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The first tool ...

The first tool that was more than just a pointed stick or an unworked stone used for pounding was some sort of knife, or perhaps a scraper.  It was something for cutting.  But, when setting up a place to work and make or repair things, once you have the shelter problem sorted out, the first thing you need is some sort of a bench.  The natural order of things is first the place, then the things one uses in that place, and finally the things one makes in that place. 


For working on metal, I have a very nice Acorn platen bench that weighs about 700 pounds, and which is equipped with two 1940's era Wilton bullet vises that had to be rebuilt from multiple donor vises.  But for woodworking, the most evolved bench is some variation of the German Cabinet Maker's Bench, as described by Andre Roubo in his 1768 masterpiece L'Art Du Menuisier.  An exquisite translation was available from Lost Art Press, and I managed to get a copy before they dropped it from their catalog.

I've looked at hundreds, if not several thousand Roubo inspired benches.  No two are alike.  About the only thing that they all have in common other than being massive (150 pounds is the bare minimum) is a basic design reality.  Unlike a metal working bench, a woodworking bench does NOT have its vises added to it.  Rather, one first decides what kind of vises the bench is going to have and where they are going to be located (right and left hand matters), then one designs the vices, perhaps making a few of their key parts.  Finally, one can start building a bench to hold them.  The vices drive all of the key dimensions of a bench down to about half and inch or so, except for its height.  The height is determined by the comfortable working height when the woodworker is using one of his or her jointer planes on a large flat surface on top of the bench.  So get your favorite plane and a rough sawn board that is a full five quarters, and see what feels best for you.  For me that came out to be about 29".

There are two primary illustrations of the bench in Roubo's masterpiece.  The one that has the sliding vice shows it with three drawers for storing tools below its shelf and near the floor, or perhaps on the floor.  This made the shelf useless for storage, because the parallel guide sweeps across the shelf when moving the vise.  So, for my bench I raised the the shelf a tad and extended the vise jaws such that the parallel guides sweep under the shelf where Roubo had his drawers.  Other than that, I used his drawings as a guide for the whole bench.

For a starting point, I used the top from wooden lab bench that was once painted black.  It's original home was in one of the long gone West Hall science labs of Western Michigan University's original East Campus.  My best guess of a date for it is around 1910.   The pictures below will tell most of the story. 


The lab benchtop seems to have been made from a very hard softwood, possibly Yellow Birch, which has a Janka hardness rating of 1260.  The end caps and vice jaws are made of Black Walnut, as is the tail vise end block.  The legs and rails are made from a Broadleaf Maple that came out of our yard.  The facing boards on the bench's long sides, and vise clamping surfaces, including the main block of the tail vise are made of Ipe, as are the deadman rollers.  The wood screws are made of an unknown variety of Mahogany, but my best guess is that it is Indonesian Toona sureni.  The vise screw handles, including the tail vise handwheel are made of White Oak, as are the dowels that lock the leg rails into their mortise joints in the legs, as are the three boards of the tail vise and the inner tail vise facing board on the bench body.  The 4x6 timbers that provide a lot of the weight and serve as an underlayment for the bench top are Douglas Fir.   The shelf boards are White Oak, and are simply sitting loose on their supports provided by the L shape of the front and back rails.


There are some hidden 3/8" steel all-thread rods holding the underlayment together, and some galvanized lag screws hidden under plugs holding on the end caps.  The bench dogs in the main bench are alternate White Oak ones that I made, and steel ones from Highland Woodworking in Atlanta.  The round brass bench dog in the tail vise is from Veritas. The pins for the two parallel guides and the deadman are honing steels from Crown Tools in the U.K.  Yes, the sliding leg vise is removable, revealing a traditional deadman for working on very large panels and odd shapes. 

The two main vise screws have steel bands to prevent splitting by the handles.  Those are simply flat welding bars from Home Depot, MIG welded into place.

Is it perfectly flat?  No, but close.  I have yet to encounter any heavy force work on the top that causes the bench to budge, even a little.  I spent over a year researching benches before committing to this form.  I have yet to find anything about it that I would do differently if I was ever to build another one (highly unlikely).

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