New Project – The Big Ash Workbench

I have a workbench, but it really isn’t a true workbench. It started as some sheets of plywood laid out across saw horses. At some point, I finally built legs under it. Later, I built a frame under the top, and covered the plywood with Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) sheets. So, the top really isn’t wood, and the core still has that old sheet of plywood inside of it. It is fairly heavy, but still moves when I use a hand plane. I think of it more as an assembly table than a work bench.

Old Bench

Old Bench

Some people say that the workbench is the most important tool in a workshop. And if I stop and think about it, every single thing I have built begins and ends on the workbench. It seems I am constantly trying to devise ways of securing pieces to the bench. The one I have now has a vise at the end and some “T-track” built into the MDF top. The track allows some hold-downs to be placed on the workbench top to secure my work.

There are books devoted to workbench building. And enough YouTube videos to last a lifetime. You can always buy a pre-built workbench, or someone else’s plans. Old workbenches are studied and copied. After all, the workbench has been around for centuries. Woodworkers often build their workbenches today based on a Scandinavian, or German, or French style, from centuries ago. One style that has been touted recently (and copied thousands of times) is the Roubo workbench. Andre Jacob Roubo put together several volumes of drawings and descriptions of his work as a cabinet maker in the late 1700’s. His drawings survive, and he did build a really nice workbench. It had a very thick, heavy top, with massive legs that were flush with the edge of the top. The legs had two tenons each that are mortised through the top.

My workbench design pulls from Roubo’s classic creation. But it also will have a few other elements as well. Most benches are personalized, and this one will be also. I am hoping to address some of the shortcomings of my current workbench.

Ash Lumber for Workbench

Ash Lumber for Workbench

I chose Ash for this workbench, based on it’s local availability, work-ability, durability, and cost. To build my workbench, I figured I would need about 175 board feet of lumber, much of it 8/4, or 2 inch thick. This comes to about 700 pounds of lumber.   Hence, “The Big Ash Workbench.”

With a rented U-Haul trailer in tow, I made a trip to the lumber yard and spent the better part of a morning picking through stock. Getting wood the right size reduces waste, so I worked to pick pieces that would allow the most efficient cuts. For example, the top was designed to be 4 inches thick, so I was looking for pieces about 9 inches wide, that I could rip in half and turn on edge.

Surfaced Lumber

Surfaced Lumber

The first task, after unloading a huge pile of lumber, was to straighten and surface the stock. The jointer and planer got a good work-out, as did the dust collection system.

Lots of Sawdust

Lots of Sawdust

After getting the stock to its approximate sizes, I could tell about what I had to work with. I have chosen to make the bench a “split-top” design, which breaks the top slab into two pieces with a gap about 2.5 inches wide in the middle. This gives room for the wood to expand and contract seasonally, and also allows for a clamp to be inserted in the gap. I will also build a little removable piece which will fit in the gap and protrude above the surface  slightly as a plane stop.

Workbench Joinery

Workbench Joinery

I started the construction process with the legs and undercarriage. Each leg will be about 4 3/4″ x 4 1/2″. The cross pieces that hold up the top are about 3 3/4″ square. All the joints are mortise and tenon. The legs will mortise into the top, but not just as rectangular mortises. One will be a “double-keyed dovetail tenon” and the other will be a dovetail in the other dimension. Suffice it to say that there were a LOT of interesting cuts needed to arrive at what I had envisioned.

I will have a “Leg Vise” on the bench, a feature Roubo had on his bench centuries ago. It was a very popular way of holding stock, consisting of a large wooden screw holding a jaw, or “chop” against the leg. Many benches today use a steel screw, but I found a very large wooden screw which will hold my vise together. The wooden screw will give the bench an old-time feel. But my vise will also use some rather modern technology – a large stainless steel rod with a linear bearing will go through the bottom of the vise to keep it straight and prevent racking.

More updates as I progress with the project.


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