Building a Two-Slab Roubo Workbench (Part 1)
I love workbenches with large, thick tops. So when I came across a great deal on a couple of oversized hemlock timbers a few weeks back, I figured the opportunity was right to go ahead and upgrade my bench with a sturdier, more traditional version.
Workbenches are always a popular conversation topic around the FWW office, and even more so over the last few months as we’ve been reviewing some new vise hardware and putting together a special issue on workbenches. Perhaps it’s got to me, because I’ve been bitten by the bench-building bug.
The influence for the bench I’m planning is based largely on John Tetreault’s hybrid-Roubo, albeit with a few design tweaks. First I plan to shrink it to 7 ft. long or less, so it will better fit in my garage. With the shorter length, I’ll probably go ahead and eliminate the knee braces, too. In terms of hardware, I’m planning to install just one vise—an 18 in., chain-driven model—on the face. And since I’m worried that the lack of a tail vise will bother me down the road, I’m planning to leave enough room on the tail end to retrofit a wagon vise if I change my mind. I’m also toying with the idea of installing a leg vise on the opposite face, so I’ll at least leave enough room to do that. (Anyone ever tried that? Let me know in the comments below.)
And then, of course, there’s the top. I’m planning to the two, 4 in.-thick hemlock timbers side-by-side, which offers two different design options I’m considering. One option is to glue them together and have a single-piece, solid top. The other option is to make a split-top. It’s trickier to design and build, but it would allow for a tool tray, a planing stop and extra clamping space and it would make the bench lighter and therefore easier to move in pieces. I just worry that it may be overkill for me.
Before I got started tweaking the design, I wanted to see exactly what I was working with, so I rough-milled the 15 1/2 in. wide slabs. I knew that the top would finish at 24 in wide, so I jointed one edge, and then at the bandsaw ripped the slabs down to 13 1/2 in. wide. Then I jointed both faces (thank goodness for our 16 in. jointer), jointed the bandsawn edge square to one face, and ripped the opposite edge so the piece was just over 12 1/2 in. wide. Then, at the chopsaw, I cut the ends, leaving the boards down to 7 ft., 5/8 in. long. Those dimensions eft me with at least 1/4 in. of material from the edges and ends of both slabs to cut away during final milling.
Normally, I wouldn’t have milled the top first. I decided to do so in this case, however, because I was worried about moisture. When I checked the slabs with a moisture meter, some spots were close to 23 percent. I wanted to see how wet it was, and the milling would allow me to get a sense of what was going on inside of the lumber.
It was wet to the touch in a few spots, and the end grain had a few visibly damp areas. Not so good. My plan is to let the slabs dry in the FWW shop—which is extremely dry—while I work on the base. To help prevent checking as it air dries, I slapped a coat of Anchor Seal on the ends and on some of the surface knots, too.
I’m not too worried about the moisture content, however. For the most part, the boards at 14 to 17 percent or well below, and the timbers for the base are under 10 percent. I think the top will be OK. Plus, as the wood dries, I’m hoping the mortises in the bottom of the slab top will tighten on the tenons from the base, and make a good fit even better. That being said, I’ll definitely need to keep an eye on the drying process as the bench comes together.
For the face, I'm planning to install Lie-Nielsen's 18-inch chain drive vise. I'm undecided whether I will install a tail vise. I ordered the face vise ahead of time so I could tweak the plans if necessary.
At the bandsaw, I first cut the 15 1/2 in. workpiece down to a little over 13 1/2 in. wide, with the jointed edge running along the fence.
At over 7 ft. long, the workpiece needed infeed and outfeed support at the bandsaw.
We started knocking the timbers down to rough size by jointing one edge. The slab started off as a single 14 1/2 ft. long board that had been chopped in half on site.
The timbers, which were about 4 1/4 in. thick, had not been air drying long enough. The knots on the edges were still wet. The plan is to work around the knots when placing the vise on the board.
Cutting of an edge took two people. Here, Associate Art Director Kelly Dunton fed the workpiece while I supported the outfeed end.
At the miter saw, I cut the ends square, leaving just the slabs slighty proud of 7 ft. long.
The moisture in the boards was easily visible.
After rough milling, I oriented the boards to get an idea of how they would look best together.
I covered the ends and knots with Anchor Seal before letting the slabs continue to dry.
The big hemlock timbers, atop a stack of cherry, drying in Senior Editor Matt Kenney's shop.
Each of the slabs weighed over 80 lbs.
Next up: The timbers for the base.
I'll keep track of the drying with a moisture meter. I metered in three spots for each slab, which had moisture readings of between 16.5% to 22.5%. Pretty wet for woodworking.