Building the “End All – Be All” Workbench
Let me just start by saying that there is no such thing as the “End All – Be All” workbench. Workbenches come in all shapes and sizes. The selection criteria is based on the ergonomic needs of the user and the type of work that will be accomplished on the bench. Remember, the workbench is just a great big clamp. And, various types of work require varying methods of work holding (clamping).
Many of you already know that I work several hours a week at the local Woodcraft Store. We’re very fortunate to have a staff that is made up of experienced woodworkers. Of course, experienced woodworkers are used to working in conditions of their own design. Those of us who continue to do a great deal of hand work, have complained that our benches are simply not heavy enough for our uses. So recently we all agreed that we would build a demonstration bench that would be well suited to all methods of hand work. It fell to me to determine what would be the appropriate design. So I began extensive research into the matter.
The Roubo bench has gained renewed popularity in recent years. It is a heavy bench that lends itself well to a number of tasks.
While the Roubo is excellent for doing heavy work, there are other bench designs that are better suited to doing finer, lighter detail work. The German and Swedish style “cabinet makers” benches are a case in point.
This style bench, however, may fail to provide adequate work surface area and weight for many preparation and assembly tasks. I wanted to find a bench that would, for example, allow us to joint long boards and “thickness” plane, as well as hold drawer sides for dovetailing. It was obvious that some type of compromise had to be considered. There are a great many contemporary designs. But, more often than not, these designs have grown out of need for specialized work holding, so I found myself looking back to historic models. There is good reason that there are several historic designs found all over Europe and the Americas. They work! So I went back to the books.
The design I kept coming back to was what is commonly called the “Nicholson”. Of course Nicholson did not design this bench (and it’s ever so likely that A.J. Roubo did not design his namesake). He simply illustrated, what had evolved to become known as the English Joiners bench in one of his books on trade skills in the mid nineteenth century.
The “Nicholson” has a broad work surface. The bench is substantial. And, it is a work holding “tour de force”. Bench screw vises can be placed anywhere. Planing stops can be placed “in length” or for cross planing. The large aprons on both sides permit the use of holdfasts on the vertical as well as horizontal surfaces, allowing the user to secure workpieces like “six board” chest parts for dovetailing with ease. A crook (or crochet, si vous preferez) can be mounted at the end of one of the aprons, making holding larger pieces for jointing a simple task.
Several years ago at WIA in Cincinnati, I saw a “Nicholson” derivative that had been built by Mike Siemsen’s School. It was a great design. It was built from construction lumber, keeping the cost low while providing the user with an excellent, all-around working bench. It incorporated a split top with a stepped cross planing stop, a very useful device. I must say that the one thing that stuck with me from the WIA show was that little workbench.
My only major concern was that it still might be a little light for really heavy work. And I would caution anyone using construction lumber to be attentive to it’s moisture content and make allowance for movement in service.
I went out to Sharples Domestic Hardwood and selected lumber for the new bench. Top will be maple, aprons of ash and the frame from red oak. A quick calculation would suggest a weight of 350 pounds (give or take). Stability shouldn’t be an issue. However, finding staff members young enough and strong enough to assemble and move the thing, might be.
We’ll start construction on March 1st. The project will be completed over the course of five weeks. You’ll be able to follow the progress here, or you can come to the store and see for yourself. It should be fun and keep the old guys on their toes.
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