An excerpt of Plate 11 from Roubo’s L’art du menuisier, showing the iconic workbench (with leg vise removed), photo courtesy of Benchcrafted
I’ve been on holiday in Devon this week, so I’ve not had an opportunity to make any wood shavings. But I have had plenty of time to think about woodwork, as well as taking the apprentice to the beach for the first time and getting her paddling in the sea. And slowly the details of the new workbench are starting to coalesce. There are plenty of question marks left, and some design choices left to resolve, but since my last post I have a firmer idea of what the bench should look like, and I thought that a series of blog posts charting the evolution would help direct the design process (as well as recording it for posterity).
I think it is fair to say that the two most totemic symbols of the furniture maker’s (or luthier’s) craft are the tool chest and the workbench. These are the items which we build ourselves, or at least have the skills to do so, in order to practice our craft and build other things. I’ve written plenty about the importance of my Anarchist’s Tool Chest previously, both in terms of how it provides a safe home for my tools but also for the ideas it represents. Similarly, the workbench is an expression of the sustainable and ethical life I seek to lead – the reliance on my own hands and skills rather than big-box stores in order to create an environment in which my family can live and flourish
What it is…
That does not mean that the new workbench should be kept in a perpetually pristine condition, far from it. But it should be indicative of my approach to woodwork – the solid workmanship, refinement, and lack of ostentatious ornamentation, that I hope my guitars achieve. And above all, the workbench should facilitate many years of working with wood.
So what exactly will this bench look like? As I started out by saying, I’ve not got there quite yet, but the details are falling into place. So this post is an examination of what the bench design currently is, and what it is not.
The decision I reached at the end of my previous post was for a Roubo style bench, and that is very much still the basis of the design. That being said, the proliferation of Roubo inspired designs means that simply saying a “Roubo bench” is not in itself a precise description – there were two “Roubo” designs in the second edition of Chris Schwarz’s Workbench Book, not to mention the split top design developed by Benchcrafted. And Mark Hicks of Plate 11 offers three different twists on the Roubo bench (all of which are stunning). So more precisely, my starting point is the iconic Plate 11 bench from Roubo’s L’art du menuisier, (as seen at the top of this post) with a couple of twists which I cover below – all of which are still in keeping with modern interpretations of the “Roubo bench”.
Whenever you start a new project you inevitably draw on what you have done before. In terms of settling on a workbench design, my recent Moxon vise build has been particularly thought provoking. Prior to my Moxon build my only experience working with oak was in 1/4″ to 1″ thicknesses for some of the internal fitout of my tool chest, and so the Moxon build was my first proper experience using oak in any real thickness (oak, it must be said, is not a typical lutherie timber). To my surprise, oak is a real joy to work. The Moxon was also my first encounter with Benchcrafted hardware. So now I know two things – that I want to use oak for this bench, and that I’ll be using Benchcrafted vise hardware.
Yes, oak will push up the build costs, but will also stand the test of time, and feels very English. Should that matter? Probably not, but a nice solid bench combining the best of 18th century continental design with a quintessentially English timber does appeal. As I found on my Moxon build, oak goes very well with the sand cast finish of Benchcrafted “C” type hardware, and so a Glide “C” leg vise will be fitted to the left leg of the bench. Speaking of work holding, I’m going to depart from the Plate 11 brief by adding a Benchcrafted wagon vise (again the “C” type with the sand cast finish). I use the dog holes in my Sjoberg end vise as a make-shift wagon vise and this method of working has become second nature, so a wagon vise currently feels like an essential addition rather than a luxury.
My final addition to the Plate 11 design will be a sliding deadman. Again, this isn’t a radical alteration, but it does add some functionality which is essential for my lutherie work.
Despite the additions, the bench will be recognisably “Roubo”, and will definitely include the iconic sliding dovetail joint attaching the legs through the benchtop, because after all, surely one of the main attractions of building a Roubo style bench is cutting this joint?
The iconic sliding dovetail leg joint as drawn by Roubo, photo courtesy of Popular Woodworking
…and what it is not
First off, I’m going to jetisson the crotchet. With a good quality leg vise I’m not sure the crotchet adds anything, and I can see it fouling any attempts to secure my solera in the leg vise when assembling acoustic guitars. So the crotchet goes. More radically, I’m also undecided about the planing stop. This can always be added later if necessary (it is after all simply a chuffing large mortice through 5″ of oak benchtop filled by a friction fitted post), but with a wagon vise it feels a little superflouous. The elegance and simplicity of a planing stop and doe’s feet does appeal, but the wagon vise appeals more right now. Maybe I’ll see the error of my ways, but for now I think the planing stop might go.
There are still some major design decisions left to resolve, the most significant of which are the length of the bench, and construction of the top. My current bench is 6′ long, which is a reasonable size. Ideally I’d like an 8′ bench, so it is a case of seeing how comfortable the shop will be with an extra 24″ of bench length. My shop is 17′ long, so it will fit, but the far end has my sharpening station, bandsaw and go bar deck, so things may get a little crowded if the bench gets too long (which is sadly why I’ve had to scotch the glorious idea of building a 10′ long beast of a workbench).
With the top, I’m still torn between a slab top (comprised of a single, or maybe just two oak pieces), or a laminated top of 3″ wide oak. The laminated top involves a great deal more jointing than the slab top, but would be significantly cheaper. But if I’m honest, one of the real attractions of the Roubo form is the “Dreadnaught” slab-top design in Schwarz’s book, and as built on the French Oak Roubo Project for the past two years. So I’m leaning towards the slab top. If the slab top ends up being two-piece (which all really depends on what oak I can source) then I am strongly considering using loose pegged tenons (as demonstrated by Richard Maguire) to provide a mechanical joint in addition to the bucketload of epoxy. That should hold everything together for a couple of hundred years.
Where the slab top gets complicated is installing the wagon vise. Richard Macguire has previously sawn the wagon vise chanel into the slab top, and bolted an end cap to the slab. That works very nicely. But (and there is always a but) there is something very classy about a dovetailed end cap, which would require building a slab top with a laminated edge to dovetail to the end cap. Again, perfectly do-able, but it adds an extra step for no structural benefit – this is purely decorative. Jeff Miller’s stunning oak Roubo was built this way, and looks lovely.
So the impasse I’ve currently hit is whether to go with a pure slab top (with no dovetails), or slab top and edge laminate for a dovetailed end cap. What say you, dear readers?