About overthewireless

One time historian turned construction lawyer, musician, martial artist, photographer, distance runner, builder of musical instruments. Hand tool user all the time, every time.

What this bench was made for

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Traversing large boards has never been so enjoyable as it is on the Roubo bench

I’m finding my rhythm with the boarded bookcase project, and enjoying the process. In particular, it is fascinating testing the capabilities and functionality of the Roubo bench as I work.

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Holdfasts and track saw – combining technologies across centuries for an efficient workflow

This week I’ve been processing yet more maple, which involved working on several faces of the board. As a test, I also decided to see how the bench fared with a hybrid woodworking approach. After all, the design arose at a time when woodworkers were using hand tools exclusively hand tool, but how does it function when power tools are introduced into the mix? I don’t use power tools all that much, but I do have a few which I find useful to keep around, including a Festool tracksaw. Ordinarily I prefer to reach for my Disston D8 when ripping stock, but as a test I set up the tracksaw to rip one edge of the maple panel straight before planing it. Getting a rock solid set up was much easier on the Roubo than my old Sjoberg, and the two Crucible holdfasts held the workpiece in place with the edge to be cut hanging off the edge of the bench. This set up was quick to set up, stable, safe, and allowed for easy operation of the tracksaw – a win by any reckoning. I’m sure that holding workpieces for work with the Festool Domino (which I find indispensible for shop jigs and some other work ) and the router (which I honestly try to use as infrequently as possible) will be as straightforward and dependable. So the Roubo seems to be a solid choice for the hybrid woodworker as much as hand tool purists.

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Making the width of the board with the panel gauge – working into the planing stop holds the workpiece steady

The planing stop is also very versatile. While the main function is to hold workpieces in place while planing, I have found it is also very useful for steadying the work while using marking gauges to strike lines. Today I made use of the planing stop for this purpose with the workpiece in two orientations – firstly striking the width of the panel using the Hamilton Toolworks panel gauge, then to gauge the thickness of the panel, with the workpiece stood on it’s side, supported with a does’ foot at the back end. This is much quicker than securing the workpiece in the leg vise. Less time fixing the workpiece in place means a smoother and more efficient work flow.

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I don’t use this sweet Krenov style block plane by my buddy Jim McConnell as often as I should – here I’m bevelling the far side of the board to avoid spelching when taking a traversing cut

I was also struck by how much the Roubo bench offers a solid working experience when traversing the maple board with my No5 jack plane. While this is a very standard technique in my work, I never got the work holding on my old Sjoberg bench to co-operate when taking heavy traversing cuts – the tail vise just wasn’t up to holding workpieces for traversing, and after a few strokes the work would start to wriggle across the benchtop. Which was both frustrating and an impediment to steady work. In contrast, a single holdfast and the planing stop was enough to secure the 47″ x 13″ maple panel in place for an extended session of traversing with no movement whatsoever despite taking a heavy cut. This is what this bench was made for, and it excels as a planing bench.

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Traversing removes the bulk of the waste efficiently, and leaves a wonderful texture. If this were the underside of a shelf I’d leave that texture and call it done, but as this is the side of the bookcase I’ll dress the surface with a smoothing plane for a clean and smooth surface.

I’ve almost finished working the two sides of the bookcase, following which I’ll have an opportunity to see how the bench performs for cutting joinery. I fully expect there is nothing I can throw at this bench which it cannot handle.

Enjoy the Ride

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Smoothing the outside surface of the second side piece

If I’m being honest, I was in a hurry to get the bookcase underway and finished. Partly because I’m tired of picking a path between boxes of books that are in sore need of a home, and also because following on from over a year of building the Roubo bench I was looking forward to progressing (and completing) a furniture project in a shorter time frame.

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Marking off the thickness with a Hamilton Toolworks small marking gauge

Every project, and every process, has something new to teach you, even if it is something you’ve built many times before. And after spending time at the bench cleaning up the panel I glued up last week, I’m taking a different view of the project – I’m going to slow down, and enjoy the ride. Part of this is because the maple I’m using demands a slower approach. It is lovely material, with some subtle quilting. But it is as hard as any material I’ve ever worked, and prone to nasty patches of tearout. Those properties don’t really facilitate working at pace. Very sharp irons, and high cutting angles, are the order of the day. But also, as Clive is fond of saying, slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Working at a slower pace actually gets things done, and without the frustration or needless mistakes that creep in when you’re pushing against a tight deadline. So, I’m slowing down and enjoying work on a project that is markedly different to the bench and chair I built last year. Slowing down also means I’m more receptive to the lessons this project will offer.

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That glue seam looks ok

I’m already feeling the benefit – I’ve not quite finished dimensioning the panel that will become the second side of the bookcase, but I’m much more content with my progress, and I’ve enjoyed working it a whole lot more. The shelves will be quicker in any event, because I will leave the underside with the rough scalloped tecture from the jack plane, while the sides need to be finished on both surfaces. But get the sides in good order, and everything else will follow from them. Settling into a different rhythm after the bench build may have taken a few weeks, but it’s good to be back in furniture making mode, and I’m enjoying using the Roubo bench. The extra length of the benchtop has already proved to be beneficial, as the bookcase sides would have stretched my old bench to full capacity. As it is, the Roubo can handle work of this scale with plenty of room to spare. It was also gratifying to see that the glue joint that had me chasing my tail last week turned out ok in the end – perseverance paid off.

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I also reconfigured the workshop layout so that the tool chest is at the end of the bench, where it is more accessible

Parallel Skills In Action

One of the articles I’m most proud of is the piece I wrote on parallel skills for issue 227 of Furniture & Cabinetmaking over five years ago. A concept I’d encountered through my martial arts training with Clive Elliott, parallel skills are something I’ve found equally useful in all my creative endeavours, including woodwork and playing musical instruments. And the deeper I’ve been drawn down the historic-woodwork rabbit hole, the more benefits I’ve found to a parallel skill approach. So imagine my delight last week when I received an email from Guy Windsor.

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Clive demonstrating how to improve my dovetails through a blood choke. Remarkably, this photo was taken on my stag-do. Happy days.

Guy is a scholar of historic martial arts, with an emphasis on historic swordmanship. He’s also a woodworker, and has written a fascinating blog post on the parallels between the study of historic martial arts and traditional handwork in the woodcrafts. This feels like an even wider application of parallel skills – what can the study of other disciplines teach us? I’m looking forward to finding out, and will certainly be tuning into Guy’s blog as a regular reader. I heartily recommend that you do the same!

 

You can spend money or you can build skills

“Skill is equal parts muscle memory and knowledge.”

“You can spend money or you can build skills.”

“Bloggers only show their best work.”

These have been the thoughts circling my mind while I’ve been at the ‘bench today working on the boarded bookcase, and I thought it would be useful to discuss them here. Not least because yet another description of edge jointing boards would not make for gripping reading, and also it wouldn’t be particularly representative of this week’s work. So instead, let me offer some thoughts, with edge jointing those maples boards as a backdrop.

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Skill is equal parts musckle memory and knowledge – it’s why you can’t learn to build furniture (or anything really) solely by reading or watching Youtube, although I’ve found research and reading to be an invaluable part of the building process . At some point you simply have to get into the ‘shop and make some shavings, to translate the research into muscle memory. Muscle memory takes time and practice to develop, and it can also atrophy if not  constantly. And here’s I found myself – I learned a huge amount from the Roubo bench build, including new techniques and approaches. But I’ve not prepared an edge joint for glue up since October 2018, and boy can I tell how long it has been. The knowledge is still there but the muscle memory has faded, and while it will come back with some hard work, I’ve found myself chasing my tail with the next panel glue up for the boarded book case. Getting those two edges square and straight today seemed beyond me, as the edge tilted one way then the other despite my best efforts. And so the frustration mounts because I know I can do this (the three-piece maple top for the staked desk has two long glue joints, which are barely visible).

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You can spend money or you can build skills – I’m going to admit it, there were moments today when I wondered how much a 6″ spiral head jointer would cost and whether I had room for one in my ‘shop (the answers are: “£1,119 from Axminster“, and “no I definitely don’t have the space“). Stepping away from the bench for a moment to finish my coffee, I reminded myself that it is easy to see new tools as being the answer to finding a technique difficult, but new tools also require new techniques and skills (and there are few things I dislike more than setting up machines). When I started my journey in the woodcrafts at the Totnes School of Guitar Making back in 2007 I was focused on gaining the hand skills I needed, not spending my way out of difficulty. There are very good reasons to buy a jointer, but a frustrating day trying to get a good joint is not one of them. The acquisition of skills is still at the heart of what I’m trying to achieve at the bench, and so I’m going to focuse on nailing these edge joints to the standard I have in the past.

Bloggers only show their best work – it would be wonderful to pretend that everything goes perfectly everytime I’m at the bench, and not to write about the mistakes or difficulties. But that would be disingenuous, and I’ve aways tried to be honest in my writing here. After all, to err is human (to really stuff up takes a power tool). I think there is more benefit in showing the difficult stuff and the times that work does not go to plan. Today I stepped up to the bench expecting to nail this edge joint, and it owned me for several hours. It was a humbling experience, but keeping the ego in check is good for the soul.

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Ultimately I did achieve the tight joint I was looking for, and got the panel glued up with Titebond hide glue. I’m determined to bring that muscle memory back, and so the next few weeks will be spent working on the remaining three panel glue-ups before I move on to any other stage of the build. Focusing on the process will help to revive that all important muscle memory, and will keep me humble in the meantime.

One other useful learning experience in an otherwise frustrating day was trying another workholding method on the Roubo bench. Normally I would hold work to be edge jointed in the leg vise, but for the narrower board I rested it on the bench and held it with the planing stop and a does’ foot and holdfast. This method wouldn’t be appropriate for very wide panels, but for narrower boards such as this (3″ wide) piece it was very effective. This bench still has a great deal to teach me.

“The Finest Worksong”

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Cleaning up the first edge

Now that the Roubo bench is finished I’m digging into my first furniture project in some months, not to mention the first thing which will be built at the Roubo bench – a boarded bookcase from The Anarchist’s Design Book, in maple to match my staked desk from the same book. I actually purchased and broke down stock for this build back in February 2018 with (optimistic) intention that I would have the bookcase and a matching chair completed by the summer of that year. Needless, to say after gluing up the first panel I got way laid by two stick chairs, a set of campaign stools, and the Roubo bench. All good things to be distracted by, but the pile of maple and boxes of books next to my desk aren’t going anywhere, and I’ve been looking foreward to building this project for ages. So now is a good time to get building.

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Chris Vesper is the ultimate arbiter of squareness in my workshop

When Megan teaches this project at the LAP store front it is a two day class, cutting joinery, assembling the bookcase, cleaning it up and getting acquainted with cut nails. That sounds like a good way to spend a few days. But that compressed timetable assumes the timber is dimensioned and ready for use (one of the major benefits of taking a class). Try as I might, I was unable to get maple in the 13″ widths needed for the project (the perils of using an American hardwood in the UK – I hear in the States 13″ wide maple liteally grows on trees). So before I can get to the joinery I’ve got five panels to glue up and flatten, less the panel I glued up in 2018. That’s a decent amount of work gluing and processing stock by hand. It’s a good job I enjoy using my hand planes.

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Marking panel thickness

As an easy start I have been processing the panel I glued up in 2018. The interesting thing about the process is not flattening the board – I’ve written about that process plenty of times before (a good soundtrack is advisable, and as I’ve been on an IRS-era R.E.M kick recently I’ve had Document playing quite a bit). No, what has been interesting is getting accustomed to different ways of working at the Roubo bench.

To traverse the board flat I’ve been holding it with a combination of planing stop and doe’s foot with holdfast. Rock solid work holding and simple to set up. For working along the grain, I abandoned all work holding that fixes the workpiece in one position, and worked into a batten held by the planing stop and holdfast. If you are accustomed to cinching work between bench dogs in a tailvise, this “loose” approach to workholding can be a leap of faith. But it works very nicely indeed, and an additional benefit is the increased amount of feedback from the tool and workpiece. You’ll soon learn if your plane is not sharp, because it’s harder to muscle a dull blade through the cut if the workpiece can slide out of the way. Similarly, the workpiece will tell you if you’re not applying pressure in the right places, or skewing the plane in the wrong direction, because the timber will slide from under the tool. Instead of being a hinderance this is really helpful, because if you learn from these cues then planing becomes more efficient, and you remember to sharpen more frequently. This learning curve with the bench has made a routine operation (flattening stock) a thought provoking and very beneficial experience. I’m sure the bench has more to teach me as we get acquainted.

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Planing into a batten, with the No62

The maple I’m using is beautiful stuff, but prone to areas of bad tearout. While I normally use my standard issue bevel-down bench planes for processing stock (No 5, 8 and 3, in that order) I’ve found myself reaching for the No62 bevel-up plane, which when sharpened to a 50 degree bevel tames even the most truculent grain with ease. So after traversing the grain with the No5 and a cambered blade, I’ve been working along the grain with the No62 to remove traversing marks and before finishing up with the No3 to achieve a final finish. The first panel is now ready for joinery, so I’ll be moving on to the next panel (and my first glue-up at the Roubo bench) shortly.

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Planing stop, holdfast and batten (I’m using an old fretboard blank)

 

The Living Breathing Roubo Workbench

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The tenons are now proud of the workbench

One of the interesting experiences associated with building a slab-top Roubo workbench is the knowledge that while you’re aiming for tight, rock solid joinery when the bench is assembled, the nature of the slab top means that the joinery is unlikely to stay visually perfect for very long.

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The same joint when it was originally assembled and cleaned up – good and tight

I assembled my Roubo bench on 24 November 2019 – almost exactly five months ago. And when I cleaned up the joints in the weeks that followed they were pleasingly tight and gap free. Now, I built this bench in full knowledge that the slab would move during the first year or so, as it slowly reached moisture equilibrium with my workshop. Most timber reaches this point relatively quickly, but the sheer mass of the slab means that it takes longer to reach equilibrium. The benefit, is that once the slab achieves equilibrium it will move much less than a thinner conventional benchtop. So while the movement can be more dramatic at first, the bench should be much more stable as time passes.

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This week I noticed that those lovely tight leg joints were showing a consistent gap around the tenon, and that the tenons (which I had flushed when I flattened the bench top in December of last year) were now approximately 0.5mm proud of the bench top. This is to be expected, as the bench top shrinks around the leg joints. A quick check of the bench top with a straight edge showed that the top has started to cup a little, 4 months after I flattened it. I was expecting to flatten the bench top several times over the first 12 months of the bench’s life, so again this isn’t much of a surprise. The amount of cupping isn’t enough to interfere with using the bench, so I will leave it for a month or so before undertaking the first re-flattening of the year.

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The top has started to cup again. Next month it will be time for a flattening session

Do those gaps around the leg joints matter? Not in the slightest – the bench is still rock solid and the gaps are only cosmetic. Those joints are not coming apart any time soon, if ever. I will add wedges to fill the gaps when I next flatten the bench, and will flush up the joints. This is all part of life with a Roubo bench, and I’m ok with that.

“If it won’t hold soup, it’s art”

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After 13 months of working on the Roubo bench I was in sore need of a palate cleanser before I dive into my next significant furniture build (which, for the curious, will be the boarded book case from the Anarchist’s Desk Book, in maple to match my staked desk). One of the things I’ve been interested in trying ever since I bought my lathe is bowl turning. With the generous advice and guidance of my good buddy Rich Wile (who also contributed the title for this blog post), I invested in a good lathe chuck and a couple of sets of jaws, and ordered some bowl blanks.

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Over the past week I’ve turned two bowls in ash, and have found it to be a relaxing and entirely enjoyable process. Neither bowl is likely to win any beauty contests, and I’m going to do a little more work on both of them before I apply finish, but as a process it has been relaxing and has introduced an entirely new way of working wood while still producing (hopefully) objects of use. With both bowls I’ve not approached the lathe with any particular ideas or preconceptions, and have instead tried to achieve a pleasing form, ad-libing as I go. The second bowl blank looked solid in the rough, but turning it identified some deep checking and voids – no matter, as this will give me an opportunity to try some of the finishing ideas I have. Dr Moss is also excited about finishing and decorating some bowls. A family collaboration!

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With the smaller ash bowl I plan to paint the outside with pink milkpaint, and finish the interior with further coats of Tung oil (I applied one coat after turning it to get an idea of how the oil would look against the grain), and give it to the Apprentice for use as a snack bowl. The larger bowl I will hollow out a little more, as the walls look a touch thick, and then oil the outside to emphasise the wild grain. The inside will then be painted with milk paint, and it will go in the lounge as decoration.

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Each bowl took roughly 90 minutes to turn – is that fast for experienced bowl turners? I have no idea. But this is the first time I’ve taken rough timber to nearly-ready for finish in such a short time frame. As a form of instant gratification woodwork alongside my longer-term furniture projects, bowl turning seems quite attractive. And it also provides a means for quite quick experimentation, both in terms of form and approaches to finishing. Not to mention a useful way to turn offcuts into something useful. So I’m feeling quite excited by exploring this part of the craft. This blog won’t become a turning-focused space, but I am looking forward to becoming better acquainted with the lathe and exploring turning while I pursue furniture making and lutherie.

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Roubo Is Here

There is nothing quite as cathartic as the traditional end of a project clean up in the workshop. The opportunity to re-order the timber racks, clear out scrap, and impose order on the ‘shop. Completing the Roubo bench called for this more than ever, given that the project itself has prompted a major re-organisation of the ‘shop. While the workshop was looking tidy and clean I decided to take some beauty shots of the bench, before it settles into a life of being used. In normal times, Gareth Partington would be working his magic (as he has for the pieces in my portfolio), but these are not normal times and lock-down makes calling in an external photographer unviable. Maybe I’ll ask Gareth to take some photos of the bench in a few years’ time to capture the patina, battle scars and wear.

But for now, these will suffice. Proof that Roubo is here, and he is good.

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Benchcrafted Glide C vise

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Curved vise chop profile, and vise handwheel

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Draw bore peg in barefaced mortise and tenon joint

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Maker’s Mark Plaque by Jenny Bower

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Saddlebag by Texas Heritage, mounted at front end of bench

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Planing stop and lump hammer peg

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Planing stop forged by Peter Ross

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Crucible holdfasts, stored in the front-right leg

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Benchcrafted swing away seat, mounted on front right leg

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Shelf fitted with tongue and groove joinery and beading detail

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Grease box

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Grease box pivoted out for access

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Roubo on Roubo – Plate 11 provided the blue print for this bench, and the Burn HeartPied du Roi ruler provided the base unit of measurement

Roubo Is Coming… Part 32

I left the shelf last week with one board left to fit to the shelf between the stretchers. I had deliberately laid out the shelf so that the narrowest board fell in the centre of the shelf, and once the other boards were fitted I measured the remaining aperture and cut the board to size and cut the tongue and groove joinery which would connect it to its neighbours. After slotting the board in place I applied a coat of boiled linseed oil to the entire shelf, to match the finish on the rest of the bench.

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The completed shelf after a coat of boiled linseed oil

A good lump hammer or mallet is essential to the operation of the Roubo-style bench – it is used to adjust the planing stop and set holdfasts. So the final detail which I wanted to add was a peg to the front left leg, from which to hang my lump hammer. I can’t take credit for this idea – when I was teaching at the LAP storefront last autumn I noticed that Chris had fitted a peg to his Roubo bench for this purpose, and after a week or working a that bench I was sold on it as a very useful addition.

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I used riven oak for the peg, which was left over from the Welsh stick chair I built for Mortise & Tenon last year

I’m still in my infancy as a turner, but simple jobs like this are a great opportunity to develop skills, and I really enjoy firing up the lathe. Because the peg will carry the weight of a 2.2lb lump hammer, I wanted to make it from reliable strong stock. After rummaging through my stash of air dried riven oak (a bucket of shorter pieces lives at the foot of my drill press) I found a suitable piece roughly 5″ long, which I brought down to rough size with a froe and lump hammer.

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Stage one is turn the blank to a cylinder

I turned the roughly sized oak into a cylindar a little over 1″ diameter, and then turned a 1″ long tenon to just over 1/2″ diameter using a parting tool and Peter Galbert’s very helpful Caliper. With the tenon turned, I removed the workpiece from the lathe and cut the excess material using a Bad Axe 12″ carcase saw.

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Turn the tenon, and layout the sections of the peg

I then turned the peg, using a set of zero jaws to grip the tenon. The head of the peg is roughly 1″ in diameter, and I turned the body of the peg by eye until it had a pleasing shape – no real meaurements were involved. While the form is not as elegant as the “shaker” style peg Chris has on his bench, this peg is plenty stout and should support the lump hammer without any problem. I sanded the tool mark off with 320 grit paper while the peg was on the lathe.

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Zero jaws hold the tenon so that I can shape the peg

After checking the placement of the peg, I bored a mortise in the leg using a 1/2″ auger bit in my North Bros brace. I’ve never used the ratchet function on the brace before, but the proximity of the bench top meant that I was unable to use the full sweep of the brace, and engaging the ratchet made easy work of boring the mortise to full depth using only 2/3 turns of the brace.

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The shaped peg, ready to be fitted to the bench

The peg tenon was a little too snug to fit into the mortise, so I borrowed a chairmaking technique from Chris and compressed the tenon with a pair of non-scratch pliers. Applying a coat of hide glue allowed the tenon to slide into the mortise before the moisture in the glue caused the tenon to swell, locking it in place. A quick coat of boiled linseed oil on the peg, and the bench was finished. I’ve ordered some leather cord and once this arrives I will drill a hole in the handle of the lumb hammer and hang it from the peg, ready for work.

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Fitted to the bench and oiled

And so, after 13 months’ work, I can finally say “Roubo Is Here“. I celebrated with a whisky at the bench to christen it.

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Christening the bench with a very nice single malt