Nicholson Bench Project – Shellac on a workbench?

Posted April 20, 2014 by D.B. Laney
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We’re getting closer to finishing this thing up and putting it into everyday service.  One question has been repeatedly asked; why are you using shellac for a finish on a workbench?

The normal thinking is that shellac is for fine furniture, musical instruments, carvings and objets d’art.  And, of course, the assumption is that the surface would be too reflective and “slick” for a workbench.  But the truth of the matter is that shellac provides a durable, protective film that will withstand the harshest treatment.  Recoating and repairing a shellac finish is very, very simple; just apply a new coat over the old film, as the alcohol solvent “re-wets” and “bites” into the existing film, creating a complete bond.

But the most significant reason to select shellac as a workbench finish is that it is fast.  I was able to put on four coats in something under three hours.  It would have taken me four days to put on four coats of oil.  This may not be important when you’re first building a bench, but when you decide to recoat an existing bench, you want to be able to get the job done as quickly as possible.  Time is money.


There is, however, one caviat.  If you’re using a shellac that has any color (orange, amber, garnet, etc.), you must be careful to apply very even layers to avoid lap marks.  Witness above.  I was using amber shellac (because that what I had) and literally “throwing it on” with a big, soft brush.  You can see the lap marks on the apron.  While this does nothing to diminish the protective quality of the finish, it does wear at my artistic sensitivities.  It’s a pretty simple problem to repair.  A little sanding or scraping on the apron’s surface, and a single coat of shellac, padded on, will take care of the problem.


While “rooting” through some old finishes, I found a can of One-Shot sign painter’s gold enamel.  The last time I used this stuff was in 1976.  No one, in their right mind, would use something that old, right?  Well, I opened the can, stirred it up and it looked pretty good.  Painted up a little sample and to my surprise it dried just like it was supposed to.  So I just couldn’t resist a little “faux gilding” on the date carved into the vise chop.  And, we do plan to replace the pipe handle with something a little more “appropriate”.


Why old wooden planes look the way they do

Posted April 14, 2014 by D.B. Laney
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My friend, Roald Renmælmo, and I were discussing why old wooden planes look the way they do.  Roald is researching and duplicating old hand planes used in Scandinavia.  In fact he has posted several galleries showing how he is making the reproduction planes.  It’s well worth taking a look at.  Here’s a link to his blog.

 Anyone who has an interest in old wooden handplanes is usually struck by the fact that many of the planes that are in reasonably good shape are disgustingly dirty.  This fact, alone, would make one curious about the finishing methods employed by plane makers and users.  And, the most important question is what were they trying to do with the finishes.  That question drives every other consideration.  

It’s a question of moisture control.  Planes made out of wood are subject to variations in moisture, just like anything else made from a tree.  So the goal of finish on a wooden plane is not just to make it pretty, but to minimize the effects of moisture.

For commercial plane makers in Europe and North America, soaking the plane bodies and wedges in linseed oil, prior to assembly was normal.  Linseed oil is a drying oil that leaves a film and has long been used as a water-proofing product.  It’s altogether possible that the linseed oil may have been thinned with turpentine, effectively making a crude spar varnish.  Prior to the introduction of metallic driers, boiled linseed oil was manufactured by heating the oil to the point that polymerization would begin.  This may have been a something less than perfect process and some BLO might have taken longer to harden than others.  As the protective film on new planes might stay plastic (soft) for some time, soil and grime would form on the surface.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it is, in effect, creating a impermeable membrane (to a greater or lesser degree).

Here’s an example of a jack plane in pretty common condition, grime and the standard paint spattering:


The same plane, after being “scrubbed up” with a little lacquer thinner and receiving a couple coats of BLO.


The surface of oiled (or varnished) wooden products needs to be re-coated from time to time, due to the effects of use, oxidation, etc.  Carpenters and joiners would many times use other products to protect their tools.  Flaxseed/linseed oil would certainly have been readily available and inexpensive in many parts of the world.  It’s continued use would likely increase the “grime/oil” membrane phenomena.  Wax would certainly have been used by some conscientious craftsmen.  But craftsmen are practical people and when a product that will serve their purpose is plentiful and available at low cost, they’ll seize on it.  Enter Lard.  Grease, fat, call it what you will.  But, rest assured, many old working planes saw plenty of animal fat used as a protective coating.  If a plane is exceptionally grimey, it’s probably been given the “lard treatment”.

Here’s a badger plane made by Malloch in Perth.  I have to believe that if a scraping from the surface of this plane were analyzed, the “oink” would still be present.


Same plane with some of the grime removed:


Some planes were treated a little differently.  The jointer below is my favorite user.  While not the longest plane I use, at 28″ it’s a very steady tool.  It has been well cared for over its lifetime and I would guess that it came from a professional shop or was owned by a careful hobbyist.  It appears to have been finished with shellac and wax.  It is pretty much flawless.


In my experience, the use of shellac or other spirit varnishes on wooden planes was not that common.  Although, I would guess that it might be found on presentation tools, such as plough planes and on other tools owned by “persnickety” folks.

Many collectors balk at the notion of removing finishes from antiques.  That said, I’m not a collector, I’m a user and I like to maintain my tools as best I can.  That includes keeping them clean and well protected.

I’m going to throw out a big caveat here.  If you are a wooden plane user and you decide to clean up your old tools, be prepared to recoat them with some protective product, immediately, lest you find your favorite little plane taking on a new twist or crack.

While I own many iron planes, my daily users, my favorites are made out of wood.  There is something almost spiritual,  that takes place, when you’re working with a wooden plane.  It just seems right.


Nicholson Project – Finishing up

Posted April 11, 2014 by D.B. Laney
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When you’re working in two and three hour blocks of time, it’s hard to maintain momentum.  Especially when the project participants are from the “curmudgeonly” class.  But we’re almost there.

The front vise chop is massive, nearly twenty inches wide.  The slide bar is 2 1/2″ square.  The slide box isn’t even permanently attached, yet the vise travels smoothly.


We decided that we would use shellac for the frame and a traditional oil finish (BLO and wax, maybe a little turpentine) for the tops and aprons.

Orange shellac and red oak equals “Golden Oak”, the color of half of the kitchen cabinets and trim in North America.  Shellac allows you to build a good film thickness very quickly and can be applied in “less than clean room” conditions.  If it’s a little rough, simply rub it out with steel wool, then wax it back up to the level of reflectivity you desire.


Someone asked me if there was any rhyme or reason to the holdfast hole pattern.  I said yes, there is a rhyme and a reason,  and there both in my head.  Just leave it at that.  A few more “fancy schmancy touches” and we’ll be in business.

Nicholson update – the “almost” roll-out

Posted March 30, 2014 by D.B. Laney
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As the poet, Robert Burns said “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, gang aft agley”  Due to scheduling problems, a partial “roll-out” was all we could muster over the weekend.  But it proved worthwhile, nonetheless.


Considering the outstanding torsional rigidity of the structure.  The deep cross members provide another benefit, more weight.


This 3″ thick slab of ash will become the chop of the face vise.


The slide box for the face vise.  It will be mounted between the aprons.


The slide box is built “around” the slide.  The slide is removed and scraped to provide just enough clearance for movement.


Surface dimensioning using a temporary cross stop.


Ripping.  Sawing from the side would move a “lesser” bench.  But there’s plenty of weight here to keep everything in place, even though nothing is bolted fast, at this point.


Cross cutting.  Easier than sawing on top of the bench.  But still, a proper shop will have a saw bench, built to appropriate height.


Planing an edge against the crochet.  Such a simple, marvelous device.

As soon as the bench is “fully dressed”, I’ll put up the gallery.


Nicholson project update

Posted March 26, 2014 by D.B. Laney
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We’re going to make the cross members full height.  This will add to the torsional integrity of the bench, making it a very strong “box beam” structure.  We’ll locate the cross members with the help of a stopped sliding dovetail.  The lower portion of the cross member will be lagged into place to pull out any irregularity in the apron surface.  (If you choose to use a stopped dado, remember you’ll have to lag it top and bottom.)


Our dovetail is marked out and we’ll cut it will a backsaw.  Note that we aren’t using any saw guide blocks.  If you haven’t done much hand sawing, it might be a good idea to use a guide.


After we cut the “cheeks” of the dovetail, we remove the bulk stock.  A small router, router plane or simply “hogging” out with a bench chisel will do.  A sharp paring chisel will be required to do the final fit up.


Here we’re using the bench, prior to completion for some fair heavy chisel work.  Note that the bench is being held together with clamps.


 The finished joint and the full height cross member.  These two features add incredible stiffness and weight (always a good thing, in workbenches).


The storage shelf is put into place.  A ledger is added to the lower stretchers and loose shelf boards are laid in place.  Be sure to leave enough space to accommodate seasonal expansion.  Lapped jointed boards are probably NOT a good idea here, as falling debris will impede their movement.  Remember, this shelf is for big stuff, not jewelry.


The Crochet, or Hook, is attached to one of the top halves with lags.  It will be a great help while joining multiple boards.


Over the weekend, we’ll “roll this baby out”.  We’ll be exploring many of the work holding methods that the Nicholson bench accommodates.  Should be very illuminating.



Nicholson Bench – construction continues

Posted March 16, 2014 by D.B. Laney
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After some discussion about certain details of the build, we head back to the workshop.


We still have a few mortises to make.  Most of you know that this blog is dedicated to handwork.  That said, many of the joints were machine cut, due to our compressed schedule.  But one of the goals of this project was to put the construction of a heavy,”first-class” bench well within the reach of woodworkers working exclusively with hand tools.

Remember to position yourself in a way that allows you in maintain squareness while cutting the mortise.


Tenons on the stretchers are hand cut, as this is considerably easier than maneuvering the long pieces on the table saw.  It’s a very good idea to incise the shoulder line, then create a “guide groove” on the outside of the line with a good sharp chisel.  This makes cutting the shoulder of the tenon much easier.




It’s important that the leg sets be clamped squarely while the glue is curing.  (We’ll pin them after they’re dry, just for a little additional insurance).  If we were working with air dried lumber we would draw bore and draw pin the leg sets together.  We’ve measured, then used a clamp on the diagonal to pull the leg set into square.


The material for the aprons has been cut to length.  We’ve decided to shorten the bench a bit.  Originally it was going to be seven feet (7′).  But, bearing in mind, that we’re somewhat limited for space in the classroom, it will now be just six feet (6′).  Still it will be a substantial workbench.  The tops are 2 1/2″ thick and the aprons 1 3/4″.  We had our sawyer, Dennis Sharples plane and rip the material.  Normally, we would have prepared the stock by hand.  But again, some concessions to modernity had to be made in order to stay on schedule.


Here, Carl and I are dry fitting the base for last Saturday’s demonstration.  I’m really “getting into my work”.


If I looks as if I’m supporting myself and preparing to faint, it’s due to the fact that we just put the aprons and tops in place.  At this point, the bench is being help together with just four clamps.  Still, it’s amazingly stable even without the fastening bolts that will pull it all together.  We’re guessing the weight at this point is around 225 pounds.  When we’re completely finished, we’ll do a legitimate weight analysis.  Even in it’s shortened form, it could be very close to 300 pounds.


A little camaraderie at the end of the demonstration.


Next week our goal is to have all of the boring done for connection bolts and holdfasts, the vise, crochet, shelf boards and cross-members ready to install.

Nicholson Bench build continues

Posted March 12, 2014 by D.B. Laney
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As Winter Storm Vulcan howls outside, work continues on the Nicholson bench for the classroom.

View from my living room window.  Honestly, enough.

View from my living room window. Honestly, enough.

We’re starting to “dry fit” the base together.  “Doublers” that will provide additional clamping surface adjacent to the aprons have been glued in place.  As there are “right and left” components in the base, it is very important to double check lay-out.  And, upon dry fit, it’s a very good idea to match mark parts.


As a “lesson learned”, we could have simply centered our stretcher mortises on the primary leg face.  But we’re designing on the fly and for some reason, we decided to move the stretchers closer to the outside surface.  Can’t remember what the reason was, but centered should be just fine.

Les presented a “prototype” that might have served as a “universal” primary leg.  After noticing a look that indicated Les’ wry sense of humor, I realized that he was pulling my leg.


Tenons are hand fitted.  The “leg set” will be glued and pinned.  Accordingly, the stretcher tenons have a slight interference fit, that will provide enough room for the glue to do it’s job.  Be careful to give yourself a little depth clearance.  There’s nothing quite like trying to pull a joint together that has an excess of glue in the bottom.  It is virtually impossible to do.  In fact, with enough clamping pressure, a hydraulic event can occur that will literally blow the joint apart.  By the way, Les is using a Record 073, one of the best planes ever manufactured for this type of work.  If you ever see an 074, buy it, on the spot.


The longitudinal stretcher tenons have a slip fit, as these joints will be made fast using bed bolts.  This will not be a bench that will be easily broken down, due to its weight.  But we decided that we should have the ability to dissemble it, if necessary.

Here is the undercarriage (base, frame) dry fitted.  At 6′ 6″ long, it is substantial.  So much so, that we may shorten it up a bit.  Reducing the base length might give us a little more latitude, should we decide to mount some type of end vise.  However, we’re not sure if there is a need for that type of device, just yet.


Next will be dry fitting the aprons and lay out and making of the center cross members.  After that will be the installation of the main vise, attachment of the top and crochet.  Then, of course, boring holes (lots of holes) and finishing.  Should be ready for Spring, so to say.


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