Monday, September 10, 2012

Teaching At Kelly Mehler's, or How To Build A Bench In a Tropical Storm

Last week I drove through the remnants of Hurricane Isaac towards Berea, Kentucky to teach a week-long class in building our Split Top Roubo bench. After 10 hours driving through constant rain, I was hoping for clear skies the rest of the week. And that pretty-much guaranteed that it would rain during the entire class.

Building nine full-size benches in any shop is demanding work, so the plan, as it usually is at Kelly Mehler's Woodworking School, is to do the big, heavy work outside in the yard. But how does one do that when its raining at the worst possible moments?

Tarps. Shouting. Scrambling. Cursing. Tarps.

By week's end, the yard in front of Kelly's looked like a rainy day at Woodstock. And any one of the motley crew of haggard woodworkers could have doubled as walk-ins on an episode of Dukes of Hazzard. Except for Mike. Where do you get those self-renewing clothes? He looked as fresh at 9pm as 9am.

I learned a few things last week about building two tons of hard maple workbenches in wet conditions.

- Blue-colored tarps, no matter how thick, or how expensive, by default are always junk.

- Other-colored tarps are also junk.

- It always starts raining when everyone is upstairs in the middle of a glue up

- When the humidity is 99% and you drill a hole for a metal part to go through, 2 minutes later you'll need to redrill that hole because it will have shrunk. After another 2 minutes, redrill again. Repeat for every 2 minute interval thereafter.

- Vise manufacturers should forget, no REALLY forget, every metalworking tolerance when building ten benches in one week.

- When hard maple gets wet it looks really pretty. It also sticks to every cast iron machine surface like Looney Tunes Acme glue.

- Wear saftey glasses when 10 people start whacking drawbore pegs. Oak shrapnel!

- It's actually possible to install a Benchcrafted Tail Vise in the rain. But I wouldn't recommend it.

- A 4" thick, hard maple workbench top that has sat out all night in a torrential downpour will be wet (and pretty) in the morning, but it will be just fine. Like Kelly said, "that tree's been through a lot in its lifetime" (a little water isn't going to hurt it.) A 4" top is prit near indestructible.

I'm convinced that school director Kelly Mehler, who prepped the thousands of board feet of hard rock maple required for the class, is some sort of hybrid being with Olympic energy, patience, wisdom, and wit. Someday I will return to Kelly's as a student. That may be my only ticket back in the place!


  1. Is it my imagination or did one (or more) of those benches in the video have a rectangle milled out in the front leg to accept the not yet available crisscross? I am just about to that point in my bench project, i'm just cutting the holes in the top for the legs. It would be nice to be able to cut that area out prior to securing the leg to the top....if I knew where to locate it.

  2. You have a good eye Steve. I took our pre-production prototype to the class so the students could prep their benches for the Crisscross. We also worked out some new joinery for the Glide leg portion of the bench. The plan is to draw up some prints this week for folks like you. My hand-drawn sketches from the class got pretty well trashed with rain, sweat, hot sauce and coffee. Expect something later in the week. I'll post it to the blog.


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