Thursday, February 25, 2016

Design Notebook: A New Bench

Another "thought exercise" sort of post.

Background & Purpose

One of the projects I've been (slowly) working on is clearing my garage to a point where I can use it as a shop.  It's going to take some time, since I'll also have to insulate it, but I've made a start.  One thing I've recently started giving serious consideration to is the bench.  What I'm using right now is roughly two feet deep by four feet long.  It's great for the space I have, but if I'm going to have more space, I want a larger bench.

I've been going back and forth on this internally for quite a while, and it may happen again, but I think I've figured out roughly what I want.  My two initial impulses were an English-style bench, with a wide apron and nothing underneath, or a Shaker style bench, with lots of built-in storage.  I think I've settled on the Shaker type, largely because I like the way they look.  The other advantage is that I know from experience that I'll keep piling things under my bench until any open space is full, and a Shaker bench will at least force me to get things somewhat organized.


What I've thought about so far:

1) Weight.  It needs to be heavy to stay still, and shouldn't need to be moved within the shop very often.  A Shaker bench is good for weight, given the drawers.  However, I'm sure I'll move house again, so it should be possible to either break it down or somehow make it, if not portable, then at least moveable.

2) Tail Vise.  I'd like a tail vise of some sort... I'm leaning towards something like this, which seems to be the new standard.  It should be both more solid and easier to build than a traditional vise, and more useful than a wagon vise.

3) Front vise.  I'm torn on this one.  I love my leg vise:  If I were doing it again, I'd build it out of something harder and stiffer than pine, but using it is great.  On the other hand, it does have some shortcomings.  I'd really like to try a shoulder vise, which is something that would fit a lot better on a large bench than my little one.  What I'll likely do is build up a shoulder vise and attach it with Timber Lok screws, which would certainly provide enough strength to keep it stable.  If I end up not liking it, I'll either install a metal quick-release vise or another leg vise.

4) Holdfasts.  I'm not willing to give up my holdfasts, so I'll need to leave a gap under the benchtop.  The top plus the gap needs to total about 7", which is quite doable.  I'd like to shoot for a 3" top with 4" underneath.  I'll probably leave that space open, since it's not ideal for storage, and hang a shelf over the bench for the things I store there now.

5) Board jack/sliding deadman.  One of the things I dislike on my current bench is trying to support long pieces of wood.  I'd originally planned to replace it with an English-style bench with an apron, but I think I like the idea of the board jack better.  It will also leave some space for...

6) Storage.  I'm torn on this.  On the one hand, I can always use more storage.  On the other hand, I like working out of my toolchest, and I'm not sure I love the idea of having access potentially blocked by whatever I'm working on.  I think the drawers will likely end up filled with things like hinges, fasteners, and the like, with maybe a few rarely-used tools to fill out the set.  I can't know what I'm going to wind up putting in them until I've got it built, though, so I'm not going to worry about it.  One thing I do know is that I want the drawers to be transportable:  What I'm thinking at the moment is that for each drawer I'll cut a piece of wood (possibly 1/4" ply) for a top, and store it under the drawer.  When the time comes to move, I'll be able to pull out the drawer, tack the top in place with nails, and stack it in the moving van.  That way I can move the bench without all the drawers, and the drawers can stay packed while I move everything.

7) Top.  My current bench is just about 24" deep and 50" long.  I don't love either dimension.  The back 6-10" of the top really only get used for tool storage, which shouldn't be happening.  50" isn't really long enough to work on large assemblies, though I've been making it work.  The traditional Shaker bench is significantly deeper than I want, and I'd like to try out a tool well.  So my current thinking is to make a solid top about 18" deep, with a tool well behind that. I can always put spacers in the well if I need the extra space, and in the meantime it should stay useable.

Design Considerations

I built my current bench out of Douglas Fir and 3/4" plywood.  I like the Douglas Fir:  it's hard, it's stable, and it looks good.  The plywood I'm not such a fan of... it's stable and reliable, but I don't much like the look.  I'll probably stick to a frame of DF, probably in the form of 4x4.  I might just use 4x4 for the legs, and use either 2x stock for the rails:  that will depend on how much overkill I want to go with and what lumber I can find.

For the top, I'd like to go solid wood.  My current bench has a plywood top, and while it's OK, drilling dog holes really isn't practical with hand tools.  Since I'm planning on a tail vise, what I may do is make the front 3" or so out of some hardwood, maple or oak for preference.  I can cut square mortises in that before gluing it in place, and have a good way to deal with surface planing long boards.  Behind that, I'll almost certainly go with laminated softwood;  pine, more DF, or whatever's cheap and straight at the lumber yard.  Either way I'll want the top at least 3" thick, to provide a good grip for my holdfasts.  Alternatively, I may buy a prefab laminated top, if I can find one thick enough (or two at a good enough price).

I do intend to paint everything but the top and the leg that will likely be used as a vise:  the more photos I see, the more I realize I want some color in my shop.  I'm planning for white walls and ceiling to add light, so any color is going to have to come from the furniture.


None of this is settled, but at least the rough outlines should work well.  With luck, I'll be able to start on this project this summer.  Without... well, design work is good mental exercise, and maybe it'll help someone else who's trying to figure out what to do for a bench.

Plane repairs

About six months ago, I bought a wooden moving fillister plane on ebay.  It's a design I hadn't seen before, but looked like it was in pretty good shape, and the seller was able to confirm that all the parts moved the way they should.

Also something I hadn't seen... those lines on the side of the body are depth markings.  They're perfectly parallel to the sole, and are mostly in 1/8" increments.  It's not perfectly accurate, but it's close enough for a rough setting.

Once I got it, I touched up the iron (it still needs a more thorough sharpening, but it's workable), and gave it a try.  On long-grain cuts, it worked quite well.  It showed a little bit of tendency to jam, but was otherwise fine.  On cross-grain cuts, it was pretty bad.  It worked, but the edges were ragged.  After a little poking, I realized there was no problem at all with the nicker: the slot is worn enough that it needs a shaving for padding behind it, but other than that it's fine.

The problem was that the iron wasn't original, and was too wide.  On a moving fillister plane, the iron needs to line up pretty exactly with the nicker.  On this plane, the iron extended almost a full 1/16" beyond the nicker, which mean the nicker couldn't do its job.

So last night I spent close to an hour filing down the outer edge of the iron.  I could have used a grinder, but I hate using them and I didn't want to risk overheating the blade.  Eventually, I got it down to just about the right width, and it works far, far better now.

It can always get better, but right now it's in perfectly useable condition, at least in soft woods.