This was going to be my year for getting enough clamps: I was to troll the tool sales and estate sales to get what I’ve been lacking. Then you-know-what came around, and that plan whimpered and died. As fate would have it, I’ve got an upcoming project that requires more clamps than I have.
Perhaps I was fortunate that I was reading the Roubo translation from LAP recently, and of course Roubo talked all about clamps. He described a panel clamp made from two boards that he called “twins.” He said that “the use of these tools is excellent,” and his recommendations are not to be taken lightly. OK, whatever, it looked reasonable, so I wondered if anyone in the 21st century had made them. I should have guessed that Don Williams had done it; here’s his blog post. There’s a snippet of the Roubo plate in there. Also, keep in mind that even though we’re calling them “Roubo clamps,” we don’t really know how the form evolved over the years to the form he described.
The construction of these is simple enough that it was definitely worth trying. I grabbed some southern yellow pine 2x4s and put a bunch of holes in:
Hand tool disclaimer: I used my drill press. Sure, I could have used my brace, but it would have taken a lot longer, and this is one thing that a machine actually does really well.
The holes are alternately offset like Williams did. It seemed like a good idea at the time. He used a mortising machine to make 1/2″ square holes. I planned for 3/4″ pegs, and I didn’t like the idea of using round pegs, so I needed to square up the holes. With no mortising machine of my own, I just went at it with the biggest mortise chisel that I own:
Thankfully, these don’t need to be appearance-grade. And yes, I chopped halfway in from each side, and yes, there’s something underneath the wood to keep from putting (any more) nicks into my bench.
This was something of a chore, but not awful. After that, it was simply a matter of resawing, making the pegs and wedges, and before long, I had three twins:
I tested them on some boards that were lying around:
These seem to work well. I pounded the wedges in pretty hard. Using them requires some acclimation, so I guess another reason to use liquid hide glue is so that you have enough time to put them on. Although I’m using double wedges here, I might change to single ones for the simplicity.
Being southern yellow pine, I think they’ll be strong enough. Roubo describes beefier things: roughly 4-5 inches wide, and 2 inches thick (but is this per side or for both twins?). His described mortises and pegs are 1.5 inches wide–four times the volume profile. But from what kind of wood would he have seen these made? Oak would be very strong for the pegs, but its tendency to split cleanly might be something of a concern for the twins. Beech wouldn’t have that kind of problem. Or what if it were a wimpy sort of thing?
Oh well, I don’t think that’s something I need to concern myself with that until I manage to break these.
A secondary title would be “A Study in Overthinking.” There’s a spot near our back door where we’ve been wanting to put up a small shelf with some knobs or hooks or something underneath. I decided that it wasn’t worth procrastinating any longer, so I grabbed a piece of eastern white pine, flattened and thicknessed it, and set out to do the actual construction. At first, I thought that I’d make some sides as brackets and use cut nails to put the whole thing together (too much “Anarchist’s Design Book,” you see).
So I plowed a groove into one of the boards that was to be the back. This would accept the shelf:
I had to do this in three stages because (a) I don’t have many blades for the plow plane, and my widest one was a little too wide, and (b) I failed to think ahead that I could have just thicknessed to the width of that wide blade. When you’re overthinking, you wouldn’t accidentally want to think of something that makes sense, right? At least I rejected the sliding dovetail idea.
Then I quickly evened out the bottom with a router plane, and got to fitting the shelf into the back. At that point, I tossed the nail idea out the window because it was faster to glue the thing in place:
The remaining work would be to make the sides that would act as brackets. I was still planning to nail those on, but then I realized that because I glued it, this thing was probably already stronger than it needed to be. There was the option of omitting the brackets altogether and letting the shelf “float,” but I didn’t think that look would fit the intended setting.
My first thought was to just make diagonal braces dovetailed into the rear and top, but partway into making the brace, I decided that this was a dumb idea. It helped that I was feeling lazy. I ended up just mitering the brace with no additional joinery, and just glued them on:
I didn’t even bother to use clamps. In other applications, this might strike one as flimsy, but remember that the purpose of these is decoration. I’m not timber-framing. Still, I did prepare the mitered surface with thinned liquid hide glue before the normal (liquid hide glue) application.
For what it’s worth, I did try knocking them off after the glue dried, and they didn’t budge.
And so here’s the result, edges broken and ready to be painted (at least, I think I’m painting it):
Now I’m destined to overthink the paint. (I think it’s supposed to be white.)
While building whatever it is that I’ve been building up until now, I’ve always had this feeling in the back of my head that I’ve been ignoring a type of construction that might be pretty useful. And this sort of hit home when I read through The Anarchist’s Design Book recently. I have to admit that I’ve always found the idea of round tapered tenons to be a little dodgy-sounding, but I didn’t have much faith in my reasoning. This kind of joinery is the basis for many kinds of chairs that seem to hold up just fine. When a lot of real-world evidence contradicts you, it’s probably not good idea to try to bend your mind to ignore that reality.
In the book, it doesn’t look all that complicated. I got to thinking, “Well, I could do that.” I ordered a tapered tenon cutter, a reamer, and picked up a piece of 8/4 red oak from the lumberyard. It was at least worth trying the first project in the book, the staked sawbench. I’ve been wanting to build a second sawbench for a while now, so what did I have to lose?
I started by gluing up the top of the sawbench (you’ll see that later), then worked on the legs. I picked the worst part of the board for the legs, saving the nice straight stuff for other projects. It seemed that, once dimensioned square, I’d want a reasonable way to get an octagonal profile, so I first tried to tack a leftover from the sliding deadman track onto an old sticking board to get some sort of channel for the leg to rest in:
But it wasn’t great. The leg tended to slip off of the sloped edge. I decided that it was worth making something better than this 5-minute hack.
I came up with a new sticking board-like thing with a proper channel (what are these things called?):
Simply put, this worked far better. The end is held in place with one dog that also serves as a stop for the work:
This is easy to do when you have round dog holes; you just bore a hole in the far end of the board to accept the dog. I clamped the whole thing in place on the other side with the tail vise.
I can use this for holding cylindrical stuff as well, but there’s one more advantage to this. Notice how the side is flush? This means that I can also use it in my bandsaw:
Since we’re hand-tool oriented here, we won’t dive deeper, but it should be clear enough that you can use the bandsaw to quickly rough out the profile, then move the whole mess over to the bench and finish it off with planes.
With the legs profiled, it was time to get them shaped at one end in order to use the tenon cutter. This was new territory; I decided to start with a drawknife that I’ve had for some time but never really had much use for:
The tenon cutter could almost fit at this point, but it still needed some rough shaping and I’m not confident enough with the drawknife to go too crazy. This is the point where I turned to my Shinto saw rasp, which turned out to be just the right thing.
I got the first one made in spite of going at it blind (other than seeing it in the book):
Getting the tenon straight was a little disconcerting (you can test it by putting it in a reamed hole and turning; if it wobbles around, it’s not straight). I eventually found that if you hold the tenon cutter in a vise or clamp or something, you can get pretty good results by holding the leg from the other end and turn, like you would a pencil sharpener. This works because you’re keeping a steady angle. You might find that the leg can want to shift to a different spot as you’re starting out. Let it do so; it’s shifting to the center.
I need to do more experimentation on the best way to keep the tenon cutter fixed and getting a stake to line up more easily at the beginning. I also found that if you rub a little wax on the tenon before you start, it makes for a lot easier job (and a lot less noisy). But the good news is that making the tenons got a lot faster as I got used to it.
Then it was off to reaming the mortises, which I’ve also never done before. I started by clamping the top to my first sawbench with some standoffs, then using a regular auger bit with the “sliding bevel resultant angle” method to bore the initial hole. Then it was off to reaming in much the same way:
This process, like the tenons, takes a little bit getting used to, but gets much faster as you get accustomed to it.
I’m not sure about that reamer. In the preceding photo, I’m using a 12-inch sweep brace, but the shank of the reamer is pretty soft and gets dinged up, and the chuck on this brace doesn’t hold it that well. I switched to a brace with a Millers Falls “Lion” chuck, which is better, but I’m still not thrilled with it. This reamer is really meant for power drills. For hand braces, especially this big one, something with a traditional square-taper shank would put my mind more at ease. I wonder if the power tenon brace adapter that Lee Valley sells is the right size.
In any case, I had the test fit ready in what seemed like no time:
Yes, Roubo would have a fit at the way I put the heart of the tree on the inside for the one edge of the top, but Roubo didn’t have southern yellow pine. This would be a disaster with, say, beech, but SYP is far more stable, and I did it this way to make the grain directions align in a certain way.
At this point, I decided to just jump off the deep end and glue it up right away. I could have planned ahead a bit better there. I decided that I would use a chisel to split the tops of the tenons to accept a wedge, so I didn’t put a kerf in there, but it didn’t dawn on me that I would need to bang the wedges in at the same time that I glued the legs in place… until I reread the book a little more closely. I didn’t even have wedges made, so there was a mad rush to make some wedges and pound them in.
So I don’t have any photos of that process. But I do have a finished sawbench now:
The hardest part, I think, was finding some way to hold the legs while sawing them to final length. I ended up clamping them to the end of my bench, but in retrospect, I might have done better by just clamping them to my original sawbench.
This seems to have gone OK, especially for the first time through. I really had no idea what I was doing here. The legs really line up well. It looks decent. I was especially happy about how quickly it went together. Really, this was just a few hours in the shop for a couple of days. Best of all, it seems to work, which should be a really big help when cutting down those really long boards.
With this behind me, I feel like perhaps I might be capable of making a chair one day. But there are other things requiring my attention in the immediate future.
I’ve been picking away at pieces of the router plane box and finally glued in the last bracket (the one for the fence) yesterday:
I took off the clamp today and did a test-fit of the tools:
That went surprisingly well. Both planes fit in there with no problems; I have room for a few more blades as well as the small router plane (if I ever get it). I could also fit the miniature router plane inside.
During this project, I also added a wooden lining to the fence. It’s the same privet that I used for the new mallet, which should be fairly hard-wearing.
For whatever reason, I made a lid consisting of a frame and a floating shiplapped panel. After gluing that up, I cut a rabbet along the bottom so that it can fit onto the top of the box:
After trimming the dovetails and such, I had a finished box:
Or rather, I had a complete, unfinished box. I normally leave shop projects unfinished, but for whatever reason, I decided that I wanted to apply tung oil to this thing. That turned out to be a messy affair, because I couldn’t get the cap of the bottle open, pried it off, and ended up splattering some of it around. Oh well, the bench now has a slight oil reapplication.
That takes some time to cure, but at least I don’t have to do anything else. Time to move on to the next thing. And no, it will not be a box for my plow plane, tempting as that may be.
I’m sort of in between projects right now, plotting out my course for the next couple pieces of furniture, so I’m not working on anything particularly big. But something in the background was bugging me.
A few months ago, Lee Valley sent out a promotion for a box for their router plane. There were two sides to this. First, they were offering a pretty good option for someone who wanted a box for their router plane. Second, they were trolling us, because they talked about how it might seem questionable to offer a wooden box to woodworkers, and that, hey, if you want to make your own, maybe this will get things started.
I have to admit that I did like a few things about the design of the box, so I decided that I would make my own and rip off elements of the design. So I started by making a dovetailed box out of eastern white pine (haven’t smoothed off the ends yet):
For better or worse, I fitted a shiplapped panel bottom in grooves around the bottom. I can’t seem to resist panels.
Then I had to start working on the blade storage rack. I decided to just cut a bunch of square holes on a shelf with a glued-on bracket:
This will cause the blades to point to the back at a 45-degree angle. I only did it this way because it was easier to cut holes in this orientation. (Doing square holes like this in white pine is relatively easy.) Later, I added holes for the hex wrenches and the sharpening aid bar thing.
Now, I need to:
Make the bracket for the fence.
Make brackets to keep the plane in its spot (and probably the medium router plane, as I just bought one of those).
Deal with the lid.
I’m hoping that I’m not spending too long on this, but on the other hand, ever since I got that router plane, I haven’t had a good place to put it.
Years ago (seven, it seems, according to this post), I bought a little knife in Japan that I decided that I’d try out as a marking knife. I haven’t really said anything about it since.
It turns out that I haven’t even thought about it very much either, even with the couple odd years when I wasn’t doing much in the shop. But since I picked it up, it’s been the marking knife I almost exclusively reach for, and I also use it to sharpen the odd pencil here and there when nothing else is handy.
I also don’t even recall when I last sharpened it. I don’t even know if I ever did sharpen it, come to think of it. That’s never a good sign. But the other day when I was cutting some dovetails in some white pine (as part of a secret new project), I thought, “Huh. This thing could stand to be sharper.” Softer woods tend to elicit that sort of thinking. So I took it over to the stones and did that, unfortunately with a few minor blood sacrifices. (Wear rubber thimbles or something next time, dummy.)
This looks a little wacky because I sharpened it with two bevels: A main one, then a smaller one near the tip to make it easier to touch up. Like many Japanese blades, this is laminated, with white steel making up the cutting edge. And it can be a pain to sharpen that stuff.
Also typical is the hollowed back:
The hollow wasn’t terribly well-done. Using a diamond stone that I also coincidentally got on the same trip to Japan, I got that evened out pretty quickly. Yay for hollow backs.
Well, I should have probably sharpened this thing a long time ago. I do, however, have to be a little careful now when marking stuff, because the length of the blade makes it too easy to brush up against a finger or something when running along the side of a square.
So, that aside, this is not a purpose-made marking knife, but rather, a “craft knife,” according to the package:
(Aside: KRAFT KNIFE… POWERMESSER!) According to the helpful use suggestions on the left side, it’s for “wood carving,” “bamboo (something) work,” and “DIY.” Though I have to admit that the rear of the packaging card is a lot more useful than the stuff you get with a lot of products these days. For example, it has a “how to sharpen” blurb.
I don’t know who made it, other than it is made in Japan. It’s marketed and distributed by the Ito company in Miki (三木市) , which sometimes uses the “Bigman” moniker (search for “bigman HK-60” and you’ll find this knife at several retailers). Sadly, they do not carry a “She-Ra” line.
I don’t even remember where I bought it. Was it a home center? Tokyu Hands? Huh. In any case, I think it cost somewhere around 2000 JPY. That’s not dirt cheap, but it’s not exactly expensive, either.
And this has me thinking–Lee Valley sells a Japanese marking knife that’s a spear-point thing (in addition to one that looks like mine without a handle). Like my knife, it’s laminated white steel with a hollow back, and is currently $21. Maybe I’d also like that? I’m not sure what to think of the traditional form without a handle.
Or maybe I need to stop thinking and just remember to sharpen the knife.
One effect of my cross-country move from the San Francisco bay area to Maryland is that I now have easier access to more types of wood. In particular, I can get southern yellow pine (SYP, also called simply “yellow pine” by actual southerners). Even if the local supplies of it are kind of weird, there are big-box stores carrying it within a 2-hour drive.
Since I finished one substantial laminated-top project (the “auxiliary bench“) with SYP along with a few other utility pieces, I have now used it in addition to a bunch of other woods for workbench construction. I asked some friends back in California if they were interested in my thoughts on SYP now that I’ve had a chance to work on it, and they said, “yeah, why not?”
Because this blog is about woodworking, this discussion is oriented mostly on using this wood (and others) for workbench construction. However, this is by no means its only use.
Here’s what I will survey:
Southern yellow pine
Douglas-fir (several varieties)
Beech (F. sylvatica and F. grandifolia work similarly)
To recap the Chris Schwarz book, you’re not looking for the “perfect” wood when building a workbench. You generally want something that’s reasonably heavy, reasonably stiff, and cheap. That last bit is important because you’ll use a lot of wood on a bench, and you’re also probably going to beat the crap out of it as well, so there’s no use if you get all sentimental about that kind of thing. Workability also helps, especially if you plan to use a lot of hand tools.
Southern Yellow Pine
When Schwarz first started to research workbenches, he was lucky to have a source of cheap wood that he wouldn’t feel bad about consuming and mauling with abandon. Or perhaps we were the lucky ones. Things might be very different for the aspiring benchbuilder if Schwarz had no access to southern yellow pine in his local big-box stores. Even in those retailers, which tend to be overpriced for lumber, this stuff is currently running between 50 and 75 cents per board-foot.
So it’s cheap, it’s stiff, it’s usually pretty heavy, and you can get it in wide, thick sizes. The 2×12 is the go-to size; if the pith runs through it, in clear enough pieces, you can slice that out and have quartersawn stuff as a result. It’s also fine to use narrower stuff like 2x10s if they look good.
Moreover, it’s sold dry (well, mostly dry). This is a requirement: If you don’t kiln-dry yellow pine, the sap/pitch makes for a wretched sticky mess. Even when dried, it’s still possible to run into “pitch pockets” with clumps of goo that hasn’t fully set into resin.
You gotta clear that stuff out. Ick.
So you’re thinking that there’s got to be a catch. There are two principal issues:
It’s not available in many parts of the country. Well, at least if it’s not pressure-treated.
You might need to pay attention to the latewood.
At this point, I should mention that there are several different kinds of “southern” yellow pine. The kind that you’re most likely to get commercially is loblolly pine, and that’s what we’ll concentrate on.
So let’s talk about those growth rings. Many woods have a substantial difference between the so-called earlywood (sometimes called springwood) and latewood (summerwood) in their annular rings, but in SYP (and douglas-fir, which we’ll get to soon), it’s dramatic. Simply put, the earlywood is fairly soft and the latewood is dense and tough.
This varies from tree to tree. There’s a lot of detailed information on the factors in publications like Summary on Growth in Relation to Quality of Southern Yellow Pine by B. Paul and D. Smith, 1956, USDA Forest Service, Forest Product Laboratory Report No. 1751. That is fascinating reading to me, but when it comes down to it, it’s best if you get a feel for it in practice.
The factor that you’ll feel the most is the latewood, especially when working with hand tools. In some boards, the latewood will be really tough. You’ll also get a wide variety of early- and latewood quantity per annual ring. This view of the side of the new bench should give you the idea:
The pieces with the smaller annual rings (often with the thinnest latewood sections) were the toughest to deal with. Strangely, the third from the left with the very thick sections of latewood was not too bad.
By “tough to deal with,” there are two difficulties, at least that I noticed. One was simply that when planing or chopping or whatever, the tougher ones tell you when you need to sharpen your blade because it just refuses to work. The other problem is that when ripping, your saw can track the latewood grain. Here’s the offcut from a large tenon cheek where this sort of thing can occur:
The earlywood is generally pleasant to work. It’s not as soft as, say, eastern white pine or that radiata stuff, but it’s not a bear, either. It’ll mush and smash up (for example, when chopping) if your tools aren’t particularly sharp, but it’s not a big deal.
Most softwoods have a higher tendency to “spelch,” that is, splinter out of an end when cutting across the grain. SYP varies across individual pieces, but it’s never really terrible. Though it’s very stiff, the fibers deform pretty evenly. Flattening the new bench (going cross-grain with a jointer plane) was the easiest flattening job that I’ve ever done. It might have helped that the bench was pretty flat to begin with, but it was a smooth, even motion, and the shavings were very uniform.
To give you an idea of what you can expect, I took the smoothing plane shown earlier (and later), and just went at some endgrain with its 45-degree blade angle. Going right off the edge about the worst thing you can do to invite spelching. This is the result; it’s pretty close-up; the piece is about 1/2″ thick:
SYP machines really well. Here’s a sub-1mm offcut that I took with the bandsaw; this is actually two pieces glued together:
This was with a pretty aggressive “Wood Slicer” blade.
There is one thing I wonder about yellow pine. Supposedly, the jeffery pine that you see up in the Sierra Nevada is a yellow pine. It gets really big. Could it have properties like this? Not that I have any idea how you’d get any, especially kiln-dried. Maybe someone has an operation up there. Or maybe it would be like (or even sold as) ponderosa pine, as this is also a yellow pine.
Oh, douglas-fir, what a tangled web we weave.
First off, Pseudotsuga menziesii, you are not a fir, and that is why I put the dash in your name. You should probably be called Douglas Weirdofreak, but I suppose that we’d need approval from Pseudotsuga wilsoniana, or whatever that thing is being classified as these days. OK, I digress.
The wood, being very stiff and strong, has many uses, such as wooden boatbuilding, where it can be used for many purposes, including masts. As far as most people are concerned, most of the douglas-fir available for purchase is for construction and framing. This makes it somewhat inexpensive, but it’s still not as cheap as SYP.
And it’s almost invariably sold green. Quite green. For the benchbuilder (and woodworker in general), this is obnoxious for several reasons: It’s going to shrink and move a lot when it dries, so after acquisition, you’re going to have to wait for that to happen, at least a little. It hard to gauge how heavy individual pieces are because they can be sopping wet. The earlywood is even mushier than usual.
Here is a piece of real bottom-of-the-barrel construction-grade douglas-fir, from the 2×4 (stud) pile:
You probably don’t want to build a bench with that kind of stuff. The 2x4s are always from the worst part of the tree. The annular rings are huge. There is a lot of earlywood without much latewood. The good news is that, as is the case with SYP, if you make a foray over to the wide pieces (e.g. 2×12, 2×10), you find better stuff. You’re going to have to be picky, of course. Wilbur Pan built a fantastic Roubo out of 4x4s; he took his time collecting the pieces he needed.
If you’re lucky, you can find another grade of douglas-fir. This is sometimes called “old-growth” (and sometimes it is), and at other times it’s just called “clear.” In the photo below, the three pieces on the left were sold as “clear”. I got them at Minton’s in Mountain View, which has unfortunately been out of business for several years:
The two pieces with the holes in them were stretchers on my very first bench before I replaced them with wider stuff. They came dry and extremely well-dimensioned.
The two pieces on the right may look similar, but they are of much different origin. They were reclaimed from an old warehouse in San Francisco, and came to me by way of Bill K., to whom I’m very grateful. I built the Screwbo out of that stuff, and a friend back out in San Francisco recently completed a cousin bench that he calls the Jacques Roubo from the same source.
But wait–there’s more. What if I told you that there was douglas-fir with even tighter annular rings? Well, get a load of this:
That square sitting on top is metric (a.k.a. “sensible”), and each tick is 1mm. I found this board dumpster diving while a neighbor in SF was renovating. When I pulled it out, it was covered in some sort of contact paper and had been originally used as a shelf. (I’ve been working on making it into some kind of box for years now, but clearly not working terribly hard at it.)
OK, it’s stiff and strong, but will dent, especially while green. So far, on paper, this is pretty similar to SYP. But what happens when you take tools to it?
Mostly, it’s not too bad. Douglas-fir saws pretty well, and planing it works fine, too. If you like to pound nails into stuff, doing that when it’s is green is super easy.
However, there are two properties of this wood that drive people nuts. The first is that it spelches horribly. Observe what happened when I did the same thing on endgrain with the smoothing plane that I did earlier:
All of my woodworking buddies out west know what I mean. Douglas-fir doesn’t just blow out at the ends. The fiber bond fails at a substantial distance from the end, and the wood really wants to follow the shake a long ways down (like being riven). The result is an appalling mess of huge splinters and chunks cracking off of the end. It will do this if you so much as look at it funny. I’m not sure why this is; it might have something to do with how strangely “dry” it feels to the touch. Redwood also pulls this stunt to a certain extent, for whatever that’s worth.
This effect is worst in green wood and gets marginally better as it dries and ages, but it’s still awful. The piece above is 100+ years old. It’s so bad that you have to be extremely cautious even when sawing boards to length–especially with a hand saw. If you don’t take the protective measure of rotating and sawing in from all corners before completing a cut, it’ll snap off badly, invariably in the most ugly way possible.
Still, with this awareness, you can prevent bad splintering, at least until some assclown mover decides to bang the underside edge of your benchtop onto the concrete.
The other thing that I dislike about working douglas-fir is how it has a tendency to wear your tools. Green stuff is OK, but the old stuff is especially cruel to your edges. You just seem to sharpen constantly. I ran into this when using my scrub plane to dimension the pieces of my bench, and that’s not a tool that usually needs a lot of sharpening. Just take a look at what it did to the sole of that plane:
Think twice about taking a woodie to douglas-fir.
It machines OK, just be careful about what kinds of blades (or whatever) you use. I imagine that the carbide-tipped stuff does a lot better against the old stuff.
Overall, this is an extremely versatile wood and should not be discounted when building a bench or in any kind of utility work. It’s very stable when dry, not moving much under different humidity conditions. I wouldn’t think twice about using it for a workbench base even if I were dead-set on a hardwood top. Speaking of which…
Now I’m going to talk briefly about two other woods that I’ve used in benches. The first is beech, which is pretty traditional for Europeans. It’s moderately hard, fairly heavy, and stiff. As with the softwoods we’ve just talked about, the fiber structure is quite fine, so you’re not likely to get crud caught up in places.
Beech is a go-to utility wood in Europe, where it’s been reasonably well-managed there for a long time. So it’s readily available and inexpensive there, and there’s pretty much no reason not to use it for benchmaking, at least if you’ve got it. The species that grows over here in North America is similar, but it’s rarely harvested, perhaps because we have trees such as the soft maples that are easier to manage. Still, you might find a sawmill that’s sawn one up.
For some unknown reason, beech happens to be one of my favorite woods, and I’m always interested in picking some up. There’s something about the grain that I like, but I can’t really put my finger on it.
That’s not to say, though, that beech is my favorite wood to work. It’s not too bad, but it will put up more of a fight when planing and chiseling than something like cherry or walnut. I also don’t like it when the grain reverses (sometimes old knots telegraph through in weird ways), but that’s at least rare.
I personally wouldn’t use it for a bench unless I had ready access to a lot of it, at least not entirely. I did use an 8/4 chunk for the very front piece of my benchtop, and that’s been great. The dog holes mostly went in that piece.
It’s really easy to machine.
The last wood that I’m going to talk about for benchmaking is not an obvious one. When people think of a maple bench, they think of hard maple, because, you know… it’s really hard. When I think of hard maple, I think of a wood that’s a royal pain in the butt because it’s so freakin’ hard. It also isn’t cheap.
Soft maple, on the other hand, can be a joy to work as long as the grain doesn’t be a big ol’ jerk and reverse. It’s usually not as hard as something like beech, but it’s no pushover. And it’s also relatively inexpensive for a hardwood, but keep in mind that you can’t quite compare it to something like SYP in that regard. You’re also more likely to find big cuts of at a sawmill than beech.
When I was looking for a hardwood to line the front and rear of my auxiliary bench (just like I used beech on the front of the Screwbo), a board of soft maple immediately caught my attention. I’d picked it up at the lumberyard for odd jobs.
Seems legit (so far).
There are lots of other woods I’d like to explore for utility and benchbuilding work. For example, the “hem-fir” stuff that you find as construction lumber is full of intrigue; I have some of this. There just needs to be a reason to try. Perhaps I’ll never need to build another bench (mine has served very well), but there are lots of other things in the shop that need to be built.
A few final steps after glue-up remained to move the new bench to this state:
Those steps were:
Trimming the ends. I used a long-ish panel saw because it had the finest tooth pitch, in theory. Then I sanded coarse-medium-fine to get a smooth finish on the endgrain.
Flattening the top. This was the easiest thing I’ve ever done a flattening job on. Wish it were always like that.
Applying a quick finish, a varnish and tung oil blend. Yes, the tung oil is real tung oil, and yes, it takes forever to cure. I didn’t have any boiled linseed oil, and I didn’t care.
The two pieces of soft maple that I chose for the sides of the top are curly. I didn’t anticipate that, but I guess it looks fine. In this case, I only really cared if the grain reversed or not. On the front, it did not. On the rear, it did a little, but it doesn’t seem to be of much consequence.
This is the first somewhat large thing that I’ve made with southern yellow pine. I might post my thoughts on that later.
The size is a departure for me. I knew that it wasn’t going to be very long, but I also made it 33″ tall, which is a bit tall for someone my size. Well, at least for planing, but I don’t plan to plane much on this thing (I think it would work fine for small pieces, though).
Another note on the frame is that I made the side stretchers offset from the long ones on the front and rear. This allowed me to use longer tenons because they don’t meet in the middle of a leg, which I like. Wearing illustrates this in “The Solution At Hand,” though he uses through tenons.
I slapped on a temporary shelf and immediately loaded it up:
I hated this situation under my main bench, because the shavings and sawdust were always getting into the nooks and crannies of the planes. I’ll have less of that going on over here, so it should be a little better. I don’t expect the shelf to be there forever, though. I’d like to put a box of drawers in there, albeit one that doesn’t go anywhere near all the way to the top.
But I still don’t like it. I’m doing it now because these things were getting in the freakin’ way all of the time, but my thoughts are turning to the tool chest idea. It seems there’s a lot of merit in that, but I don’t have the time right now.
I probably won’t be working on much of anything wood-related for at least a week or so. There are some other things to take care of, but after that, I do have some plans to use this bench on a few diverse tasks.
The mortises in the new bench/whatever-it’s-called are pretty big, and I can’t do them like my usual ones, because I don’t have a mortise chisel that large. So I’m using the old “bore holes to get rid of most of the waste and chop down all sides” method.
This got me thinking that there are a few extra things I do for these that might be useful to someone. So let’s go through them. First, when marking out the mortise, I scribe a line along the center of the mortise:
This is useful for the next step, boring out most of the waste with brace, because I know exactly where to put the lead screw of the auger bit:
Notice that I’m using a square to help keep the bit parallel to the long sides of the mortise direction, and a piece of painter’s tape on the bit to mark the depth. I liked these particular mortises a lot more than the ones in the top, because there was plenty of room to spare when boring down. Going a bit beyond your tenon depth with the brace makes it a lot easier to get out the required amount of waste. (And through mortises are cheating.)
Another note on the holes is that I’m staying a bit away from the ends by, say, 5mm or something. This makes it easier to chop the ends later on.
Next it’s time to get most of the waste off the sides. I’m using an old W. Butcher, uhhh, I guess it’s a firmer chisel, for the sole reason that it’s beefy:
You don’t want to go all the way to the side yet, and while you’re doing this, pay attention to the grain on your initial cuts. Because the wall of the mortise is longer than the chisel, the wood will split in the grain direction past the end of the chisel. If it splits in the wrong direction, you could split it out past your marks for the wall of the mortise.
Now that you’ve figured out the grain direction, mark the “low corners” of the mortise. What I mean by this is that the corners where, if you start splitting the grain at that point, the split will extend into the waste part of the mortise.
And of course, here I am, marking an incorrect corner:
In this board, the correct ones are the top left and bottom right. You’ll see this mark “move” later on in this post after I figured out what was going on.
If it’s just a normal, single piece of wood that you’re mortising, these “low” spots should be at opposite corners. Your grain could reverse or do some other horrible thing, though. And the piece above has the mortise spanning two laminated boards, so it’s possible that it wouldn’t follow that rule, either.
In any case, once you’ve got this done and enough of the walls wasted away, you’re ready to work into those “low” corners. Start with cross-grain chopping on the ends, but don’t go quite all the way to the side, and keep some wood left on the ends (remember that I’m ignoring that first erroneous mark here):
Then, when you’re close, chop down the side with a narrow chisel:
Notice how the waste is splintering out to the waste side of the mortise wall. You might need to do a little back-and-forth to get to your line on the side, but it shouldn’t be too bad with a narrow, sharp chisel.
You also might need to be a little cautious if your wood is uneven. This is (southern) yellow pine, and the darker latewood in this stuff can really shove your tools around. Douglas-fir can do that, as well.
When you’re all the way to the bottom of that corner, grab a wider chisel and chop the wall right next to the corner:
Work your way to the other side in this direction. The wood will continue splitting into the waste, as you can see above. When you reach the end, you can square it off like the “low” corner; when chopping the wall over there, it should not split because you can overlap the stuff that you’ve already done; the chisel will slice instead of tearing out at the border of where you already worked if you keep it flush to the wall.
Then you can go all the way to the ends. I don’t have any photos or anything of this; just use the standard practice of working your way back to the ends until you have enough left that you can cleanly chop it without bruising the wood. Though it’s not so relevant here, it really matters on a through mortise.
You’ll probably need to tune the walls a little due to the way that chisels tend to cut. One nice thing about these big mortises is that it’s really easy to stick a square down there to check to see if it’s complete:
Notice how the “low spot” mark on the near wall has migrated from the left to the right in this picture. Sigh.
So maybe this is helpful. I don’t know. Mortising can be time-consuming. I really understand the reason that hollow-chisel mortising machines exist. And I have to admit that they are kind of tempting.
In any case, the joint that I made in this post was the last one for the new auxiliary bench: