In Shop Blog, Techniques

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I started cutting the mortises and the dovetail sockets in the benchtop today and I can tell you a few things:

1. The dovetail socket takes about half the time and effort to make compared to the 5″ x 5″ x 1-1/2″ mortise. And it’s a cinch to get it crisp and perfect.

2. I’m glad I own a 2 lb. 9 oz. mallet.

3. I’m glad the benchtop isn’t hard maple.

To cut the mortise, I bored out most of the waste with an 1″ auger and a 10″-sweep brace (where did my 12″ brace go? And my 14″? Hmm). Then I bashed out the waste with a 1/2″ mortising chisel and the mallet, which I will henceforth from this day refer to as “Mongo.”

To fair the walls of the mortise, I used a big float. This is such a testosterone-laden task that , ouch , I can feel my forehead becoming more sloped as I type.

The dovetail socket, by comparison, was for wussy hominids. I sawed out the slopes of the socket. Then I cut a few kerfs down the middle of the waste and popped it out with a mortise chisel. Then I faired the wall of the socket with a router plane and cleaned up the corners with a paring chisel.

Then I walked to Kroger to get some Ben-Gay (just kidding; I actually bought some Rare VOS). Both are effective against sore joints.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 12 comments
  • Michael DeWald

    Do you warm the VOS before you rub it in, or is it better at cellar temperatures? I’m confused.

  • AAAndrew

    I hear ya’ brother. I cut blind mortises that were 5" long by 2" wide by 2" deep into a hard maple top for my workbench. That was enough of an exercise in John Henry-esque pounding to appreciate going through the whole top. I used a 1/2" pigsticker mortise chisel and my heaviest mallet, a 2 lb. 13 oz. monster. There were chips flying everywhere. I still find one every once in a while up on a shelf somewhere.

    After that, self-medication was a necessity.

    It’s looking really great.

  • Christopher Schwarz


    I agree that the first hundred mortises are slow-going. I’m faster with cabinet mortises, where the chisel defines the width of the mortise. I don’t have a 1-1/2" mortise chisel. And that’s a good thing.

    Here’s what Roubo says about species:

    The top is made from a sturdy plank or table of 5” to 6” thick by 20” to 25” wide; its length varies from 6’ to 12’, but the most common length is 9’. This table is made out of elm or beech wood but most commonly from the latter, which is very stout and of a tighter grain than the other.

  • Follansbee

    I had a John Henry post a week or two ago…my kids have been learning all the words to Springsteen’s take on John Henry. Last week they nailed the verse in which John Henry worked so hard that he broke his heart…& laid down his hammer & died. This week they are learning the verse about John Henry’s woman Polly, who drove steel like a man…not so P.C. but maybe it’ll shake up the pre-school a little.

    the first hundred mortises go slowly, then you’ll pick up speed. If only it were oak, it would be so much easier. What does the Roubo text say about species – anything?

  • Darnell Hagen

    Chris, two tips:

    1)Tiger Balm
    2)Insert contact lenses, then apply balm, in that order

  • Niels Cosman

    Be extra carefully when bashing away with Mongo to stay away from that epoxy- You wouldn’t want your chisel to explode!
    Can’t wait to see it all together. Nice work!

  • Andy

    I’ve also been known to use the Rare Vos — for purely medicinal purposes of course! However, when a stronger prescription is called for, "Three Philosophers" is the way to go!

  • Tim

    The front face of the bench legs are flush with the front edge of the bench top. A double tenon would require smaller mortices/ tenons spaced closer together in order to house the tenon closest to the front edge of the bench.

  • Gregg Counts

    Looks great. I too am curious about the use of the dovetail socket rather than a double tenon. Can you explain why you’d use one such joint over another and when.

  • Tim

    Chris, Thanks for the blow by blow report; it’s full of insightful tips, although I think you make it look too easy. If I could offer you a tip of my own, next time you need a VOS to take the edge off your joints, try to rustle up some Germain-Robin. It’s California fruit, but the lineage of the distillateur, Hubert Germain-Robin, goes straight back to XVIIIth C. France and Roubo. The simple "fine" alambic brandy is hands down richer and more aromatic than almost any VSOP out there, and without the brown sugar.
    One sip and you will be transported.

  • David Numan

    Point #3 concerns me. I am planning to build a 7′ Schwarz-Roubo out of hard maple this summer. =)

  • Matt Cianci

    Do you think the dovetail socket is overkill? Would a double tenon serve the same purpose?

    Perhpas this element of the bench design is just Roubo’s attempt to display Franco supperiority to Anglo craftsman? ;o)

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