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Thread: Diary of a Madman's Workbench

  1. #1
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    Diary of a Madman's Workbench

    I read way too much. One of my recent perusals is "Workbenches: from Design & Theory to Construction and Use" by Christopher Schwarz. It's a great book. I highly recommend it. Just beware the big ideas it's likely to inspire.

    I was inspired to build the French workbench featured in the book. I don't have a real workbench and I've never built one before. Yet, I was drawn to this bench. While the "Continental" benches I see most these days are amazing and incredibly beautiful, they're just not what I wanted. Perhaps it's my French DNA, but this classic example just seemed right for me. (If you've got a problem with the French, just consider it a "Freedom Bench".)

    I'm going to try documenting here the process of building this bench. I hope to include many pictures. Hopefully, others can learn from my mistakes and perhaps I can be helped along as well. I will certainly need it.

    1. Wood Selection: Christopher Schwarz recommends using Southern Yellow Pine for his workbenches. He quite literally buys 2"x12"x12' floor joists from Lowe's. This may seem a bit strange, but that stuff is apparently quite stiff, quite durable and quite inexpensive. Christopher claims he can easily find straight, clear examples by picking through the stack. Unfortunately, SYP not readily available in Colorado. I could order it, but by the time it's trucked across the country, I might as well buy hard maple. I'm trying to keep the cost down on this project, but you know how that often goes.

    I visited my local Lowe's and found plenty of kiln dried Douglas Fir. According to the charts in the Workbenches book, Douglas Fir is only slightly less hard than Southern Yellow Pine and a little more stiff. As you would expect, this Douglas Fir stock was pretty awful. Strike that idea.

    I dropped by two local hardwood suppliers I frequent. One proprieter suggested Ash or Hickory and had some very nice examples. His wood is very high grade, but also pretty expensive. I thanked him and told him I'd think about it.

    The other supplier had 8/4 Ash and Hickory for $5.00 BF. There wasn't much Ash, but there was a good supply of very long and very straight hickory sticks. I picked up three, each over 12' long, and trucked them home.

    After looking over the workbench plans again, it became apparent building the entire bench from Hickory would be way more expensive than I wanted. (The legs alone are massive.) I thought I might reserve the Hickory for a very big and very hard top and find something cheap for the base. And, if the workbench top turned out lousy, I could always set fire to it and make an amazing roast pork.

    I drove my truck South to one of the too many Home Depot stores in my town. HD also had a lot of kiln dried Douglas fir. Most of it was of the proverbial awful variety, but by golly there was a fresh batch of 2"x12"x10' boards. I combed through these and managed to pull out six nice examples; and all for $50. Sweet.

    Two of the HD boards were a little damp, but the others were reasonably dry. Surprisingly, Christopher Schwarz writes in his book this really isn't a problem for his bench. I guess we'll see.

    2. Cutting Up: I cut and squared just a few Hickory boards. I've heard that stuff is difficult work with, but I like it. Of course, my tools' edges may be screaming in pain and require sharpening and replacement after this project. Also, cutting Hickory makes my shop smell downright delicious.

    I then ripped the Douglas Fir boards in half lengthwise and jointed one edge. I'm still working on surface planing one side. These boards are pleasantly and surprisingly straight. There are a few knots here and there, but overall, the surface is workable. And if I need more, it should be easy and cheap.

    I'll try to get some pics posted pronto. To be continued...
    Last edited by Pat Germain; 05-04-2008 at 11:51 AM.

  2. #2
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    Hi Pat. I am considering using Hickory for a workbench base. Shagbark Hickory is the hardest of domestic woods. Pecan is of the Hickory family and classified together with Hickory, but it is not quite as strong. Take note that you are getting real Shagbark Hickory, and not Pecan.

    My choice of Hickory or Maple will come down to how available Hickory is and its local price.
    Best Regards, Ken

  3. #3
    That sounds exciting. I'm going for a similar project and I'm going wood shopping this afternoon. We've got lots of Southern Yellow Pine on the Borg's shelves. I hope I can find enough good stuff.
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  4. #4
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ken Garlock View Post
    Take note that you are getting real Shagbark Hickory, and not Pecan.
    I didn't see anything labelled as "Shagbark Hickory" at the hardwood store. The wood I have has a strong hickory smell. Would pecan have a similar smell? There was something labelled "Rustic Hickory" which was less expensive than the Hickory I bought.
    Last edited by Pat Germain; 05-04-2008 at 7:44 PM.

  5. #5
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    Here are two pics of two of the Hickory boards with one as a closeup.
    Attached Images Attached Images

  6. #6
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    Here are two shots of the Douglas Fir after ripping. It came out surprisingly nice after is was squared up.
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  7. #7
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    Since folks just like to pics of other folks' shops, here's a shot as I was setting up for face jointing. This gave my jointer quite the workout. It's a great machine selected last year with help from SMC. Thanks.
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  8. #8
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    Here you can see my first try at gluing up one of the legs. It's a four piece laminate with the two center pieces being 2" longer to form a tenon. This was a real clamp attack, but I wanted to be sure the glue up went well considering this is a pine. I also wiped down the wood with acetone before gluing. According to Christopher Schwarz, this helps with glueing "sappy" woods. He also warns a mimimum of four hours in the clamps. I'm going to let this sit overnight.
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    Last edited by Pat Germain; 05-04-2008 at 8:26 PM.

  9. #9
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    Lots of people use 2x12's and rip the sides off for getting decent wood. By looking at the grain you can often get acceptable lumber that way. I have done it with SPF boards for a few projects and it works pretty good.

    I really like hickory and have a decent supplier here for 4/4 but it is prone to chip out and is kinda hard on tools. When finished clear and natural it is downright beautiful.

    Keep us posted, looking good so far.

    Joe
    JC Custom WoodWorks

    For best results, try not to do anything stupid.

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  10. #10
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    I've attached a picture of what you can kind of expect your base to look like with Doug fir. That base was made about 6 years ago from a re-sawn and ripped single Doug Fir beam I recovered from a Cival War Warehouse here in Atlanta being torn down. Then it was laminated as your doing.

    I also attached a picture of a SYP top in glue up on top of the current bench. I just flat wore my top out and it was time for another so.. I purchased qty. 4 SYP 2 x 12 x 12's Friday. $17 plus tax and a new bottle of Tite-bond III for a grand total of around $25.

    I ripped them Friday evening... jointed on Saturday and cut the dog holes. Then started glue-up Sat. evening. Should be able to do a final flattening (pretty flat now as I jointed both edges and took out any bow after I iniatally ripped them) with a #smoother or low angle smoother.

    Take the old top off tomorrow and transfer the vises. With any kind of luck be back in action tomorrow afternoon. I have built about 4 benches with SYP including this one... and all have held up well. The Doug fir is my standard base material as I have built over 20 benches for either sale or for friends.. relatives over the last 36 years.

    If you do through tenons... the Doug fir is a very solid base and will not rack under extreme pressure. My final test on a base is to get about 4 neighbor-hood teen boys and offer them $10 each if they can rack it. If they can't and they won't... the base is ready for a top.

    Good luck with your bench...

    Sarge..
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  11. #11
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    Opps.. missed one..
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  12. #12
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    Quote Originally Posted by Pat Germain View Post
    I didn't see anything labelled as "Shagbark Hickory" at the hardwood store. The wood I have has a strong hickory smell. Would pecan have a similar smell? There was something labelled "Rustic Hickory" which was less expensive than the Hickory I bought.
    Hi Pat, my advice is from someone who is just starting to run the traps of buy lumber for the WB base. After reading Chris S's book, which I liked, I started looking around and discovered that both Pecan and Hickory are excellent choices, Pecan is not quite as strong as Shagbark Hickory. Take a look at the charts in Chris' book, pages 15 ,16, 17.
    Another source, Understanding Wood by Bruce Hoadley, p.79 gives a detailed table of strengths of most popular hard and soft woods. Static bending, or Young's Modulus, for hard maple is 1.83, Pecan is 1.73. and Shagbark Hickory is 2.6. Hence, Pecan is not quite as strong as Hard Maple, and SB Hickory is 18% stronger than Hard Maple.

    I, like you, can not differentiate between the two. When I start hitting the lumber yards, I will have to rely on the people working at the yard. I plan to visit 3 or 4 yards in the Dallas area, and learn as I go. Hopefully, I will get the same story from at least 2 of the yards.
    Best Regards, Ken

  13. #13
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    My parents have a small property and house in the Catskill mountains, and there is a bunch of shagbark hickory on it. One time when I was younger I tried to carve a walking stick out of a piece, and my swiss army knife could barely scratch it. That is some tough stuff!

  14. #14
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    Very interesting topic, Pat. I am very interested in following your progress. I am not ready to build a bench, although, I could certainly use one. I will purchase Chris Schwartz's book some time in the future since I have heard nothing but praise for this book. For now I will watch how yours turns out.
    Lori K

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    Singular comment; I used KD Doug-fir for my workbench top outer trim. Wayyyy too soft (seems fine for the base though). I was going with the often spoken idea that if you bang your curly maple jewelry box into your table, the table should ding, not the piece. This works, I just went too far. I am considering beech as a replacement. YMMV.
    Last edited by glenn bradley; 05-05-2008 at 4:04 PM.
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