Chris Schwarz's Blog

Build Two Workbenches in an Afternoon

I showed up at John Sindelar’s Tool Museum almost an hour late on Saturday morning after an evening at a Chicago tapas restaurant that pushed my bedtime to 1 a.m.

The museum, which is also Sindelar’s commercial woodworking business, was hopping with gawkers and tool collectors who had come to see the new additions to the museum and to perhaps buy a few pieces for themselves.

“Hey John,” one guy asked, “what’s for sale and what’s not for sale here?”

“Everything’s for sale,” John replied. “You see something you like, maybe we can work something out.”

You’ll never get that kind of banter with the docents at the Guggenheim.

For the show, I had packed my hatchback full of tools and wood to build a couple English squares during the day and talk about handwork. But Sindelar had other ideas. He led me over to a wooden crate filled with ancient woodworking components.

“These are workbenches,” Sindelar said. “I thought you might enjoy putting them together today.”

I picked up a massive chop for an angled leg vise. Below that was a mystery part.

Heck, yes.

The first part of the job was figuring out which parts went with which bench. After some sorting, it became clear we had two old commercial maple benches with sled feet and wooden vise screws. These were nicely made benches, but I’ve assembled my share of those and they have no mystery for me.

The other two benches were craftsman-made. The first one we built was the oddest. The top was an 18”-wide single slab of some ring-porous wood, likely chestnut according to the consensus of the group. Plus the top had a wide tool tray.

The undercarriage of the bench was interesting. All the mortise-and-tenon joints had been drawbored. The crate contained all the rived pegs and they were clearly bent in the middle – some with a heavy offset – and the bent pegs had set.

To disassemble the bench, the pegs had been knocked out and put in an envelope with the dozen screws that held on the tail vise and tool tray.

But the big star of the bench was the leg vise. Here’s the weird: The angled front leg of the bench was massive – at least 16” wide. The chop for the leg vise was equally beefy and powered by a wooden screw with an internal garter.

The coolest part of the vise: the chop and leg were designed to take a so-called St. Peter’s Cross – an X-shaped metal assembly that replaces leg vise’s parallel guide. Oddly, this vise was missing its metal St. Peter’s Cross, but it had a parallel guide. We searched the shop and crates for the metal hardware, but no joy.

The other workbench had a couple standout features on its top. The top was one solid slab of hardwood about 22″ wide and 3″ thick. The marker had oriented the top so that the bark side was facing up, it it must have caused some problems for the woodworker.

A bark-side benchtop will tend to curl up at the front and rear edges of the bench. The fix was to drive in a single sliding and tapering dovetail all across the width of the benchtop.

“You don’t see that every day,” I told the onlookers.

Funny thing was, that was about the 100th time I’d heard that expression on Saturday. We were, after all, at Sindelar’s astonishing tool museum. Below is a quick slideshow/doughnut video of some of the things that caught my eye on Saturday.

Warning: There may or may not be a naked mermaid brace in the following video. There are no mermaid nipples that I’m aware of, however. In any case, if you are sensitive to mermaid nudity, just leave the room.

— Christopher Schwarz

4 thoughts on “Build Two Workbenches in an Afternoon

  1. spwiz5578

    While the benches did look out of place, I didn’t realize you helped put them together before I got there. Glad to meet you and glad I am now a proud owner of the Anarchist’s Tool Chest. I can’t wait to read it. Hope you got home in time to help the Mrs.

    John’s museum is truly awesome. It would take hours to look over every piece. I wish him the best of luck launching a brick and mortar permanent museum.

    Only a few short months until WIA 2011 . . .

    Sean

  2. stjones

    Wow! You got that pile of timber to form a workbench or so – I should have stuck around to watch. That’s a truly amazing place; the tailgating was pretty good too. Enjoyed visiting with you and reading the first two chapters of “Anarchist” when I got home.

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