Chris Schwarz's Blog

French Workbench Class – Day 1

When you look at old workbenches, it’s clear that pre-Industrial craftsmen lavished untold attention on their benches. They would use only the best materials. So the early bench was typically flawless, expensive and treated like a precious object.

After all, this was the most important tool in any workshop.

OK, if you’ve ever actually seen a vintage workbench, then you know that every single word above this paragraph is a lie. Many of the vintage workbenches I’ve inspected through the years are made with materials that wouldn’t pass muster in a commercial piece of furniture.

They have knots and odd grain. The benches are made from various species of wood, sometimes without rhyme or reason. And the benches have been beat to hell and back. Ancient workbenches were treated as carefully as we might coddle a toilet brush.

So I have been interested in trying to re-create the ancient aesthetic when building workbenches. After all, I go to great trouble when making reproduction furniture by using the right wood, hardware, fasteners and finish. So building a sapele workbench is a lot like building a curly maple outhouse in my book.

And somehow, I found nine nutjobs to play along with this crazy idea.

This week we are building workbenches using Southern yellow pine timbers that – if they were lunch meat – would be “grade D, but edible.” The class is at Kelly Mehler’s School of Woodworking, and Kelly is a good sport to go along with this scheme.

Today was the first day of the class and we dove into the machine work first – jointing and planing the rough timbers to thickness and width. Then we started working on the tops – separating more than 40 big timbers into 10 good-looking benches.

We cut all the female joinery for the mortise and the sliding dovetail that passes through the top. And then we started gluing up the tops that didn’t require nutty amounts of prep work.

And that was Monday.

— Christopher Schwarz

15 thoughts on “French Workbench Class – Day 1

  1. rmcnabb

    I would think that building a workbench for hand tool woodworking would be a good opportunity to use hand tools. And why do the legs need to be square? All they need to do is hold the top up. They could be twisted like licorice.

    1. tsstahl

      The front two at least need to be square to the front of the bench. One is half the leg vise, and the other is an integral part of the vise when it comes to long stock.

  2. Mike M

    In the machine shop where I served my apprenticeship, if you were injured while opereating a machine and you were wearing gloves, you’d get a disiplinary mark on your records. If the result was a lost-time injury, no sick pay. Gloves aren’t to be worn while the machine is running.

    I watched a guy in the foundry pattern shop I worked in cut a thumb off by getting a glove caught under a piece of plywood he was ripping (he was not one of the pattern makers). No more using the machines for employees outside of our department.

    The benches were made of wood that wasn’t good enough to crate castings.

  3. Steve_OH

    Doesn’t it seem a little odd to hold a class, complete with supplied materials, to attempt to reproduce an experience that’s all about making do with what you have?

    I suspect that had you been there to offer them the wood for free, the craftsmen of yore would have been more than happy to build their workbenches out of straight-grained, top quality lumber.

    -Steve

  4. Jonathan Szczepanski

    Hey Chris –

    Those timbers are massive. It’s a good thing that there are plenty of people to help move them around.

    I notice that a lot of people were wearing work gloves when they were working on the machines. While I’m not a card-carrying member of the safety patrol, I am curious as to why. Whenever I have mentioned the idea of wearing them during the initial planing and jointing stage when the timbers are the most “splintery”, I’ve gotten the hammer thrown down that it is too dangerous.

    Is there another perspective on this?

    Jonathan
    ===========================

    1. tsstahl

      “Is there another perspective on this?”

      Keep your hands away from the blade?

      Wearing mechanics gloves adds to my grip when handling rough stock. And hammers stay put better in my hand, too.

      In short, I’m with you on the glove thing.

    2. cbf123

      If you are wearing a tough glove it’s possible for a moving cutter head to “catch” in the glove material and drag your hand in further rather than just slicing your skin.

      I’ve found that nitrile gloves do a pretty good job at protecting from splinters and I’m pretty sure they’ll rip rather than drag my hand in if they get caught in any tools.

      1. Bill

        I was a framer in a past life, and regardless of the material or weather, we were never allowed to wear gloves. My boss told me, and I experienced that you can “feel” that cutter coming too close to your hand. I too wear nitrile around the shop (usually just after a nick or cut that won’t stop bleeding on my project), except when power tools are used. They also dampen that “feel” of the cutter.

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