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Episode #5: Roubo Bench flattening and features

SHOW NOTES: Stumpy shows how to flatten a workbench top with hand planes, teaches you about woodworking vises, demonstrates a scrub plane, and lays out all the features of a traditional bench.


Plans for this project are available here.


Stumpy's article about woodworking vises


Video about making a scrub plane


The face vise Stumpy uses


The end vise Stumpy uses


The workbench casters

TRANSCRIPT: An old timey woodworker’s most important tool was his bench. It’s where the magic happened, where he could chop his mortises, cut his dovetails, lay out his parts and eat his lunch. The workbench had to be heavy and strong, but it didn’t have to be pretty- that is a modern day woodworker’s obsession. The old-timey shops didn’t have inlaid benches made from exotic materials with polished tops. Fine woodworking was for the furniture you made ON the bench. Now that’s not to say there weren’t some beautiful benches, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Stout, tight joinery; a thick, stiff top; a good vise- that’s what the old timey woodworker found beautiful. So I’m not at all ashamed of my 2X6 workbench. It’s patterned after Andre Roubo’s eighteenth century design, but made from the materials that are inexpensive and readily available today, and it’s the strongest and heaviest workbench I’ve ever had in the shop. I think any old timey woodworker would have found some beauty in it, but we’re not done yet. We’ve got to flatten the top, install the accessories and explore all the features that the Roubo workbench has to offer- On this episode of the Old Timey Workshop! INTRO First, we have to take care of our top. This is the area that people seem to really obsess over. I’ve seen some beautiful bench tops and I even considered inlaying some tulips on the front of mine or some little hearts and cupids on the corners. But with time and chisel slips, I’d end up turning that chubby little baby into a gory mess, and nobody wants that. The most important thing is to get the top flat. Not machine shop, but reasonably flat. Because of the way we laminated this top from 2X6s, it’s really not too bad. When I tightened the threaded rods and squeezed everything together, it did create a bit of a cup. But that’ll be no problem to take out with some hand planes. Besides, I could use the workout. If I run a straightedge down the top I can mark all the high points with a pencil. The center of my top needs to come down about a quarter of an inch. Now I can do that with a regular hand plane, but that’ll take at least half a billion strokes. I’m going to use one of the old-timey woodworker’s secret weapons, the scrub plane. Pappy Nubs Tool Chest My good ol’ great-great…great grand pappy Nubs loved his scrub plane. He carried this thing everywhere he went. During the War of the Roses he actually used it to cut the cheese for Richard III. They were good friends since they were both hunch backs. But what made this tool so versatile was the wide mouth and curved iron. You can really take a lot of material off very quickly. This scrub plane was actually made for that purpose, but the earliest old-timey woodworkers didn’t make scrub planes as such. They made smoothing planes like this one. After a lot of use, the sole would wear down and the mouth got wider until it wouldn’t be good for fine work anymore. But if you ground the blade to a nice radius, you could give this tool a second life as a scrub plane. Planes manufactured to be scrubs weren’t very common until later on. Pappy’s plane was a German model, and someone added an iron sole to keep it from wearing down any more. This is another German scrub from the mid 1800’s, and this one is from the early 1900’s. As you can see, the design didn’t change much over the years. That is until Stanley decided to make an iron version. This is the Stanley #40, a plane made purely for rough work. There aren’t a lot of frills, not even a chip breaker. Just a huge mouth and a thick cambered iron that scoops out thick shavings fast. This is a great plane, but I find it to be a little narrow for some work. If I was to use it to flatten my bench top, I’d still have to take a lot of strokes. Stanley did make a wider #40 ½, but I don’t have one. So I’m going to use something else, a store bought plane that only cost me $10 brand new. This is a Windsor #33 I bought from Harbor Freight, and it’s a piece of junk as a fine smoothing plane. But I filed the mouth open a little more and ground a 3” radius on the iron, and now it’s a very useful scrub plane. If you’re new to old-timey woodworking this is a lot cheaper and easier to get your hands on than a Stanley #40. There’s a link in the show notes below to a video we made a long time ago about making one these. And the best part is, the wider cut takes about a third of the work out of flattening this bench when compared to the narrow Stanley #40. Of course you can use a Jack Plane in place of a scrub plane. A lot of woodworkers keep a second iron for their Jack Plane that has a cambered edge. It won’t be a fast as a traditional scrub because the narrow mouth means you’ll have to take thinner shavings, but it will get the job done. So the first step in flattening your bench is rough planning to take down all the really high areas. You want to work across the grain at about 90 degrees, and don’t go crazy. You can take off too much and end up turning your high spots into low spots, then you’ll have to plane down the low spots which are now your high spots, and before you know it your top is about a half inch thick and your planes are worn out, I’ve seen it a hundred times. Stop and check your progress with your straight edge every now and then. Another thing you should be checking is for any twist in the bench top. This will require a pair of straight edges called winding sticks. They can be just a couple of boards like this, as long as they’re straight. It’s also helpful to paint a dark edge on one stick so you can see the difference between the two easier. You lay one across each end of the bench and sight across the top edges to make sure they are parallel to each other. If the top is twisted the edges won’t line up and you’ll have to remove more material on the high corners of the bench. Check at two or three different locations along the length of your top, and once all the really high spots are shaved down, it’s time to move on to a Jack Plane like the Stanley #5 with a regular iron. This will take a finer shaving removing all the marks the scrub plane left behind. And the longer sole will also start to really flatten things out. We’re still cutting across the grain, but now we’re at about a 60 degree angle, going down the top in one direction, then coming back in the other direction. It’s going to skip across the bench at first as it cuts into just the remaining high spots. Once your iron starts removing material throughout the length of every stroke, you’re ready to move on. Next up is some sort of jointer plane. If your bench top isn’t too big like mine, a #6 will work, you could also use a #7 or even a big edge jointer like this one or Stanley #8. This is the final step in the flattening process and we’re going to be working with the grain down the length of the bench. You shouldn’t have to take many strokes before you start getting nice even shavings. That’s when you know your bench is flat. You can check it with a straight edge to be sure, but if you’ve gone through each step with care, you should be golden. Some people will now use a smoothing plane to get a nice glassy surface. They may even put on a few coats of lacquer or polyurethane. I don’t recommend it, and let me tell you why. Old-timey woodworkers prized one feature of their bench more than any other: its ability to hold their work still while they sawed and planed and chopped. We’ll talk about plane stops and hold fasts here shortly, but a glassy smooth surface would be counterproductive. In fact, nice smooth bench tops are really a more modern American trend. Even today many European cabinet makers actually rough the tops of their benches up every now and again with a corrugated toothing plane to clean off the dried glue and give it more grip. That’s really the way I see my bench, so it wouldn’t make sense to put a nice finish on the top. If you absolutely want something on it, use some boiled linseed oil and call it good. This top is made for working, not ice skating. Now let’s talk vises. There are more types of vises available to an old-timey woodworker than anybody would care to learn about. So rather than going through all of them here, I wrote a nice article about them over at In our last episode I talked about the cast iron beauties I chose for this bench, and we’ll also be posting review videos for them shortly. You can find links for all that good stuff in the show notes below. Let me just give you quick rundown about how vises are used on a Roubo bench. Roubo didn’t have a vise on his design. The really old-timey woodworkers had no concept of bench mounted vises. When they wanted to secure something on the face of their bench, they used bench hooks and hold fasts and whatnot. Roubo’s benches featured what is called a crochet hook. It’s really just a place to wedge the leading edge of your work piece into so you can plane down the sides. You could use pegs or hooks in the legs to support the bottom, and the hook would keep things put as you applied pressure against it. I am going to make one in the next episode for this side of my bench so I really feel like a true old timey-woodworker. But I can also see why they fell out of favor because a true vise is so much better for a lot of tasks. Even Roubo knew that, which is why his shop had a portable vise called a double screw that could be clamped down to the bench top for dovetailing and such things. Today a lot of people call these Moxon vises because the earliest known description was found in a book written by Joseph Moxon in the late 1600’s. But somewhere along the line, some woodworking genius said “why don’t we just permanently attach the vise to the bench” and woodworking changed forever. Again, if you want to learn about all the different kinds from leg vises to wagon vises to tail vises and Miami vises check out the article over at via the link below. But whatever style you choose, there are two places you should mount them, on the end of the bench, and on the face of the bench. Let’s start with the face vise. Roubo’s bench design was so fantastic because it takes advantage of the bench face for clamping your work. That’s why the legs are on the same plane as the top. You now have a nice flat surface and multiple points to secure your work. So you want to keep that in mind when installing your vise. Many modern vises are designed to be bolted through the rear jaw on the front of the bench. That defeats the purpose of the Roubo design. It is far better to chop a mortise in the underside of the bench for the rear jaw to slip into. The easiest place to do that on this bench is in the layer with all the square dog holes. This will make a couple of the bench dogs a little more difficult to use, but it’s not that big of a deal. Mounting your vise this way may be a bit more work, but it allows the front jaw to clamp directly against the bench face, and that’s essential on this sort of bench. Normally you would install your face vise near the leg on the left side of the bench, assuming you’re right handed. That makes it easier to plane the edges of boards. But I find that to be uncomfortable for other tasks. For example, when I’m dovetailing or working on something else in the vise, I hate being all the way on the end of the bench. And since I have plans for a crochet hook for the other side of the bench, I can do my edge planning over there and put my face vise on this side anywhere I want. But that’s my personal preference. Most woodworkers prefer to have all their options on one side of the bench, and in that case you’ll definitely want your face vise mounted by the left leg for right handed work, or the opposite end for wrong handed people. The other place every woodworker should have a vise is on the very end of the bench. This vise isn’t so much for holding your work perpendicular as it is securing your boards flat on the top. That’s what all these nice square holes we designed into our bench top are for. I made a chunk of wood with a little lip on the top to fit into each of these holes. These are called bench dogs and are just long enough to pass all the way through the bench top, so I can reach underneath and pop one up when I need it. They have lots of uses, but primarily they are used in combination with a set of pegs that slip into the wooden chop on the end vise. You can lay your work piece flat on the bench and pinch it between the vise and your bench dogs. This mounts your work securely without anything getting in the way for planning or other tasks. This is a feature you will use a lot in hand tool woodworking, and it’s why an end vise is so important. In fact, if you can only afford one vise, you should make it an end vise. You can always use hooks and holdfasts to attach boards against the face of the bench like Roubo did. But an end vise is a luxury you really won’t want to be without. So that explains the vises and the square holes in the bench. What about the round holes? These are for holdfasts, another brilliant feature of the old-timey bench. Roubo wasn’t the only guy who used them, everybody did because they are an essential clamping feature. They are just simple iron hooks that slip into a hole next to your work, and with a whack of a hammer they lock in place. Another whack releases them. That may seem like witch-craft but it’s actually very simple. Roubo even illustrated it for us because that’s the kind of guy he was! The end of the hook resists the downward force created by the whack on the top, which drives the shaft into the hole at a slight angle, wedging it in place. The whack on the back straightens the shaft in the hole and releases it. These things come in all shapes and sizes. Of course you want to make sure yours fit the holes you bored in your bench. I designed this bench to use the less expensive, short ¾” versions, which is why we thinned out the top beneath the holes. These cost less than half as much as the larger ones and they’ll do just about any job. But holdfasts aren’t just for the bench top, you can use them wherever you have a ¾” hole: on the bench face and legs, I even use them on my saw bench when I want to sit down and do some work. In fact, many old timey woodworkers would only bore a couple of holes in their bench to start, and bore new ones wherever they felt like they needed them as time went by. Yet another feature of the old-timey workbench, including Roubo’s, is the plane stop. This could be anything that stuck up out of the bench on the left side, again assuming you are right handed, to keep your board from sliding away as you surface planed it. Now, why wouldn’t you just clamp the board between the end vise and the bench dogs? Two reasons. First, sometimes you’re just in a hurry and butting it against a stop is faster. But another reason is that thin stock, especially in soft woods, can bow if you over tighten your end vise. Drawer sides, for example, which were often made form ½” poplar. Of course, that wasn’t an issue for Roubo because he didn’t have an end vise, or any of these nice pop up bench dogs which make great plane stops. What he used was a toothed stop that slipped into the top of his bench. Mine was hand forged by my buddy Dave over at, a great woodworking and smithing blog you should all check out. The teeth dig into the end grain just enough to keep the board from slipping. It will leave marks, so if the end grain will be exposed on the final project you should leave a little extra length to saw off after your hand planning is done. Of course, not everybody has a friend who will forge him one of these. A lot of old-timey woodworkers just drove a flat head screw into the end of their bench. As long as you keep it centered on the end of your work piece it works quite well, and you can just tighten it down flush with the bench top when you’re done. The final feature that I consider essential to a workbench is tool storage. Roubo’s benches didn’t have a lot of storage, but they did have some. The base was used for storing hand planes and large tools. There was a drawer mounted under the end of the bench, and a chisel rack on the back. I have way more tools than Roubo’s workers used, so I built a simple eight drawer chest to fit into the base of my bench. Just like the bench itself, I made the chest from old reclaimed wood. I designed it with an open back so the drawers will slide out from either side of the bench that I happen to be working from. This was a great project to practice some hand tool skills. There are through dovetails and dados and rabbets and since it’s just a tool cabinet, who cares if it’s not perfect. We are going to have a set of plans for the tool cabinet up on shortly. We’ve also created a new set of plans for the 2X6 Roubo bench itself with step by step instructions and photos to walk you through it. All that and a whole lot more is over at and in the show notes below. In our next episode we’ll be putting our new bench to work as we build a removable chisel rack that’ll hang from the edge, and that crochet hook I’ve been talking about. Until then you can sit back and have a cold one, because you’ve earned it, my friend!

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