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Forum topic by livewire516 posted 03-27-2019 05:20 PM 1132 views 0 times favorited 17 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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livewire516

42 posts in 313 days


03-27-2019 05:20 PM

Topic tags/keywords: workbench roman workbench low bench slab

So I’m planning to build a low bench, also called a “Roman workbench” by Chris Schwarz, who (re)popularized the form. My known dimensions are going to be around 6ft long and 1 ft wide – it will have staked legs; the work surface will be around 18 in off of the ground. I find myself moving frequently, often living in apartments, so it may serve double-duty as a coffee table or seating – I mention that to say that aesthetics will matter in addition to utility.

I’m hoping the community can help me when it comes to wood selection. I’m relatively new to all this but this is my understanding:

- while thicker stock will deflect less, in this case deflection won’t be much of an issue using at least 8/4 stock since the board width will be around 12 in (and the suspended portion of the bench, between the legs, will be effectively only around 5 ft). I weigh 150 lbs, but according to Woodbin’s “Sagulator” a even a 200 lb load on its center would only deflect around only .015 inches in total, over time (I used soft maple in this calculation).

- that being said, with benches, more mass generally is better. And since my staked legs aren’t not contributing much mass, 12/4 stock (or even thicker?) will make the bench less likely to scoot. It’s worth noting however, that often you’re also adding your mass by sitting or partially kneeling when using a low bench as well.

- Thicker stock will also given more purchase for the staked through tenons for the legs, as well as for holdfasts.

- Quarter sawn stock is generally desirable in a bench because it is more dimensionally stable.

Living in SE Pennsylvania, I’m partial to soft maple, or perhaps ash. Chris Schwarz recommends red oak, which is what he made his out of (I believe it was 12/4 and quarter sawn, see image below). It seems as though I can also get quarter-sawn sycamore at reasonable prices, but I’ve been warned against using it on a bench because it can be difficult to work – what has been your experience?

I will probably be buying F2S, as I do not have a thickness planer, but I may consider slabs that aren’t completely dry (this is considered kosher, according to Schwarz in his book “Ingenious Mechanicks”) and/or dimensioning it by hand. While I anticipate movement as the wood dries, I think I only really need to be concerned about that messing up the rake and splay of the staked legs (of course the legs can be leveled again and the surface will need to be dressed over time anyway).

Often times, hardwood dealers in my area seem to have stock that is either 12/4 and flat sawn or 8/4 and quarter sawn, when dealing with 11+ inch boards. Given the choice between quarter-sawn 8/4 stock or flat-sawn 12/4, which would be more important in a workbench. I am not necessarily in a rush, should I hold out (and save up) for quarter-sawn 12/4 stock?

Have I missed something? What route would you take? Generally, <0>ll look forward to inevitable dents and dings being part of its patina, since it probably being in living spaces a lot of the time (and I would like it to be purdy), would hard maple be a better choice?

I would love to hear your thoughts.


17 replies so far

View Mr_Pink's profile

Mr_Pink

167 posts in 825 days


#1 posted 03-27-2019 06:52 PM

It not only needs to be thick enough to avoid deflection under static loads, but also thick enough to minimize vibration when you pound on it. In the end, I don’t know that it will actually be more mobile than a knock-down workbench design. It would be better as a coffee table/extra seating than a knock-down bench, unless you want a coffee table you can easily scoot out of the way.

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livewire516

42 posts in 313 days


#2 posted 03-27-2019 11:18 PM

Hi Mr_Pink, thank you for bringing something to my attention. I wasn’t clear when outlining that I move frequently: My work generally includes housing and moving expenses as part of my compensation – so moving the bench itself isn’t much of a concern.

The main concern is that I don’t have a lot of say about what my living space will look like; often times my employer may already have housing for me. I feel as though there are more apartments where I will be able to have a coffee table than a more typical bench (it could occupy the space a console table, sideboard, or sofa table but I still maintain there are fewer opportunities).

(I actually plan to build a knockdown Nicholson style bench, but it will probably live at my brother’s, who I visit often).

View Woodknack's profile

Woodknack

12870 posts in 2833 days


#3 posted 03-28-2019 12:33 AM

Considering the vitriol Schwartz spews at red oak I’m surprised he built anything with it but maybe when you are courting beginners you have to soften your stance on such things. Any wood medium hard wood (yellow pine or harder) will work, whatever you can get at a good price or whatever you want to splurge on.

-- Rick M, http://thewoodknack.blogspot.com/

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Wintergreen78

21 posts in 192 days


#4 posted 03-28-2019 12:57 AM

That seems like it would be a really good work surface for your situation. If you are doing all your chopping over the legs while you sit on the bench, i’m sure 8/4 would work fine. Would the bench really be heavy with a 12/4 top? It seems like that design depends on your weight to hold everything steady.

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SMP

1317 posts in 359 days


#5 posted 03-28-2019 03:44 AM

I think 8/4 hard or soft maple or ash would be great choices. Personally i’ Probably lean towards ash. I used a park bench before (out of necessity)and you are right, your weight really stabilizes it and weighs it down, especially if using japanese hand tools. Though i am curious what the true roman benches would have been made from, maybe olive or laurel? Interesting nonetheless

View livewire516's profile

livewire516

42 posts in 313 days


#6 posted 03-28-2019 06:56 PM

Thanks for everyone’s input so far – How important is it that I use quarter sawn stock?


Considering the vitriol Schwartz spews at red oak I m surprised he built anything with it

- Woodknack


Haha he has a blog post about him seeing the light with QS red oak.

Though i am curious what the true roman benches would have been made from, maybe olive or laurel? Interesting nonetheless

- SMP


If I were a betting person I would guess oak or beech? Oak is just about everywhere early civilizations flourished. It’s also worth mentioning a bench of this kind was found in a Roman fortress of what is now Germany.

View JADobson's profile

JADobson

1445 posts in 2564 days


#7 posted 03-28-2019 09:15 PM

Yeah, never olive – tree was too valuable as a fruit producing tree. And laurels are not much more than shrubs. I’d also bet on oak, but most likely whatever happened to be available on the day it was built. In one of the few sources we have, Vitruvius mentions oak, elm, poplar, cypress, and fir as good for building with. He also mentions hornbeam, larch, juniper, and cedar for their specific qualities.

Fun “fact” about larch:

It is worth while to know how this wood was discovered. The divine Caesar, being with his army in the neighbourhood of the Alps, and having ordered the towns to furnish supplies, the inhabitants of a fortified stronghold there, called Larignum, trusting in the natural strength of their defences, refused to obey his command. So the general ordered his forces to the assault.[63] In front of the gate of this stronghold there was a tower, made of beams of this wood laid in alternating directions at right angles to each other, like a funeral pyre, and built high, so that they could drive off an attacking party by throwing stakes and stones from the top. When it was observed that they had no other missiles than stakes, and that these could not be hurled very far from the wall on account of the weight, orders were given to approach and to throw bundles of brushwood and lighted torches at this outwork. These the soldiers soon got together.

16. The flames soon kindled the brushwood which lay about that wooden structure and, rising towards heaven, made everybody think that the whole pile had fallen. But when the fire had burned itself out and subsided, and the tower appeared to view entirely uninjured, Caesar in amazement gave orders that they should be surrounded with a palisade, built beyond the range of missiles. So the townspeople were frightened into surrendering, and were then asked where that wood came from which was not harmed by fire. They pointed to trees of the kind under discussion, of which there are very great numbers in that vicinity. And so, as that stronghold was called Larignum, the wood was called larch. It is transported by way of the Po to Ravenna, and is to be had in Fano, Pesaro, Ancona, and the other towns in that neighbourhood. If there were only a ready method of carrying this material to Rome, it would be of the greatest use in buildings; if not for general purposes, yet at least if the boards used in the eaves running round blocks of houses were made of it, the buildings would be free from the danger of fire spreading across to them, because such boards can neither take fire from flames or from burning coals, nor ignite spontaneously.
-Vitruvius De architectura


-- No craft is very far from the line beyond which is magic. -- Lord Dunsany — Instagram @grailwoodworks

View Aj2's profile

Aj2

2383 posts in 2251 days


#8 posted 03-28-2019 10:08 PM

That’s not a work bench it’s a sitting bench. And a nice looking one at that
Not practical for proper woodworking

-- Aj

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jacww

38 posts in 1461 days


#9 posted 03-28-2019 10:46 PM

Chris Schwarz demonstrated the Roman bench on the Woodwright’s Shop episode 10 season 36.

Chris’s bench was modeled after a bench recovered from a well in Saalburg, Germany. It has been dated to 187A.D. and may be the oldest known surviving workbench.

livewire516 if the bench is stiff enough 8/4 wood should be fine. You will be sitting on the material you are sawing or planing so you don’t need lots of weight to keep the bench from moving when you push a plane across the wood. I think Chris calls it using the “man clamp”. He also uses a variety of pegs and dogs to help hold the work piece steady while working it.

TonyC

View livewire516's profile

livewire516

42 posts in 313 days


#10 posted 03-29-2019 02:12 AM


Fun “fact” ...

- JADobson


Very interesting JADobson


Chris Schwarz demonstrated the Roman bench on the Woodwright s Shop episode 10 season 36.

TonyC

- jacww


Good episode – his book “Ingenious Mechanicks” expands a little further, but most is well covered on the show.

I’m I right in thinking I should prioritize it being quarter sawn? I could install stretchers between the legs and inset aprons to arrest wood movement, but I’d rather keep the design clean.

View Dave Polaschek's profile

Dave Polaschek

4055 posts in 1035 days


#11 posted 03-29-2019 10:21 AM

My low bench is rift sawn. I had to plane it flat after the first winter, but it seems to have settled down.

Go with what you can get. Don’t worry about stretchers. Plane it flat again if it moves. It’ll stop.

12/4 would be better than 8/4 because it’ll give holdfasts more to hold to, plus you’ll have more mass. And if it does move, you’ll have more you can plane off.

-- Dave - Minneapolis

View JohnMcClure's profile

JohnMcClure

650 posts in 1094 days


#12 posted 03-29-2019 10:59 AM

Also please refer to Schwarz’s poem about wood selection in his book on the topic. I can’t quote it, but it keeps rhyming the phrase, “if you use pine, you’ll be fine”. I suspect he’s right and an attractive pine slab could probably be had inexpensively from your local sawmill… they may think you’re crazy but…

-- I'd rather be a hammer than a nail

View jdh122's profile

jdh122

1089 posts in 3271 days


#13 posted 03-29-2019 11:30 AM

“Am I right in thinking I should prioritize it being quarter sawn? I could install stretchers between the legs and inset aprons to arrest wood movement, but I d rather keep the design clean.”

I don’t see any reason to use quartersawn wood here, unless it’s oak and you do it for the aesthetics. True, it would expand and contract about half as much, but there’s only going to be at most 1/8 inch of movement even in flatsawn, and I can’t see how that would affect your use of the bench. I suppose that QS is a bit harder and a bit less likely to split when you chisel on it than if flatsawn, but given the premium you’ll pay for it it’s not worth it.

I’d strongly discourage you from adding a crossgrain cleat to “arrest” wood movement, both because it’s not necessary and because if it does work it could end up causing cracks to develop in the top.

-- Jeremy, in the Acadian forests

View livewire516's profile

livewire516

42 posts in 313 days


#14 posted 03-29-2019 01:06 PM


Also please refer to Schwarz s poem about wood selection in his book on the topic. I can t quote it, but it keeps rhyming the phrase, “if you use pine, you ll be fine”. I suspect he s right …
- JohnMcClure

Haha I couldn’t get through the poem, it was so painful, but I generally subscribe to his sentiment. I already have a workbench though, made from laminated plywood with a hardboard top, so all my kvetching about species isn’t preventing me from woodworking. The other factor being that I suspect it’ll often find itself in my living space, I am giving aesthetics more weight than I would otherwise. It was that chapter where is draws the analogy that maple is to Pennsylvania what beech is to Europe; I’m currently living in PA, so that practically sold me on it being soft maple.


My low bench is rift sawn. I had to plane it flat after the first winter, but it seems to have settled down.

Go with what you can get. Don’t worry about stretchers. Plane it flat again if it moves. It’ll stop.

12/4 would be better than 8/4 because it’ll give holdfasts more to hold to, plus you’ll have more mass. And if it does move, you’ll have more you can plane off.

- Dave Polaschek

Dave, your workbench is awesome – I was looking at your build during my initial search for Roman benches on the LJ site. All great points – any insights you have from your experience, especially since living with it for a while, would be appreciated.


I suppose that QS is a bit harder and a bit less likely to split when you chisel on it than if flatsawn, but given the premium you ll pay for it it s not worth it.

I d strongly discourage you from adding a crossgrain cleat to “arrest” wood movement, both because it s not necessary and because if it does work it could end up causing cracks to develop in the top.

- jdh122

Jeremy, thanks so much for that input, especially about the cleat! This definitely shows my ignorance on the subject: I was conflating dimensional stability with a concern about potential twist or cupping or what not.

View bondogaposis's profile

bondogaposis

5496 posts in 2804 days


#15 posted 03-29-2019 03:37 PM

I could install stretchers between the legs and inset aprons to arrest wood movement, but I’d rather keep the design clean.

It is not possible to arrest wood movement, you can only allow for it. Just get the lowest cost wood you can find. I do think that 12/4 will be better than 8/4 especially if you intend to use holdfasts. It will also look a lot more proportional for aesthetics.

-- Bondo Gaposis

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