Chris Schwarz's Blog

Debating Roubo: Pros, Cons and a Line About a Hamster

One of my favorite woodworkers who has been exploring the Roubo bench with me is Robert Giovannetti of Crystal Lake, Illinois. He’s a hard-core woodworker, builds his own planes and works with a wide variety of traditional tools, such as Japanese planes , i.e. braver than I am this week!

He built a Roubo-style bench, worked on it a bunch and then someone bought it from him. He’s about to start building another bench (I’m going to call it the Rob-o) and we had this long exchange about the merits and demerits of the Roubo this week that might be interesting to those who are criminally insane in the workbench department. Do you have some coffee? A big beer? Sitting comfortably? Good, let’s go. Rob’s comments are in italics; mine are in the regular font.

First, let me say that the deeper reason we published plans for the Roubo bench was to get people to think about some of the details of workbench design that often go unconsidered.

First, that your bench is simply a three-dimensional clamping surface so you shouldn’t do anything that impedes that , such as adding aprons under the top that block clamps, or a top that overhangs the front of the legs, which will prevent you from clamping long and wide work to the front with any efficacy.

And second, that a big and simple bench is the place to begin because it allows you to add vises as you see the need. This Roubo-style bench was designed to allow you to add any vise, from a Veritas twin-screw to an Emmert. I’ve made several mods to the bench as I’ve worked on it myself, but we’ll get to that in the details.

Rob: I find that without a tool tray, there’s no real handy place to put holdfasts, battens and the like. I placed them underneath, but didn’t like having to stoop all the time to get something I needed.

Chris: Personally, I can’t stand tool trays. My first bench (which I still have) has one. I call it hamster alley because it collects clutter and shavings and impedes clamping from the back side. (I do like the way David Charlesworth has the removable floor on his tool tray, which fixes the clamping problem completely). I keep my holdfasts in the holes in the legs. My shooting boards, bench planes and bench hooks go on the shelf below. I think this is just a personal thing. If you like tool trays, make a tool tray.

Rob: I find that I have to place a batten behind the work, because my planing technique involves a return stroke across the wood, as opposed to lifting the plane. Also, I work with both Western and Japanese planes, so I need the security there for the pull stroke. As far as the battens go, I’ve found that having to readjust them for different width pieces is just as time consuming, if not more so, than screwing a vise in and out. Maybe I’m not using the system correctly?

Chris: I also place a batten behind my work when I’m working diagonally or cross grain with a fore plane. But I don’t have trouble keeping the stock under control during regular with-the-grain planing (Also, I am not skilled enough to use Japanese planes!). In fact, the more I use the bench, the fewer battens I need. I find myself setting up one batten at the front of the bench against the planing stop and working against that alone. I think the battens are like training wheels or for special situations.

Rob: I’ve also run into problems with my Stanley No. 45 as well. If I take a deep cut, I find the work likes to tip at the end, because I have to apply downward and sideways force to the work. It seems that with heavier cuts, the batten system doesn’t work as well as with light passes.

Chris: I don’t use a No. 45 but I do use a plow plane and moulding planes. I think that the end of the cut is always a bit raggy for me too. I make my stock a couple extra inches longer than necessary before sticking it, which is a good idea for rail and stile work anyway.

One of the mods I’ve made to the bench is I’ve added a row of dog holes in line with the stop. Then I use the Veritas Wonder Dog there like a tail vise/shoulder vise when I have a tricky cut. I also like the holes up front for the holdfasts, which are nice for close-quarters uber-wacky chair-part clamping.

Rob: I love the sensitivity to the work of stops, and the quickness of holdfasts, but, at the same time, it seems like using dogs to secure the work is better for certain tasks. But I hate having to constantly crank a vise in and out for every work piece at least twice.

Chris: Agreed, sometimes the dogs with a Wonder Dog are the best way. They’re my last resort, however, because I fear that they can bow the stock, especially thin stuff.

Rob: I like the flexibility of the crochet, but the leg vise leaves something to be desired. It’s wicked powerful, but I’ve had a lot of problems using it. I hand cut my dovetails, and there isn’t a great way to clamp the boards in the vise. I’m used to a shoulder vise, so maybe it’s just a quirk of mine, since most people who like them can’t get used to not having them. The leg vise, on the other hand, seems to be like a traditional front vise in this respect. I can get part of a board in the vise, but not having the screw directly behind the vise is a little weird. Like I said, probably me. Have you had any problems with your vise? How do you dovetail with it?

Chris: I love my leg vise. I like how I can clamp a piece of work all the way down the leg of the bench. The next mod I plan is to add a leather facing to the jaws. A couple old-timers have told me that it increases the holding power even more. When dovetailing a drawer side (up to about 8″ or so), I can clamp and go. The piece doesn’t move for me. When I dovetail a wide piece I clamp one side in the vise and the other side to either by sliding deadman (with an F-style clamp) or I clamp it to the top with a 32″ bar clamp.

Rob: I do a lot of frame-and-panel work, and had some problems properly securing a frame so I could plane the face flush. I used battens and stops at both ends, but when planing towards the front of the bench, the work moves a little, enough to ruin the cut. Have you found the best method for doing this?

Chris: I’ve had this come up a couple times. That’s why I added the dog holes. The Veritas Wonder Dog holds the panel in place no problem against the bench stop.

Rob: Lastly, I find having the bench a full 4″+ thick is a little overkill. I know it lends rigidity and mass to the bench, but, at least in hardwood, it seems a costly investment. After using the bench, I realized that only the front 8″ or so sees any heavy pounding, and the rest of the bench just supports the work. And, maybe the real problem, my holdfasts from Tools for Working Wood don’t seat as well in such a thick top. I’m sure forged holds would work better, but I can’t afford them.

Chris: Thick tops are a blessing and a curse, I agree. The big Dominy workbench is thick only at the front. The rear is considerably thinner. This might be something to think about for your next bench. As to holdfasts, it definitely is a problem. Allow me to speculate for a minute: I think that holdfasts might have been bigger for these bigger benches. I have a 19th century blacksmith-made one that is crazy thick , 1-1/8″ in diameter and it weighs a ton. My experiments with this holdfast in really thick benches have been interesting. It works really, really well. Perhaps smaller holdfasts are better for smaller benches?

In any case, the top’s thickness may indeed be overkill, but so is a dovetail joint. I don’t like operating at the margins when it comes to things like this. I don’t want the top to flex. Ever. So I think my next bench will be this thick as well. Call me thick-headed on this point.

Rob: I’ll be building another bench soon, and was thinking of incorporating what I like of the various benches I’ve used. First, a wide work surface; second, a tool tray; third, a sled foot base with storage for tools; fourth, a shoulder vise or a Veritas twin-screw, at the end, for dovetailing. I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to use dogs or stops. Depends on your feedback. I have some 8/4 book-matched bubinga, quartersawn, that I want to use as the work surface. Do you think that’s thick enough to take hand tool abuse, or should I glue up two pieces to get a 3-1/2″ thickness? If I do glue up, the front 9″ will be thick, the back 21″ only 1-3/4″. If you think it’s strong enough, then I might go with a Veritas bench design feature with a tool tray in the middle.

Chris: My gut says to make it thick at the front and 8/4 at the back.

Christopher Schwarz