Bench craziness

Wood for the new benches

The raw material for 2 new benches

Over the years, I’ve made a handful of workbenches. I think I’m actually up to five, so far. And I’ve also helped out as various assistants made their own benches. But over the past week or so I’ve been working on two more for the shop; a new, full-sized bench, and a 54” long mini bench (but with a 4”-thick top) that will be a duplicate of one I made last summer. I’m pretty excited.

Why more benches? Practically speaking, I need to replace a bench that a former assistant made about ten years ago that has been, until now, conveniently in my shop. This summer, Buck and his bench will be moving out west. I put all of the shop benches to work: during the week, they gather junk, and on the weekends, I clear them all off for classes. And I can’t really afford to be down a bench for the classes.

A more important reason? After trying BenchCrafted’s vise hardware I realized how much I had been hampered by poor work holding on my other benches. This was something I noticed as soon as I tried out the new bench last summer. It’s absolutely amazing. That, and the fact that it gives me the opportunity to say, “well, you can never have too many vises.” Oh. And one more reason. I’m doing an article for Fine Woodworking on this bench.

The small bench from last summer

I’m building the two new benches out of ash. It’s cheap, hard, heavy, and durable. There will be a lot of the pungent smell of ash in the shop over the next couple of weeks.

My former assistant Andy Brownell has been working on a similar bench (BenchCrafted’s split-top Roubo) for a while now. We’ve been texting and talking about our various choices for getting through various parts of the build, and there have been some interesting comparisons. You can check out his posts at Brownell Furniture.

His most recent post mentioned a problem routing the slots for the bench dogs. Trying to remove too much material all at once, his router rebelled.

This brings up something that I’ve been aware of for ages, but which crystallized into a ‘rule’ for me as I was writing my new book. Working hard and working accurately do not go together.

This is certainly true of routers. Push a router to take off too much material and it will choke on sawdust, tear out fibers instead of cutting them, bounce off the wood, or, as Andy discovered, do some other damage (fortunately, just to his brass guide bushing). The bit will chatter in the cut, and even flex a little, cutting a wider, rougher path through the wood.

An aggressively routed mortise, sliced open

It’s true of most tools in one way or another. Cut too quickly on the table saw and you’ll rip out fibers instead of cutting them cleanly. Push a band saw too hard and the blade will deflect and curve (that’s what happens when a blade thicker than about 1/8”).

Hand tools follow the same rule. But even more interestingly, so do you. Start pushing too hard on a chisel or sawing too hard and your accuracy will suffer as well. So you have to learn to work with that. Work fast and rough up to a point, and then slow down and deal with the accurate work at its own speed.

So what did I choose to do instead of what Andy did? I started at the tablesaw, set up with a dado blade. I wasted away much of the wood for the bench dog slots on the saw, and then went back to the router with a jig to rout the final shape and size of the slots. The work was easier and more accurate that way, even though there was an extra step involved. It probably didn’t take much (if any) longer than just routing, either.

Routing the bench dog slots