Chris Schwarz's Blog

The Six-year French Itch

When I built the Roubo-style workbench for the Fall 2005 issue, the idea was to make it as accessible and affordable as possible. I think we succeeded. The bench cost about $225 to build and took about a week of labor. And in the nine years I’ve been a woodworking magazine editor (and the 15 years I’ve been a professional journalist), I’ve never received such an outpouring of response to an article I’ve written (except perhaps that article about a dog that fell in love with a duck…¦.). The whole experience has been gratifying and humbling. But at the back of my mind, the purist in me has been whispering lately.

This morning I decided to build as pure a form of that Roubo bench as possible. So I called a nearby sawyer and placed an unusual order: A soft maple slab: 6″ x 24″ x 9′. And four legs: 5″ x 5″ x 36″. The wood is going to be wet when I bring it home, so I’m going to stash it underneath our deck for the next five years or so as it dries out. Give it another year in my shop to come to equilibrium and then I’ll get to work.

So look for the next version of this bench to appear in our magazine in 2011.

Christopher Schwarz

6 thoughts on “The Six-year French Itch

  1. Christopher Schwarz

    I’m no expert in drying wood. We’ve done some of it here at the magazine (and I’ve done a little at home). Most of what I know id from Sam Sherril’s excellent book "Harvesting Urban Timber" (Linden).

    There are lots of details, but here’s the basic schedule he recommends for home woodworkers.

    1. Sticker the fresh-cut wood immediately outside. You need the stack to be level and at least 6" off the ground. Coat the end grain with green wood sealer (available at Woodcraft).

    2. Cover the stack with a tarp and monitor its moisture content, allowing the stock to dry until it comes in equilibrium with other wood outdoors (usually 13 to 15 percent MC here in Cincinnati).

    3. When the wood reaches equilibrium outside, them move it indoors to finish drying. Sticker it the same way and monitor its moisture content until it reaches equilibrium.

    Southern yellow pine is prone to warping and checking and movement while drying. After it dries it’s pretty stable stuff. I asked the sawyer to cut my slab a foot longer than my finished length to prepare for drying defects in my maple slab.

    I have a line on a kiln near my house. It’s a farmer I’ve bought wood from before. I’m going to consult with him and see what he thinks.

    Chris

  2. John Griffin

    I too have placed an order for a yellow pine slab 5" x 24" x 9′ along with legs. I have located the log and am waiting until the mill works through the pile to my log.

    Tell me more about surface checking. I plan on painting the ends but would like to get to work as soon a possible. I was thinking of air-drying until next summer. I could also run it through a kiln at that time.

    John

  3. Christopher Schwarz

    Here’s an update already:

    Right now I’m trying to line up some kiln time for when the slab comes home. So it might be just one year (first I have to build that dining table, a large quantity of chairs and who knows what else). Then the bench.

    Chris

  4. Dean Jansa

    Chris —

    Sounds like a fun project, are you going to keep us all up to date on the slab status as the years go by? 🙂

    I’m looking forward to that issue already!

    -Dean

  5. Christopher Schwarz

    Pat,

    What’s interesting is that Tarule let his slab dry for a few years, so it was kind of dry, but not completely. But I don’t know if that was by design or not. I need to give him a call some day and discuss it.

    Chris

  6. Christopher Schwarz

    Pat,

    Good points!

    Landis’s book (my favorite Workbench book) has a short translation of Roubo’s text on the top and it doesn’t mention anything about using a green slab (perhaps that was assumed, but I don’t know). And Rob Tarule’s reproduction used an air-dried slab, according to the text of the book.

    My assumption is that it should be a little green. Too much movement could tear apart the base and (just as important) if the slab isn’t at least somewhat dry, it’s going to check something awful. Neither of those outcomes is desirable for a bench, yet you want that slight A-frame stucture. The way to achieve all those goals is to have a top that is a little green.

    That’s at least how I arrived at my assumption on the whole thing. It’s pure conjecture and I’d welcome any other thoughts or input on the matter.

    Thanks for the letter!

    Chris

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