Sunday, February 28, 2010

Shaker Bench Inspires

For the past few years woodworking publications, blogs, internet forums, and woodworking websites have been all a buzz with Roubo-style workbenches. We even came out with our own version, featuring our vises, last year. I work almost every day on a massive 8' Ash Roubo and I have yet to wish I had a better bench. Seriously. I'm still giddy about working on my Roubo.

But seeing Roubo day in and day out can put one in a bit of a bench "rut". We like to appreciate the features of any good bench. We also like to see other bench designs incorporate our vises.

Last year I got a call from Ron Brese of Brese Plane. He wanted to discuss a new bench for his woodworking shop, and incorporate Benchcrafted vises into it. Over the past few months Ron designed his new Shaker-style bench and built the red painted cabinet base pictured above. At Ron's generous invitation, I went down to Thomaston, GA for the last phase of construction; building the top and installing the vises.

After almost a week of long nights, Ron and I got the bench about 90% finished. As I mentioned in an earlier post a couple weeks ago, watching Ron at work was a real pleasure. It's not often you get to see an accomplished tool maker use his own tools to construct a piece of furniture.

Christopher Schwarz says in his excellent book Workbenches... that the Shaker bench has an "indescribable appeal". The legacy of the Shaker craftsmen seem to be expressed in this bench design more than any other bench style. Continental benches (trestle base, overhanging top) are too ubiquitous to carry such an aura. English benches are rather plain and never gained the widespread popularity of the Continental style. How many modern-day bench makers offer an English-style bench? Maybe it's because so few Shaker benches still exist, or ever existed (due to the short span of that community) that this feeling has developed. Perhaps its also that Shaker benches are maybe the only truly American style bench.

In The Workbench Book (Taunton) author Scott Landis writes about the distinctive feature of the massive Shaker bench at Hancock Village:

"The order and cleanliness provided by the enclosed base cabinet had many practical dividends for the workbench. The problems of racking and sliding, which are inherent in an open-frame base, are automatically resolved by the rigidity of the casework and the sheer weight of its structure. Loaded with tools, as it presumably was, the cabinet anchored the whole bench to the floor and to move it would have taken a small army."

The cabinet on Ron's bench is as rigid as any Roubo base I've seen, including the several we've built here.

Ron comments:

"My former bench included an enclosed case for the base and this works well in my limited space. For me this is sort of the ultimate version of that style bench. Seeing the famous workbench that resides at the Hancock Shaker Village in person verified to me that this was the bench that I wanted to build. The advantage to this style construction is that it really simplifies the build of the top and I like the look of the top made of 3 wider boards as compared to a lamination of several 8/4 thicknesses. Having a stout cabinet to support the 2" thick top really makes this possible. Besides the wonderful work holding capability of this bench I visually enjoy the contrast of the red base to the natural color of the maple top. I was quite lucky in that the maple that I purchased for this project possessed a nice honey to medium brown color. This bench is the first thing I see when I walk in my shop everyday, standing at the ready to assist me with my work."

A recent J-style smoothing plane perched on top of Ron's new bench.

There are some aspects to the Shaker bench that prevent options for every workholding situation. The most significant is the ability to use holdfasts in the top, since the cabinet below would interfere with the shaft. There are ways around this. See the Lee Valley Hold Down with short shaft. Ron's top overhangs the base by several inches all around, and provides ample clamping opportunities. Ease of construction is also a plus of this bench design. The top is 2" throughout, with a front section at 4-1/4" containing the dog holes and vises. The cabinet base, with its several solid, vertical dividers provides lots of support for the top. The back of cabinet is finished with lapped solid pine boards.

An interesting note about Ron's Glide Leg Vise. He opted to install the roller brackets on the inside of the cabinet's end, making the vise hardware completely invisible from the outside. A handy access panel at the end of the base cabinet allows ready access to the guts of the vise. Ron reports his innovative arrangement works as smooth as silk.

I'll never give up my Roubo, but as a second bench I am seriously considering building a Brese-Shaker style bench. I enjoy the open base of my Roubo for storing bench appliances, but the cabinet base of Ron's bench offers oodles of storage, and that's something that any shop can use more of. Plus, I'll readily admit it (I take pride in being a practical woodworker, perhaps falsely so), who would not be inspired by having a bench like Ron's greet you whenever you head to the shop.

Ron and I shot some video during the build. This is an HD video. To get the full experience, click on the "full screen" icon in the bottom right, then make sure "HD ON" is selected (bottom right) once the window fills the screen.

Brese Plane Shaker-Style Bench Video, Part One

Brese Plane Shaker-Style Bench Video, Part Two

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Benchcrafted Tail Vise: Thin Bench Tops and Aproned Benches

"My son just bought the wagon vise parts for his workbench,which I am building. I have a most basic question... The top will be 3 inches thick. Your specs call out for 4 inch top..... and if thinner, to place the templates so that the top is the registered surface..... So what happens with a 3 " top?"

The Benchcrafted Tail Vise can be mounted in any thickness top. The important thing to keep in mind is the vertical placement of the vise, specifically the hand wheel. The top of the handwheel needs to fall below the top of the bench, and far enough below to allow for some future flattenings.

Our templates provide about 1/4", but you can make it whatever you like. The lower you place the vise in the bench, the thicker the end cap will need to be to accommodate the flange adequately. 4" minimum.

For benches less than 4" thick you'll need to shim the under side of the top to move the vise vertically down. If your top is a uniform thickness your shims will be the same thickness (see again, our template for thinner benches.) For example, if your top is 3" thick, your shims need to be 3/4" thick. This places the vise in the same vertical placement as if your top was 4" thick. See illustration. Shims are green.

If you have a thicker apron or dog hole strip around your bench, as in the example below, where the apron and dog hole strip is 4"+ and the rest of the top is less, you'll only need to make one shim for the inner guide rail--the outer rail is mortised into the bottom edge of the apron. The advantage of this arrangement is that there is virtually no cavity to excavate.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Planemaker's Bench, Tail Vise News

Infill plane maker Ron Brese has been spending his evenings these past couple months working on a new Shaker-style woodworking bench. Before Ron began making planes for a living he was a full-time custom furniture maker, working mostly in American period styles.

Ron is one of those craftsmen you read about who builds incredible furniture with a modicum of tools. His previous bench was a slab of plywood on a basic cabinet, outfitted with a couple small iron vises. Nothing special. When I visited him and saw the half-dozen or so f-style clamps, none no longer than 12", I asked where the rest were. He said, "that's all of them". A few iron pipe clamps rounded out the selection, but that was it.

As I was fitting a certain part on Ron's bench during that visit I asked to use Ron's shoulder plane. He didn't have one, and said he never found the need. Another time I asked him about how he assembles frame and panel doors, and specifically how he planes the rails and stiles flush after assembly. Yet again I was amazed at the answer.

"I fit the joints and assemble them so there is basically zero leveling to do after assembly. It takes longer, but in the end it speeds things up since it doesn't leave much to do afterwards."

His work speaks for itself. The layout of every piece of furniture (9 out of 10 built by him) in his house (which he built from the ground up) was thought out and planned before he started framing the walls. This kind of forethought and planning contributes a great deal to the excellent results Ron gets when he builds a plane.

Being a full-time plane maker has understandably had an impact on Ron's shop. His previous bench has been serving double duty for too long according to Ron. So late last year he decided to draw up some plans for a new, Shaker-style bench featuring Benchcrafted vises. Last week I visited Ron (and pitched in a bit) as he finished up his new bench. Ron may not need a fancy bench, or even a well-outfitted one to accomplish excellence, but as any woodworker knows, finishing a new bench is always an exciting moment. Ron tells me that he's looking forward to putting his new bench through its paces as he works on some long-overdue personal furniture projects (we all have them, right?!)

In the coming week I'll be postings some more pictures and info on Ron's completed Shaker bench.

Tail Vise news.

Several customers have inquired about installing the Benchcrafted Tail Vise in tops less than 4" thick throughout. While visiting Ron Brese I snapped some pics of the underside of Ron's bench. This shows the simplicity with which the tail vise can be installed in this situation. It's a quick and easy process and eliminates a lot of the routing required for a solid, thick benchtop. More details about this will be available soon.

A few customers have also noticed that our ordering page is missing the "add to cart" buttons. As stated at the top of the page, we are indeed taking a break. But unfortunately we're not sipping cocktails from a hammock on a beach in the Caribbean (don't we wish!). We're actually taking some time to streamline and update some of our processes. The end result we hope will mean quicker lead times, and a better vise. If some of the ideas we've implemented this past couple weeks come to fruition the Benchcrafted Tail Vise will have greater capacity, a more robust structure (as hard as that is to imagine!), a simpler design, be much easier to install, more ergonomic, and will leave more of your bench top intact, in effect strengthening the bench top. Stay tuned for more updates. We are also on-target for stated lead times, a bit ahead of schedule in fact. So for those expecting vises, our little "development vacation" will not affect your order.


Monday morning post script:


I just read the blog regarding the changes to the wagon vise. Will 1 3/4" still be the optimal width for the dog shuttle? I'm about to build the dog hole section of the bench so I was wondering about the width. Will there be any other changes that would effect the overall bench design?
Sorry for all the questions; I'm sure you've been bombarded with emails! I just can't wait to get my bench finished!



We have received a few emails like this over this past weekend. To address Jeff's first question, all the capacities and specs of the vise will stay virtually the same. The dog strip will remain at 1-3/4" width (although you can go narrower with the current version and new version).

The sliding nut assembly will be a bit more compact and thus allow the vise to open about another inch. This means you can keep the same top overhang and gain an inch between jaws, or shorten your overhang by an inch and not loose any capacity.

I want to be clear that the proposed new version of the vise will function identically to the current version. Mostly the difference will be in the installation. It will be a bit less work since the cavity will have a square cross-section and won't be as deep. More of your bench's top will stay intact, and that's a good thing.

We're pretty excited about the improved version, but at this point its still in its prototype stage. It will most likely be some time before its ready for production, if it passes our performance tests. If you're looking to get a Tail Vise within our current lead times, you should place your order now. We can't guarantee a release date for the new version at this time.