Sunday, August 9, 2009

Two Outstanding Benches

Now and then we get treated to pictures of our customer's bench projects. Here are two that stand out. These benches are elegant in their simplicity of design and material choice. For us, these benches represent exactly why we started producing our vises.

Softwood is a popular choice lately for a bench material. It's readily available, easily worked, and most of the time, really inexpensive. It has a couple drawbacks, but these are minor. Nevertheless, there are those who choose a material that simply evokes a feeling of old-world craftsmanship in their bench. And this material is Beech. Although I can appreciate the beauty of a bench built with contrasting woods, such as walnut and maple, I personally prefer a plain-looking surface, without contrast or wild grain variations. This allows me to focus on the wood I'm working instead of being distracted by a pretty bench. To me, a pretty bench is a plain bench. And Beech fills this requirement perfectly.

Customer David Giles of Texas built his Roubo-style bench from Beech. The 28" wide, 7' long bench is built with massive 6" square legs and is outfitted with the Benchcrafted Tail Vise. David's build quality is evident in this outstanding bench. David opted to join his front laminate to the end cap with a bolt and captive nut instead of a dovetail. We like this technique. It makes for a strong connection without the time-consuming and difficult task of cutting a large dovetail. Although we would have chosen to use two bolts to reduce any tendency for the front laminate to twist at the corner. The captive nuts can be installed on the inside face of the laminate.

David was inspired by our Glide leg vise but opted for a more economical choice for his leg vise hardware. Building his own roller guides, David created a sweet running leg vise with an inexpensive bench screw. Although I prefer our Glide for its quick and ergonomic function, I admire the simplicity and frugality of David's vise.


Raney Nelson of New Jersey purchased both Benchcrafted vises and built his Roubo bench from Douglas Fir. Raney was at his local Home Depot when he stumbled on a pallet of dead clear Fir 4x4's, which he used for the top. Another pallet of beautifully clear 2x material yielded stock for the base. In all, Raney paid about $1.25 per board foot for the material. A great deal.

Douglas fir, being a softwood, is often overlooked as a bench-making material. But it's actually as stiff or stiffer than many hardwoods. Surface hardness is often mentioned as a possible downfall of the softwood workbench. Raney believes that this is one of its greatest strengths. If your benchtop is softer than most of the projects you build, then dents and dings will end up in your benchtop rather than your project. And resurfacing a softwood bench is easy with hand tools. Douglas Fir also fulfills the "plain" factor nicely.

Raney's Douglas Fir Roubo Bench

Raney made a bold move when he built his bench. He finished the entire thing before he had the vises in hand. This is something we warn against. You should never do work on your bench without the hardware in hand. It's just too easy to mess up the install. Raney isn't new to tool-making (and what is a bench but the largest hand tool in the shop), so we weren't totally surprised by his daring effort. Raney builds infill planes (see the smoother on his bench below). In fact, a couple of years ago he won third place in a toolmaking contest for his first plane. See the details here.

This is a small steel miter plane infilled with ebony that Raney recently finished. But more about this tool in another blog post.

As a toolmaker and long time woodworker, Raney has a keen sense for his ideal bench and workholding. He sent us some comments recently after finishing his bench. (these were originally posted to the Woodnet hand tool forum)

Raney's Comments:

1) Doug fir is a great bench wood. Super stiff, good density, and cheap. It does dent pretty easily, but that's a plus as far as I’m concerned – it means the bench will dent before whatever I'm working on. It’s flat, but it’s not smooth, so it has a little friction advantage for holding stock. It’s also unfinished. Completely. So far, not so much as a coat of paste wax. I’m not sure I’ll be able to stick to that strategy (it means I can’t do ANY gluing on the bench) but for now I’m committed to trying it out.

2) Size - I had to rearrange my whole shop to do it, but I finally squeezed an 8-foot bench in, and managed to get three sides accessible for working. 8 feet is ten times as big as 70-inchs (the length of the old bench) and I don't need no math to tell me otherwise.

3) two words: Bench. Crafted. - well, maybe it's actually one word. I don't know. Anyway - it's the vises, stupid.

First – the tail vise: Why is it so awesome? Because it incorporates all the good bits of a classic tail vise, but it doesn't sag, it operates really really quickly, and it doesn't sag. It’s basically a really well-designed wagon vise, and with a traveling nut instead of a traveling screw. That’s nice, because it means you don’t need a lot of excess space at the end of the bench. And to the best of my knowledge, it is the only complete wagon vise solution currently (and maybe ever) available for purchase. The hardware is seriously beefy, and seriously smooth. It’s just Well Built. Plus, and this is a BIG plus, you can actually WORK on the right corner of the bench without fear that the tail vise is going to sag . Why? . Because this vise doesn't sag.

Last night I did some dovetailing. When it came time to chop the waste – do you know what I did? I put the board in between the dogs, and I chopped the waste. No complicated clamp and holdfast arrangements - I just clamped, chopped, unclamped, flipped, and chopped some more.. And can you guess what the vise DIDN'T do??? Yeah - you guessed it: SAG.

And as far as I can tell, I suspect this vise is pretty much immune to sagging. Did I mention that already? Yup – this is the ultimate wagon vise – and for my money it’s the ultimate tail vise in general.

Glide Leg vise: what can I say about this. If you've seen the video for it, all I can tell you is that it's completely accurate. You just give that wheel a spin like your name was Vanna, and whoosh! Next thing you know your workpiece is locked in.

Raney's Glide Leg Vise

When I talked to Jameel about it, he told me that he’s still getting used to the fact that the vise really doesn't need any torque at all 99% of the time. I've been putting that to the test, and I couldn't agree more. Set the parallel guide pin, give the wheel the old Vanna spin, watch it lock down and go to work. No handles to rotate, no vowels to buy. Releasing is just as easy.

There are two indispensable bits of innovation in the Glide: the first is the parallel guide support rollers, which mean this thing literally floats along in the horizontal plane. A seriously cool idea. The second is the 'Acetal' bushing that keeps the vise screw stable. It keeps the vise laterally stable, but with almost zero friction. The combination of these two features is what makes the glide glide, and why that handwheel is capable of 10X more torque than you'd ever need.

I knew how incredible the vises were when I ordered them. But what did surprise me, actually, was how easy they are to install. Jameel's instructions are ludicrously complete, including outstanding templates, a video or two, and page upon page of photos, step-by-steps, and recommendations.

So complete, in fact, that I did one of those “dumb ideas” we all know you shouldn’t do: I cut all the pieces, and did all the prep for these vises before the hardware arrived.

Let me be perfectly clear that I DO NOT recommend this. It's a dumb idea. You know it, and I know it. Nonetheless, that's what I did... what can I say? I'm a risk-taker.

And you know what? It all went off without a hitch.

These things are incredibly precisely made - but one of the advantages of that precision, is that they really are forgiving about installation. You CAN screw the installation up, but if you take your time and follow the instruction guide (make sure you print the templates at the right scale) they're remarkably easy to get working, and working really well.

As with anything this great, there is a price. In this case, that price is – well… the price. I think they’re well worth every penny, and as someone well aware that my vises are probably the most used tools I own, I have zero qualms about the expense - but it costs money to make small runs of such high-tolerance gear; and I know that cost is not something all of us can swing.

So here's my recommendation - if you can afford it, buy a vise (or both) from Benchcrafted - it's money you won't regret.

But even if you can't afford them, spend a bit of time really looking at what he's put into the design. Some of the ideas he's implemented are worthy additions to ANY hardware. I don't really think re-creating the Glide is very feasible (or cost effective) with cheaper hardware, but if cheaper hardware is what you can afford, you might want to consider borrowing from Jameel's roller guide concept. And making a wagon vise from an inexpensive acme screw and wooden parts may not get you as smooth or robust a vise as the BC tail vise, but it will still get you a lot further than any other wagon vise solution you can buy!

So there you have it. Best workbench ever? I don’t know. But it is without a doubt the best one I’ve ever used. And the more I use it, the more I like it."

1 comment:

  1. Sorry for the annoying dotted lines below Raney's comments. I can't seem to delete them.


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