So I decided I needed to finally build a real woodworking bench for my new workspace. I got all the books by Chris Schwarz, checked all the back issues of woodworking mags and browsed the internet in preparation. Then the first thing I did was break one of Chris Schwarz rules. I decided to design my own rather then duplicate a historical bench. I think I had valid reasons. My workspace is small. I could not fit a long bench. A short bench means planning forces have a bigger impact, so I decided to use canted legs. This also helps with clearance for a face vise. I don’t like the way a straight face vise looks on a canted leg, so my vise is also canted. In addition to aesthetics, I felt this would give me a little more clearance underneath for holding long items vertically. I also wanted the bench to be easy to disassemble, so if I ever move, the bench is not stuck in my old workroom with no way to get out. I wanted the component pieces light enough so that one person can manage them.
I started this project about 6 months ago and finally finished it last week. Like others who have embarked on this journey, I have done it in pieces with vacations, long periods of thinking, and testing ideas mixed in with honey todos stretching out the time. I am still surprised that something that looks so simple took so long. Luckily my homemade solutions work well.
One other thing I did during this project that I have not seen discussed by others is to use the freeware Freeplane mind mapping software. I have been using this software for a variety of projects and have found this flexible approach to moving ideas around invaluable. Each new project, I find new ways to apply it. On this project, I initially used it to capture my design thinking, then to build a materials list as the details solidified, and finally I used it to plan and document my activities long and short term. This really helped avoid some mistakes and make the best use of my time. This is especially important when you have significant time gaps in your work. It is also a good place to capture future improvements or additions you think of in the middle of the project. When finished, it provides a good log of what you did and why in case you want to use some aspect of your work on a future project (if you date your entries, you get a interesting time line). I have no connection with this software, but have used it extensively since I found it.
To get some dimensions, I decided that the top would be layered plywood with maple edging. The edging, chop and misc bits would use maple from a tree I had chain saw milled from my back yard that had been kicking around the garage for about 15 years. To use the plywood efficiently, my get started dimension would be a quarter sheet of plywood with the edges cleaned up and whatever I could cut from my maple horde for edging. This resulted in a size of 51” x 27”. For height, I wanted it slightly shorter then my tablesaw so it could be used as an outfeed table if needed. This turned out to be 35.5” which is also a good working height for me. The legs were splayed at a 15 degree angle (no special reason, just looked good on paper) and their footprint on the floor matched the top dimensions. This eliminated any cantilevered instabilities. Lastly I am too cheap to buy good bench hardware and I like working with metal, so I decided to roll my own face vise hardware. For an end vise, I got a deal on eBay.
My final design for the basic bench consisted of 5 wooden components: two leg assemblies, a lower shelf and a top made up of two sections.
The top consists of two sub-assemblies. The lower top is two 3/4” plywood panels glued together and framed by maple edges. The maple edges form a recess that holds the upper top which is also two 3/4” panels glued together. The upper top is held in place using multiple wood screws at strategic points. The wood screws do not penetrate the upper top more then 3/4” so are no threat to wood working tools. There are a number of benefits for this two part approach:
- It breaks up the weight so that the bench assembliies can be carried by one person.
- Since the top comes off, I can mount the end vise with flat head bolts and still have full access for maintenance if needed.
- If the top gets hacked up, I can use the old top as a guide and make up a new one from half a plywood sheet and effectively have a new bench.
- If I decide I want a solid top, I can replace the plywood top with a 1.5” thick glued up slab of solid wood cut to size and not change anything else.
I decided to make the lower shelf the same length and width as the top. This creates a variety of clamping opportunities since the shelf and the top are on the same plane when any wood is clamped in either vise.
For the face vise I wanted to eliminate having to bend down to put a pin into a parallel guide. I initially decided to try a linear bearing design that locks the vise and clamps the work with racking forces. I bought the hardware, tried it and did not like it. Did not go all the way with installing it, but in testing some prototypes, it looked like the angles could get a little tricky and if you racked too hard, releasing the pressure was not smooth. This is not a definitive analysis of that system. There are a lot of variables and it is quite possible I could have gotten it to work, others have, but I decided I wanted something simpler. I eliminated the cross option because you need to remove a lot of wood to install it and its on the expensive side. I read about and liked the chain mechanism. Seemed simple, easy to implement, and only required a couple of new holes. I decided to keep the linear bearing hardware as a parallel guide and marry it up with the chain system (= belt and suspenders). This turned out to be a good choice. If I ever build another bench, I would use this combination again. The linear bearing was reasonably priced and only required drilling some holes to mount it. Seems a lot simpler then all the cutting and mortising needed for a normal parallel guide with a roller mechanism. There is no place to put a pin, but the chain fixes that. The chop moves smoothly on the linear bearing, the chain clamps well and installation, once I had created the hardware, was fairly straightforward using Forstner bits and a drill press.
My chain system is a hybrid of Tim Muashige’s dogleg vise and the Ancora Yacht Service system based on the pictures and info they provide on the web with my linear bearing additions.
The end vise was purchased and only needed mounting on the end of the table. Because of the canted legs, I had plenty of room under the top and could mount it right up against the edge of the table. I did not want metal clamping wood, so I added a wooden front face and recessed the back of the vise into the table edge framing. I was prepared to do a lot of shiming, but lucked out and my routed out recess was right on.
So here is the design I came up with. The end vise was added later, so does not show here.