Several weeks back I undertook to build a new bench. My existing one is kinda rough – solid core door top, 4×4 legs with 2×4 strechers and plywood making up the cabinets underneath. The most complex joints in the old bench are lap joints (apart from a few drawers were I practiced dovetails.
I decided the Fortune/Nelson type bench from the Workbench Book came pretty close to fitting my needs, so with some modifications to suit my tastes (heavier trestles and slightly wider top, etc.) I went to it. Below are a few things that I learned along the way that I thought I’d pass on for any intermediate woodworkers out there who might find the first hand thoughts useful:
1. grain orientation – I did the typical ripping 8/4 maple into strips around 3″ wide to laminate the trestle parts and the top. In every article I’ve ever read on bench building they talk about the need flatten the bench top once built and maybe even periodically over it’s life (also during the building process when you want to run 5-6 board slabs through you lunchbox planer), but I’ve never seen anyone mention that to facilitate this, you’re gonna want to make sure all the lamination boards have their grain running in the same direction. Perhaps it’s just too obvious; I mean I thought about it and did it here, so it can’t be anything much. But just in case, I thought I’d say it out loud here. I used a block plane to test the edges of each piece (you know one direction tears out and the other makes a glassy smooth surface) and marked the grain direction with an arrow. Just stating the obvious, but I’m surprised I’ve never seen it emphasized for the sake of beginners, if nothing else.
2. glue ups – Man, this project brought home the old adage about never having enough clamps. But my main finding here was that patience was a virtue. Gluing only one board at a time meant lots of clamps could be brough to bear (= invisible joints) and alignment issues were minimized (which in turn preserved wood thickness). Despite articles that show 5-board laminations at single shot, I’m here to recommend 1 at a time. Probably just my skill level, but even with good stock prep, these hefty 6-7′ boards had some issues here and there – bows and slight twists etc. With one board, you can carefully clamp and align these.
3. template guide (top bearing) router bits for stub mortises – I used LV knockdown hardware and stub mortise (about 3/4″ deep) and tenons to attach 8/4 thick and 6″ wide walnut stretchers between the trestles. I decided to try a template bit to make the stub mortises and carefully made a jig that fit over the legs and had a rectangular hole the desired size of the mortise in the 3/4″ top piece (fashioned by gluing up 4 pieces). It worked just okay. I would do it differently next time and hence this note. What I didn’t like about it was that there is nowhere for the chips to escape and they both prevent you from seeing what you are doing and get in the way of the bearing which means for less that perfectly clean mortise walls and alot of little lurches by the router. No doubt more skilled craftsman with better technique could do it better. That said, for the intermediate types out there, I recommend fashinoning a more traditional jig that guides the router’s base and using a standard stright plunge bit. I think chips would clear better and there is no worry about the chips messing with the bearing path.
4. LV bench knockdown hardware – These are 1/2″ steel bolts with cylinderical brass 1″ diameter “nuts” that LV offers. The tricky part of these is getting the bolt hole to travel through the leg, through the stretcher, and still perfectly intersect the 1″ forstner hole going though the stretcher that houses teh brass cylinder/nut. It worker perfectly on 2, but the other two required some enlargement of the bolt hole in the stretcher to meet up perfectly. So the lessons for me were take extra time with the setup on your drill press in executing these holes; stub tenons are a god send because they add strength and hide any enlargement fixes you might need to do; and don’t force the bolt because that brass is soft and you can easily ruin the threads (as soon as you meet resistance, back off and mess with other things to get the fit). I learned this last one the hard way, but was able to recover using a tap and die I had on hand to restore some mangled threads.
5. stretcher design on the Fortune/Nelson plan – The F/N design has a single stretcher about a foot off the floor. I raised it to about 15 inches and used a wide stretcher, but unless everything in your trestle construction, stub M/T, etc. has gone flawlessly, you may not be able to both get everything in all dimensions perfectly square all at once and still have the tops of the two trestles perfectly parallel (or should I say, irretrivably frozen in a perfectly parallel state (the main reason I found parallel important was so as to ensure no interference with the dog holes, among other things). Now the top essentially serves as a massive top stretcher, but the plan has you lag bolt it to the trestle tops only at the center. As such the ends of the trestle tops are not really held as they would be by top stretchers in other designs. My point is, take this into account in some way such as (1) adding some strips to act not so much as stretchers but spacing maintainers between the tops of the two trestles (I did this and used large sort of dovetail laps to relieve them into the trestle top cross members); (using three bolts on each end of the top making sure to elongate the two for the outer holes to allow movement); or (3) use a design that has top stretchers. One thing I don’t like about top stretchers is the same thing that I dislike about wide aprons – that it can interfer with easy access to the bottom to do things like push out dogs that have been pushed all the way into their holes or clamp things to or on the top.
I’m waiting on a backorder small welded tail vice from LN. No doubt installation of that baby is going to be fodder for some more hard knock lessons reports.
Hope this was useful or interesting to someone out there.
Have a good weekend woodworking!
One other thing, why is it that on every project I seem to have to learn again that by far my best tool – the tool that always makes my woodworking results better – is patience?
Edited 1/13/2006 9:20 pm ET by Samson
Edited 1/13/2006 9:31 pm ET by Samson