Friday, January 18, 2008

The Workbench

If woodworking can be a religious experience, as some might say, than the workbench is the sacred altar. There have been many beautiful books and histories of this ancient tool. It's evolution mirrors the development of our innovations right up to the point of its relative obsolescence in industry. But, as you can see if you visit any woodworking forum, the quest for the perfect workbench is one of the first rights of passage of new craftsmen.

I made my first workbench in the kitchen of my Manhattan apartment. I used jorgensen type screws to create a vise and an old butcherblock coffee table that I bought on the street for the top. The base offered the opportunity to try some fancy through tenons and shaping influenced by my Sam Maloof book. It was small, but a huge improvement.

My mistake was using it to build my second project, a kitchen table. So much for my workshop!

Here is a photo of my current workbench. I made it about 10 years ago while working in a cabinet shop in Brooklyn. The top is an old industrial sewing table (notice the holes where the belts used to pass) that I found on the street and walked about 20 blocks home on top of my bicycle. When I was using it for cabinetry, it had an extension on the end.

This time, there was no time for fancy through tenons, it was 4X4's and lag bolts. I fantasized (and on a rare occasion still do) about a bank of drawers that would fit underneath. But at this point, I relish cabinet work about as much as going to the dentist. You can see that I have a couple of standard vises on it, as well as a metal vise on the end.

Each woodworking vise has a row of holes in front of it for my Veritas bench puppies. I use them all the time for holding seat planks. There are a few features that I find useful, but I think that the most important virtue of my bench is that it isn't so sacred that I can't alter or sometimes even abuse it a bit, in the name of getting the job done. It is there to serve and a little spilled paint or ding doesn't faze either of us.

Here is a good example of a simple alteration (definitely a chairmakers bench) that comes in handy quite a bit. These little semicircular notches help me get solid joints, here's how

It begins with an imperfect tapered (or not) tenon. I know, this never happens to you, but in my shop, either I don't turn it perfectly or a piece may dry further after turning the tenon and things go awry. So to bring things back in order, I start by scribbling some graphite inside the hole (or a separate test hole) and then rubbing the tenon in the mortise. The graphite will reveal the high spots. It is important to note that the end of the tenon is smaller than the original hole to get a proper reading.

Then as you can see in the video below, I place the end of the tenon in the semicircular notch, which helps me to rotate the workpiece while filing away the darkened high spots. Rotating the work piece opposite the travel of the file helps keep the tenon truly round.

Next I'll post some of the other ways that my bench specifically serves chairmaking.
In the way of inquiries, I have tried to find a definitive way to describe the gouges that I use to carve my knuckles and have found that every manufacturer uses their own system. If anyone has a suggestion as to a more universal way to describe the sweeps, please let me know, thanks.


Unknown said...

The video is a great addition! I look forward to more.

I remember seeing some photos of Dave Sawyer using the same method of fine tuning tenons. I think it was in Garrett Hack's Hand Tools book.


Anonymous said...

Hey Pete, love the video. What bench hieght do you use? Seems like I remember Curtis' bench being lower which made it much easier after the chair was legged up. I am drying some hard maple to make a dedicated seat bench only 24" square to shape and drill blanks. Any ideas how to weight this thing down without fastening to the floor? Maybe I have found a use for that flared out white oak stump I always have to throw out! Thanks again for your wisdom.
Greg P.

R Francis said...

This post aand the chair evolution post reminded me of Nakashima, both the development of the form and its simplification (amazing how modern rococo forms seem!) and the method of production. I remember seeing a clip of the Nakashima workshop finishing spindles by rotating them in a slot on the bench top while planing them.
So, are you moving towards his forms and what do you think of them?

Peter Galbert said...

I haven't seen Hacks book but I have seen Dave Sawyer use this method.

I'll have to check on the bench height. I use a lower bench, (can see it in the photo) for working after legging up, but I'll go more into that later. I don't use a carving bench like Curtis. I find it easy enough to use my vise and bench dogs. As far as weighting a small bench, maybe sandbags, I think that's what Curtis uses.

I think Nakashima's forms are beautiful, although I am not as interested in letting the grain run wild. I think that simplified forms are in some ways inevitable. I go back to the notion that making things complex is easy, but making them simple is difficult. I find that attempting clarity, comfort and process taxes me to the fullest. These days, my goal is to make the chair look like it grew that way. I have spent a lot of time looking at other craftsmans solutions. Now that you mention it, I have a Nakashima book around here somewhere!