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Reflections on my workbench

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Project by LucasinBC posted 06-14-2011 04:40 AM 2407 views 2 times favorited 11 comments Add to Favorites Watch

My First Workbench Experience

I will predicate this story in saying that I am not a professional woodworker, I have never had any training and on top of all that, this was my first crack ever at woodworking. Given all of that, I will give myself a C on this project, which is actually not so bad all things considered.

This is obviously no beauty contest contender, so I have to point out that my story will probably only be of use to beginner woodworkers like myself. I will try to keep this short, but there are some details that I think would be beneficial to other beginner woodworkers who are contemplating building a workbench.

This workbench was based on the Roubo style workbench described in Christopher Schwarz’s book “Workbenches.” It’s quite a bit smaller as I have limited space in my garage, and also because I screwed up my rip cuts for the top when I first started. It still works well. The piece of wood you see clamped on the photo there is the leg vice which I fully intend to mount in the next few days.

The reason I decided to build a workbench is because I figured that it would be much easier to get into the craft of woodworking if I had something to work on. Prior to having this workbench I used a deep freeze, crappy little tables or whatever I had lying around in the garage.

I think I was right because since I have built this everything else has been much easier. It’s great to have a large work surface that is stable, doesn’t move, and can support large pieces of work and my tools.

That being said, this was quite an experience for me because, as I mentioned, this was the first thing I ever built out of wood. It took me far longer than it should have, and I made far more mistakes than necessary! So here are some points to consider if you decide to take this type of project on as a beginner:

1. Choose your wood carefully – be picky
Most workbench plans call for the use of softwoods. If you use high quality stuff that’s no problem. If you use construction grade stuff, such as what is suggested by Schwarz, it’s a bit more difficult. That is especially the case if you choose crappy boards.

I used Douglas Fir. You can use just about any softwood that is intended for framing or decks. Schwarz suggests Southern Yellow Pine in his book. I live in the Pacific North West, so we don’t have that type of wood here. We have lots of Cedar, Fir and Spruce. I chose Douglas Fir because it’s relatively inexpensive, yet it is also quite strong.

My mistake is that I was far too liberal in selecting my boards. At the lumber yard I chose a good amount of 2X10s which should have been more than enough for the entire bench. I was wrong. Because I picked boards with lots of knots, warps and cracks that I could have easily spotted had I been more attentive.

After running out of wood due to poor quality boards, I went to Home Depot instead of the lumber yard to get my next batch. I purchased SPF lumber…stuff that is pretty common here on the West Coast. SPF stands for Spruce, Pine and Fir. Apparently our species out here are so similar that they lump them all together. I should have gone with this stuff to begin with. HD keeps their boards indoors, which means they are far less wet, and had way fewer cracks and warps. Easier to machine, and just as hard as the Douglas Fir. So go with it if you want. The point is, select the right wood, otherwise, working this wood will try your nerves. I had a very difficult time jointing my boards at first because they were so twisted. Be patient when buying your wood.

2. Consider a stationary tool for cutting your wood
When I started this project I had only one power saw – my Ridgid circular saw. I figured that I could do this entire project with only that. I’m sure it’s possible and it’s probably been done. But as a newbie, I found it quite difficult.

My rip cuts were inaccurate, and trying to rip long boards (8 foot) using only a circ saw can be a challenge. As well, trying to rip 3” or 4” boards can be very challenging after the initial rip from the board, as you are now trying to rip a 3” or 4” board from a 6” board. Unless you are very steady, or have some elaborate jig to keep your saw straight, it’s quite challenging.

Part way through my build I purchased a bandsaw. I re-ripped everything again using the bandsaw. I have to say that it took me a fraction of the time and the accuracy was much better. I’m not saying you should go out and buy a power tool if you don’t think you need it, but it’s a lot easier to set a fence on a table saw or bandsaw than it is to measure each board and try to line up your cuts with a circ saw or jigsaw.

3. Build some saw horses
This sounds very obvious to most, but I didn’t have any sawhorses when I started this project. One of the things that hits your pretty hard when building a workbench is that you almost need a workbench just to build one! I took a morning to build some sawhorses out of leftover studs of Fir and they served me very well. This is especially true if you are laminating the top out of many boards, as the Roubo calls for.

4. Use the unit of measurement that is most familiar to you
This probably only applies to Canadians like me. I was learned the metric system when I was growing up. Fractions look weird to me, mostly the smaller lengths, like 17/32, etc. I am not saying that one is better, and I know that most woodworkers, especially the good ones, do not use the metric system. However, I found early on that trying to use a system I was unfamiliar with confused me. I switched over to metric measurements and never looked back. It was far easier after that.

5. Don’t go crazy jointing and planing the wood
I got in trouble early on for two reasons. One, I screwed up my rip cuts with my circ saw, so the pieces I wanted laminated for the top were all messed up.

The other thing that got me in trouble, which is partly related to the rip cuts, was that I got carried away jointing the wood. Softwoods, especially construction grade stuff, is twisty an uncooperative. If you are trying to get it dead flat you may be setting yourself up for failure. I didn’t know any better, so I just kept jointing away, hoping to get each of the boards dead flat. I wound up removing way too much wood and making my top too thin. As long as it is close enough, and the boards can be clamped together, you are good. There is no use in trying to get everything perfect, especially for a workbench. Had I followed that hint I would have been better off.

That’s about it. I wound up having a workbench that was a bit smaller than what I had originally planned for because of my poor initial rip-cuts. After I got my bandsaw things were much easier, but at that point I had already prepared all my wood. I plan on building another work bench in the future, hopefully with a much thicker top.

However, as a newbie, this got me to try many woodworking skills. I had fun. I hope to have even more fun building stuff WITH my workbench.

PS- I plan on adding an end vice as well, but I haven’t decided what type yet.

-- Making mistakes is essential in learning woodworking.





11 comments so far

View Dan's profile

Dan

3543 posts in 1625 days


#1 posted 06-14-2011 05:18 AM

If you compared this bench to my first few attempts at a work bench your grade would be much higher then a C.

I am sure it will serve you well. Thanks for sharing your experience.

-- Dan - "Collector of Hand Planes"

View Moron's profile

Moron

4717 posts in 2638 days


#2 posted 06-14-2011 05:53 AM

always great lessons when building a bench, ...........I think you under estimate your skill.

-- "Good artists borrow, great artists steal”…..Picasso

View Joseph Cataldie's profile

Joseph Cataldie

71 posts in 1960 days


#3 posted 06-14-2011 06:50 AM

Looks really good Lucas. Impressive for a first project and only using a circ saw… The Force is strong with this one.

-- Joey C., Baton Rouge, LA, www.JCcypress.com

View murch's profile

murch

1186 posts in 1369 days


#4 posted 06-14-2011 08:36 AM

It didn’t turn out too bad at all. Thanks for taking the time to put together an informative post.

-- A family man has photos in his wallet where his money used to be.

View GaryD's profile

GaryD

621 posts in 2114 days


#5 posted 06-14-2011 04:26 PM

Looks good to me. Amazing that you did it with a cir.saw

-- Gary, Little River,SC I've Learned that the Lord didn't do it all in one day and neither can I

View rsdowdy's profile

rsdowdy

105 posts in 1940 days


#6 posted 06-17-2011 05:51 PM

Lucas,

Thank you for sharing your building experience with us. While there are many here that are amazingly great, there are just as many of us that are beginners as well (ie me). Building problems, insights, and resolutions help us out greatly so we can learn things to look out for.

To me the greatest thing about your bench is that you have a project in the works on it!!!

Royal

View LucasinBC's profile

LucasinBC

62 posts in 1816 days


#7 posted 06-18-2011 06:39 PM

Thanks for all the encouraging words everyone – I hope to use my workbench to build stuff that is of the same caliber as many of the other fine projects posted on this website!

Take care,
Luc

-- Making mistakes is essential in learning woodworking.

View Mauricio's profile

Mauricio

6898 posts in 1896 days


#8 posted 08-24-2011 03:04 PM

This is a nice bench man, I think as you start using it you’ll realize tha those little defects that bug dont affect the usefullness of the bench.

I’m still using a 2×4 and osb bench and I’ve been woodworking for about 2yrs now. Your off to a good start.

-- Mauricio - Woodstock, GA - "Confusion is the Womb of Learning, with utter conviction being it's Tomb" Prof. T.O. Nitsch

View Smitty_Cabinetshop's profile

Smitty_Cabinetshop

10327 posts in 1363 days


#9 posted 08-24-2011 04:32 PM

Jason – Great information in this post for anyone wanting to tackle their own workbench build. I really like it that you jumped in and started work, learning as you go. The end result, your bench, teaches so much during construction AND is an incredible starting point for all sorts of projects. I could hardly contain my excitement when my bench was done and ‘helping me’ perform tasks that were done previously on saw horses (too tall and rickety) or a Workmate (a trusted friend, but still just plain rickety).

Funny thing about the metric system. I remember in the early 1970s, when I was in grade school, that we were all told that metric was coming and that we needed to learn it real fast. Fast forward 35 years and it’s still not here. Even the English have dropped it.

Your bench looks great. Here’s hoping the top’s thickness will be just fine. We’ve all seen benches with tops over 6” thick; man, that’s serious business but I’m not sure it isn’t a serious misuse of material. Between 3” – 4” (8 – 10cm) should be good, and you’ve got that. All’s you can do is flatten it and see how it goes.

Again, Congratsa and Nice Job!

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

View LucasinBC's profile

LucasinBC

62 posts in 1816 days


#10 posted 08-27-2011 05:53 AM

Thanks again for the kudos everyone.

Smitty you are right about the metric system, nobody else uses it. I am trying very hard to get used to inches and feet, it’s actually just getting used to fractions. So I guess it’s not so much that I like the metric system better, I just like decimals. They are easier to read for me.

The bench is holding up nicely – the leg vice works very well and I’m starting a small kitchen secretary wall-cabinet shortly.

-- Making mistakes is essential in learning woodworking.

View john_az's profile

john_az

105 posts in 1115 days


#11 posted 02-24-2012 05:16 PM

Lucas,

Thanks for the comments on my workbench. This was one of my first significant projects and it was challenging. You did extremely well for only having a circular saw and then later a bandsaw. I had an advantage of a table saw and a jointer and I still took the easy route on the top by using sheet goods. Nice write up on your experience. I ran into many of the same issues as you did. Finding straight and knot free boards at the home center is a challenge. I also used some SPF for the legs and small stretchers because the construction grade douglas fir would have required too much milling. Great job and thanks.

-- John, Phoenix-AZ

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