Roubo Is Coming… Part 3

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And with that, the undercarriage is all processed. Four legs and the same number of stretchers. My reward for all of this stock prepartation will be cutting 8 mortise and tenon joints, and fitting the vise hardware to the front left leg. Not that I’m done with planing stock for this project – far from it. There is still the vise chop and lower shelf to process, not to mention the small matter of flattening the slab top. But after six weeks or so of nothing but planing oak until it is square and true, I’m looking forward to some joinery. At the outset I did wonder if processing this quantity of material by hand without any distractions might be repetative, but while it has been heavy work with occasionally truculent timber, it has all been very enjoyable and offered many learning opportunities.

Now time to put the hand planes to one side and sharpen my chisels in readiness for cutting those joints. It’s going to be good to see the base come together.

Roubo Is Coming… Part 2

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Timber selection – picking the final two legs and vise chop out of these beams. In the rough this timber looks a little gnarly, but it cleans up very nicely.

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.

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Transforming grey timber into something beautiful and useful. The scrub plane is perfect for raidly removing high spots

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.

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Smoothing surfaces with the No3

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.

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Mutton tallow – lubricating the soles of planes makes for much easier work when taking heavy cuts in difficult timber.

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.

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Trimming the legs to length. The Skelton Panel Saw cuts so accurately I can get a square end straight off the saw without any need to clean up with a block plane

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.

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It’s not square until Chris Vesper says its square.

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.

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Current progress – three legs and four stretchers all processed and ready for joinery.

Roubo Is Coming… Part 1

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My new Hamilton Woodworks traditional marking gauge in use

It is hard to believe, but I first started thinking about a Roubo bench build four years ago. And finally, I have started the build in earnest. This promises to be a fascinating project with plenty of learning opportunities, both in terms of building the bench and then using it. The scale of the work involved is quite different to anything I’ve done before – in many ways it feels more akin to timber framing than to furniture making. And that is one of the two reasons why I decided to start by making the under carriage, rather than tackling the (frankly monolithic) slap top – working my way up from smallest component to largest means that I will have my process figured out, and adjusted to the scale of work, by the time I address that imposing slab of oak. The other reason is that while the top continues to acclimate to the workshop (a process that could take some time) it is liable to move, which means that starting with the top would result in several flattening sessions being needed by the time I assemble the bench. In contrast, the components for the undercarriage have all acclimatised, which means that they will be much more dimensionally stable.

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All measurements for this build will be taken from the Pied du Roi ruler made by Brendan Gaffney

Following the principle of working smallest to largest component, I started by processing material for the four stretchers. These are 4″ wide, 2″ thick, and will have 3″ barefaced tenons on each end. Regular readers may remember that my brief for this project was working from the description in With All the Precision Possible, and using the 18th century French Pouce as my base unit of measurement. All measurements I use on the blog for this project will, unless otherwise stated, refer to the Pouce rather than a modern inch (to be honest this is as much for my benefit as anyone else – if I have to swap between two different measurement systems I’m going to get very confused).

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Processing the long stretchers on the staked saw benches

Processing the stretchers was the same process as for any other furniture project, with a few significant exceptions.The first was that the long stretchers were quite a bit longer than my Sjoberg benchtop, and too wide to fit in the face vise. To plane the wide sides I would be unable to work at the bench, unless I was prepared to clamp the stretcher to the benchtop and work it in sections. That sounded like a slow way to work, so instead I took the opportunity to try some of the techniques explained in Ingenious Mechanicks. I don’t have a low workbench (yet) but I figured my saw benches would work at a pinch. Setting up the long stretchers on the saw benches, I was able to sit on the workpiece to keep it in place, and plane the section in front of me, before shuffling back a few feet and working the next section. Not having to adjust any clamps made this a very quick and efficient way to work, and I was surprised at just how comfortable working while sitting down was. The saw benches are incredibly versatile, and have really earned their keep since I built them in 2016.

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Sitting down on the job (literally) is a comfortable and efficient way of processing stock

If I were working this way regularly I think a set of wooden bench planes would be beneficial, including a shorter jointer plane (the No8 is quite a weight, and length, to be extending out in front of you from a sitting position), but on the whole this was an enjoyable and efficient way to work. The one area where the saw benches did not work quite as well as a dedicated low bench was the last section of the stretcher, which you can’t sit on as you work it – a low bench would have a planing stop or series of pegs to secure the workpiece while working at the far end. At this point I did reach for a couple of clamps, but as that was the final short section it did not slow me down too much.

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Ripping the stretchers to width with my trusty 1900 era Disston D8

The second difference to processing furniture sized stock was that the thickness of the stretchers exceeded what my shooting board plane could comfortably handle. I want all of the stock for this project to be as accurately processed as possible, so as to avoid any unpleasant surprises come glue-up, and that includes accurately squared-off ends. With my shooting board out of the question, I turned to my mitre box and Bad Axe mitre saw. Having knifed in clear layout lines on all four sides of the stretcher ends, I cut a deep kerf along each knife line using the mitre box. The four kerfs then guided the saw to leave a clean and square end from which I can layout the tenons.

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Squaring off the stretchers with a mitre box. Kerfing in the layout line on all four sides offers a “path of least resistance” which guides the saw

With the stretchers processed and ready for tenoning, the next task will be to process the legs. These are 6″ wide and 4″ thick, so will represent a step-up in dimensions and scale of work. It will be interesting seeing what lateral thinking they require.

Roubo is Coming

Roubo is coming, and he’s a heavy dude. I know this, because on Monday night I unloaded an oak slab that is destined to become the top of my new workbench. It’s hard to believe that over two years have passed since I last wrote about the ideas and options for a new workbench. While I may not have written about benches since then, I’ve spent a lot of the intervening period thinking about what I wanted from a workbench. Often when I was straining the capabilities of my current Sjoberg bench. In that time, I’ve refined my plans, settled on the design, and given some serious thought to how I’m going to approach the build. This is a big project to undertake, and so I wanted a narrative arc to carry me through. I think I’ve found one.

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Stretchers, planing stop, and slab all stickered. The legs and vise chop are stacked up separately.

It was Ethan who convinced me at the start of this year to stop putting this project off for another day, and to get to building. Since then I’ve been trying to source the timber – no small endeavour for a project like this, but which came to fruition on Monday, when a very heavily laden truck arrived at the workshop. But what exactly am I going to build with all of this oak?

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My instruction manual for this buld – Roubo’s desciption of the work bench, and the Pied du Roi ruler

Well, as you’ve probably guessed by now the new workbench will be Roubo-orientated. In my last workbench posts I was considering a dovetailed end cap, sliding deadman, wagon vise. Lots of accoutrements that Roubo would not have recognised. Instead, I’ve decided against doing a modern interpretation of a Roubo bench, and will follow Roubo’s description of the workbench (and in the excellent Lost Art Press translation of With All the Precision Possible) together with the illustration in Plate 11. So no sliding deadman, tail vise, or other modern additions. This is going to be as close to the illustration in Plate 11, and Roubo’s description, as I can make it – including the grease pot and drawer.

And this extends to the basic unit of measurement. In an effort to follow Roubo’s description faithfully I will be using the period appropriate Pied du Roi as my unit of measurement, in preference to the modern inch, with the aid of Brendan Gaffney’s excellent rulers. One of the practical research questions that I’m interested in exploring with this build is whether using a different unit of measurement has any practical implications once the bench is in use.

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Benchcrafted Glide C vise – the texture of the casting, and beech knobs, work really nicely with the oak. And who doesn’t want a steampunk ship’s wheel on theit workbench?

So a slab top oak bench, with the iconic sliding dovetail leg joint. That sounds pretty good. For work holding I have a traditional planing stop made by Peter Ross and my one concession to modernity – the Benchcrafted Glide C vise. To supplement the planing stop I’ll be using 1″ diameter holdfasts and Does’ feet. At this stage I’m not convinced by the need for a crotchet, so will be omitting that from the build. But it is always something I can add at a later date if it becomes useful.

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Peter Ross planing stop

How about the dimensions of the bench? As it currently sits in my ‘shop, the slab top is 6″ x 22″ x 110’ in the rough. Ultimately. I’m shooting for a top that is 8 Pied du Roi long (in the region of 102 modern inches). This should be long enough that I’ll never outgrow it, but short enough that it is easily housed. My hope is that this will be the only bench I ever build. Sourcing oak of this size has not been an easy task, but Matthew Platt of Workshop Heaven kindly put me in touch with Acremans Timber, who were very helpful in supplying oak in what is an unusual set of dimensions.

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The slab top – 110″ of green oak ready to be transformed into a workbench

The oak is now stacked up and stickered in the ‘shop while I wrap up a few projects. Towards the end of the year I’ll start the build in earnest – that will have given the legs and stretchers time to acclimatise. As for the slab top, well, given that it is both air dried and huge, it will take decades to dry out. My moisture meter tells me the end of the slab is at 16% moisture content, but the middle of the slab is likely to be much, much wetter. One of the other learning experiences of this build will be working with a monolithic slab which is, to all intents and purposes, still green. It promises to be a very interesting (and exciting) build, and I hope you all join me for the ride.

Ingenious Mechanicks – on review

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Aside from my round-up of favourite woodworking books earlier this year, book reviews are not really something I’ve done on the blog. But as soon as I finished reading Chris’ new book, Ingenious Mechanicks on holiday earlier this month, I knew that I was going to have to write about it here.

If somehow this book has passed you by, then it can briefly be summed up as an investigation into low workbenches and workholding solutions spanning a 2,000 year period from the Romans to 20th century Estonia, by way of China and South Ameria. In the book, Chris draws upon a vast body of history of art, written primary sources, not to mention the Saalburg bench – the oldest surviving workbench in the Western world (dating from 187 AD).  The research is then rigorously tested by building four low bench designs and working at them to unlock techniques and working methods. So far so niche, you might think, but actually the information and lessons in this book have a wide application.

The book contains a useful guide to building (any type of) workbench with a thick slab top, which is a very welcome and helpful supplement to the Workbenches book. Next follows a detailed survey of the source material, and explanation as to how the research led Chris to build the benches as well as the simple appliances which increase their functionality. The production values of this book are high, as you’d expect from a Lost Art Press release, and the benefit is that the pictoral sources are reproduced with great clarity so that the reader is able to interrogate the images and reach their own conclusions about how artists have represented workbenches and woodworking. As I’ve written previously, history is one of my first loves, so this book was always likely to be like catnip for me. I wasn’t disappointed.

But putting aside my particular interests for a moment, as I was reading Ingenious Mechanicks I was struck by the recurring thought – this book is quite possibly the most important work Chris has published since the Anarchist’s Tool Chest. That’s a pretty bold statement, I know. But there are two reasons why I think this.

First is that Chris is presenting a way of working which is (for most people) entirely new – one which presents solutions for age old workholding problems, as well as new challenges. The vast majority of the way we work is from handed down knowledge – we learn from books, Youtube videos, or (heaven forbid) other woodworking humans in the same room as us. These are all healthy and invaluable ways of gathering and transmitting knowledge. But what I find exciting about Ingenious Mechanicks is that it offers something truly unique – the opportunity to experience a vibrant way of working for which not all the answers are known, and for which there is not a pre-existing corpus of knowledge on which to draw. Instead, the reader is presented with a chance to explore the benefits and limits of low workbenches and to report back from the frontline of woodwork research as they happen upon working methods and techniques. The only price of admission is to suspend pre-conceptions, and spend some time using unfamiliar workholding solutions.

Secondly, Chris has laid bare his workings and research methods. In doing so he provides the tools for others to research historic woodworking practices, and demonstrates how a rich seam of art history, archaeology, written primary sources, and an inquisitive disposition, can provide valuable insight into woodworking practices that are both historic and relevant today. Ingenious Mechanicks therefore becomes part woodworking book on pre-16th century workbenches, and part woodwork research methodology.

As I was reading the book I found myself asking questions about how familiar operations would translate to a low bench. Would wooden bodied planes respond differenty, or feel more comfortable, than metal bodied planes when processing stock? What sort of body position and posture would be necessary for sawing accurate dovetails? Would ow benches encourage the use of specific joinery techniques? There are few answers yet, and I know that there is really only one way to understand how these benches work. The oak for my slab-top Roubo bench is on order and should be here in the next couple of weeks. And now I am measuring up the workshop and trying to decide whether I should build one of these low benches too. And when all is said and done, persuading a reader to build one of these curious old benches goes to show just how effective Ingenious Mechanicks is.

The redneck sticking board… for when all other workholding fails

Richard Maguire wrote a very interesting blog post about work holding on Friday, which came at exactly the right time for me. The main thrust of Richard’s post (although it really is worth reading in its entirety) is that clamping every workpiece to the bench is not only unnecessary, but also disrupts workflow. Now, Richard knows his workbenches, so I find it pays to give proper thought to what he says. As it happens, I received a planing stop in the post a couple of weeks ago from Peter Ross, in readiness for my Roubo bench build (and more about that soon). But on my current bench I’m limited to bench dogs, holdfasts, and clamps. These do for most tasks, but occasionally I hit an operation which these workholding methods are just not appropriate.

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This handmade planing stop by Peter Ross is just sublime, and will perform key workholding duties on my Roubo bench

My current build (for the October issue of Popular Woodworking) is a case in point. This project calls for a shallow drawer which is grooved to accept the drawer bottom. All very conventional. But securing a narrow drawer side to plough the groove can be tricky, as I realised this morning. The drawer stock was too narrow to hold with clamps without fouling the posts of the plough plane, and I prefer not to use a tail vise and dogs to hold small stock due to the risk of the clamping pressure bowing the workpiece. While I was contemplating how to secure the drawer stock in place, Richard’s post started to play on my mind. And then I realised I already had the solution tucked away in the corner of my ‘shop.

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Five minutes, a length of 3/4″ ply, and a handful of self tapping screws, and I had the most redneck sticking board ever to grace a workbench. It was also incredibly effective. I always keep a box of self tapping screws on hand for jig making – they are nasty little things which I would never use for furniture, but perfect for jigs. Instead of driving the screws all the way home, I put three at varying heights to act as a rough planing stop. To prevent the drawer stock from deflecting sideways I then created a fence by driving another series of screws into the ply, leaving them proud of the surface. This positioned the workpiece with one edge hanging off the ply for the plough fence to register against. The pressure from the plane was sufficient to hold the workpiece against the two lines of screws, and with the screw heads below the surface of the workpiece there was nothing to foul the movement of the plane (as there would have been had I used clamps or a holdfast).

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A handful of screws and some thick ply was all I needed to hold these narrow drawer components securely for grooving

Now, none of this is particularly revolutionary – this is basically a very rough version of the sticking board from Mouldings in Practice. But what I found very interesting about the whole experience was how it improved my workflow, very much as Richard had suggested. Instead of releasing clamps or winding back a tail vise, I could just pick up the unsecured workpiece to check my progress. This encouraged a much smoother workflow, and smooth leads to fast. After ploughing several grooves, I also needed to cut a stopped groove, and I used the same sticking board. It worked even better in this application – without needing to worry about the plough plane fance, I was able to butt the workpiece against a screw head, and hold it in position using only pressure from the small router plane. Simple, intuitive, and quick. And even better, at the end of the operation I removed the screws and put the ply back in the corner until I need it again. Now that’s my sort of jig.

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Hand pressure and a screw keeps the workpiece in place while cutting the stopped groove

Based on this brief experiment I can’t help thinking about how I might apply the same principles for other workholding tasks, so that I do not have to rely on anchoring the workpiece down. I’m also greatly looking forward to using the Peter Ross planing stop once the bench build is complete. Roubo is coming.

Down the workbench rabbit hole… part 2

 

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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?

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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?