All About The Base?

Or: Roubo is Coming… part 8

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Test fitting a long stretcher to the leg. That’s not a bad dry fit at all, and the small gap will close up when the joint is drawbored.

After chopping the remaining two mortises and tuning the fit of the tenons, the base of the workbench is now complete. While it would be tempting to dive straight into processing the slab there are a few other elements I want to attend to first, including fitting battens to the stretchers to support the shelf, and fitting the vise hardware, all of which will make life must easier when it comes to assembling the bench.

There is a lot of work left to do, but this feels like a huge milestone in the build process, and I am on track for having a completed bench before the year is out.

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Roubo Is Coming… Part 7

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With Jenny and Nathan Bower, at Handworks 2017

Although my Roubo bench build on the whole is a no frills back to 18th Century basics type affair, I did want to find some way to add a little personality to it. To build this type of bench by hand, out of oak, is a significant undertaking, and I thought that it would be fitting to leave some sign for future generations as to who made it. The decision as to how exactly I would add a personalised touch was easy – I would ask my friend Jenny Bower to engrave a plaque to be mounted on the vise chop. Jenny is an incredibly talented artist and engraver, and I was fortunate to interview her for Furniture & Cabinetmaking back in 2017. Only a few months after that interview, I flew out to Handworks and hoped to catch up with Jenny and her husband Nathan (also a talented craftsman, and maker of beautiful clocks). What I didn’t anticipate was that we would have booked into the same B&B in Amana, and we coincided over breakfast the first morning of the event.

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The plaque Jenny engraved for me with be the perfect finishing touch for the Roubo bench

This is the second commission I’ve asked Jenny to make for me – the first was a wedding anniversary gift for Dr Moss. I already had an outline design in mind using the familiar diamond shaped OtW maker’s mark Tom Richards designed for me three years ago, but I also wanted to give enough scope for Jenny to add her own signature style. It did not take long until we had a firm concept – a 4″ wide plaque in brass which used the OtW logo as the base design, and contains the year in which the bench build started (and hopefully will finish), with plenty of canvas for Jenny to add what she refers to as “unnecessary embellishment“. Jenny sent me two options of the full design to choose from, then all I had to do was wait for the postman to deliver the completed plaque.

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There are days when it feels like all I do is chop mortises. Good job it is so much then then.

The plaque arrived last weekend and is a thing of absolute beauty, with the brass working perfectly against the oak. The engraving is crisp and expressive, and is a lovely reinterpretation of Tom’s wonderful branding. I still need to prepare the vise chop, but I’m already looking forward to installing the plaque. For me one of the great benefits of being part of the community of makers is that we develop connections with other craftspeople in complementary disciplines. Knowing that this plaque is one of the first things I’ll see every day I step into the workshop, and that it will remind me of friendships and community far outside the walls of my own ‘shop, is pretty special.

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I’m calling that one done

As for the bench build itself, I only have two mortises left to clean up and the undercarriage will be complete. Today I cleaned up a pair of mortises and fine tuned the fit of the tenons on one of the long stretchers, and couldn’t resist a three-sided test fit. This is the first time I’ve had a true sense of the proportions and size of this bench, and she’s going to be a substantial piece.

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Test fit. One long stretcher left to fit, then the undercarriage will be done!

Roubo Is Coming… Part 6

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Cutting a small notch to the waste side of the layout line gives the saw a good starting point

And then there were two! Both leg sub-assemblies (each consisting of a pair of legs connected by a short stretcher) are together and looking good and square. I’ve also cut the tenons for the long stretchers and roughed in the corresponding mortises with the bit and brace. All that stands between me and a completed undercarriage is a fair amount of chisel work to pare the remaining four mortises square. So the end of this stage of the build is coming into sight.

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Cutting the tenons on the long stretchers – establishing a good saw kerf all the way round the tenon will guide the saw

Repeating any process results in efficiencies and more accurate techniques. Cutting the tenons is quick work with a decent tenon saw, even in oak, so there is not much time to be saved on this process. There have been improvements in accuracy across these eight tenons. Accuracy is something that you develop with muscle memory and educating your eye, and while the first set of tenons didn’t require much in the way of tuning, with the second set I’ve been riding the layout line much more comfortably and accurately. Where tenons have needed a little tuning, the large router plane has provided an efficient and repeatable way to remove any inconsistencies or bumps from the tenon cheeks.

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Paring the baseline for a “first class cut” on the tenon shoulder

My work hasn’t involved too much mortise and tenon construction to date (the Anarchist’s Tool Chest, and Saw Cabinet are the standout examples), but this is a really useful and enjoyable joint to use, and now that I’ve tuned my eye in, I want to keep cutting big beefy tenons. Fortunately there is still the joinery to secure the legs to the bench top, so I’ll be getting more practice at oversized mortise and tenon joinery later in the summer (with an added Roubo-flavoured twist).

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For a burly and aggressive timber framing saw, the Bad Axe Roubo Beastmaster leaves a remarkably clean surface

Next I will be pressing on with the remaining four mortises, and fitting the vise hardware before turning my attention to processing the slab top. There’s still lots to get done, but slowly a bench is emerging from this pile of oak.

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To completed sub-assemblies – the long stretchers will connect these into a complete undercarriage

 

 

Roubo Is Coming… Part 5

After several months of work, this is the moment when the various components of the workbench start to come together and look like something. There’s a great deal of distance left to go, but I now have the makings of a workbench undercarriage.

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Marking the tenon shoulder with the Vesper 4″ square and Hamilton marking knife

Cutting the mortises for the short stretchers was enjoyable but slow work, so I was looking forward to swapping my chisels for a tenon saw and cutting the second half of the joint. This is much faster work, even accounting for fine tuning the joint. When I laid out the mortises I had locked my marking gauge in position, and it will stay at that setting until the undercarriage is completed. I laid out the bare faced tenons with the marking gauge, and then scribed the shoulders with a square and marking knife, before shading in all of the waste with a pencil.

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The Roubo Beastmaster is the definition of controlled aggression – it ploughed through this 3″ oak tenon like the Apprentice ploughs through chocolate brownies

To cut the tenons I reached for my Bad Axe Roubo Beastmaster tenon saw. This build was one of the reasons I originally ordered this saw, and at 18″ long with 5″ depth saw plate it is a substantial tool. The key to cutting any joint is to establish a saw kerf to guide the saw through the entire joint, and cutting the tenon cheeks takes three cuts. First I set the stretcher at an angle so I can work to the layout lines on the end of the stretcher as well as one side. This keeps me cutting straight on both vertical and horizontal planes. I start at the corner nearest me, and keep sawing until I hit the far corner of the tenon end and the baseline on the side facing me. I then flip the tenon over and work down to the baseline on the newly exposed face, using the saw kerf along the end of the tenon to guide me. Once I hit that baseline, I place the stretcher vertical in the vise and cut out the triangle of waste that remains above the baseline.

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After making the first cut, turn the stretcher over and cut the second side, using the existing saw kerf to guide you.

Once the cheeks are cut, I cut the shoulders (this time with a Bad Axe Bayonet saw, filed hybrid – this is my “do everything” utility saw, as I’ve written before). The tenon shoulders are a “first class cut” and so I keepen the knife line with a wide chisel and pare out a small trench to guide the saw. Placing a finger gently on the toe of the saw prevents it from jumping out of the cut, and I saw down to the layout line until the waste pops out.

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Cutting the shoulders with the Bad Axe Bayonet

Placing the tenon in the corresponding mortise helps to identify if there is any tuning or further material to be removed. A broad chisel helps to remove any small humps from the tenon cheek, but to be honest if you have cut the tenon carefully you shouldn’t need too much tuning. Gently chamfering the corners of the tenon helps it to slide in smoothly without any junk in the corner of the mortise (often the hardest parts to clean out) fouling the fit.

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Chris Vesper says this is square, which is good enough for me

Once I had a pair of tenons cut I did a test fit with a pair of legs, checking for square with my Vesper 10″ square (the final arbiter of square in my workshop). I now have two subassemblies of legs connected by short stretchers, and next will be to cut the mortises and tenons for the long stretchers.

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One of the two completed sub-assemblies. Now to cut the joinery on the long stretchers and connect them all up.

Roubo Is Coming… Part 4

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Laying out the mortises with the Vesper 10″ square and Hamilton marking knife

After processing the legs and stretchers for the Roubo bench I was looking forward to cutting some joinery. Roubo explains that the stretchers are flush to the front of the legs (which also means that the long stretchers will be in the same vertical plane as the edge of the bench top) and situated between 4 and 5 pouce above the floor. He is silent on how the stretchers should be fixed to the legs, although mortise and tenon joinery is the obvious choice for this element of the build. I decided to follow Chris’ approach to this joint and use bare faced tenons, the advantages of which are that you only have one tenon shoulder to worry about, and you can include a good solid 1 pouce thick tenon (and 3 pouce long) in the joint. As with everything on this build, the joinery is big, which is why this bench should last forever.

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Laying out tenon width also established the dimension of the mortise

To break up this element of the build into manageable chunks, I decided to cut the joinery for the short stretchers first to create two sub-assemblies of legs, and then cut the joinery for the long stretchers as a second round which will leave me with a completed undercarriage. Whether you cut mortises or tenons first is, I think, purely a matter of personal preference. I tend to cut mortises first. What is important is careful layout of both halves of the joint, which I much prefer to do in one sitting so as to avoid any small (but significant) changes in measurement.

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Boring out the waste with a 1920-era North Bros. brace and 7/8″ auger bit. The Vesper 4″ square and my great uncle’s Starrett combination square keep me plumb to the workpiece

The Veritas mortise gauge is my go-to tool for laying out the joint, and I typically start by marking out the tenons. This establishes the setting for both halves of the joint and the gauge is then locked into that position for the remainder of this project. With the tenons marked out, I then laid out the mortises, measuring from the bottom end of each leg. The ends of the mortises were scribed across the full width of each leg, as this will enable me to wrap round the positions to the sides of the leg for the long stretcher mortises.

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Ready for paring

As I’ve said before, this oak is tough stuff. There are no medals for cutting these mortises with only a chisel and mallet, only blisters. Also, the widest mortise chisel I could find on the internet was 1/2″ wide, which would effectively require cutting two mortises for each joint, and removing the thin webbing between them. That sounds a lot like work to me, and so I took a different tack while staying firmly hand tool only. So, with my big Jet drillpress standing tantalisingly close, I fitted a 7/8″ Jennings pattern auger bit (from Tools for Working Wood) to my 1920s era North Bros. brace, and bored out much of the waste by hand. Yes the Jet would have eaten much of this oak for breakfast, but I really enjoy using the brace and bit, and taking it at a steady pace this did not feel like a particularly tough job. The key is to be bold and use the largest bit you can, to remove as much waste as possible. A knife line down the middle of the mortise also helps to give a clear centre line in which to place the lead screw of the auger bit.

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Squaring the ends of the mortise

With much of the waste removed to depth, the mortise could then be cleaned up with chisels. Effectively paring the mortise walks square and true relies on taking small bites with a chisel, and nibbling your way back to the baseline, very much as you would when chopping dovetails. First I removed any webbing left between the auger holes, and then square up the ends of the mortise using a 3/4″ chisel. The end grain is brutal hard stuff, even with a freshly honed chisel, and a sharp tap with a mallet helped ease things along.

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Paring the sides with a wide chisel

The sides of the mortises were easier going, and I used a 1 1/2″ wide Blue Spruce bench chisel for these – that width gave me a very consistent straight wall but without being so wide that it needed too much force to push through the cut. Again, paring the excess away in small bites and working back to the knife line, is essential. I also use a two handed grip for this work – my right hand is on the chisel handle with my thumb looped over the end for maximum downward pressure, while two fingers of my left hand are wrapped round the front of the blade, pulling it flat against the wall of the mortise. Each hand only has one job to do – the right hand drives the chisel and the left keeps it running in the right direction. This grip keeps the chisel from drifting out of the cut, and also from under cutting the wall of the mortise.  A small combination square can help test the walls of the mortise – if the blade of the square does not make contact with the top of the mortise then there is a bump which needs paring flat.

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Checking for square with the vintage Starrett

Next up will be cutting the tenons for the short stretchers, and tuning the fit of the joints. And then repeating the whole process for the long stretchers.

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Two of the four mortises cleaned up and ready for tenons

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.