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
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