January 14, 2013

Roubo Style Workbench - Part One

After struggling to find creative ways to work around my lack of a proper workbench for the last few years I've finally decided that I've had enough. My next project will be a real workbench. The fundamental inspiration for my future bench comes from the books by Chris Schwarz: Workbenches: From Design & Theory to Construction & Use and The Workbench Design Book which are in part based on the writings and illustrations of an 18th century french guy named Andre Roubo. Roubo documented the woodworking tools and techniques used in his day and the basic workbench design he describes has received a lot of attention over the past few years.  The general consensus is that they had things figured out pretty well back in the day and the design is an excellent starting point.

Below you can see Roubo's plate 11 showing the basic bench design (courtesy of Lost Art Press).

Below is a sketchup model of my interpretation customized to fit the space and vise hardware I have available.

With the basic design defined the next question is what to make it out of. I have a stash of 6/4 soft maple that I intended to use for a workbench however when I started running a few boards through the planer to get an idea what they actually looked like under the roughsawn surface that plan took a detour. The majority of the soft maple boards showed sections of decent curly figure and the rest had some colorful spalted patterns. Nothing overly gorgeous but too nice to waste on a workbench. I needed a cheap alternative. A lot of folks (Schwarz included) recommend southern yellow pine (SYP) as an economical wood for a workbench. It is cheap, strong, and dense. A quick search on Menards' website showed that they could special order 16' #1 common 2x12s for just over 65 cents a board foot. Sold.

I ordered last Monday and it was available for pick-up on Friday. I ordered 8 of the 16 footers. Based on the dimensional lumber I've seen in the past I figured the longer lengths would be better quality than shorter lengths. It also made getting them home a bit of a challenge as you can see above. I had to make two trips since I could only fit 4 of them through the back window and under the rear-view mirror at a time.

A friend had ordered some 8' SYP 2x10's from Menards for his shop build last year and received select grade rather than the #1 common specified. I was hoping for a similar bonus upgrade but no dice.

In general the boards were straight and pretty decent quality. There are definitely some knots but since most of this wood will be laminated together to form either the 4" thick slab top or the massive 5" thick legs it should be pretty easy to bury the knots and use the nicer pieces on the show surfaces.

That's a lot of wood. I estimated what I needed conservatively and then ordered one whole 2x12 extra just in case one of them had issues or was damaged. They all ended up being usable so it looks like I will use the best pieces from each board and have a bit of scrap left over.

Saturday was warm for January in Wisconsin so I spent some time in the shop sorting through the boards laying out the various components needed for the workbench and cutting them down to rough size.

I'm proud to say that I used a handsaw for all of the cross cutting. The ripping on the other hand... that is a different story.

 I setup a pair of saw horses behind the table saw with a few pieces of 2x12 that had been cut down to roughly 8' to serve as a crude outfeed table. I then proceeded to rip all of the lumber in half on the table saw. Anyone who has ever ripped dimensional lumber on a table saw knows that this is a bit dangerous due to the fact that the lumber is rarely straight and commonly "moves" as internal stressed in the lumber are relieved while cutting. Both of these factors can easily cause the blade to catch the board and kick it back violently. I wouldn't recommend doing it this way in the future but it worked and I survived. The saw started to bind up a few times as the board warped and closed the kerf behind the blade at which point I would shut down the saw and rip a new kerf from the beginning.

After a few hours all of the pieces were roughed out and stacked neatly to allow airflow around each board so that they will slowly dry out to match the average humidity in the garage. The pieces on the top of the stack above will become the legs. The pieces below will be the long stretchers between the legs at the front and back of the bench. The short pieces in between are the short stretchers along with a few spares/scraps.

The entire stack on the left will become the 7 foot long 4+ inch thick benchtop.

Since it is back to normally January weather and once again too cold to do much in the unheated shop, this project will likely go on hold while the lumber dries out and I wait for some warmer temperatures to start milling the lumber to final size and gluing up the basic building blocks.

Stay tuned.

January 13, 2013

A Simple Wooden Mallet

I've been wanting to make a wood working mallet for awhile now and decided that it would be a great little project to work on while I had some time off over the holidays. Since it was small and could be made mostly with hand tools I was able to work on it in the basement rather than the unheated shop. Bonus. 

I started by finding a few scraps of oak, one for the mallet head and a narrow piece for the handle. I laid out some rough angles on the board and cut the rough pieces with my cheap handsaw.

I then dressed the mating faces of the three pieces flat with hand planes so they would join properly during glue-up. This was my first real attempt at truly flattening boards with hand planes and I have to say it was pretty straightforward.

I decided to cheat and create the mortise for the handle by removing the middle section of the inner lamination. I laid out the angle and cut the pieces with the handsaw.

I then laid them onto one of the outer faces and traced a layout line to help locate them during glue-up.

I applied some glue and clamps and set it aside to work on the handle.

I laid out the angled section of the handle that will mate with the mallet head as well as the straight section that will form the grip. I made a stop cut where the angle section meets the straight section first.

I then ripped to the lines as best I could with the handsaw.

The hand sawn edges were close but needed some cleanup with a chisel and block plane. I test fit the handle to the clamped up head assembly to check the fit.

When the wedge was fitted properly I then planed the handle down to just a touch thinner than the layers that make up the mallet head so that it would be able to slide in after the 3rd layer was glued-up.

Once I knew that the handle would fit I glued on the outside face. It looks pretty rough at this point but as long as the handle mortise is correct it is simple to cleanup and shape the outside after the glue-up.

After the glue dried I used a plane to dress and flatten the top and bottom of the mallet. This was much easier than trying to get everything aligned perfectly during the glue-up.

Up to this point I hadn't used a single power tool on this project. I had initially thought it would be cool to make this mallet with hand tools alone but the temptation to cut the faces of the mallet with the power miter saw was too strong. I will make the half-hearted excuse that it was just the right tool for the job... faster, more accurate, etc... but the reality is that I still suck at hand sawing and I was afraid I would screw up the angle and end up with a wonky mallet.

With the basic form complete the next step was to use soften all of the edges with a block plane and chisel to prevent the head from chipping while pounding and to make the handle more comfortable to hold. A spokeshave would have been a huge help while shaping the handle but I made do with what I have. I'll be keeping my eyes open for a spokeshave in the future though.

For the finish I mixed up a small batch of homemade oil/varnish blend (1/3 mineral spirits, 1/3 boiled linseed oil, and 1/3 polyurethane varnish). I wiped on the first coat liberally and then wiped off the excess after 10 or 15 minutes. I then came back every few hours to wipe off any excess finish that bubbled out of the open pores of the red oak. A day later I applied a second coat the same way. This finish takes much longer to cure than straight wipe-on poly due to the added oil but it leaves a much more natural surface with better grip which I really like for a shop tool like this. If it ever gets too dinged up I can simply add another coat and it should look good as new. I really like this look and will likely try out this finish on other projects in the future.

This was a fun little project and it was nice to get my woodworking fix indoors and to start and finish a project over the course of a few days. I will have to start making a list of other small projects like this that I can work on inside when it is too cold in the garage.

January 3, 2013

Penang Pictures - Better Late than Never

I had the opportunity to visit Penang Malaysia through work back in November and was able to do a bit of exploring. Here are a few pictures from the visit.

First up was a botanical garden. It was lush green and beautiful compared to Wisconsin in November.

The highlight of the botanical garden were the monkeys... just hanging out begging for food.

The next stop was Penang Hill. We rode the tram to the top for a great, although foggy, view of the island.

At the top of the hill we also found a hindu temple. It was a bit strange just wandering through it taking pictures but that seemed to be allowed and welcomed. It actually seemed a bit more like a tourist attraction than a temple but it was pretty impressive. 

Our next stop was the Kek Lok Si buddhist temple complex a few miles away. The scale and incredible level of detail of the statues and buildings was pretty impressive.

The next picture is the view from my hotel window. One of the nice things about your sleep schedule being 12 hours out of sync with the sun is that you are generally wide awake very early and get the see the sunrise each morning.

The hotel was pretty nice, below is a picture of the lobby.

I only ran into one strange toilet and it was in a "shack" just behind the Batu Ferringhi nigh market. It suited my needs just fine but I can imagine it may be a bit more of an issue for the ladies.

The food in Penang was fantastic, below is a picture of some dragon fruit.

One of the locals took us to an Indian restaurant for lunch and we had banana leaf curry. I'm normally not very adventurous when it comes to new food but the encouragement from our local friends was enough to give me the courage to try just about everything with an open mind. I don't think they steered my wrong once, everything was pretty good.

One of the more memorable restaurants was the Bali Hai Seafood Market. Their tagline is "if it swims, we have it". I don't think I've ever had better fish. I have no idea what it was but it was darn good. The giant prawns (shrimp) were pretty good too.


The island is very diverse with some neighborhoods consisting of little more than shacks contrasting with the developed areas which aren't much different to a decent sized city in the US. Below is a picture of the shopping mall directly behind my hotel.

The trip home included an overnight layover in Singapore so I had a few hours to get out of the airport and see a few of the sights.

I then found out that you need an official boarding pass in addition to your passport in order to get back into the airport terminal. I had a printed paper copy but that wasn't good enough. Below is a picture of the United counter around 11PM. It look just like that until the first employee finally showed up to open the counter around 4:30AM.

I ended up spending the night wandering the airport and hanging out in these chairs and ended up getting into the airport with just enough time to get back to my transit hotel, take a shower, and head to the gate to board the plane.

I was lucky enough to fly 747's for the longer flights both ways. Quite an upgrade from the regional puddle hoppers I usually get stuck on flying out of Appleton.

All in all it was a great trip.