The last place I ever expected to stumble on Andre Roubo’s handiwork was next to an Art Deco radio and underneath some old water jugs. But on Saturday, I walked into an antiques store in Ottawa, Canada, and there was a worn but functional Roubo-style workbench perched patiently under a window.
OK, let me back up a minute: I was in Canada (actually, as I write this I still am in Canada) to judge a tool-making contest for Wood Central. The judging was held in the corporate boardroom at Lee Valley Tools, and at one point Robin Lee, the president of the company, and Doug, one of Robin’s old-tool conspirators, took me aside.
“Do you want to see a Roubo workbench?” Robin asked.
My reply was something along the lines of what bears do when in they have natural urges in the woods. So after we wrapped up the judging for the day, we headed out to the antiques store. We opened the front door, and it was sitting right there , underneath some metalware, stoneware and an old sled.
So I dropped to my knees and (I know you think the next word is “prayed”) poked around the undercarriage of the bench. I can’t say how old this bench is, but I can give you some interesting details about its construction and dimensions.
Overall, this Canadian Roubo is 8′ 8-1/2″ long, 17″ deep and 28-3/4″ high. The top is 2-3/8″ thick and the consensus among the group is the top is pine. There is no planing stop evident in the top, but there is lots of evidence of holdfast holes that were plugged. The top is made of two pieces. A very wide front piece and a narrow piece at the back that is joined with a square-shaped spline.
The joint is at the exact point where the rear legs pierce the top of the workbench. The rear legs are slanted (as you can see in the photo) and join the top with the exact joint that Roubo shows in his landmark 18th century woodworking book , it’s basically a through-dovetail combined with a through-tenon.
The front legs are joined to the top using this same joint. All the legs are 3″ x 3″ and look to be some sort of oak. The legs join the stretchers of the bench about 4″ from the floor and each joint is pegged with through-pegs.
To plane long boards, there is a long stile that runs from the benchtop to the stretcher at about the midpoint of the bench’s front. The stile is pierced by numerous small holes for pegs that will support boards on edge. The far right leg is also pierced by a couple holes, though these holes were larger in diameter than those on the stile , perhaps they were for holdfasts.
The single drawer in the bench pulled right out. Inside was one small till and sliding tracks for at least two more (which were not in the drawer).
The leg vise (in the face vise position) was traditional in structure. The vise screw was wooden and quite worn (though it still worked). The nut at the rear of the jaws was detached and needed to be reattached.
The leg vise had a parallel guide that pierced the rear jaw, though its pin was long gone. The leg vise’s position on the top was quite interesting. The top cantilevered off the bench’s base on the bench’s left side by 24″. On the right, only by 4″. The leg vise was roughly centered on the cantilever. The lower part of the vise’s rear jaw was secured to the front leg with a strap of metal.
Overall, the bench was incredibly sturdy and showed evidence of heavy use and age. One of the members of our party asked if someone could have faked the bench or aged a newer example to look old.
While that’s always a possibility with antiques, the bench was selling for $2,000 Canadian, so if it was faked, the faker wasn’t going to be getting rich off this bench , it’s a lot of wood and there were a lot of wear marks that would have to be faked.
After about a half an hour of me making geeky statements (“Look you can see how the shell bit tore out the grain as it pierced the leg!”) I could tell it was time to go. All the members of our scouting party were standing around looking at me like my kids do when I’m on a lunatic woodworking speech.
There’s more bench news from this trip. While Lee and I were eating breakfast Saturday with Ellis Wallentine (from Wood Central) and Clarence Blanchard (a fellow judge from The Fine Tool Journal), Lee said two words between mouthfuls of eggs that has me sketching wildly this evening: “furniture” and “workbench.” More on this later topic next month.
– Christopher Schwarz, who this weekend picked up tips on teasing people on the Internet from Robin Lee, master taunter.