I’m a big believer in iterative design: make a simple prototype, test it, remake it, test it again. That’s what I advise my students when they’re working on class projects like this one.
Fortunately, now we have digital tools so we can move quickly from iteration to iteration. Sketchup is the epitome of such tools in 3D design—as its name suggests, it’s all about making quick sketches that can at some point be exported to more sophisticated CAD/CAM or architectural information management programs. I’m still learning it, but it’s made a huge difference in my ability to adapt and implement ideas quickly.
The great thing about Sketchup is that because the investment is low, risk is low. We all know the feeling of investing a lot of time, effort, and money in a project, only to be faced by a problem or opportunity or idea at the end. What will happen if I change something now? What if I mess up all that investment? Sketchup allows you to take risks that would be unsustainable in the real world.
The downside of course is that you can spend all your woodworking time at the computer instead of in the shop. Here’s my thinking: Sketchup isn’t primarily a time- or labor-saving tool. It’s a quality-enhancing tool. It allows us to try things out cheaply and relatively quickly, with no guilt, then change them if something doesn’t seem to work out. Sketchup actually takes time to learn and use, but the quality of the output at the end of the design process is much improved.
I also like how Sketchup encourages us to design things ourselves, rather than rely on somebody else’s plans. To me, the essence of the whole woodworking hobby is the individuality and customization that comes from handwork. Unlike mere assembly, such as you might do if you buy a bench kit or a boxed manufactured bench, woodworking combines fabrication and assembly. We tend to use some store-bought parts: handles, hinges, drawer pulls, and so on. But how we put them together depends on the materials we shape by hand. We often think about hardware as holding our fabricated wooden parts together – but the reciprocal is also true: the wood is the fabric that puts the hardware in place, the integrative tissue of a piece of furniture. Brian Boggs once said he started building chairs because he could make the joints with a limited number of tools in a limited number of ways necessary for strength, but that between the joints his creativity could run wild.
The French call this “bricolage” – the individual’s assemblage of unique ingredients, sometimes in unintended combinations. A good example: Matthias Wendell making a bandsaw out of wood, using bicycle inner tubes for the tires.
What happens in this stew of homemade, shop-bought, and repurposed materials is that we get to make things that suit us. Say you buy a desk. It’s too short; you prop it up on blocks. It’s too wide: you move things around to accommodate it. It’s too tall: you buy a height-adjusting chair so you can adapt yourself to the object. Instead, what woodworkers do is make a desk to fit us.
That’s one reason making a workbench is such a great exercise in iterative design. What we’re seeking is an amiable combination between our bodies (height, reach), our activities (planing, chopping mortises, sawing, carving) and our workpieces. The purpose of a workbench isn’t just to hold work steady, but to hold it in a particular relation to our bodies and our tools.
Which is one reason why eventually we have to move out of the world of Sketchup and into the world of reality. We can draw designs all day long, but eventually we need something to hold, touch, stand beside, and use to figure out how our bodies will relate to it. The Stonehenge scene of Spinal Tap comes to mind: the band pays big bucks to have a replica Stonehenge constructed for their stage show, only to find that their request for a 18’ monolith was read as 18”. Their solution? Hire little people to dance around it. Not only funny, but an indictment of the broken communication between users, designers, and makers.
What’s great about woodworking is that we’re all simultaneously users, designers, and makers. So none of us is really building a Roubo bench – we’re building our own bench, fitted to our bodies, our needs, our values. For some, it’s a utilitarian tool; for others, it’s a display of skill or an opportunity for innovation; for still others it’s a connection to a heritage of woodworking practice that extends back centuries. Design means that we get to decide.