Split-top Roubo Workbench

Finishing the Workbench – Low Cost Roubo 8

Finishing the Workbench – Low Cost Roubo 8

Finally, after a long and very enjoyable (and sometimes frustrating process), all the mortises and tenons have been chopped, cut, fitted and drawbored, all the dovetails have been cut and assembled, the bench dog holes bored and the vises attached and adjusted. All that’s left now is finishing.

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Bench complete, pre-finishing, with a temporary leg vise handle

For finishing I chose to use a mixture of equal parts boiled linseed oil (BLO), turpentine and varnish. BLO alone would work quite well too, but takes a while to dry. Varnish on the other hand is strong and adds some gloss, but would make the bench surface too smooth – ideally the bench top should not be too smooth, to improve work holding capability. Some people choose not to finish their benches at all, but finishing helps with humidity changes and with removing glue spills from the bench surface. For benches with contrasting wood such as mine it also helps bring out the contrast.

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After the finish dried

I poured a liberal amount on of the mixture the top and wiped it on, and did the same for the base. 3 coats and I felt the bench had sufficient protection. Keep your windows open and your fans on, as the turpentine smells quite nasty.

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Once the finish dried, I moved some of my frequently used tools to the planing stop, and set about admiring my new bench. Altogether the bench weighs around 350 lb, so it isn’t going anywhere in a hurry. Chopping mortises on the bench is a real pleasure, with almost no vibration at all, and with the bench dog holes, bench dogs, holdfasts, planing stop and vises, the work holding options have so far covered pretty much every situation I have come across.

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The bench completed

I hope this build series helped you, whether you chose to follow it exactly or just get some ideas from it. If you have any questions or photos you’d like to share, give me a shout!

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Leg Vise, Dog Holes & Planing Stop – Low Cost Roubo 7

Leg Vise, Dog Holes & Planing Stop – Low Cost Roubo 7

With the top and the base assembled, there wasn’t much left till completion of the bench. First up, lets talk about adding a leg vise. I determined the maximum depth of clamping that I desired for my leg vise – too little and the capacity will be too low, too much and the vise will be wonky and move out of alignment. I did some research and chose a 9″ depth (the leg vise screw would be located 9″ lower than the top of the bench). The leg vise is a very simple yet surprisingly effective design. The screw acts against a a pivot point in the parallel guide to produce a great deal of clamping force at the top. The pivot point is determined by adding a dowel through one of holes in the parallel guide, depending on the thickness of the material being clamped.

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The hole for the leg vise screw and the mortise for the parallel guide

With that in mind, I needed an oversize hole for the screw to pass through the front left leg, and a through mortise for the parallel guide. I bored and chopped both of these prior to assembling the base – while you can do it after, it makes it a lot more difficult. The hole is easy, as it doesn’t require fine tolerances. The screw just needs to centre in the hole without touching the leg, or it will bind. The mortise is a bit more fidgety, as it ideally should be no more than 1/16″ larger than the parallel guide in each dimension.

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Gluing up the chop

With the leg mortised and bored, I used it to mark the location on the leg vise chop. I glued up the leg vise chop from 3 oak boards, creating a 30″ long, 8″ wide and 3″ thick chop. With the locations marked, I bored the leg vise screw hole, and a mortise for the parallel guide. My parallel guide was a 15″ long, 3/4″ thick piece of oak. It is important to get the mortise perfect for the parallel guide, as ideally you wouldn’t want to glue it in, in order to keep it replaceable. Before attaching the parallel guide, I shaped the chop a little, using a block plane and handsaws.

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Chop shaped, drilled and drawbored with the parallel guide

I bored the pin holes for the parallel guide, before attaching and drawboring the guide to the leg vise chop.I then placed the guide into the mortise in the leg, with a 1/16 shim at the bottom, and got to work centering the screw in the hole. It takes a bit of fidgeting, but I was able to make sure the screw is not touching the walls at all, and screw in the threaded part. After testing it to make sure the vise was aligned properly, I planed off around 1/16″ from the top of the vise to make sure it was flush to the top of the bench, added some leather to the bench and chop face and I was done!

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Chop aligned and attached!

 

Next up was the planing stop. The planing stop is designed to sit in the gap between the two halves of the top, just below the surface and act as a tool holder when not required. When it is needed it can be lifted up, shifted an inch to the right and it portrudes about 1/2″ from the top, acting as a planing stop. It is simply two boards with a large dado down each, glued together. I made some relief cuts across the width of each board before chiseling the waste out and gluing the two halves together. A little bit of planing later, it was ready to go in. It is important that it has a tight friction fit in the bench, as you don’t want it to move around on you when in use. It will require the occasional touch up with a plane as it moves at a different rate as the rest of the top.

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Planing stop completed – the two dados are what allows the stop to sit below or above the bench surface as required

 

The last thing (other than finishing) left to do was to bore the bench dog holes. For bench dog holes, less is more – you don’t want to lose precious rigidity and mass from the top of your bench for unnecessary holes. I went with offset holes every 4 – 6 inches in two rows, with one extra hole near a corner for wider boards. Of course, if your end vise has a dog, you want one of the rows to be in line with the dog. It helps if you know the reach of the holdfast you will be using (if at all). I use Gramercy holdfasts, and strongly recommend them. For their quality, performance and price, they are hard to beat. You want the holes to be spaced such that the holdfasts can reach halfway across the distance. A standard diameter for the holes is 3/4″. I used a square to help keep my brace and bit square to the top as I went. A bit with sharp spurs makes a world of difference here. With the holes bored, I rounded over the edges with a file to prevent splintering. I made some homemade bench dogs using 3/4″ maple dowel and leather scraps, and they work remarkably well.

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Boring the bench dog holes

And with that, all that is left for the bench to be complete is finishing! That’ll be the last post in this series.

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Houndstooth Dovetails on the End Caps – Low Cost Roubo 6

Houndstooth Dovetails on the End Caps – Low Cost Roubo 6

With the top almost complete, and attached to the base, I turned my attention to the dovetails. The dovetails are a pretty iconic part of the Roubo bench, and since I probably won’t be building another bench in a while, I decided to go a little flashy with houndstooth dovetails.

With my end-caps dimensioned, marked out and mortised, it was time to mark out the dovetails. You might remember that one of the endcaps was left a little longer than the other, to accept the ‘apron’ at the front of the bench. Marking out the houndstooth dovetails seems daunting at first but with a little care it’s not too difficult.

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Tails marked and cut first

I’m a tails first kind of guy, and while it’s usually just a matter of individual preference, I find for houndstooth dovetails marking out the tails first makes it a lot easier, especially since these are half-blind. I mark the tails normally, with two large tails first. I then measured 2/3rd into the height of the tails (from the end. Then, from the middle of each tail, I marked out the ‘recess’ within the tail at the same angle as the tails. This will split each tail into two tails, with space for 3 pins – one large pin between the two larger tails and a smaller pin within each tail, for that classic houndstooth look.

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Pins marked, sawn, and ready to be bored.

With the tails marked out, I turned to my trusty Veritas rip saw to cut just inside the lines. It’s very important to stay within the lines and to cut as square as possible. I followed up with a coping saw and chisels to clean out the waste. With the tails cut, I lined them up on the end-cap to mark out the pins. With the pins marked, I used a saw to cut close to lines as much as possible. Since these are half blind, I had to come in at an angle and be careful not to cut past the length of the tails. I used a brace and bit (taped for depth) to hog out most of the waste and cleaned them up with chisels, slowly paring down to the lines.

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With the bulk of the waste removed, it was time to carefully pare down to the lines.

With that done, it was time to attach the end cap to top, as outline in the last post, and hammer and glue in the front apron board, and voila! The dovetails were complete, and the bench looked a hell of a lot better! It’s a bit more work than just adding the end cap without any dovetails, or even just adding regular single pin and tail dovetails, but every time I look at the bench it makes me smile, and I’d say that makes it worth the effort.

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Dovetails assembled!

Next post will be on adding the leg vise, and drilling the bench dog holes! As always, feel free to email me or leave a comment if you have any questions.

 

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Attaching the Top – Low Cost Roubo 5

Attaching the Top – Low Cost Roubo 5

With the base (almost) complete, now is a good time to prepare your bench top and attach it. You will remember from an earlier post that I glued up the top from my boards and planed it down flat. I wanted to go with a split top, so I ripped the top down midway. This would let me put in a planing stop/tool holder in the middle, and bring the total width to around 22″. I wanted to add an end cap to the top, purely for decorative reasons. On a ‘normal’ roubo bench, the tail vise on the end would require an end cap to add rigidity. Since I wouldn’t be putting in a tail vise, I did’t really need an end cap, but I wanted to add a bit of flair with some dovetails, so I decided to add them anyways. If the end cap look is not too important to you, by all means skip this step.

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My end caps were 2.5″ thick mahogany. The end caps would be attached with a mortise and tenon joint, with an oversized mortise to allow for wood movement. Each end cap would have two bolts through them into the tenon, with one bolt in an oversized hole, again for wood movement. I began by marking out my tenon to around 1″x1″x8″. I cut at the lines using a panel saw, and split the wood down close to the lines using a chisel and mallet. With that done, it was time to clean the tenons up carefully paring down to the lines using a chisel. For the mortise, I cut them to 9″ long, allowing the top to move in one direction, towards the back of the bench. I bored out most of the waste using a brace and bit (tape the bits at the required depth), and cleaned up the mortise with a chisel. If you are following along, you’re probably getting pretty good at this by now. Try and keep the mortise and tenons both as square as possible – it’s important to get a good fit.

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(If you are going to be adding dovetailed end caps, skip this paragraph for now and move on to the next. Come back to this when the dovetails are done. With the tops and the end caps fitted, I drilled some pilot holes for the bolts to go through and drove the bolts through. I also added a little glue to the fixed side of the end caps for good measure. Be careful not to let it spread to the back during assembly.This brings me to another point in the build where I decided to do something unnecessary and unusual because of my aesthetic preferences. I hate the look of bolts and screws in benches (and furniture in general), so I had to cover up the bolts in the end caps. I decided to chisel out some shallow mortises to accept diamond shaped walnut inlays. I then glued them in place. I made the inlays fairly thin, around 1/8″ thick, so that if I ever need to reach the bolts, I can just whack at the inlays and they’ll break apart.

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With the top complete, lay the two halves on the floor top side down. Make sure they are laid out parallel and spaced apart 1.5″ (or however wide you want your gap to be), and carefully flip the base and lay it on the top slabs. Get a friend to help with this. It may take some fidgeting, but once the arrangement is complete, mark out the location of your mortises in the top to accept the leg tenons. Once marked out, use a taped brace and bit and bore out most of the waste, and clean up with a chisel. Your top is now complete!

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If you are adding a steel bench vise as an end vise, now is the time to do so. Mark out the location of your end vise, and use four bolts or lag screws to attach the bench vise to the bottom of your bench top. Wood movement hopefully shouldn’t be a major issue here but I like to overbuild things, so I made the two holes on one side slightly oversize to allow the top to move a little seasonally. There isn’t really much else to adding a bench vise at the end – you could mortise the rear jaw into the bench but I don’t find that necessary at all. I chose a quick release vise and strongly suggest you do too – it makes a huge difference in actual use.

It’s finally time to attach the top to the base. Line your top up and fit the tenons into the mortises. You don’t need to glue them in, as the top slabs sit on the stretchers and are pretty heavy, but a dab of glue doesn’t hurt if you aren’t planning on taking the top apart. Either way, add a bolt through each stretcher into the top, through oversize holes, and you have yourself a very, very solid bench.

Next post we’ll go over adding the dovetails to the end caps. Happy building!

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Drawboring Mortise & Tenons – Low Cost Roubo 4

With the joints all tuned up and ready for glue up, it’s time to drawbore all the mortise and tenon joints in the base. Drawboring pulls the joints tighter, strengthening them and reducing the effect of any slop in the joints. With the advent of modern glues and clamps, drawboring is not very common in furniture these days, but there seems to be a resurgence in interest in this centuries old technique. I find drawboring to be an easy way to add a lot of strength and character to a joint, so I use it whenever I can.

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Base ready for glue up and drawboring. Also, my extremely messy living room. 

Because the joints are pretty huge in this bench, I went with 3/8″ dowels. For regular sized joints 1/4″ would be a better option. The concept of drawboring is very simple. A 3/8″ (in this case) hole is drilled through the mortise, and the joint is dry fit. With the joint dry fit, the centre of the hole through the mortise is marked on the tenon. The joint is then disassembled, and a hole is drilled through the tenon, 1/16″ to 1/8″ slightly offset towards the shoulder. With the holes drilled, the joint is glued up, fit together and a peg is driven through the holes with a hammer or heavy mallet. The peg should go through to the other side, pulling the tenon shoulders closer to the mortise and tightening up the joint.

Drawboring the mortise and tenons in the stretchers

Drawbore pegs peeking through.

I always use hardwood dowels, in this case oak. I also like to use a contrasting wood for the pegs – drawboring demonstrates quality craftsmanship, so show it off! It is a good idea to whittle the pegs to a point before driving them in. I usually rub a little paste wax on the pegs before driving them through as well. I’ve had people tell me this is overkill – but then I’ve never had a peg  break on me or a drawbore attempt fail, so I’ll keep overdoing it.

On a project like a bench where you have a large number of joints to drawbore (in this case, 12), it’s vital to plan ahead. Once you glue the joint and fit it together, you have to drawbore the joint together quickly. I like to do them in batches – I went with the left legs and stretchers at once, and the right legs and stretchers at once, followed by the long stretchers to complete the base. This is also the point where you want to move the parts to the final location of the bench – it gets heavy and unwieldy after this. Like I mentioned earlier, this bench was meant for a room in my basement, so I moved it all downstairs. When you drive the pegs in, don’t be scared to put some heft into it. Give it a couple good whacks and you should see the peg poke through on the other side.

The photo above shows the legs being clamped together. You don’t actually need to clamp it, the drawbores will pull the joints tight enough. I didn’t clamp the other side.

Drawbored base showing the through mortise and tenons

Base complete!

With the base all glued up and drawbored, give it a few hours for the glue to dry, and use a flush cut saw to trim the excess off the tenons and the drawbore pegs…and you’re done!

P.S. If you are planning on installing a leg vise, you will need to account for that at this stage (or earlier preferably). I’ll cover that in a future post.

 

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Mortise and Tenons – Low Cost Roubo 3

Mortise and Tenons – Low Cost Roubo 3

Last time out we had the legs and stretchers all marked for cutting the mortise and tenons. I want to apologise for not posting in a while – life gets in the way sometimes.

To cut the tenons I used a back saw. You could also use a panel saw, at this point accuracy isn’t too important so long as you cut them oversize (on the waste side of your marks). With joints this big, you’ll spend a while fine tuning them regardless. The hardest part is sawing these joints without a proper workbench and the workholding options it provides. I used the table top and some clamps to hold the legs down as I worked them.

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A brace and a bit to hog out most of the mortise waste

For the mortises I used a brace and bit to bore out the majority of the waste, followed by chopping out the remaining waste with a chisel. The proper way to do it is to use a bit thats the same diameter as your mortise. If you’ve never used a brace and bit and aren’t too confident I suggest using a smaller bit. You can tune it up with chisels later. Either way use a square to help keep it straight, and flip the workpiece over half way. You’ll be surprised at how easy a brace is to use, with a proper bit.

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Ready for a dry fit!

Once the tenons are all rough cut and the mortises are bored out, settle in with a chisel and mallet and start tuning the joints up. Using a straight guide block clamped to your work can be helpful to help keep your chisel square. A few hours later you’ll be ready for a dry fit.

You want your joints to go in with a little bit of pressure. A few mallet taps may be required but if it’s any tighter than that, pare off a little from your tenons. Check the base for square. Tolerances don’t need to be space age tight, but you want it to line up square so the leg vise works properly and the bench top sits flat. Again, don’t expect this to be quick. It takes a while.

Next time we’ll work on drawboring the joints and finishing up the base.

 

 

 

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Glue Up and Building the Base – Low Cost Roubo 2

Glue Up and Building the Base – Low Cost Roubo 2

Now that we have the wood acclimatised to our workspace, it’s time to get building! One of the hardest things about building a first workbench is actually the lack of a workbench to build it on. That’s in keeping with woodworking in general – one tool begets ten others. Anyways, if you don’t have sawhorses to work on, you can use any stable table (that you don’t care much for). I built this one on an old IKEA coffee table. Again, make sure you use something you don’t care much for, because you will be getting glue, dings and holes on it. The first step of course, is the glue up.

Once the crosscuts are done to rough size (based on our earlier dimensions), it is a good idea to plane off a thin shaving or two from each board, even if they are perfectly square, just to give the glue a nice fresh surface to stick to. You could square each board at this point, or wait till after glue up. For dimensional lumber, I prefer waiting till after. This is because glue ups are rarely perfect, and the wood will move on you later, so planing before means losing a good .5″ at least.

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A surprisingly sturdy coffee table

Use a healthy (or unhealthy) amount of glue and clamps, and make sure to layout your clamps beforehand so that once you’ve glued up each board you are ready to go before the glue starts to dry. Once the lamination was complete, I got to work with my no.5 plane to bring the top down to flatness.

 

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A well tuned plane with a sharp blade will make your life a lot easier

At this point I don’t worry too much about getting the top perfectly flat, as I will likely have to flatten again later on in the build. With the top done, I move on to the base. The same principles apply, plane the boards lightly, use a lot of glue and a lot of clamps, and once the glue up is complete, plane the surfaces down.

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The stretchers ready to be marked

I made a couple extra short stretchers, just in case something went wrong when cutting the tenons.

Now on to marking. Get your marking gauge, square, and pencil out, and take your time – this is a crucial part of building anything. A good principle for tenons is to make them about 1/2 – 2/3 of the stretchers. I made the shoulders 1″ wide on the wider dimension (3.5″) and 3/4″ wide on the shorter dimension (3″). This would give me a nice square tenon that was large enough to be strong, but should also give the leg mortises enough wall strength at an inch thick on either side of the tenon.

Another important tip is to mark your waste – when you’re working on a repetitive task, it gets easy to cut on the wrong side of the line. Next time we will be cutting the tenons and chopping out the mortises!

Marking the tenons and mortises

Take your time when marking and measuring

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Planning and Materials – Low Cost Roubo 1

Planning and Materials – Low Cost Roubo 1

Once I decided on the type of bench I wanted to build, it was time to make some rough sketches to figure out how much material I would need. In order to keep it low-cost, I decided to build the bench out of dimensional lumber that you can find at any home hardware store. This helped guide my planning process.

Roubo workbench plan

Initial rough concept sketch

A 2×4 typically has dimensions of 1.5″x 3.5″. It made sense to laminate the legs out of three pieces, for a final size of 3.5″x4.5″ (of course the actual legs will be a bit smaller in all aspects after being planed down). The top and bottom stretchers would be two pieces laminated together, so around 3″x3.5″. The important thing about a Roubo bench is to make sure the front legs are flush with the front edge of the table top. This lets you clamp larger workpieces to the legs and the top as you work them, and also allows the use of a leg vise. One unusual aspect you might have noticed from the sketch is the addition of top stretchers; typically Roubos do not possess top stretchers, as the heft of the base and the through mortised joints are enough to keep the bench from racking. In this case the top stretchers weren’t really necessary but I wanted to add them in for good measure. I figured it would also allow the split top to rest more stable-y on the base.

The length of the top is rather short, but for the space that I had for it, it made sense. If you are using this build as a resource for ideas, you can extend the top by a couple feet without changing any other dimensions – the base is sized adequately. I wanted a split top, as the gap holds a planing stop that comes in very handy (and also doubles as a tool holder). The width of the top would be around 20″, which is pretty standard. As for the dog holes, I would figure the layout out once the bench was built.

At this point I needed to decide on my vise and the hardware. I strongly suggest that you acquire your hardware before you have made any progress on your build; it is far easier to account for it early on than to add it once you’ve put the bench together. I knew I wanted a leg vise – the clamping pressure they produce is fantastic, as is their depth and capacity. I also love the antiquated nature of leg vises, and the customization options that the chop presents. I decided to go with a DIY option that works very well – a tail vise screw sold by Lee Valley, and a self-made chop/parallel guide assembly. Of course, there are other options out there such as wooden vise screws or Benchcrafted assemblies, but they are a lot costlier. The end vise was more of a dilemma – I was torn between a proper tail vise, a quick release metal vise or a longer face vise. The proper tail vise was ruled out mostly due to the short length of the bench top (they are a lot more complex to install too), and the long face vise was ruled out due to the split top design. That left me with the QR metal bench vise.

Letting the lumber acclimatize

2×4’s cut to rough length

Next up was choosing and buying the wood. The basic idea is to choose boards that are mostly straight, with few knots. Tight knots are absolutely fine – they are a bit harder to work, but tend to be stronger and harder. It’s best to go for kiln-dried stock, as pine tends to move quite a bit with changes in surroundings. The kiln dried boards will still move on you, but it’s best to minimise what we can. Once back indoors, I crosscut the boards to rough length and stack them up as shown above for a couple of days or a week, just to get any crazy warpage out of the way.

My next post will be on preparing the wood for glue up and actually getting to work!

 

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Low Cost Split-Top Roubo Build

Low Cost Split-Top Roubo Build

A woodworkers bench is more than just a bench. It is the most important tool that a woodworker owns, even more so if the wood is being worked with hand tools. Since the projects I will be showcasing in the website will primarily be those of most interest to amateur woodworkers, the workbench seemed a fitting place to start.

A common dilemma faced by woodworkers is whether to build or buy a workbench. The most extreme proponents of the build camp find the idea of purchasing a workbench akin to heresy – something to be ashamed of, forever marking one as a fraud. On the other hand the most extreme proponents of the buy camp feel that building a bench is a waste of time; after all, as with all tools, a bench is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. To build a bench would be a waste of time that one could use to build other projects.

Should I build or buy a workbench?

Build or Buy?

Most woodworkers, myself included, tend to fall near the middle, but closer to the build camp, and for good reason. Building your own workbench gives you the option to personalise the bench to your own practical needs and aesthetic tastes, lets you practice and employ some very useful skills, and for some, is almost like a rite of passage – a personalised calling card, unique to the woodworker. Of course, if the right deal comes along/you are too busy to set aside the days, weeks or months it takes to build a bench, it makes perfect sense to buy a bench. At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong choice. There is only a right choice, and that is the choice that you make.

For someone new to woodworking, I would recommend building a bench early on, out of cheap, easily available lumber. A bench is a large project, and when built using traditional joinery, is a great opportunity to learn and hone new skills while being large enough that small errors can go unnoticed. As for the lumber, a softwood workbench is as good as any hardwood, so long as the stock is sufficiently dry. It can be tempting to want to build an epic, beautiful bench out of exotic hardwoods straight away. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, although it is out of the budget of most beginner woodworkers. I would suggest that you build your first bench out of something easier on the wallet; you will probably find things about your bench that work well, and things that don’t – and you can use this knowledge for your ultimate workbench down the line.

So that brings us to the type of bench you decide to build. Maybe you want to build a massive behemoth of a bench and outfit it with top of the line hardware from Benchcrafted, so you decide to go the Roubo route, a style popularised recently by Chris Schwarz. Or maybe you want to keep it simple and build the bench quickly and cheaply, and go more of a Sellers workbench, popularised by Paul Sellers. Or maybe a Holtzapffel or an English style or a…you get the idea. All of these benches are great. If you want to find out what the strongest features of each are, there’s plenty of information online. The truth is that most beginner woodworkers have no way of knowing which style of bench offers the best functionality for their style of work. So much changes in the first few years (and even later). So I say don’t agonise over the type of bench. Pick one that appeals the most to you, whether for functionality or for aesthetics. In the end it is your bench – if you look at it and it makes you happy, that’s half the battle. If you find something doesn’t work for you down the line, you can modify it, or even just build another. No big deal.

Split-Top Roubo End Cap

If aesthetics matter to you, your bench should be beautiful to look at

The build I decided to document here is a Roubo-style bench, with a split top. This design has been popularised greatly in recent years. This bench isn’t an exact Roubo as seen in Plate 11 – it has been modified to suit my work better. I wanted a smaller bench to fit into a small space, and so I also made it shorter than your average workbench.

That said, I believe it is a pretty good design to work with for amateur woodworkers with limited space and budget. The bench will be made mostly of pine, (cheap, easily available), will have quality yet affordable hardware, and should meet 90%, if not more, of most hand tool work situations. If you have more space and would like a bigger top, you can extend the length of the top further without any changes to the base. Of course, if you want to use a hardwood for the top, that would work just as well too. I couldn’t resist adding a couple of purely decorative features as well, as you will soon see.

With that rather lengthy introduction, I commence the Split-Top Roubo Build! I hope you find this informative, and if you have any questions, feel free to shoot me an email.

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