21st-Century Workbench - Popular Woodworking

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This hybrid designholds work any whichway you want to.b y R o b e r t W. L a n gGood design is little more thanselective thievery. This workbench is a goodexample of that. A combination of featuresfrom several historic forms, ranging fromthe Roubo to the Workmate, becomes a newform, suited to being the center of a modernwoodworking shop.I’ve never seen a workbench that I wasentirely happy with. I have love/hate relationships with many common features. Ilike tool trays, but hate the way shavingsand other detritus collects in them. I wantto be able to clamp work quickly, but speedmeans nothing if the clamping isn’t solidand secure. Good design is also the art ofcompromise, finding the happy mediumbetween extremes.This bench began with the idea of building a reproduction of an English Nicholsonbench. The Nicholson was popular in Colonial America, and variations of it appearedin woodworking books until the 1920s.The dominant feature on the Nicholson isa wide front apron, which allows work tobe secured to the front of the bench as wellas to the top.The drawback to the extended apron isthat it limits the ability to clamp down to theOld ideas, new combination. Elements ofseveral historic benches are combined in aneasy to assemble, solid work-holding fixture.21st-Century34 Popular Woodworking October 2008lead Photo by al parrish

top of the bench from the edge. I narrowedand lowered the apron so I could clamp workto the bench in two directions. I was alsointrigued by the knock-down joinery onsome of the historic Nicholson benches.While I don’t plan on moving my bench veryoften, I decided to make it in manageablechunks, to ease the process of making it andassembling it.The design is based on function in thecompleted bench, and also on the processof making, moving and maintaining it. Thetools I used to make it are basic home-shopequipment – a 10" hybrid table saw, a 6"-inchjointer and a 12" “lunchbox” planer. AndI didn’t need a bench to build my bench.I made the top first, then placed that on apair of horses.Getting it Straight,One Part at a TimeThe best reason for assembling the top of thebench first is that when it is complete, it canbe put to work to fabricate and assemble allthe other parts. It’s almost as good as having a place to sit down when you’re halfwaythrough building a chair.I began with rough 8/4 ash lumber, andpicked through my stock for the straightestpieces to use for the top. After running oneedge over the jointer, I ripped each piece to arough width of 31 4". Then I dressed one faceof each piece flat on the jointer. When I had14 pieces ready, I moved to the planer.I wanted the stock to be at least 17 8"thick, but stopped milling when I had twoclean faces. Each half of the top consists ofsix pieces glued face to face, and leavingthe parts as thick as possible allowed meto maximize the width. If the stock hadended up thinner than planned, I wouldhave added a seventh piece. The goal wasNeed moreBench-buildingInformation?You can order a 60minute DVD loadedwith extras for just 19.99. Visit popularwoodworking.com/bench for details.Workbenchillustrations by the authorpopularwoodworking.com 35

to have the halves of the top finish at least111 2" wide, but less than 12".The length of the bench was also a variable.I wanted a minimum length of 84", but I wasable to get clean lengths of 90" from the 8'long rough material. After all the parts weremilled, I let them sit over a weekend to be surethe wood wasn’t going to move or warp.I began laminating the top boards in pairsglued face to face. To keep them flat, I clampedthem together on the strongest, straightestsurface available: an I-beam made of 3 4"-thickplywood. I let each pair sit in the clamps forat least four hours, and let them all sit for 24hours to allow the glue to dry.section. How much to remove would dependon how well these pieces went together.I set two long boards between my horses,and placed square boards across them, abouta foot apart. This gave me a nice level surfaceto work on, and provided the ability to reacharound, over or under the tops as I was settingthe clamps. A test-stacking of three pairs ofboards gave me the confidence to glue eachhalf-top section in one go.Back to Milling, then Serious GluingI ran the edges of each glued pair over thejointer to get a straight, square edge on eachlamination. I then ran the boards on edgethrough the planer. Once again, I stoppedwhen I had two clean surfaces rather thantaking the boards to a specific thickness.The cleaned-up pairs were slightly over myplanned 3" thickness, but I would still need toremove some material after gluing up each topSpread with speed. A disposable paint roller applies an even coat of yellow glue quickly. Apply theglue to one side of the lamination only. Doing both sides wastes time and glue.Sum of its parts. The flatness of the finishedbenchtop depends on the quality of its component parts. Milling the pieces as true as possibleand gluing them together on a flat surface iscrucial.36 Popular Woodworking October 2008Practice makes perfect. Taking time to set up a level and accessible surface for gluing, and making adry run, makes the final glue-up stress-free and yields good results.

Power lunch. This bench was designed around available machinery. Aftercleaning one surface with a handplane, the opposite surface is planed on aportable machine.With nearly every clamp in the shop standing by, I spread yellow glue on one face of twoof the parts with a 3"-wide paint roller. Withan even coat of glue applied, I turned the parts90 and starting tightening the clamps, working from the center out to the ends.Wooden handscrews across the ends of theglue joints prevented the parts from slidingout of place. I removed any glue squeeze-outwith a wet rag and a scraper, and let the piecessit in the clamps overnight.Because I had carefully milled the partsbefore gluing, and glued carefully on a flatsurface, the tops were in good shape comingout of the clamps. I knocked down the highspots with a handplane to get a flat surface,and ran the assembled tops through the portable thickness planer.Leaving the top halves less than 12" wideallowed me to use this small machine forsurfacing. At some point in the future I mayneed to resurface the top, and the little planerwill always be an option. This strategy alsoallowed me to cut each top half to length withmy sliding compound miter saw.The Structure Down BelowJoinery on a bench is on a different scale thanjoinery for furniture. The parts are larger,and the emphasis is more on function andstrength than appearance. The legs are twopieces glued face to face, and each pair oflegs is connected with an upper and a lowerstretcher with mortise-and-tenon joints.The legs and stretchers are assembledinto units, and the two ends are connectedIt just fits. Trimming the top halves to final length is within the capacity ofthis 12" sliding compound miter saw.Minimize the layout. After laying out the tenonlocations on the stretchers, lines are transferredto mark the matching mortises on the inner partsof the legs.with rails running the length of the bench.The large scale of the components made itpossible to locate joints for the knock-downconnections in the outer halves of the legs,and these joints were cut before the legs werelaminated together.In furniture I use through-tenons to showoff, but in this bench I used them to make lifeeasier. The mortises are only cut in the innerhalf of each leg. After laying out the joints, Iremoved most of the waste at the drill presswith a 3 4"-diameter Forstner bit.Working on my new benchtops placed onhorses, I used a chisel to square the mortisesto the layout lines. I then cut the tenons to fitthe mortises. I cut most of the shoulders byhand, but also cut some on the table saw tocompare techniques.Wasting away. A 3 4" Forstner bit in the drillpress is used to remove most of the material fromthe through-mortises in the inner legs.Online EXTRASVideos, plans and text about building andusing the 21st-century bench are availableon the Popular Woodworking Editor’s blog:popularwoodworking.com/oct08A full-length video of the construction of thisbench is available on DVD for 19.99. Inaddition to the video content, the DVD contains additional detail drawings and photos.For more information and to order, ng.com 37

The hand-cut shoulders were a bit neater,and didn’t take much longer to make. Aftercutting the shoulders, I removed the wastearound the tenons at the table saw, usingthe miter gauge to guide the boards acrossa stack-dado set.With a shoulder plane and rasp, I finetuned the fit of the joints. After tweaking acouple to a perfect fit, I realized I could makethe tenons narrow in width, widen the outsideof the mortises with a quick chisel cut, thensecure the joints from outside with wedges.This saved time, and gave stronger joints.With the tenons wedged, they can’t pull outof the mortises. After letting the glue dry, Itrimmed the wedges with a flush-cuttingsaw, followed by a block plane.Chop for an easy fit. A bit of chisel work cleans up the mortises to the layout lines at top and bottom. Widening the sides allows an easier fit and stronger joint with the addition of wedges.Tenons, plan B. The tenons can also be cut onthe table saw, but the machine must be adjustedseveral times to hit the layout lines precisely.31"113 4"71 2"3"21 4"6"53 4"34"33 4"31 4"55 8"23 4"33 4"Shoulders by hand. I think it’s faster to cut the shoulders by hand andavoid exacting setups on a machine. It’s just a matter of cutting to the lines.38 Popular Woodworking October 2008231 2"profile

Great Big DovetailsIt’s easy to think of dovetails as decorativejoints, but there are many practical reasons forusing this joint to hold the ends of the benchtogether. Most of the stress on a bench in use isend to end, and the wedged shape of the railto-leg joints can’t be pulled apart. In fact, ifyou push the base of this bench from the end,the joints tighten rather than loosen.The dovetails also serve to positively locateand align the parts during final assembly. Asthe joints come together, they fit where theyfit; it isn’t possible to put them together inthe wrong place.Both upper and lower dovetail joints arehalf-lapped with the outer portion of the leg.The lower joint is on the inside of the leg andis a half dovetail; the other half of the joint isa removable wedge. The upper joint is on theoutside of the leg and secured by a lag bolt.After cutting the shoulders by hand, Iremoved the waste with the stack dado onthe table saw, and used a roller stand to support the long workpieces. The angled cutswere made with a jigsaw.I smoothed out the waste left by the dadocutters with a chisel, shoulder plane and rasp,then marked the locations of the sockets onTogether forever. After assembling the leg andstretcher joints, wedges are glued and driven inthe joint from the outside to lock it permanently.90"65"113 4"71 2"31"221 2"23 8"Plan11 2"121 2"30"3"71 4"6"53 4"721 2"33 4"55 8"35 8 "573 4"65"elevationpopularwoodworking.com 39

the outer legs directly from the tails. I cut theangled ends of the sockets with a backsaw,and removed most of the waste in betweenat the table saw.The remaining waste was removed witha chisel, followed by a shoulder plane. ThenI used a plane maker’s float to achieve a flatbottom on these joints. The upper joints needto be equal in thickness so that the outer surfaces of the legs and rails will be flush whenthe bench is assembled.Down at the lower rail, the tail needs tobe thinner than the socket so that the end ofthe rail can easily pass through the socketin the leg. The socket also needs to be wideenough to allow the square end of the rail toenter the narrow portion of the joint, thendrop down into place.This requires some fussing, but becausethe outer half of the leg is loose at this point,it’s easy to see what is going on while adjustingthe joint. After fitting the lower portion of thetail, I cut and fit the removable wedges.With the joinery complete, I spread glueon the inside surface, and glued the outerlegs to the previously assembled inner legsand stretchers, taking care to keep the partsaligned. After letting the glue dry overnight, Iwas anxious to see the completed bench.Screws, Wedges and the Hole StoryI set the completed end units on the floor,and inserted the two lower rails into one end,knocked in the wedges then slid the rails intothe other end. The upper rails were knockedinto place, and after marking the centers of the35 8"6"1 2"53 4"1 2"55 8"5"4"33 4"1 2"33 4"leg detailReal-time layout. After making the male part ofthe joint, the socket is laid out directly from thefinished part. Simply lay the rail in position, lineup the top and knife in the angled line.40 Popular Woodworking October 2008Halfway gone. The dovetails on the ends of the horizontal rails are half-lapped. I removed most ofthe material with a stack dado set on the table saw. An adjustable roller stand supports the other endof the long parts.Fit the joint, then the wedge. After fitting thedovetail for the lower rail, a matching wedge iscut and fit. Thanks to working on only half theleg, this process is entirely visible.A little skinny. The end of the rail will needto easily pass through the assembled leg. Thesquare is set to half the thickness, and the spacebelow the blade tells the story.

Careful now. The legs are permanently assembled by gluing. Judicious placement of glue tokeep it out of the joint, and a clamp across thebottom to keep the parts from sliding, make theprocess painless.tails, I made a 3 4"-diameter counterbore deepenough to leave the head of a lag screw about1 8" below the surface. Then I drilled a pilothole and drove in a 1 4" x 2" lag screw.I set the tops in place on the assembledbase, with the edges even with the outside of the legs and a consistent distance inbetween.I drilled 3 8"-diameter through holes inthe upper stretchers, and 1 4"-diameter pilotholes in the bottom surface of the tops. Four5 16" x 31 2" lag screws secure each top sectionto the base. After admiring the assembly for awhile, I laid the bench on its side, and flushedthe joints to each other.The front of the bench is really a workingwork-holding surface, so I took care to level allthe parts to be in the same plane. While I wasat it, I used my block plane to bring the ends ofthe tails even with the edges of the legs.Setting the bench back on its feet, I laidout the locations of the vises, as well as the3 4"-diameter holes in the top, front rails andfront legs. A Veritas twin-screw vise straddlesthe left-front leg, and a small quick-releasevise is in the tail-vise position. I routed outa recess in the end of the benchtop for thetail vise, and glued two 2"-thick x 41 4"-wideblocks to the bottom to hold the screws forthe larger, twin-screw vise.There is a line of holes in the top, centeredon the dog location in the end vise. I drew aline the length of the bench at this distance,then marked a hole to just miss each side ofthe right hand leg. I set a pair of dividers atthis distance and stepped off the center-tocenter marks for this line of holes.I carried these marks down to the frontrails using a framing square. The holes in thelower rail are centered vertically, and the onesin the upper rail alternate high and low, 13 4"in from the edges. The holes in the rails don’tneed to line up with the holes in the top, butit seemed a reasonable spacing. It was easierto transfer the existing layout than to thinkabout a new one. The holes in the front willbe used with a surface clamp, or a simple dogto support work from below.On the inside edge of the top, I marked outlocations for holdfast holes on 12" centers, 3"in from the back edge on the front half. Onthe back half is another row of holdfast holes,A short side trip. After assembling the rails and top halves, the bench is turned on its side to level the front surfaces.popularwoodworking.com 41

also on 12" centers. I wanted these roughlyin the middle of the top, but didn’t want todrill into the glue line, so I centered them inthe middle of the board beyond the centerof the rear top.There are five holes in the front jaw ofthe vise, lining up with the holes in the top,roughly in the center and near each end ofthe jaw. Each of the front legs also has holes,two in the left, equally spaced between theupper and lower rails. The holes in the rightleg match, with an additional hole in the spacebetween the upper rail and the benchtop.Because the parts of the bench are relatively manageable components, I took thebench apart and drilled all of the holes at thedrill press using a 3 4"-diameter brad pointbit at a low speed, about 500 rpm. I used myroller stand to support the long parts thathung off the drill press table.Where Will the Hamsters Sleep?Between the two lower rails is a shelf that issupported by 2"-wide cleats nailed to the bottom of the rails. The shelf boards are randomwidths of 4/4 material, with opposing rabbetson the long edges. The boards at each end havea rabbet on only one edge, and butt againstthe inside edge of the lower stretchers.The shelf boards and cleats were left asthick as possible, and cleats were also nailedto the underside of each inside edge of the topsections to support the removable tool trays.The trays are open-topped boxes, made from3 4"-thick solid wood. The corners are heldtogether with simple rabbet-in-groove joints.The bottom is rabbeted to fit in a 1 4"-widegroove, with the face of the bottom even withthe bottom edges of the box sides.The tool trays can be turned upside downif desired to make the entire bench, or justportions of it, one wide flat surface. Or theycan be removed to allow clamping to the middle of the benchtop. They can also be easilycarried to return tools to their homes, or tothe trash can to remove the inevitable accumulation of shavings and other trash.I don’t believe that a bench needs a fine finish. After planing all the surfaces, I knockedoff the sharp corners of the edges, and applieda coat of Danish oil.With a few holdfasts and holddowns,along with some F-style clamps, I can holdwork securely in almost any position. That’swhat a good bench is for. It is the tool thatmakes the work of all the other tools easierand more efficent. PWRobert is senior editor of this magazine and author ofseveral books about furniture of the Arts & Crafts movement. Information on his books is available at his website: craftsmanplans.com.Fine-tuning. The lag bolts that secure the upper rails are counterbored tokeep the heads well below the surface. The faces of the rails are made flushto the legs.Even ends. The endsof the tails are alsotrimmed flush. The lagbolts that hold the topon are visible behindthe block plane.The boring part. The top halves are heavy, but with the aid of a stand theycan be brought to the drill press for boring the dog and holdfast holes.42 Popular Woodworking October 2008

exploded view21st-Century WorkbenchNo.item 12 Top laminates 4 Inner legs4 Outer legs4 Upper stretchers4 Lower stretchers2 Upper rails2 Lower rails4 Wedges4 Cleats8 Box sides8 Box ends4 Box bottoms1 Shelf1 Face vise blocks1 Face vise chop1 Tail vise chop*TAP Thick as possibledimensions (inches)TWL115 163115 16 33 4115 16 33 4115 16 21 4115 16 31 4115 166115 16 33 47 813 813 1623 433 433 46 3 43 4223 8241 41 2 471 41 1 23material90 AshcommentsMill TAP*, 6 per halfMill TAP*, 13 4" minimumMill TAP*, 13 4" minimumMill TAP*, 13 4" minimumMill TAP*, 13 4" minimumMill TAP*, 13 4" minimumMill TAP*, 13 4" minimumMill TAP*, 13 4" minimum31 Ash31 Ash31 Ash31 Ash65 Ash721 2 Ash85 8 Ash90 Ash Cut to fit between ends221 2 Ash63 4 Ash201 2 Ash58 Ash Random width shiplapped boards30 Ash Total length, trim for each side of leg30 Ash Laminated from 3 pcs.115 8 AshSuppliesLee Valley800-871-8158 orleevalley.com1 eritas twin-screw vise, 24" centerV#05G12.22, 2251 quick-release bench vise, 7"#10G04.11, 992 Veritas surface clamp#05G19.01, 67 each2 pr. 43 8" bench dogs#05G04.02, 26.50 pair Tools For Working Wood800-426-4613 ortoolsforworkingwood.com2 pr. Gramercy holdfasts#MS-HOLDFAST.XX, 29.95 pairPrices correct at time of publication.popularwoodworking.com 43

34 Popular Woodworking October 2008 lead Photo by al Parrish by RobeRt W. Lang G ood design is little more than selective thievery. This workbench is a good example of that. A combination of features from several historic forms, ranging from

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