SEQUESTER TOOLS, LETTING THEM BOUNCE OFF ONE ANOTHER IN SOME SAD, LOW LIGHT ROMAN COLISEUM PITTING JACK PLANES AGAINST TRY-SQUARES!!!!!

  17. Bjenk

    Some really good tips in this post. I think I am going to try a top like described here.

    The stretchers are not just for stability, however. Roubo wrote that the worker had to elevate his position when tenoning and the plate shows a worker using the stretchers to do that. There would be no place for a stool for each workbenches in a Parisian boutique like Roubo’s. These benches were designed for daily intensive use too and the stretchers were certainly used as steps to gain height over the work and strength as it is described in many operations.

  18. Ryan M

    Chris,

    I welcome all these recent posts about the hand made Roubo – I am learning some great tips. Currently I am in the process of building one now out of Ash, processing all the boards for the lamination by hand. To save money, they are all 4/4 – maybe a move I’ll regret later.

    In addition to the bowing move that Norm is using, I have also paired boards with opposite twist – this produces a pretty straight 8/4 pair that I then laminate onto the others. We’ll see how this ultimately works out, so far its working well.

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