In March of 2018 I was fortunate in acquiring a large pile of red oak beams salvaged from a railyard. These beams had been used as dunnage in the transport of train and rail parts from the East. Ten feet long and heavy as sin, they were ugly, blackened, marred, stained, and dominated the center of my shop like leftover waste from the Trojan Horse.
The acquisition of these beams, though fortuitous, was ill-timed. I had grand plans for my next project and these beams had no place in those plans. They also had no place in my drying shed and left me no place to stand at my workbench. What I wanted to work on was a carved panel.
Perhaps, though, I could turn these unwelcome guests into something of immediate use. I was aware of two upcoming events -June Faire and Athenaeum- at which I would have opportunities to not just show but actually demonstrate my work. Could I turn these beams into a portable workbench and begin carving a panel in the space of eighty days? Challenge accepted! I put began to research portable workbench designs.
Modern portable workbench designs all seem to be constructed around the basic premise that modern woodworkers crave opportunities to learn complicated and flimsy joints requiring the purchase of at least three new router attachments. Some of these designs also take liberties with the definition of “portable” in the sense that a bank vault is portable if sufficiently dismantled.
By a fortuitous turn of events, however, the relief to my research doldrums arrived then in my In-box. Christopher Schwarz was nearing completion on his latest book, “Ingenious Mechanicks” (ISBN 978-0-9978702-7-5), and his publisher had sent me an advance copy in pdf. In this book Mr. Schwarz presents documentation of the evolution of Western woodworking benches from Pompeii (79 CE) to Nürnberg (1505 CE). Conceptually, I was prepared for the early benches –flimsy-looking things more likely to scoot across the floor than to provide a stable surface– but the author’s presentation and experimental archaeology gave me reason to challenge my bias. Here were numerous frescoes and oil paintings repeatedly illustrating woodworkers working at low, splay-legged benches. Benches, mind you, that are actual benches and not tables which we call benches.
So I double-dog dared myself to make a low, medieval woodworking bench. Wait! I TRIPLE-dog dared myself (creating a slight breach of etiquette by skipping the triple dare and going right for the throat) to make a low, medieval woodworking bench USING ONLY HAND TOOLS in the space of seventy-eight days! Before sanity set in, I put on my “Don’t bother me; I’m science-ing” hat and resumed my research.
I decided to make a low bench, about five and a half feet long, high enough to sit on, and not so wide as to make straddling it uncomfortable. As I needed to make space in the shop in which to work, my first step was to cut all of the beams down.
Then I began planing a face of each beam to see what I had with which to work.
I selected five quarter-sawn beams with straight grain and began squaring them.
Working with hand tools is an opportunity for meditation. The many repetitive motions (reciprocating a saw blade; compassing an auger bit; laying out dimensions) allows us both to focus on our work and to unfocus from the tribulations of our modern lives. I love planing clear-grained wood with a freshly sharpened bit: the plane rides smoothly over the surface, golden ribbons of oak curl out of the throat, and my mind travels from where it doesn’t need to dwell to arrive at the task at hand. I watch the wood subtly change shape with each pass, I feel the angles changing towards true, the sole whispers as it glides. Gone are the cares of the day job, and the bills, and the state of the world. For during this time there is just me and the plane and the wood, and we are all one.
By Day 53 I had almost finished squaring (making all angles be at 90°) the sides and flattening all four faces of each beam. I knuckled-down and spent the day making at least two opposing faces on each beam square, flat, and parallel to each other. I also filled my second 30 gallon garbage can full of oak shavings (which I use in landscaping). Afterwards, I let the wood rest for a few days to allow internal pressures to equalize, touched up any resultant changes, and then began the glue-up on Day 67. No, workbench tops of the middle-ages were not glued-up. But as I did not have access to a single-slab of oak in sufficient breadth, depth, and length I had to make one.
For the glue-up, I used a yellow glue (Titebond III) and spread it evenly across the entire face of each board being glued together. Glues have been available since at least the 3rd Century CE: “hide” glue made from the boiled-down animal hides and hooves; and “fish” glue made from the boiled-down organs and bones of fish. Both glues are still commercially produced and have excellent properties for the making of furniture. However, they are both water-soluble. Since I intended for this workbench to be used outdoors at events I decided on a weather-proof glue instead (also, since in the Middle Ages a bench top would not have been glued-up to begin with, I felt comfortable using a modern glue).
I glued together two pairs of beams, then glued those pairs together. After the glue was dry and the clamps were off, I set the bench top across two buckets and straddled it. The fit was good; any wider would have been uncomfortable. I set the fifth beam aside to be used for the bench’s legs.
I had made some slight alignment errors during the glue-up, so I returned the (now quite heavy) bench top to my existing workbench and planed it flat and true.
Day 70 was dedicated to laying out and mortising the holes for the legs. As the legs were to be splayed (canted diagonally outward) the mortises had to be cut at a compound angle. I set a bevel gauge at 81° and used this to guide my auger and, later, to lay out the angles on the legs. To auger the mortises, I used a bit-and-brace with a 1.5″ spade bit. I set the bench top upon some waste wood to prevent splintering the edges of the exit holes.
After hefting the bench top back onto the workbench, I squared the mortises with a chisel and mallet.
Full disclosure time: see those gaps in the seams between the glued-up beams? Those are the result of me not getting a perfectly flat and square surface on the faces to be glued. Some swearing may have occurred.
T-minus nine days and counting: time to start work on the legs. My ripsaw being in transit from Ohio (where had just been professionally sharpened), I decided to try my hand at riving the tenons. I cut the legs over-length, laid out the shoulders and cheeks of the tenons, and cut the shoulders with a backsaw.
As I lack a froe (a proper riving tool; check out Drusa Saturnina’s posts to see one in action) I used a 1″ chisel to rive the cheeks. The straight grain of the quarter-sawn oak helped considerably.
After riving the tenons, I cleaned the cheeks up with a freshly sharpened chisel.
Before installing the legs, however, on Day 72 I decided to bore the holes for the pegs. These pegs, which act as stops to hold pieces being worked on, appear in a number of medieval paintings.
Setting the bench top back onto some waste wood, I laid out three spots to bore holes: two as end stops, and one as a side stop of sorts.
Using a 3/4″ screw-point drill bit in a bit-and-brace, I bored out each of the holes at as close to 90° as I could get. The second hole (as can be seen in the video below) is off by a few degrees.
Day 73 was scheduled to be Leg Day. Little did I know how much work this was going to be. I flipped the bench top over and, knowing that the tenons would protrude from the mortises when I inserted the legs, I positioned it so that one of the mortises had space beneath it. Then I drove the tenon into the mortise by banging the end of the leg with a mallet. I repeated the process for the remaining legs. All of the legs fit quite snug; two of the legs, however, only budged a millimeter or so with each mallet strike. Those two fit rock-solid and I am guessing that I was compressing the oak to force the fit. The third leg required about 1,000 mallet blows. I only know this because my right arm was tired so I switched hands every 100 whacks.
As each of the legs was installed, I also trimmed them. I laid the bench on its side and put masking tape all around where the leg tenons protruded past the surface of the bench top; theoretically this was to help protect the top from being marred. Using a flexible, nearly kerf-less dozuki saw I cut the waste tenons flush with the surface.
Day 74 saw the fourth and final leg installed and trimmed. Then the bench was laid face-down on the floor of my shop to have the legs leveled. This was done using the “pencil-trick” described to me by Alasdair Mac Roibeirt, who learned it from Chris Schwarz: take a flat-bottomed object (I used a 4″x4″) taller than then height you want the bench top to be; tape a sharpened pencil horizontally to the object, right at the exact height you want the bench top; finally, setting the tip of the pencil to the leg, slide the object along the floor around the leg (you’ll get to two, maybe part of three, sides) leaving a pencil mark parallel to the floor. Use a straightedge to finish the lines. Now saw off the waste right on the line.
Having already made a few 3/4″ pegs during a previous project, I tapped three 6″ pegs into the holes. I set the bench upright and was pleasantly surprised that it was level and did not rock.
With six days to spare, I had completed my portable woodworking bench. I took it for its inaugural run at June Faire in the Barony of Dragon’s Laire and found that carving and planing on it was easy and comfortable. The stops worked perfectly for the project I worked on (and new stops can be added as fast as I can drill). Lastly, whenever I wanted a break or a friend stopped by to chat, the woodworking bench made for a perfect sitting bench.