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.