Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Bench!

So, this is the new bench. I bought the top slab back when I was still working my retail job, and I bought the vise kit at a previous retail job, on sale for half off of the employee discount price. I basically got it for a song... and I've been carrying it around for years. The frame for the bench is just plain home center 4x4 fir lumber, because it was cheap. The new bench is basically a hybrid of my old bench, and the Holtzappfel design that Chris Schwartz wrote about in Popular woodworking.

My first bench was built in the basement of my old apartment, on top of a pair of 2x12s that were resting on sawhorses. It was modeled after Ian Kirby's arts and crafts style bench, and has worked out pretty well for me. The previous version has held up pretty well considering that I built it before I really knew very much. The wedged mortise and tenon joints look like the dog-ugly work of an amateur, which they are: I was a new woodworker when I built it. But the ugly joinery is also very stoutly made, so whatever it lacks in cleanliness, it more than makes up for in strength. 4 years and two moves later, it's still very strong, and very flat.

The construction details of the new bench are similar to the old bench, with a few differences, and with a lot more attention paid to fit and finish details. The joinery is much more cleanly and solidly done, though I did use wood filler to fill in a few cracks and things. I varnished the base, which I hadn't done on the old bench, except for one spot as a test area. One small detail I wanted to point out somewhere... the stretchers on the old bench got raised up to clear ductwork when the bench was being used as an outfeed table, they used to be lower. The stretchers on the new bench are deliberately close to the floor... so I can use the pallet jack to move it around if I choose. : )

The other influence on the new bench is a bunch of recent work by Chris Schwartz, and other recent magazine articles on bench building. The front is built to be a continuous plane, including the front faces of the legs, the stretcher, the rear jaw of the face vise, and the front edge of the bench top. I still need to plane the front of the stretcher to really get it 100% in plane, but I think for now, it's good enough. The general idea is that large work can be easily secured to a planar surface to facilitate edge work. It was a little challenging, in that I had to figure out how to work in the rear jaw of the vise. I had to notch the jaw to fit around the leg, and notch the top to fit around the jaw. But I think the end result is worth it.

The old version of the bench was built so that the edge of the top hung out in front of the legs, and while it was workable, it wasn't ideal. I used it mainly for small joinery and such, but larger projects were challenging, and rarely done well on that bench. The old bench has a small skirt on the front edge that is good to clamp to, which this one doesn't have, and I may change that at some point. The front of the leg is a clamping surface, and the wide twin screw vise will probably eliminate the need for a clamping skirt anyway, so I think it'll be a functional bench as is. And if I add that skirt, I may also add a length of T-track for holding things to the bench. But again, probably not necessary as it is.

Lastly, I put a quick release vise as an end vise. I got comments from my shop mates about how the twin screw vise is supposed to be a tail vise. So, basically, it sounds like I put the vises on completely backwards. Again, chalk it up to Chris Schwartz. He made a very valid point that quick release vises make great tail vises, because there's more of a need to move the vise in and out by more than a few handle turns, and a QR vise makes this a lot easier. And honestly, I like the idea of the twin screw vise for dovetailing more than I like a QR vise, which I'd end up racking anyway, with half the board hanging out of one side, needing to be clamped to a skirt, or clamped across the top of the bench. So I think this configuration will work best. We'll see though.

At present, I have my tool chest from school installed in the bench, to keep my tools close, and to weight the bench down so it doesn't slide too easily. I may end up moving it out and building a new set of drawers that are more solidly made. I'm worried that the nice chest will get beaten up, for one. For two, my bench back at school back had drawers that I could pull out to support work while I was trying to get it clamped up. So a future chest would probably have drawer sides made of Ash or Oak or something durable, so that they could support boards without being beaten up too badly.

Last but not least, there are a few other details I want to attend to. I need to drill dog holes in the top to work with the vises, and to work with other aftermarket accessories. I also want to add in a pop-up stop to plane wood against, which I had on the previous bench. I think I want to make it out of a really cool exotic wood, I just haven't figured out which wood to use yet. I think I'll add in other small details, like vise handles, out of whatever wood I end up using. But that's optional detail work for later.

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