Archive for the ‘Roubo workbench’ category

Building the “End All – Be All” Workbench

February 24, 2014

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.

roubo pg 12

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.

swedish workbench

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.

english joiners

john hill carpenters shop 1813

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.

Siemsen's "Nicholson" bench

Siemsen’s “Nicholson” bench

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.



The Menuisier’s Workbench

March 17, 2013

I haven’t been writing much as of late.  But I have used my spare time to do a little investigating into the realm of traditional French carpentry and joinery.  It seems like U.S. woodworkers are very much oriented to the woodworking traditions of England, Germany and (to some extent) Sweden.  But for some reason, most of us have seemed to overlook the French tradition.  During our Colonial period, we opted for styles that were more straightforward than their highly decorated European counterparts and the fact that French Settlement in North America happened in Canada may have decreased the opportunity for sharing “secrets du metier” between U.S. and French practitioners.  Whatever the reason, most of us have missed out on a substantial legacy of history and knowledge.

One notable exception is Roy Underhill.  He has demonstrated an interest in the French tradition for many years and most of us can thank Roy for introducing us to what has become known as the Roubo workbench.  It’s name derives from being featured in the work of Andre Jacob Roubo, an eighteenth century French furniture maker (Menuisier or Ebeniste) of renown.

roubo bench

I was somewhat surprised to find that this particular style has been the standard design for centuries in France and that it has continued in use to today.  It is a strong design, without frills or unnecessary ornament – a bench with effective work-holding devices.  In short, the traditional French menuisier’s bench is built for work.

While staying true to the design, the French bench can be seen in many sizes from the diminutive benches of the primary training schools in the early twentieth century to the very large benches seen in the work of French Encyclopedists, Diderot and D’Alembert.

The schoolboy's "Roubo"

The schoolboy’s “Roubo”

A menuisiere from Diderot and D'Alembert

A menuisiere from Diderot and D’Alembert

It’s with good reason that this French style workbench has been gaining popularity in the U.S.  It can built quickly, inexpensively and can be made to be very portable while providing a stable work platform.  You can’t ask for much more than that.

I’m going to continue with my exploration of the French woodworking tradition.  There’s a lot more there than good wine and pomme frites.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

Raked leg Roubo workbench redux

December 14, 2012

Splayed leg Roubo nears the finish line

March 4, 2012

Well it’s really been a “slog”.  But, finally, it looks like I may finish the little Underhill style workbench before much more time passes.  The bench has a diminutive look to it.  But, in fact, it’s nearly seven feet long.  It’s thirty six inches high, which tends to make it look a little shorter than it really is.  Right at the moment the leg vise is just hanging by a thread, so to speak.

The end vise is massive.  This design could certainly be used as a front vise, as well.  However, I decided to use a leg vise in front and keep the location of the screw low.  This will allow me to join wide boards without having to stand on tiptoe.

There are still a lot of details to finish.  Then, of course there is “the finish” which will be BLO, Turpentine and Urethane.  It’ll be a while yet, but I’m getting there.

Ode to a Filletster and a Roubo bench update

February 26, 2012

Whether you call it a filletster,  fillester, rebate or rabbet, using a moving fillester plane is just “plane” fun.  Long pigtails of stock come shooting through the side escapement.  The wooden version of the plane absolutely “sings” as it works (some folks might call it more of a howl).  For me, the process of working with handtools is every bit as important as the end product.  So the tactility matters a lot.  But top that off with the auditory pleasure of heaing a well tuned handplane working and you’ve got a real winning combination.  Folks come into the shop and are surprised that I don’t have a radio or disc player (and I’ve been a musician all of my adult life).  I simply tell them that the tools make the music in this place.

L - Sargent 79 Duplex Rabbet, R - Sandusky Tool Moving Fillester

I broke the fillester out to rabbet (rebate for our readers in other parts of the English speaking world) the bottom of the tool tray on the Roubo bench.

Using a rabbert plane is pretty much foolproof, given, of course, that it is well honed and the depth stop and fence are correctly adjusted.  The one challenge is to insure that you keep the plane at right angles to the surface being planed.  There’s no real secret method here.  Just keep your fingers out of the way of the escapement so shaving don’t clog up the throat and concentrate on what you’re doing.  And, remember to move and use your body weight to your advantage.  This is when that extra ten pounds you put on during the holidays will really pay off.

So here’s where I’m at with the small Roubo (little splayed French) bench top.  The work surface is only 13″ wide, but the 8″ wide tool tray should more than make up for the top’s narrow width.  Hopefully, tools will find their way to the tray, not to the working surface (as they have for the last thirty-eight years on the current bench).


February 23, 2012

So okay!  I know!  I’ve been screwin’ around with this project for a year or more.  But I just got into other things….  You know how it is.   Right?  Well, anyway, I’m back at the Roubo bench project and it is the priority project of the season.  So, stick around, we’ll finish this darned thing together, so to speak.

So here’s what’s going on with the right end vise (really not a tail vise, now is it?).  Just about complete and being dry fit to to the to the top;

You can see the “sacrificial chop” squeezed between the front chop and the bench top.  It will be trimmed to height when everything is finally assembled.

The next step is to set up the tool tray.  This will require a “plough” that will accept the “floor” of the tool tray.  I could do this with a router.  But I’m still trying to loose that ten pounds that I put on during the holidays.  (I still don’t know how it happened.)  So, I gonna make this plough with a Stanley 45.  This is a plane that you can definitely develop a love/hate relationship with.

The one bit of advice that I can give you about using any plough (plow) plane is, to start “at the end”.  Work your way back from the terminus.  Trust me, it’s better that way.  Plough’s are remarkably rewarding in their simplicity and efficacy.  Just enjoy them and don’t worry about the time that it will take you to make that plough.  Remember, for hand woodworkers it’s about the process.  Right?  I mean, come on, it is all about the process, right?

I’ll explain that loose tenon hanging out of the end of the bench next time.  But for right now, let’s just let it be a mystery.

Wooden screws can become a vise

September 29, 2011

I’m getting closer to the completion of the portable Roubo (Underhill)  bench.  I decided that it should have a tail vise.  I wanted to do something a little different.  There are a lot of ways to create a tail (end) vise.  You can go traditional European, or use something like a “wagon” vise or some other type of “running block and pawl” apparatus.  I decided to build a vise that would use one of the many 2 1/2″ wooden screws laying in different corners of the shop and could use the entire width of the bench (except the tool tray) as an inner chop.  What I’ve constructed is, essentially,  a wooden version of the iron woodworking vise familiar to us all, like those made for years by Jorgenson, Record and so on.  The screw is in the middle and two stabilizing “rods” slide through two “saddles” to eliminate excessive lateral movement.   The nut is simply left loose.  The outer chop is 2″x7″x13″.  It’s thick enough that I can drill it out for a round dog or inlet a square sliding dog into the front surface.  Time will tell about that.  Ultimately, I’ll cut the rods to length and mount a simple stop device, so the screw can’t be inadvertently loosened from the nut.  The whole affair will then be lag screwed to the bottom of the bench.

top view (dry fit)

bottom view (dry fit)

  The front vise is a simple, heavy-duty, leg vise with a “cheese-board”.  However, I intend to have a secondary front vise that will allow me to hold large carcass parts for operations like dovetailing, ripping, etc.  This will be a single screw/single rod type vise.  I’ll be using one of my Lake Erie Toolworks nuts for this job.  A great example of this type of vise can be seen in use at the Anthony Hay Cabinet shop at Williamsburg.  (Also, check out their excellent blog,

Here’s a variant on the design from the “Manual of Traditional Wood Carving” by Paul N. Hasluck:

back viewFront viewfront viewfront view

And, “The Workbench Book” by Scott Landis has an extraordinarily good chapter on shop-built vises.  It’s well worth perusing.  There’s a lot of books out there about building workbenchs.  But, in my opinion, Landis’ book is clearly in a league of it’s own.

Making Wooden Screws – Lessons Learned

August 5, 2011

Well, just a few minutes ago my big wood tap screw went KABLOOIE!!  It was made out of cherry, so I didn’t expect it to have an extremely long life.  I’ll have to make another one, maybe.

If you’ve been reading the blog over the past few weeks you know that I became completely enchanted by the big wood screw making process.  Now I can share with you the wisdom I have acquired as a result of this process.

Three wooden bench screws in ash (it’s tough and it’s what I had on hand)

If you’re willing to put in the time (and a little money), making the screws is pretty simple stuff.  The nuts, on the other hand, are difficult to make, at best.  They’re not that challenging in a technical sense.  It’s just extraordinarily laborious work.  Using the type of traditional tapping machine that Underhill shows (shown in previous articles in this blog), the nutmaking process requires hours of manufacturing time and a significant amount of elbow grease.  Fitting is required and though serviceable, the internal threads show an appreciable amount of  damage, created when the scraping cutter traverses the “against the grain” quadrant of the “face grain” presented block.

The nuts are the HARD part!

 The long and short of it is this:  I’m glad I did it.  And since I’ve built the fixturing, I may well make more screws in the future, a few for working, a few as gag gifts.  But my STRONG suggestion is this – BUY THEM.  Wooden bench screws are great for any bench application.  For hundreds of years they were the standard.  They’re still great!  But do yourself a favor, buy your bench screws from a reputable supplier; someone like Lake Erie Tool Works .  If you want to make your own screw, so be it.  But save yourself a lot of headaches and buy the nuts.  You’ll be glad you did.

A Simple Machine to make large diameter wooden screws – cont’d

July 10, 2011

So here’s a pic of the lunettes in place:

The “lead” (or master screw) and the workpiece are connected with a socket and stub joint that is locked with a  screw.  The stub should be the same diameter as the socket, close to the shoulder, but should be a little tapered away from the shoulder.  This will allow for some very probable misalignment.  Remember, we’re dealing with wood here and my shop is 90 degrees with a fair amount of humidity.

Set the router to depth (several passes are probably, but experiment), turn ‘er on and start twisting the lead screw.

Forty odd hours later, $50 lighter in your wallet, here’s what you end up with:

Wooden screws, these will be seated into hubs - but blanks with integrated hubs will work just the same

Have fun.  You’ll need to experiment a little.  But I think you’ll find that it’s very worthwhile.

A Simple Machine for making large (2 1/2″) diameter wooden screws

July 10, 2011

Alright!  I should have been cleaning up this hell hole that I call a shop.  I should’a just bought the damned things.  But wait a minute…

walnut "machine screw"

After forty hours or so of scratching my head and puttering around in the shop, I’ve managed to build two simple machines that will allow me to manufacture all of the big wood screws I want, in short order.  So if I figure my time at $35/hour, I’ll be in the black after I’ve made a dozen or so.  So, guess what everyone’s getting for Christmas this year.

Well okay.  If you only need a couple of big wooden screws, buy ’em.  However, it seems that a number of wooden screw manufacturers have come and gone in recent times.  So, it might be a valuable skill to have in your “toolkit”.

Here’s what did:

First, I laid out my spiral on the cylinder that would ultimately become the “lead screw”.  Then I sawed down to the root depth.

Note the "depth stop" held in place with a couple of small clamps

Then I built a “box beam” and eight (or so) “stantions” that will be used during the screw making process. 

some stantions are held fast, others are loose so they can moved during the process

Followers of this blog will immediately note that there is a router involved.  I’m sorry!!  But the machine is built in such a way that a manual cutter could be used.  But, you know, I’m getting older, I don’t know how much time I have left, I’m not as strong as I used to be….  So live with it!!  I used a router!!

router simply secured to the stantions by a couple of drywall screws

Then I used one of the stantions to mount two “lunettes”.  The lunettes are actually made from a .025″ x 12″ feeler gauge.  See Roy Underhill’s book, “The Woodwrights Workbook” for an excellent explanation of how this will work and remember that the lunettes must be offset by half of the pitch (you’ll figure it out immediately).  The “ramps” are set at an average angle of the pitch taken from the minor and major diameters.

Well, I’ll finish this up tomorrow.  It’s been a full day and, alas, it’s time to retire.


Making Wooden Screws – The Saga Continues

July 1, 2011

There’s a pretty good chance that if I would have charged myself $10/hour for my time, I could have paid for the two screws from Lake Erie Toolworks by now (maybe more).  But I’m havin’ fun and I do consider myself a bit of a woodworking historian.  So…I’m living history.

nut blank in place – tapping in progress

The nut being made above will replace the right hand support, thereby eliminating the temporary “lunette”.


right support replaced with permanent model

Alignment is critical.  At 2 2/2″ diameter, there is no “give”.  Lesson learned this morning; If threads are not filed absolutely evenly, they can be overstressed if there is the slightest misalignment.  The good news is, the screw works well even though two threads have chunks missing equal to about 1/5th of their circumference.

This screw is made from cherry.  It was what I had on hand, but it may not have been a great choice.  Something “tougher” like elm, hickory, apple or even sycamore (with it’s interlocking grain) are probably better choices.  When the threading “machine” is complete, I’ll try a few other species.  Stay tuned…

Making Wooden Screws

July 1, 2011

Well, I decided that the Little Underhill Bench needed to outfitted with two, not just one, but two wooden screw vises.  I thought about buying a couple of screws and nuts from Lake Erie Toolworks.  That would have cost me $300, give or take a little.  But then I thought, how hard can it be?  Plus I’m a guy who loves the process and the history of woodworking, I’m “semi” retired, so why not make them myself?  That’s how it started…

I went to my bookcase, pulled out the “Woodwright’s Workbook”, in which Mr. Underhill discusses making your own screws at considerable length.  Then I pulled out “Woodturning Techniques”, by Mike Darlow.  His presentation is even more in depth than Roy’s.  Hey, these guys are heavy hitters and between the two I found all of the information I needed to get started.

I decided to make a number of 2 1/2″ diameter, 1/2″ pitch screws.  The first task was to layout and hand carve the master screw which is used in building the “Big Tap”.  I have found out that tapping the nuts is the more difficult of the two tasks (threading the screw, tapping the nuts) and I decided to make a tapping “machine” as shown in the Underhill text (one from the Williamsburg Collection).

Master screw on the lathe, just carved and cleaned up with a triangular file

 The major diameter of the screw is 2 1/2″.  The minor diameter is 1 5/8″.  Note that I’ve stripped the threads from about the first 8″ of the screw.  That section will be inserted through the nut bland, then into the left support.  Also a 60 degree V cutter will be inserted (held in place by an insert and set screw) about 4″ from the left end.

Filed and sanded to create slightly truncated threads which will be more durable.

 The major diameter of the screw is 2 1/2″.  The minor or “root” diameter is 1 5/8″.  Note that the threads have been removed from the left section of the screw, approximately 8″ from the end.  This portion will be inserted through the nut blank, then positioned into the left support to maintain position during the tapping process.
The parallel surfaces of the right support will be cut and angled at about 5 degrees, the pitch angle of the screw.  My original plan was to use two “lunettes”.  However, I opted for a single 1/4″ brass bar to use as a temporary nut.  The left hand support is temporary and will be replace with the first “nut” made on the “machine”.

Right support showing temporary "lunette" and angled surface to match pitch. Note the abundance of paste wax. Trust me, use a lot of wax or oil

Think I’ll make another “simple machine” for threading the screws.  Carving them is great therapy,
but one of these days I’ve gotta get this bench done and on to other projects.
I’ll keep you informed…

A “take-off” on Brother Underhill’s “Little French Bench”

June 11, 2011

Alright.  So I haven’t written anything for more than a month.  And, I haven’t done a thing on the Sidewinder lathe project.  I haven’t been fishing, although the Walleye run was great in the Maumee river this spring.  Friends of mine were literally leaving coolers full of fish on my porch.  So, you might ask, what have I been doing.  Afterall “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”.  Well, once again, I’ve allowed myself to be diverted.  But it’s all good.  Honest!

I’ve always had a hankering to build the small, portable workbench that Roy Underhill features in his book, “Working with Edge and Wedge”.  Roy apparently saw a similar bench while on a trip to France, fell in love with it, came home and built his own version.  The fact that the rear legs are raked while the front legs remain plumb make the joinery for this seemingly simple little knock-down bench pretty tricky, tricky indeed.  In fact Brother Roy increased his degree of difficulty by incorporating rising dovetail joints in his model.  I’ll be explaining why I elected to use a modified dovetailed tenon.

But right at the moment, here are a couple of pictures.  I’ve completed the top and the frame.  They’re just dry-fitted at the moment.  I’ll be posting fairly frequently as I work towards the finish of the project.  It’ll take a little while.  But, I’m sure it will be well worth the effort.

dry-fitted frame – overlook the parallax problem

front and rear tenons - note the front is not a "rising dovetail"


top in place - one single piece of hand-planed ash


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