Although I’ve not written about the Roubo bench build for a few weeks, I have been hard at work processing stock for the undercarriage. All four stretchers are now square and cut to length, and as of today three of the legs are also processed. Only one leg remains and then I will be ready to start cutting joinery (eight mortise and tenon joints to connect the stretchers to the legs). Processing stock of this size, in oak, by hand is a significant undertaking, and cutting some joinery will be a real treat. That being said, I am really enjoying the change in scale with this work, and instead of a sprint to get all of the stock processing done, I’ve been taking my time and enjoying the journey.
Processing all of the stock by hand has partly been an ideological choice – for this build I want to, insofar as is possible, get as close to the bench described by Roubo, and that includes the process of building it. It is also a practical decision – my 12″ Dewalt lunchbox thicknesser is a fine workhorse for furniture sized material, but this bench is more akin to timber framing and I have serious doubts that it would cope with some of the monstrous timber I need to clean up for this build. So, meat-powered tools are pretty much the only game in town for this work.
To be honest, although the work is much heavier than processing furniture sized material, it hasn’t been too arduous, and there have been opportunities for technical insight. I am used to processing all of my stock by hand – it is how I’ve always worked. But working with oak beam stock has offered some valuable lessons in honing those skills because the scale of the work ,and the toughness of the oak, means that you want to work as efficiently as possible.
Firstly, I’ve been remembering to lubricate the sole of my planes more frequently than I often do. I always have a tin of mutton tallow in my apron pocket for lubricating planes and saws, but when working more forgiving timber such as pine I am not always fastidious about using it. This oak is tough stuff, and it is remarkable how a smear of tallow can improve the ease of hogging off material. Later in the build I will be building a grease pot to hold my tallow, and right now I can easily say that I am a convert to lubricating planes. Ease of work is also directly influenced by sharpening. Now, we all know that sharp fixes everything, but how many people sharpen as often as they need to? No one, that’s who. We can (and should) all sharpen more. This oak lets me know immediately if my planes are not sharp enough, and as a result I’ve been getting in the habit of sharpening much more frequently as I work (on occasion twice per leg). Hopefully that will be a habit that sticks, because in reality breaking for three minutes to freshen an edge is far quicker than battling on with a dull tool. So thank you, truculent oak for the helpful reminder.
Early on when cleaning up the legs, I asked myself whether I wanted to treat each and every surface with the smoothing plane, and if not, what sort of surface would be acceptable. I’m not advocating sloppy work, but these large beams are going to be turned into a workbench, which will see a lot of abuse over the decades I work at it (and hopefully long after I’ve returned to the soil). So really it was a question of proportionality. But also, I know that I’m going to spend a lot of time standing at the bench, and a big patch of tearout will frustrate the dickens out of me, especially as it’ll be a total bear to try and pretty up some of the surfaces once the bench is assembled. In reality, a smoothing plane is a great tool for making localised adjustments, so I’ve been hitting every surface with the smoother, although also not sweating minor surface imperfections if they are on inward facing surfaces. I think that’s the right balance.
Next weekend I will tackle that final leg, and then put my planes down for a while to cut the mortise and tenon joinery, and fit the crisscross for the leg vise (this is much easier to do before the legs are fitted to the bench). After which it will be time to process the slab top – a task which will require some perseverence, grit, and maybe an assistant.