Building My Workbench
I built myself a workbench for woodworking that should last for the rest of my life. It is based off of an 18th century French design by Andre Roubo. It’s a beast, and I’m very happy with it.
Here are some of the original drawings from Roubo:
Finished, my bench is about 8 feet long, 2 feet deep, 39 inches high, and probably weighs a couple hundred pounds at least. All of the joints are thick and strong. No matter what I’ve done on it so far, it doesn’t flex or move.
The bench has two vices for holding work – the main leg vice on the front, and a smaller quick-release vise on the right side.
Technically it’s not “done,” as there are a few more small things I plan to add over time. (These things are never “done.") But the main effort is done and it is a solid, functional workbench, ready for the countless projects to come.
- TOP: Front view of the bench. The “i” on the left leg is marking cutouts for the leg vice hardware.
- TOP RIGHT: The chop (moving part) of the leg vice.
- CENTER: Top-down view of the bench. The leg vice protrudes at bottom left, and the tail vice is on the right. The four trapezoid-rectangle-pairs mark where the leg tenons come through the benchtop (explained below). The dots in a line across the bottom are estimates of where I’ll eventually drill holes to insert bench dogs and hold fasts – things that help hold a piece of wood in place while I work on it.
- BOTTOM: Cross-section of the leg stretchers inserted into the legs (top-down view).
I started construction in September of 2018 with the usual first step of any project… a trip to Home Depot. I returned, as you can see below, with $200 in Douglas Fir construction lumber – 2x10s and a few 2x12s. Based on the planned length of the bench, the lumber was mostly 8 foot lengths, with some 10-footers and a 12-footer for good measure. Also there was a gallon of wood glue. This project needed a lot of glue.
I started by ripping the 2x10s in half so they were about 5 inches wide. Then I layed out all of the boards looking for grain lines, clean edges, and locations of knots. Most of the boards were to be laminated together wide-face-to-wide-face to create a bench top that was 5 inches thick. (Think butcher-block. Only 8 feet long.)
Lining up grain patterns was important for keeping the bench top stable over time. Basically, it’s like this: a tree is made up of concentric circles (“rings”). When that log is milled into boards, it’s like taking cross-sections of those ring patters, only the cross-sections vary depending on which slice of the tree you’re using. The shape of those ring “slices” can affect how the board moves over time, such as which directions it might bow, cup,or twist.
So if the rings in a board look like ((( then over time, the board will want to “cup” into that “C” shape. But by matching a board with ((( against a board with ))), the two boards will counteract each other and basically never move.
Gluing up the top was no small feat. The thing is 17 boards across. First I glued up sets of 2 or 3 boards. Then I glued pairs of those sets together. The whole time, I had to be very conscious that every inch of glue surface was pressed together well, with no gaps.
This process took a lot of clamps. And a lot of time… most of it just spent waiting for glue to dry.
Finally I was down to two big sections, each about 1 foot wide, 8 feet long, and 5 inches thick. Just moving those around myshop was challenging – never mind trying to glue them together. But with some planing and flattening of the faces and the purchase of a few more clamps, it all came together.
… Which was actually a curse, because then I had to wrestle the 8 foot long 150 lb benchtop around my shop to plane the top and bottom flat.
Not my bench, but here’s a good photo showing the laminated bench top with opposing grain patterns:
Legs and Base
The legs and base were next. The legs were three of the 2x5 boards laminated together.
This style of workbench gets its strength from, among other things, a very strong joint between the top and each leg. Essentially, two big pieces (“tenons”) from each leg stick up like two thick tines on a fork. These fit into matching holes in the benchtop (“mortices”). The tenons go all the way through the benchtop, and fit very tight. I cut these tenons before gluing up the legs.
Here are the four legs being glued:
Then I added stretchers between the legs to create a complete base.
After that I just had to slide the top onto the base.
It was, however, much easier to write that sentence than to actually fit the top onto the base. Lots of fine-tuning of the mortice hole sizes and shaping the tenons so that everything slid together just right.
Up to this point had taken me about 9 months of off-and-on work. Finally, it came together this past summer.
The Leg Vice
In the previous picture you can already see the hole and some of the hardware for the main leg vice. Here’s that vice attached:
Once it was all put together, I finished the bench with multiple coats of Danish Oil. The oil soaks into the wood and hardens, protecting against all sorts of abuses. Since I was using kiln-dried construction lumber, the wood was thirsty and just soaked up the Danish Oil. I must have gone through 4 cans of the stuff.
I also added flip-down wheels to the bottom so I can move the bench around easily when I want to. That was fantastic this summer and fall, when I could just wheel the bench out of my garage workshop and into the driveway with sun and fresh air.
Here’s the completed bench:
Like I said, there are still a few little things I want to do, but the fundamentals of the workbench are done, and I couldn’t be happier with it. I look forward to many, many projects at this bench for years to come.