My first "real" workbench #3: The tail is wagging the dog

  • Advertise with us
Blog entry by Kent posted 04-03-2016 12:32 PM 1416 reads 0 times favorited 7 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 2: Okay. So why do I need a bench now? Part 3 of My first "real" workbench series no next part

This could also be called: “Cut, then measure…”

I still don’t have much of a plan. Sure, I’ve seen a lot of really good ideas and gotten a lot of inspiration from the web and Lumberjocks. I’ve even read through almost all of the Mother of all Workbench discussions. Only 50 more pages to go until I’ve caught up!

But this lack of planning hasn’t stopped me from starting to build my workbench. I’ve already brought much of the wood that I’ll probably need inside to acclimate, and I’ve even started truing and squaring the wood for the top. The first piece has even been shortened for the first time. I can’t even call it “cut to rough length” because, on this project, I’m not even sure what that would be. On the plus side, that piece of wood now fits much more comfortably in my shop and I don’t need to walk so far when I run a plane along its entire length :-D

But flattening and truing the first side of that first piece of wood let me know that I needed some place much better for my planing, so I cobbled together another mod to my Frankenbench and wedged a board into it for planing.

You’ll notice that I’ve written the labels “LE” and “S” on my wedges. My vision is bad enough that I felt that marking the “large end” and the “small end” would pay off.

This Frankenbench is something that I cobbled together after my accident. The base is a lightweight tool stand that I picked up used. I added 2 layers of 5/8” melamine with 3 pieces per layer, as shown. The outer 4 pieces are attached; the middle 2 pieces are not. The upper loose piece is just used with the wedges to clamp the workpiece (here, a 3” x 3” block of wood).

This held the workpiece well enough, but it was too low for comfortable planing, even with the 3” workpiece. The legs were also too flexible and the whole thing was too light, so it wanted to walk (run?) across the floor. So I screwed a pair of 3×3s to the bottom of the legs, as shown here:

This stiffened things up significantly and improved the height a lot. I’m going to use it as it is for a short while before I make the next modifications or adjustments. I can add another 3×3 for more height and/or lower the overall height by 1.5, 3 or 4.5 inches by moving the bolts holding on the lower part of the metal legs (like on the matching stand under the table saw behind the Frankenbench).

So the Frankenbench is helping me a lot. It is giving me a more stable place to plane my wood and it’s freeing up my other worktops so that I can perform other tasks, such as sharpening. Doing all these tasks helps me to refine the requirements for my bench. Clearly defining the requirements and constraints for my new bench will let me make better design decisions. Better design decisions will allow me to make a better bench. So I’m continuing to cut my pieces down and to make them square and true; I can always measure and trim them when I know what size I need them to be…

The tail really is wagging the dog.

-- If I knew then what I know now, I'd have made a completely different set of mistakes.

7 comments so far

View Kent's profile


271 posts in 2400 days

#1 posted 04-07-2016 02:19 PM

So I decided to build a new set of wedges for the Frankenbench. It sounds simple enough. I pulled out my pull saw and hacked a pair of 5-ish inch long pieces form the end of the 4 inch wide piece of prefabricated presswood junk that I was using as a cleat in this picture:

This meant that I had to unclamp my workpiece to use the Frankenbench as a sawbench.

I place a board in the middle, just free floating, to keep things from falling through the gap, like in this photo (sorry about the focus)

Then, after cutting my new wedges to length, I removed the centre board and dropped the scroll saw into the Frankenbench. You can see how the scroll saw fits into the Frankenbench top. This system allows me to build different bases for different tools as the need arises. As a bonus, since the bases are 2 layers, I can set them down on any work surface without worrying about the mounting bolts causing any damage.

I used the scroll saw to cut the new wedges, then put everything back to the clamping configuration.

The scroll sawing took an extreme amount of effort to keep my eyes focused on the cut line. I needed to crank the saw down to slow speed and I had to shut things down and rest my eyes and my brain after I cut each pair of my wedges apart. In total, it took me about 3 days to make 2 4” handsaw cuts and 2 5” scrollsaw cuts to create 2 pair of wedges.

And to top it all off, the wedges don’t work very well at all. Damn. They have too steep an angled to be effective with this kind of “wood’, so I’ll need to do this all over again! The good news is this sort of work is good exercise/therapy, and it will help with my recovery, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time.

I’ve also been doing some chisel rescue; I’ve been trying to establish a good bevel and an edge on some chisels that I picked up in a trade some time ago. I’ve also received a pair of new diamond sharpening plates for sharpening my plane irons and have started to repair a broken tote for an old #5 Stanley that fell into my possession.

By Monday I should be back to planing and truing up more stock for my bench.

-- If I knew then what I know now, I'd have made a completely different set of mistakes.

View Kent's profile


271 posts in 2400 days

#2 posted 04-11-2016 05:52 PM

So much for the best laid plans of mice and men…

I managed to turn some previously used plywood into 2 pair of new wedges, but these worked just too well. When used, I managed to separate part of the Frankenbench’s top, so now I’m waiting another week for my son to cut me another piece of the previously used plywood with the table saw. I won’t touch the table saw until my vision and balance improve a lot more.

On the plus side, I’m down to the last 10 pages of the Mother of all Workbench discussions, and I’ve started to read Chris Shwartz’s Workbenches: From Design And Theory To Construction And Use (The first book/the blue book).

There are just so many good ideas there that I can’t help but be overwhelmed and start to second guess some previous choices, decisions and preferences. So, to keep me on track, I’m going to start listing details that will affect this workbench build.

Firstly, it will rate high on the galloot index. I’m guessing a 6 or an 8. Part of this is because I want to improve my skills and experience with hand tools, but a bigger part is because many power tool operations would be just too damn dangerous given my current medical limitations. But I will be using some electro-motive force where it is safe enough to do so.

Next, it will be done with a minimum expenditure for materials. This is more a piece of guidance than a mandate. If I can achieve my desired goals without spending money, then I will. If I can do it with less money, then I’ll consider it. For most of the bench, I will be using some pallet wood that I was collecting before my accident. Some of it is hardwood, some isn’t. All of it will take extra time and effort to make it usable (true, square, flat, etc), but that will just give me more practice and experience as I build my skills. This extra experience will also help me to refine my design, so it’s a win-win!

As previously mentioned, I’m still refining the final height, but 36” is about right based on my currently limited experience. I’m leaning towards a 12”-ish deep work surface with a tool well behind that. I know that it will trap shavings and other detritus, but I’d rather have all that stuff there than all over the work area. I also have learned to spend time to take a break and clean up my work area as I go along. In the past, it was a necessity to do this or I would just lose everything in the shop. I soon learned that the time spent cleaning helped my quality and productivity a lot because it was also time spent thinking about what came next . Also, since this workbench will initially be used in my temporary basement shop, it will be placed against a wall, so I need to keep it fairly shallow so that I can reach the tools that will inevitably be stored on the wall behind the bench.

Which brings me to portability; it’s got to have it! It must be easily portable for 2 modestly healthy people. The War Department (SWMBO/LOML) will insist that my temporary shop be vacated as soon as I have a “garage” to move to. I suspect that once I’ve moved it there, I’ll start to build another bench based on more experience and more space.

I’m off to do some more reading and some more sharpening. I’m also working on one crude storage system for my sharpening station and another for my various chisels, which are both being started by hand planing some rough-sawn pallet wood. My next entry will include some links to some designs and techniques that I want to include in my bench.

-- If I knew then what I know now, I'd have made a completely different set of mistakes.

View Kent's profile


271 posts in 2400 days

#3 posted 04-13-2016 02:07 PM

I’m off to do some more reading and some more sharpening. I’m also working on one crude storage system for my sharpening station and another for my various chisels, which are both being started by hand planing some rough-sawn pallet wood. My next entry will include some links to some designs and techniques that I want to include in my bench.

Well, almost none of that happened. I got bogged down reading the next few pages on the Work bench smack down thread. On post #16986 (page 340), fellow LJ RGtools asks other LJs about their benches and

what each maker has to say about them a few years into the use of them.
Thank you very much, RGtools.

What I’ve gleaned so far is that almost everyone is happy with their benches. I was very glad to read that from those who had softwood tops. There were some who would like longer tops, but I haven’t found one yet that wanted a deeper top. One did mention that 30” is too deep. With the space that I have AND knowing that I WILL be building another bench after I live with this one for a while, I’ll be building this bench a little longer than 5’ (1.5M). The worktop will be a bit wider than 12”, and the exact size will be determined more by the finished size of my lumber than anything else. Can you call “winging it” a “plan”? I can.

A number of LJs were quite critical of the quality of their builds and would like to build another one, only better. Several LJs mentioned that they should have spent more time preparing their lumber, made better wood selections and paid more attention to the grain. Because I have a lot of mental and physical limitations and my lumber selection is limited to wood that I salvaged prior to my accident, I know that I WILL be saying the same thing when my bench is finished. That’s not to say that I won’t do my best to orient the grain properly or that I won’t do any good work, but rather that I’m trying to be somewhat realistic about what I expert this finished bench to be. It is the process of designing and building this bench combined with any improvements in my hand tool skills that will determine whether I consider this bench a success or not.

As mentioned in the previous post, I intend to have a tool well. They are something that people either love or they hate. Many techniques have been tried to overcome tool wells’ shortcomings. LJ Mosquito built in a sort of a lip (a thinner top) into the back of his bench top (at the front of his tool well) to let him use clamps there. That’s a great idea. Others have added ramps, which I’m not going to do. Several people have put in some kind of a removable bottom to help with cleaning and clamping.

A variation that I’m considering is to include just a frame for the tool well. To fill the frame, I would build 2 or 3 totes which could be removed for clamping or cleaning or even (gasp!) to put the tools away. If the totes and the frame had matching sloped sides, then the joinery would be simpler and there wouldn’t be any place to trap sawdust. Potentially, covers could also be made if I ever needed additional surface area. Does anyone see any problems with this idea or have any suggestions to improve the design or aid in the construction?

Back to the LJs critiquing their own benches, several commented on their benches becoming loose (racking?). Also mentioned quite a bit was the effects of weight on stability. Well, I want a relatively small, portable workbench, but I also want it to be stable. I seem to have a conflict of design criteria here. To address all of this, I intend to add a storage cabinet below the bench. Given all my limitations, I’m not going to build this cabinet. I already have an old cabinet from above the fridge in one of may previous houses. The cabinet is 28” wide. Check out this rough mockup to visualise this next issue:

The mock up is upside down, of course. The horizontal 3×3 is one of the pieces of the top that is approximately cut to length. The 2 vertical 3×3s represent the bench legs on either side of the 1×4, which is about the width (28”) of the cabinet. That gives me more than 12” (30cm) overhang on either side. I think that may be too much overhang for a bench this short. What say you all?

-- If I knew then what I know now, I'd have made a completely different set of mistakes.

View Smitty_Cabinetshop's profile


16327 posts in 3222 days

#4 posted 04-14-2016 10:54 AM

A lot going on, Kent! Congrats on event attempting to read the entire workbenches thread.

Totes that sit into a tool well frame is an interesting idea. Would those totes stay flush with the top? I’ve got two benches, one of them is a very vintage cabinetmaker-style with tool well. Used it for awhile, and sure enough, it also accumulated crap. Small parts, shavings, dust, and the occasional tool. Whatever type of discipline required to use a well effectively is out out there, I ain’t got it.

-- Don't anthropomorphize your handplanes. They hate it when you do that. -- OldTools Archive --

View Kent's profile


271 posts in 2400 days

#5 posted 04-14-2016 04:57 PM


I just took a look and I’ll bet that YOU read the entire thread. Your first post was #42. I just started about 5 years later than you and finally caught up yesterday.

Here’s a very crude approximation of my concept:

The “dark” board in the diagram between the bench top and the tool well frame is a planing stop, and the back edge of the frame is supposed to be square. I need to work on my drawing skills.

The sides of the totes would be tapered to match the taper in the frame. The taper would be much like the tails on a dovetail; just enough to keep things from falling through. The tote handles could be just a dowel from end to end, or even just some cleats along the length of the sides to allow the totes to be tilted and lifted.

I intend to prepare a rough Sketchup of the entire bench before I start building. With that I should be able to visualise how deep I could make the totes.

I used to be a technician in the air force, so I had the appropriate discipline “instilled” in me. It’s been over 3 decades since then, but I’m still very good at keeping my work area clean. (Some others are using my shop now, so about 25% of my time is spent [re]finding things). Some might also call my desire for a clean work area an obsession or a neurosis ;-) For me, I can’t see having a safe place to set my tools down AND out of my way as being a bad thing.

-- If I knew then what I know now, I'd have made a completely different set of mistakes.

View Kent's profile


271 posts in 2400 days

#6 posted 04-19-2016 04:02 PM

Okay, so I still don’t have much of a plan, but at least I got the Frankenbench sorted out and I’m back milling sticks for the future workbench. I did a little fiddling with the Frankenbench’s height. I noticed that when the top of the stock is at 38”, I’m not stooping but I am using my arms and back too much. This is only really noticeable when the plane digs in and you need that little extra oomph to keep it moving. Of course, the Frankenbench is way too light for this and it wants to walk (run?) away from me. Fortunately, one of the “height adjusters” is a very convenient place to step and apply some extra weight to the task. I’ll try to shorten the metal legs a little more next week. (an older pic)

I’m also battling my bad eyes, my inexperience and my injury as I’m truing this stock. I found a 4’ straight edge that is reasonably straight (an aluminum level, still shrink-wrapped, that came with the house when we bought it in 2009), but I need someone else to come by and confirm how straight it is. As I plane off the high points of my stock, I’m creating new high spots. I’m not taking off much wood, but it seems my high spots are moving unreasonably. Since I can’t trust my brain to think things through correctly or my straight edge to be straight, I’m putting my ”problem children” aside and starting to face some new sticks.

Is it facing or edging you do first when making something 4-square? It doesn’t make any difference to me with my 2.5×2.5 and 3×3 square stock, but I am curious. Here, I’m starting out with a rough-sawn 2.5” square piece. I think it’s maple. It doesn’t smell like birch, which is more common in pallet wood around here.

A couple of quick, light passes and the nature and shape of the stock start to show themselves. These passes also help me to assess the grain direction and get the blade depth somewhat close.

A few more passes and the stock is fast approaching “skip planed” status. Still not a problem for me.

Time to check with the straight edge.

Can you see the gap? I had to shine a light on it from behind to see it. It can only be seen between the Sharpee marks that I’ve put on the side of the stock.

Since the (close/right) end of the stock is is both high and chewed up, I just trimmed it off with a pull saw. A few more passes and it seems that the blade is now set too deep? (Full-length-ish shavings and the plane wants to dig in and stop).

Setting the blade shallower and then it stops shaving. I still have some low spots to work on; it was pallet wood after all. This is stock is for one of several pairs of hand screws that I’ll be making, much like this.

So this isn’t flat or true, but on the plus side, it is better than it was this morning. Also on the plus side, doing this much is something that I wasn’t capable of, even a few months ago. But until my vision and symptoms improve and I’ve had the straight edge verified, it’s time to put this board aside. Taking out the twist and square the edges will have to wait. Fortunately, I still have a lot of boards to work on and a number of smaller, less ambitious projects to work on.

-- If I knew then what I know now, I'd have made a completely different set of mistakes.

View Kent's profile


271 posts in 2400 days

#7 posted 04-27-2016 04:12 PM

So I’m building a bench for woodworking with hand tools. I don’t have the required skills or all the appropriate tools, and many of the tools that I do have are dull and/or not tuned. I would sharpen or tune them, but I don’t have the required skills or all the appropriate tools, and many of the tools that I do have are dull and/or not tuned. Note the circular reference there? Despite all of that, recovering from a number of physical and mental injuries and not having any plan, things have gone especially well this week.

I started by getting fed up with the mess in the shop. Once I realised that a lot of this was caused by various pieces of 7-10 foot lumber strewn around to dry, the solution didn’t take long to develop. The first step was to stop working on individual pieces and start working on batches of work. I used to know this, but somehow it got lost when buddy recalibrated my brain with his truck. Go figure.

So I cut the 3×3 sticks to about 63” so that I could stack them on end and all in one place while they continue to acclimate. Next, I would take the offcuts and start to plane one “face” flat and the first adjacent “edge” square. The pieces were rough sawn and often twisted, like this one:

Because they were so warped and twisted, my wedge-based clamping arrangement in the Frankenbench was slipping, I just said: “screw it”.

Planing stops do work! Who knew?

This piece is one of the worst twisted ones. When I started, there was about 1/8” twist across the 3” width and along the 32” length.

I’m trueing these pieces now so that I can build my skills and experience on less important pieces of wood than the ones that I’m using for the bench top. It’s working. My technique is improving. I also noticed that my #5 Stanley was always jamming up with fines at the right of the mouth. Some investigation revealed that the original sweetheart blade is almost as bent and twisted as my lumber. There was a .010” gap between one side of the blade and the chip breaker, and there was a serious bend in the other end, to boot! I’m not prepared to deal with that now, so I swapped in a straight blade from a #4 that’s awaiting refurbishing, and the #5 was back in the game. It performed nicely, I might add.

I check for twist with my cobbled-together winding sticks. They’re a little fiddly to set up but easy to see. When I can trust my eyes better, I’ll make a set of wooden winding sticks and then paint them some wild colours like the back one. I find if I paint my jigs and things neon(-ish) colours, then I can find them easier and they don’t get used as shims, clamping blocks, etc. Also, as this photo shows, you don’t need to be able to focus on the rear stick to use it, as long as you can differentiate the front and the rear. The difference in focus in this photo is a pretty close approximation of my real world vision.

Despite my limitations, I’m able to get the sticks flat within .002” across the 3” width and .010” along the length (always dipping in the middle). That should be close enough for the future glue up, no?

The planing and the (any) detail work really stresses my eyes and my brain, so I have to limit how much I do in any one instance, so I’ve been getting a lot of surfing time between shop times and naps. That led me to, among other things, research on the Stanley 78 rabbet plane. That led to me an entry on Chris Schwatz' blog, which told me about the Record variant. That then led me to Kijiji (an Ebay-owned site that has replaced Craig’s List in Canada) where I scored a low mileage Record 778 for a far better price than I could find on Ebay. I’m anxiously awaiting it’s arrival later this week. The owner even arranged delivery to my door (over 450km/280 miles) for free! I’m stoked!

-- If I knew then what I know now, I'd have made a completely different set of mistakes.

Have your say...

You must be signed in to post the comments.

DISCLAIMER: Any posts on LJ are posted by individuals acting in their own right and do not necessarily reflect the views of LJ. LJ will not be held liable for the actions of any user.

Latest Projects | Latest Blog Entries | Latest Forum Topics