In Chris Schwarz Blog, Schwarz on Workbenches

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I’ve always wanted to build a Roubo workbench “by the book.” Use a massive single plank for the top, tree trunks for legs and all the traditional joinery, such as the through-dovetail-and-tenon joint that marries the legs to the top.

Since the day I finished my Roubo in 2005 from Southern yellow pine I’ve been on the hunt for suitable stock to build an old-school version. Finding the wood has been a challenge. I’ve talked to custom sawyers, tried to source some salvaged Douglas fir beams and haunted the woodlot used by tree services near my house.

As of today I’m closer than I’ve ever gotten before. Housewright Ron Herman in Columbus, Ohio, has some heavy cherry planks that could allow me to build a benchtop with only one glue line down the middle. This is a compromise I’m willing to make.

What I’m not willing to compromise is the joinery.

Several astute readers have complained about my Roubo design during the last five years. While it’s economical because it uses construction lumber, it is difficult to build for hand-tool purists because of all the laminations. Though I’m no hand-tool purist (despite what you might read) I do see the irony.

So this Roubo is going to be built entirely by hand from the moment it comes into the shop. Herman is going to saw the planks and leg stock to close size (just like an 18th-century lumber vendor would have), but I’ll take it from there with my saws and planes.

If you’d like to read a translation of Roubo’s section on workbenches, click here.

Assuming the wood doesn’t explode on the sawmill, I should be getting the planks in the coming week. I’ll be documenting the success or failure of the project using video, still photos and probably a few words.

The plan is to have it ready for our Woodworking in America conference Oct. 1-3 in Cincinnati.

– Christopher Schwarz


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Showing 26 comments
  • Mark

    Ahh, hogging out mortises–Josh, take note: One of my favorite hands-down tool–and here’s a perfect opportunity to get one: A Millers Falls Boring Machine. Timber Framers love ’em. I used mine to excavate major chunks o’ wood when I did the double tenon/dovetail thing on my Roubo a few years ago. Worked like a charm. And that was after burning out the motors in two 1/2" power drills. You’re looking at $300-$600 depending on condition finding one on eBay–but what a cool, necessary tool for the kind of big mortise work the traditional Roubo warrants.

  • Mark

    I’m sure you’ve already considered it but this looks like a great opportunity to build one of those split top Roubos I’ve been seeing lately.

  • Bruce Jackson

    Chris, you might as well auction off your old Roubo on E-bay when you get done. Sounds like you may have more than one bidder. Sorry, Swanz, but I hate to see a man not get his due …

  • Swanz

    I’m looking forward to that writeup. (I’ll buy the SYP Roubo of ya when you’ll done building this one).

  • jfeole

    Hello Chris:
    Well, I’m one of those guys who ripped all the boards and planed them by hand before laminating the top and rest of your roubo bench. It was nothing short of Hurculean.That is where I "made my bones" though and learned many valuable lessons, like how to cut a straight line, plane and the value of a sharp tool.
    Adds something to the bench I think. I’m into leaving tell tale signs of hand tools.

    Can’t wait to see your beauty unfold.

    John Feole

  • Tony Z

    I think this calls for one of those live cameras like "This Old House" uses to continuously broadcast the build. In lieu of that, how about regularly posting update pictures?

    T.Z.

  • Josh B

    Sweet! Can’t wait to see you get started on this in earnest, should be a fun time. I built my Roubo mostly by hand though I had to use a power drill to finish hogging out the mortises in the top after blowing out the ratchet in my 14" brace.

    I got my hands on some really clear 12/4 white ash beams for the top from a local sawyer. Three 8" wide beams went into the top. For the legs I used 16/4 poplar from my local lumberyard. Working such large stock entirely by hand quickly made me think about the return I was getting on my efforts and led me to skip some work that would have no affect on the bench in use but do affect it’s appearance. For starters none of the legs are the exact same size, two are about 4 1/2 by 4" and two are 5 1/2 by 4" since I couldn’t see a benefit to trimming down the wider leg stock for a nice match. Also I didn’t bother to square or even plane at all non-mating surfaces on the legs. On every leg the two faces that were mortised for the stretchers are square to each other but that’s it. I did plane the faces of the front legs flush with the top but the back legs have sawn surfaces.

    I’ve had the bench a little over a year now and it’s served me wonderfully, despite some dire internet warnings about my top warping it only took me about ten minutes to finish it’s annual flattening and I haven’t not had a problem with any of the rough surfaces I left on the under carriage.

    Cheers,

    Josh

  • David

    Looks like this is a common idea – I’ve had the same thought, and went so far as to obtain a 9′ long, 20" wide, 3-1/2" thick plank for the top. And I’m waiting on some white oak legs to dry after being split out of a downed tree in the neighborhood.

    But in my case, it’s going to be a Holtz design – I can’t get used to teh idea of a leg vise since a heck of a lot of my work involves dovetailing a 20" wide case side.

    My only worry is that the plank may well not be thick enough to avoid flexing after I dress and square it.

  • Bob Rozaieski

    Nice score on the timbers there Chris! I’m jealous. I have to agree with you. I’ve laminated two tops, one with the aid of power and one without and I think the job is the pits even if you do have machines to assist you, forget laminating a top completely by hand. I think you have to be a sadist to do it completely by hand; it’s truly painful (and I do everything by hand now). I’m anxious to follow your build as I’m doing something similar after my current project, though using a different design. A bench (IMO) designed for hand tool use but also designed to be easily built with only hand tools. I’m calling it Moxolson :).

  • AAAndrew

    This will be really cool to see. I built my bench all by hand, except that I had the lumber mill cut my lumber for the top S4S and I took it from there. That is the huge downside to trying to build this bench by hand, laminating the top.

    As for the through dovetail joints, I know you want to do them for authenticity, but from a practical point of view, I just don’t see the benefits. Maybe if the top is going to be wetter than the legs, then the top can shrink onto the through joints, but even that doesn’t sound quite right. Any idea of where the tradition for this kind of joint came from and why they would use it?

    My top just has blind mortise and tenon joints. Granted, the tenons are three inches long and 3×5 in dimension, but I don’t even have them pinned or anything. The weight of the bench top (about 140 pounds) is sufficient to keep it from even thinking of moving.

    Good luck, and I really look forward to seeing the progress.

    AAAndrew

  • james

    WOW, good looking timber, will make a great bench i predict. Theres some ancient,primeval urge to build something when one looks at planks like this.

    Traditional joinery huh, oh dear, Chris has been hanging round Follansbee to much.

  • Jonas Jensen

    This is going to be good.
    I am looking forward to seeing how you are going to tackle making the spindles for the vices.

    I have never thought about the colour of a bench being important, but I get it now. I’m glad I haven’t tried to make a top out of elm yet. I guess I’ll have to cut down an ash or a maple to make a try sometime.

  • Andre

    This is gonna be one cool project!

    Are you considering making this bench a wee bit higher considering workholding (see previous post on joinery bench)? No wait…..you’re The Schwarz, you’re going to build a Joinery Bench as well of course:)

    Have fun building, and do post on the progress!

  • I just recently finished your book and am in the planning stages for my 1st bench and I was wondering something that I wonder even more now after reading this blog post. Why did you change the through-dovetail-and-tenon joint to the top to a single blind tenon on your original french bench? I thought it was cool that you mentioned above that you wanted to include it in the next (last?) iteration of the french bench.

    -Micah

  • Martin

    Looks great! I’ve been biding my time waiting for my ash top to dry. I don’t know much about drying wood, but I flip it every week. It stopped checking after two months, but didn’t start really moving until after 8 months (dry Pasadena weather). I’m thinking about leaving a live edge on the backside, you? =D

  • Darnell Hagen

    My benchtop is a single plank of Beech, and it’s pretty sweet, but Cherry? That’s gonna be phenomenal. It looks like it’s nicely figured, too.

  • Christopher Schwarz

    How thick?

    As thick as possible. Depends on the planks. Let’s say "nominal."

    As to cherry’s color, that is the major downside. I prefer light-colored benches as well. Beggars cannot be choosers. A sheet of white paper will suffice for sighting planes.

    Chris

  • John Cashman

    That’s too bad about the maple. I remembered that post as well, and was wondering when it might be dry enough.

    I look forward to this as well, especially the through tenons. It’s easy enough to lay them out and cut them, but heaving around boards of that size and weight has to create some unique problems.

    The only drawback I can see to cherry is the color. I like a light background for so many things. Is cherry bleachable?

  • Bryce

    Just curious, how thick is the top going to be?

  • Eric

    Can’t wait to see your progress on it Chris.
    I bet it’ll come out really cool!

  • Narayan

    You and Ron should wear Adam’s outfits whenever you’re working on this bench. 🙂

  • Christopher Schwarz

    It is what was cheap, cut to size and available after five years of rooting around.

    Any wood can be used for a workbench.

    Chris

  • Shannon Brown

    That must have sucked. Hopefully you didn’t pay him anything.

    I am curious as to why you chose cherry for the bench then. Is it because that was the only wood you could find close to size? I mean, I know you can make a work bench out of any wood, and I saw a beautiful bench made out of walnut before, but I just never thought of cherry as a bench wood.

  • Christopher Schwarz

    True.

    A sawyer said he had sawn the plank for the top for me. Then he stopped returning my calls. It was one of the earliest blog entries.

    Chris

  • Shannon Brown

    I thought I read in an earlier blog where you already had the wood sawn out of maple and were storeing it to let it dry?

  • Michael Rogen

    Chris,

    This is something that I’ll really be looking forward to. I have 2 large maple planks that will become my benchtop when I feel well enough to build it. I too wanted a top that would have as few glue joints as possible and with the wood I have there will be only the one.
    Thanks,

    Michael

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