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Episode #4: 2X6 Roubo Workbench
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SHOW NOTES: Stumpy teaches you about the famous 18th century bench and why it's so popular among woodworkers today- then builds one out of cheap construction lumber!


Plans for this project are available here.



SHOW TRANSCRIPT: F- Old-timey woodworking is a lot of fun, but sometimes it can be really challenging. To be a successful old-timey woodworker, you need the right tools. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying you need a load of fancy hand tools. But there are a few essentials, and the most essential of the essentials is the workbench. A good workbench can mean the difference between good woodworking and, well, I really don't know. I've never even tried working without workbench. It must be a lot like living without a shop dog, just so sad and miserable. You can’t just build your projects on the shop floor I mean what are we, animals? I suppose you could use sawhorses, but you'd be missing out on all the features that a well-designed workbench provides. And it's those features that were going to be learning about as we build our own workbench, this time on the old-timey workshop. (INTRO) It seems like wherever I go these days everyone's talking about the Roubo workbench. It's a trend that has taken the world by storm, kind of like skinny jeans. But it's nothing new, in fact the Roubo workbench design is at least 300 years old. Andre Roubo was one of the old-timeyest of the old-timey woodworkers. Back in the 1700s when everybody on this side of the pond was fighting over taxes on tea, Roubo was literally writing the book on woodworking. His five volume masterpiece was titled “The Art of the Joiner”, and it told you everything you wanted to know about the craft, as long as you could read 18th-century French, which most of us can't. But don't worry about it, it's loaded with pictures. It's one picture the particular, known as plate 11, that has captivated the minds of modern woodworkers looking to add some old-timeyness to their workshops. Here we see a beautiful pre-French Revolution scene. I say it's beautiful, but what do I know, it's may even be some kind of woodworking sweatshop. There are a lot of benches packed in there, and the people do look kind of small, are those children? Let me get a closer look, oh now they're bigger. Regardless, the lower half of the plate illustrates a big, beefy beauty. A bench that looks like you could park a car on it, if you're into making cars out of wood. But like a good woman, a good workbench isn’t all about heft. If you stare at that plate long enough you'll see all sorts of features, and were going to incorporate many of those features as we build our own version of the Roubo workbench. F- Now, how do you make a workbench if you don't already have a workbench? I'm so glad you asked! You use a saw bench, like the one we built our last episode. Or better yet to saw benches. Or you could use a couple of sawhorses, the kitchen table, anything reasonably sturdy and stable. I know it's not ideal, but if we make the top first, then we can mount devices and have something to do the joinery for our legs on. Good thinking! So now that that's settled let's talk about the basic design. My 18th-century French is a little rusty, but let's see what Roubo has to say about it. “The workbench is the first and most necessary of all tools for woodworking,”you see, Roubo agrees with me already. “It's made up of the top, four legs, four rails, and the bottom. The top is made from a sturdy plank or table about 5 inches to 6 inches thick by 20 inches to 25 inches wide. Its length varies 6 feet to 12 feet, but the most common length is 9 feet.” -well, I'm going to have to disagree with old Roubo here, we don't all have giant French shops where we can fit 12 foot benches. Many commercially made workbench is these days are only 5 or six feet, better suited to the small shop. I'm in a make mine 5 feet long 24 inches wide and 35 inches high. Why 35 inches high? The height is based upon some complex mathematical formulas a little bit of calculus, some geometry, a dash of physics and a pinch of good old what works best for me. The idea is to be a comfortable height for hand planeing you are the. Some people say to let your arms dangle at your sides and measure the distance from the floor to your middle knuckle. Others say to measure up to the crease in your wrist. I say go into your kitchen table, pile some boards on top, get out your favorite hand plane, and experiment with different heights imagining what would be most comfortable for long periods of planeing. I wouldn't recommend doing a lot of actual planeing on your kitchen table, especially if the missus us home. I learned that the hard way. But I also learned that 35 inches was just right for me. M- So now that we have our basic dimensions, it's time to talk wood." This table is made out of Elm or Beachwood but most commonly from the latter which is very stout.” I'd love to build my bench out of Elm. But nowadays Maple is the material of choice for a good workbench. It's hard, heavy, and expensive. I believe the old-timey woodworker on a budget would've had no problem using pine for his bench. Southern yellow pine, Douglas fir, or some of the other dense varieties that are found at the home improvement store can make a great workbench. They might not have had Home Depot in the old-timey days, but old-timey woodworkers used the materials they had on hand. And I just happen to have on hand some very old construction lumber just begging to be used in a project like this. Now if you're going to be making your bench entirely with hand tools, the 2 x 6 is your friend. Edge plane them a little bit, and you have nice 5.25" wide stock without having to do a bunch of hand ripping. But it's not all good. 2 x 6 lumber is often than knottiest, wettest stock in the place. So you can either pick through piles of boards to find some good ones and then let them dry in your shop for a few weeks, or go with the 2 X 10s or 2 x 12s, which are often much drier and have fewer large knots. You just have to rip them to width. Dimensioned lumber isn't just a new innovation. It's true that standard dimensions like the 2 x 4 and 2 x 6 didn't become common until the 20th century. But as far back as there were sawmills you can order your lumber dimensioned however you wanted. If you wanted some two by sixes to make yourself a bench like this one you just tell old Bill Sawyer or Miller or whatever his name was to cut a tree up for you. Of course that would be an expensive way to do it, it would be much cheaper to make do with whatever was on hand. But I like to think our friend Roubo would've killed to have two by sixes to make his bench from, especially when you see how it's going to simplify our joinery. Listen to what he has to say about bench tops. "It must be pierced with many holes into which hold fasts can be placed. These holes must be pierced into the top of the bench perpendicularly." Roubo's bench isn't just a slab of wood. Besides holdfast holes, she is describes a large mortise and the top or plain stop, there's mortise is for the legs, were to be having some dog holes, if you're making this from a solid slab of wood we have a lot of chopping to do. But by laminating our top together using inch and a half thick boards we can eliminate almost all of our mortise chopping. But start with those holes that Roubo mentioned. These are for hold fasts, Andy iron hooks used to secure your work to your bench. He is kind of zigzagged across the top, but I'm been a change things up a little bit. Minor didn't be in two straight gross parallel with the front edge of the bench. The reason has to do with the thickness of the top and the length of my holdfasts. 5.25" the top is great for adding extra weight and strength but it's hard to get holdfasts to lock into a bench top that thick. The holdfast is designed to wedge inside the whole when you whack it on the top drives the shaft into the whole kind of crooked and friction keeps it from popping back out. If you have really long shafts on your holdfasts that's not a problem, but really long holdfasts are really expensive. Minor shorter and work best in a 3 inch thick bench top. I don't want to reduce the thickness of the entire bench top, but I can rip the boards that my holes will be going through down to 3 inches wide without losing much strength at all in the bench. Boring these holes are no fun let me tell you. Often old-timey woodworkers would only bore a few and then add more as they needed them down the road. But if I do that in my bench is just commend up looking like Swiss cheese, it's better to lay them out all nice and neat, suck it up and start drilling. The holdfast should not be confused with the bench dog. Roubo's bench didn't have bench dogs but most modern versions do and for good reason. Bench dogs not only work well as plane stops, Boeing combined with an end device you can secure all sorts of different workpieces to the bench top. I like my bench dogs to be close to the front edge because that's the most comfortable place to plane a board. In fact I'm putting a roller bench dogs on both the front and the back edge of the bench so that I can work from either side. A lot of people use round bench dogs, for two reasons. First, it's easier to put around hold a bench top and a square one. And it's also handy to be able to use your dog holes for your holdfasts. But I prefer square dogs because they grip the flat edges of boards better. And since were laminating our bench top we don't have to chop mortise is anyway. We just cut on our dog holes before we go up the bench top.One of the most unique features of Roubo's bench design is the way he attaches the legs to the top. He uses kind of a double mortise and tenon of the outer tenon is really more of a sliding dovetail. We can only guess what his reasons were, some people say it was easier than cutting a true double mortise and tenon joint. The idea is that the a lot easier to cut that sliding dovetail then to chop the second mortise. I think he did it just because it looks really cool. But whatever the reason it's a lot easier for us to do one were laminating our bench top together. One last thing before we eliminate our top together I have to make some modifications for my vise. Roubo talk more about voices later but the particular tale of I so want to put on this bench wouldn't work too well with a 5 inch thick top something I have to cut a recess where device mounts under me making that portion of the top 3 inches thick again this would be very difficult if I was making this out of a solid slab of wood, another reason why I think old-timey woodworkers like Roubo would've loved to have two by sixes to make his bench out of. Now we can stick all these layers together? Gluing clamps would work just fine. But if you really want to add some strength you could drill holes through each layer before you glue it up and then run some threaded rod through the holes then you can tighten it right down and plug the end so no one's the wiser. Now that we've got our bench top done we can start thinking about our vices. Roubo's bench didn't actually have a place at least not the ones in the top two illustrations. His workers were forced to rely on holdfasts and bench talks to secure their work. But if you look closely you'll see in the background a large double screw vice hanging on the wall which could be attached to the bench top to secure work for dovetailing. And in the lower illustration we see a tale vise which would have been attached directly to one of the legs of the bench. I really like tail vices because they give you the most clamping power of any bench vise, and today give you more depth for securing boards without hitting the screw which is especially useful when dovetailing drawers. Ms. the true old-timey woodworkers vise and there are companies that still make them today but I found this beautiful old wooden screw leg vise and an antique fair this summer it's well over 100 years old may be more is to take some work to adapt to my bench in the meantime I have two other vices to mount. This is a standard cast-iron vise and over the last hundred years it's become the most popular style among woodworkers. You can get these from several different companies and if you get a good quality one it will forever. This is a new vise that I order from rock or and I like it because it's very much like the old-style vices in that it's extremely heavy duty but also has a modern quick release feature which sure beats having to crank it open and closed. This will mount underneath the front edge in line with our perpendicular road dog holes. I ordered a heavy-duty cast-iron end vice from Rockler too. Roubo's workbench didn't have an advice and boy was he missing out. Some of the old-timey woodworkers added wagon vices or tail vices like this one to their benches and while I really like tail vices the downside is they create a no pounding zone on your bench top so on this new old-timey bench I'm going with this heavy-duty end vice. The reason for mounting devices now before the legs: is it allows us to use the top to do some of the joinery that will need for the bottom part of our bench. Of course were dramatically reducing the amount of light joinery we have to do by layering our lights as we did the top. But we do have a couple of good size mortise does to cut into one of the legs to install the leg vise. I leg vise works by pivoting on the lower support so we have to cut a mortise where the slide through the leg. Were also going to need a whole for our screw into larger mortise on the back to hold the square nut. The double tenon on the top of each leg that's no problem. By making the center of our three layers shorter we automatically have a front and back tenon, all we have left to do is to cut the sloping sides with a sliding dovetail shape on the front. Not normally you'd have to chop some mortise and tenon joints for the stretches but since we've been taking advantage of our layering to avoid extra work through the whole project and since most of the strength of this bench comes from the top of legs, we could cheat a little bit on the bottoms to. Technically these are lap joints in you can strengthen him with wooden pegs which would've been a common practice in the old-timey case. I'm getting use another old-timey woodworker technique and secure them with cut nails. You can still buy cut nails today, in fact many hardware is a home-improvement stores sell a version of them that are hardened for using concrete, and those will work just fine for situations like this. The most important thing when using cut nails is to make sure that you orients them with the gray, otherwise you're just driving a big wedge into the end of your boards, and guess what's going to happen? I don't know, there's something about making your own tools that just feels right. In our next episode will build a cabinet for underneath the bench and talk about how to get the most out of all the features of woodworking bench like this test offer. Until then we can sit back every so for gold one is you've earned it my friend.

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