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The Year of the Workbench

by Dick Rank
Atlanta, GA

This article first appeared in the November 2010 issue of Wood News Online

This year there seems to be renewed interest in workbenches. Several articles have appeared on old benches, bench designs and making new ones. One day, while looking over woodworking publications in my favorite woodworking store, I noticed a beautiful big book entitled The Workbench by Lon Schleining. In full color, it had detailed pictures and plans of antique benches, favorite benches, and innovative benches. It spoke to me. It said it was time that I made something for myself for a change. I already had a wonderful 50 year old German Ulmia bench I obtained from a fine Decatur cabinet maker many years ago, but perhaps another great bench might come in handy from time to time. One bench in the book on page 158 in the book struck me as exactly what I wanted. It had a laminated maple top and a very simple but strong base.

I had a nice stack of 1 and 2 inch cherry up in my loft which came from a neighborhood tree that fell during a storm two years ago. The owner said I could have it if I took it away. That was a win-win deal. There was more than enough for the bench base, and it would look great. After two years of air drying in the loft, it had 10% moisture content and was ready. Also, I had purchased an old, heavy quick release woodworker's vise at a garage sale several years ago which I knew would come in handy at some point. It did.

The top was another matter. Rather than find some maple and then glue it up into a laminated top, I took a shortcut - Sometimes I get impatient to see the final product. I ordered a maple laminated kitchen counter top (more expensive, but quick!) from McMaster's catalog. It came in a box from Wisconsin. It was finished well on both sides and was absolutely flat.

Gluing up 2 inch thick pieces of cherry gave me some nice legs, and some 2x6 lengths provided the longer base pieces. I used the factory top dimensions to establish overall size, and surrounded it with a 2x5 cherry surround. Side pieces were pre-drilled, glued and fastened to the top with long screws End pieces were fastened with screws only to allow for differential expansion of the maple to prevent cracking. Screw holes were elongated for the same reason. My other bench has a tool tray across the back, but all it does is collect sawdust, shavings and scraps of sandpaper, so the new bench is without a tray.

The entire base was fastened together with 8 inch lag bolts and washers so it could be tightened again later or disassembled if necessary. It seemed to me that the lag bolts were quite enough to maintain good strength and rigidity. The bench turned out too heavy to be moved in one piece, so the top was fastened to the base with long screws, and can easily be removed.

One more stroke of luck came along at the right time. I found a Veritas twin screw end vise on Craig's List and purchased it for half price. It was perfect for the top's right end. It is a complicated installation, so after several false starts, I finally studied the directions at length, and succeeded in completing the installation properly.

Still remaining was planning hole locations and stain and varnishing of the base with polyurethane.

When all was finished, I didn't want to start using it for fear that I would scratch the furniture finish. I managed to overcome that foolishness, and now the bench is in full use. It is great to have all that large and perfectly flat surface available. Perhaps now I just might produce somewhat better woodworking results.

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