It's Not Just for Bears Anymore - Popular Woodworking Magazine

It’s Not Just for Bears Anymore

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To transform a pile of 6″ x 6″ x 8′ yellow pine beams into 10 workbenches, the first step is a chainsaw.

This morning I drove down to Berea, Ky., to help Kelly Mehler and his assistant, Ben, sort through 80 beams and crosscut them to length for the Roubo workbench class I’m teaching there in May.

All the beams were in the rough and when I first put my hands on them, I was a little concerned. They felt wet, like they had just come down river. But I held my tongue because I knew the logs had been outside during a heck-acious storm Sunday.

The first order of business actually was not the chainsaw. We had to sort the yellow pine into three piles: tops, legs and stretchers.

For each component we were looking for different things as we examined the beams.

For the top beams, we were looking for the pith of the tree to be close to an edge. That way we might be able to remove the heart when we surfaced the beams down to 5″ square (lucky for us the beams are actually 6-3/8″ square).

And if we cannot remove the heart, we can relieve it. Once we get all the top beams surfaced, the last step will be to saw a kerf through the heart (on the underside of the top) to give the annular rings a place to move. I’ll discuss this process more in a future post.

For the stretchers, we were looking for beams where the heart was in the center. These boards will be resawn into planks that are about 2″ thick, so we’ll be able to remove the heart entirely.

And for the legs, we were looking for short, clear sections of wood so they would look good.

Then we fired up the chainsaw. Cue the movie!

The whole process, from gabbing to good-byes, took about three hours.

As I left, Kelly went to fetch his moisture meter. The news: even on the inside of these beams, the wood is about 15 to 20 percent moisture content. Once he gets them stickered inside, the moisture content will drop rapidly.


— Christopher Schwarz

More About the Bench
The bench we are building for this class at Kelly Mehler’s School of Woodworking is a very old-school Roubo, like the one featured on the cover of my latest effort, “The Workbench Design Book.” I have this bench at home and love it.

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Showing 11 comments
  • andrewr

    LOVE the phrase “gateway drug…” 😉

    question: why are you trying to remove the pith? is it because it could act like a knot in a board… and eventually dry up and fall out (over time) ?


  • schnp

    Wow, Chris, May is coming up fast! I’ve been trying to do some strength training, but it looks like I’d better step up my efforts to get ready for class.


  • robert

    Every time I fire up my chain saw I hear George Thorogood and the Destroyers cranking out Bad to the Bone. I must be warped.

  • Wilbur

    Not sure if the sawbenches anticipated that technology when they were first designed.

    • Christopher Schwarz
      Christopher Schwarz

      I know! Some day I should do a post on all the crazy things I’ve seen sawbenches do — holding pizza, infants, J-Lo.

      Not really J-Lo. They have their limits.

  • jmaichel

    The Schwarz,
    Any chance you are going to do workbench class in the Pacific NW? Unless we can convince Shannon Rogers to do one at the Hand Tool School…hint hint!


    • Christopher Schwarz
      Christopher Schwarz


      I’m teaching at Jim Tolpin’s school this year, but not a workbench class. I do these workbench class infrequently. They are a killer.

      • Jason

        So it would take more than a little arm twisting to get you to do one of these classes at Roy’s place?

        I’ll buy your beer…

      • jmaichel

        The Schwarz,
        I did see that you are teaching the saw bench class and a hand plane class. I am hoping to attend at least one of them. If I had to chose, which one would you recommend?

        • Christopher Schwarz
          Christopher Schwarz

          Both classes are fun (for me, at least). I think we’re building the English layout square in the handplane class, so we’re going to cover a broad range of tools and skills there.

          The funny this is that every class involves planes, saws and chisels because they all work together. And all the classes involve learning how to deal with stock from a hand-tool perspective, which is different than a power-tool approach.

          I guess I’m saying they are the same class, but one emphasizes saws and the other planes.

          This is why I don’t sell used cars….

  • renaissanceww

    It is fortunate you found those timbers with a low moisture content. It is very common they will be in excess of 30%. I am a bit shocked that your dealer sold them to you with pith still in place. It makes me wonder what they were originally intended for when sawn out of the tree. Maybe you just saved this lovely wood from being a lowly fence post and elevated it to Roubo wonderfulness. So by “helping” I hope you did more than just film Kelly at work.

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