In a recent project posting a lumberjock had used battens to flatten a curling sign he had built. It brought to mind an experience I had using battens.
When I retired from teaching, I got a part time job at a local wood shop. It was like I died and went to heaven. Using great power tools with wood that I didn’t have to pay for, who could want for more. One of the first things that struck me was the tremendous amount of scrap generated by the shop. I could not bring myself to toss wood into the dumpster, so with the boss’s and my wife’s permission I carried home a load of oddball pieces almost every evening.
All of the doors we made were cope and stick. We would run hundreds of feet of molding at a time. When it came time to build a door we would try to select wood for grain and color match. After a while the was a large stack of material laying around. I decided to use this to build a workbench based on a modified child’s dresser.
About the time I was finishing the bench we got in a large load of American Beech to build a line of children’s furniture. I purchased enough lumber to build a top for my bench. The wood was rough sawn and had to be milled. The glue up was an experience in itself. To give the top some thickness, I doubled up the wood on the edges. To compensate for the thick edge, I put battens on the back of the top. ( Do you see where this is going?) I had built the bench during the summer in my basement workshop. I have a dry basement, but it’s still a basement. To add one more little element to this drama, I treated the benchtop with a light coat of penetrating oil, top only. As soon as the furnace came on in the fall the top began to cup. I hoped that if it didn’t get too bad I could build a router sled and flatten it. So I decided to give it a little time. About a week later I was enjoying a cup of coffee when I heard a loud bang from the basement. The first thought I had was a water pipe had exploded. I raced to the basement expecting to see water shooting across the room. No such luck. What I found was my beautiful beech workbench top split right down the middle. The crack was a half inch wide running the entire length of the top. Total ruin. The best that I can figure is that the moisture level was a little high from being in the basement. Putting an oil finish on only one side contributed to uneven drying. The battens were the icing on the cake allowing the pressure to build up until the were released explosively. The moral of the story is you can’t fool mother nature and you can’t ignore wood movement. Today the bench has a built up top made of two layers of mdf and tempered masonite. Very stable, very serviceable, and very ugly! Oh well.
-- Jim Westbrooks