Rough & Ready Benchtop

I’m tall and my rinkydink bench is short. So, I made a benchtop bench.

The original design was copped from ideas I saw online, including the Benchcrafted Moxon vise benchtop. The holdfast idea was straight from Caleb James.

My goals were to keep it simple and cheap, get it solid and square, and up and working. Excuse my lack of artistic ability – the original sketch reflects the simplicity I was gunning for.  A block of wood.

Benchtop bench sketch

Down the road I want something a bit more, er, better. This was as much an experiment as anything else. I think/learn best by doing, as such, this was a way to get an idea of how to go about a benchtop bench before going whole hog for hardware and fancy hardwoods.


And the result:



It couldn’t be more simple. The bench is yellow pine 2x4s. The top is 12″ wide, 20″ long. The legs and face are attached with butt joints. It stands just under 6″ tall. It’s solid. I can stand on it and it won’t move. After glue up, I squared the face/fixed chop to the benchtop.

I was originally going to glue a piece of hardwood to the face to add thickness but the holdfasts hold fast in just the 2″ of pine. Wanted to see how that worked out. I can always add to this.

The moving vise is a piece of andiroba I had lying around. Why? Honestly, I just wanted to see how it worked. I have a piece of 2″x6″ cumaru if I need to step up thickness and strength. If it sounds like I am getting fancy with exotic hardwoods, these are common and cheap here. Exotic is all a matter of where you live.

The vise riding on holdfasts works. It racks like a bastard, but that’s pretty easy to solve. A single holdfast will keep a narrow board in place to mark and saw by itself. Wider boards work very well. Short boards cause vertical racking, but it’s simple enough to swing the holdfasts up or down to center it behind the work.

Holdfasts are a mixed bag as hardware for a vice. They are cheap and easy – drill a 3/4 hole and you’re done. They lack the sheer force that a screw vice has, but they work fine for holding boards for sawing dovetails.

Because of their length (about 7 inches) from the neck to foot, the force is centred in the middle of the vise face, which is 16″ from the centre of each hole. I have a feeling that they would work better if they were further apart. When racking, they fight each other. A mallet blow on one loosens the other. Again, easy to fix with a piece of wood that is the same thickness of what I’m working on to offset the racking.

I’ve not yet drilled in holes for bench dogs, but they will go in once I have a sense of where I want them.

It is far from perfect, but with minimal fuss and for under $10 it does what I want. Sawing dovetails at 40″ is much, much easier for me than at 34″.

I also find myself using it for other things because of the raised height. Using a smoothing plane to clean up the benchtop made me realise how much appropriate height plays in good body mechanics.  It’s easier to keep good form and thus get good results when I don’t have to stretch my arms out or squat to reach the table. This has given me some good ideas for the full sized bench that I’m going to build when I can.








Pen vs. pencil, first round to pencil

When I start feeling clever I know that I’ve probably A) stumbled on a solution that is painfully obvious; or B) found the most ass backwards way of doing something.

I do not like pencils. They are needy with all the sharpening. And I’ll blame lines that are hard to see on the pencils (not my aged eyes). Then there is the lead that gets everywhere. Maybe just my clumsy meat mitts, but again, I blame the inanimate object.

Mechanical pencils suck, too.

I was playing around to try and make scribe lines look clearer (where a knife line isn’t the best remedy), and I remembered my wife’s batch of super fine pens. With all permissions, I took one. It was marvellous. So thin, so clear. I really thought I had a winner.

Feeling puffed up I drew some lines on scrap wood, marvelling at how the pen line remained consistent while the pencil quickly went from thin to fat. (I need to get out more often.)

And then I tried  making a box using it. It crapped out after 1.5 dovetails. The line became spotted and weak. I tried another thinking the ink might have dried up. Same thing. Another pen from the batch – spared my experimenting on wood and thus the need to explain to my wife that I had killed not two but three of her cherished pens – doodled fine on paper for a long time. It would seem that the very fine tip of the pen is getting clogged.

Pencil wins this round, but I’m not giving up. Screw you, pencil. I’ve ordered a batch of possible champions. Vamos a ver.

Rust never sleeps

Caribbean living is great. We’re two miles from the beach, it’s always shorts and t-shirt weather. A flock of parrots hangs out in our neighbours 50 ft palm tree.

And humid. Always humid. Which means that my little shop is prey to corrosion like nothin’ else. Salty breezes, heat, humidity, sweat. rusty-tools Wiping tools down after use alone doesn’t cut it. I have seen corrosion start in the time that I’ve set something down and picked it back up. It’s frightening.

I don’t need all my tools to be shiny and neat, but I do want them to last. Since moving here I’ve had to work a lot more to keep rust at bay. The tool chest is lined with anti-corrosion emitters and everything gets a good wipe down with a dry rag and/or brush before being put away. I try so hard not to blow dust out.

The friction from use keeps plane soles and cutting edges fairly clean. The parts I touch and leave sweaty meat prints on suffer. So I started experimenting with ways to get a barrier between me and the steel.

Boeshield T-9 spray is great if you’re putting tools up to store, not if you’re using them. It’s a bit greasy (as lubes are wont to be) and wipes off. Pretty much the same for conservators wax. ProtecTool Wax did a bit better, but doesn’t hold up after a few uses. I was wiping on a coat after nearly every session in the shop, and that stuff ain’t cheap.

To be fair, this may not be the best test case for these products. Outside of dipping everything in hot vinyl, nothing is going to stay on the tools forever. But cleaning and rust prevention are like sharpening to me, the less I have to do it the better.

Somewhere I read that shellac was a good barrier.  I took some garnet that was lying around and tested it on a few planes and chisels. It actually holds up to my manhandling over many uses, but comes off immediately with wood friction. Say, the side of a plane used for shooting. And while the aesthetics of my tools isn’t paramount, garnet shellac can make it look like your Stanley is shedding an old tan.

After a recent clean up I put several coats of paste wax on the tools. I’d made a batch with a healthy ratio of carnauba, and I’m hoping that the hardness of that will hold out a bit longer. So far, so good, with the added benefit of making the plane soles a bit slicker.

Further alchemical exploration may be necessary. Possibly blonde shellac followed by paste wax. Or mixing ProtecTool with carnauba.  Vamos a ver, no?

Square satisfaction

Every night I head out to the shop to empty the dehumidifier. It’s damn near romantic out there that time . A single soft lamp, the scent of wood, neighbourhood dogs and kids quiet. Looking at the shavings and works in progress brings a level of satisfaction and contentment that is new to me, at least as far as day-to-day work goes.

A lifetime ago I could have been considered successful in the white collar world, a world I never have given much a f*** about. Even though I was “headed places”, I walked away when my daughter was born to be a stay-at-home dad. While caring for my daughter was enough reason to go, it helped that leaving the office did not feel like a loss. Success, whether in a completed project, raise, or promotion was fleeting or absent. Satisfaction was rare, contentment  non-existent.

Getting a real handle on sawing dovetails this week? Now that is something. For those of you who can do this already, the following may not be of interest.

Sawing tails that don’t need repair has been a challenge. I was somehow sawing rounded shoulders – the cut was not just angled down, but in as well. Cleaning them up was tedious and led to just as many mistakes. After some time and focus, I’ve found a stance that works for me. It’s similar to a wrestling or boxing stance – left leg forward, right foot back. Knees bent, back straight. Left hand forward resting on the workpiece, right hand loosely gripping the saw and forward enough that I can go for a full stroke without moving my body. The wobble from body movement was causing me to pull the saw in or out with my shoulder, and thus the rounded tail.

This stance lets me start the kerf comfortably with the heel of the saw while not hovering over the vise. When the saw is set in the kerf, I can then do fuller strokes without wobbling . The light grip is key, and difficult to maintain. I have a natural inclination to kung-fu grip. With a soft grip the kerf holds the saw in line and the saw does what it wants to – cut straight. Tensing up causes the saw to wiggle , then the kerf becomes jagged and off.

Watching the saw move along the line introduces enough of an optical illusion to get off square for me. A slight, very slight parallax is created by the angle of the saw as its tilted down. The toe end of the saw seems to be closer to the line then the heel end. I overcorrect, and throw the kerf off square. This is such a tiny little thing, and sometimes almost unnoticeable. Other times really a pain. The less paring and cleaning needed, the better the joint, or so I am finding.

I’ve corrected for this by starting the kerf along the line, then watching the reflection of the board in the blade as I cut. If the reflection doesn’t look like a straight line continuing through the blade, i.e., it heads away or towards me, then I know I’m not square.

Starting the kerf at the angle of the tail has also helped since I don’t turn my hand in the middle of the cut. I’ve slowed down. Deep breaths and measured cuts to get the kerf started straight. The seconds that costs on the front end saves minutes on the back end repairing shitty saw cuts.

All of this really comes into play as I cut the left-hand side of tails, with the line awkwardly on the right-hand side of the saw. It doesn’t seem like that be such a big deal, but at times it feels like it throws everything out of whack.

For some of you that may induce a loud “duh”. But that got me to a really snug dovetail that didn’t look like it was chewed by a rat. And that was immensely satisfying.

It smells good, at least

The shop, I mean. Holidays have kept me away from it, even with the minimal social schedule we keep. I finished a box made of amburana, but it was done in nibbles spread over days.

I managed a trip out to a lumber yard I’d not been to before. It was massive, and I was thrilled by their selection. The other place I go to has some decent S. American hardwoods, but a small selection and only of 1″ thick stock.

This place has Fijian mahogany, maple and oak in addition to a plethora of regional hardwoods. I ended up with a bunch of 2″ thick stock for various projects.

Oooh, that smell. Not of death but of wood (name that song refernce). A mixture of sapele, cumaru and pine is wonderful. I’ve not worked much, but ran out to get some recharge by standing in the shop, breathing in wood and lovingly stroking a plane like a simpleton.

(Not a) Christmas miracle

Die Hard is my favourite Christmas movie. It doesn’t seem to make other people’s lists, but there is no better modern parable about Christmas miracles.

I’m thinking about it NOT because of a miracle, but because of the flaming mess my wife’s Christmas present has become. I’d already put some thought into a fun gift, but I wanted to make her something, too. Should have made her a box, but she’s getting tired of the idea. She has always wanted a wood comb. How hard could that be?

Too many tools evidence of muddled thinking

I looked online for some ideas and how-tos. Everything required machines I do not have. Plus useful advice like “if you use a dovetail saw, try to keep the kerfs straight.”

Trial and error it was. Emphasis on the latter. I had a vague idea of what I was shooting for. Teeth need to be along the grain, same with handle. Two pieces. Maybe 7 teeth?

After tiring of sketching, I went hands-on. I like trying something out without knowing what I’m doing. It’s how I learn. I can test ideas and scrap them, or go in a different direction. The important part is that I don’t worry about the end goal. It’s the process. When I mess up and have to chuck a piece I’ve been working on for an hour into the trash, I’m not as put out.

This project is really stretching my brain, though. I worked out angles on scrap until I settled on 90 degrees to be shaped later. Then I was vexed with waste removal. No coping saw. 1/8 of waste. Apparently an important piece of my saw wandered off during our move from the US, and I haven’t used the thing in 8 months so I didn’t know. Can’t go buy one here. And so on.


On my second attempt at the teeth I was beginning to see somethings I liked. And then I went against the grain and ruined it. Had to start over. On the third attempt I felt like I might have it. Then I split the damn thing in half.

Beginning to see a comb in there

The comb in the trash and Christmas is 6 days away. My wife may not get a finished product. But, through all the trial I’ve got a lot more ideas and a much clearer sense of direction.

Given sometime with pencil and paper I think I can nail this. Fourth time’s the charm.

Or fifth.

Yippe ki yay.

The boxes are never finished! Except these two

Been doin’ a bunch of “stuff” the past few days . Errand stuff, dad stuff, watching Carolina get it’s ass handed to it stuff. Mostly fun stuff but I’ve been all over the place. And that has required some driving through Santo Domingo. I have lived all over this planet and the driving here may be the worst I’ve seen.

I had a minute here and there to mix up some shellac, melt down some paste wax, and finish two boxes. Since the first box ended up more Pollock than polish, I grabbed another box I’d been using for stuff and shellacked that, too. The first one had a bunch of runs, streaks, etc, due to crap technique. But, once I got the hang of loading the brush and applying it in back and forth strokes, the second attempt seemed better. I was getting excited and had to stop myself from going on a shellacking spree. Yeah, that’s a thing.

Box 1 with some messy finish
Box 2 done up a bit better

I really liked the paste wax. The recipe was easy to follow, but having never used it before I had no idea where I was going. As my perceptive 19 month-old told me, it looked like kaka. (Yeah, kiddo, you got 10 words, 9 are Spanish and the other is kaka. Thanks.) But, once I wrapped it up in some cheese cloth, wiped it on and polished it out, the box looked great. Immediate satisfaction.

But man can you see every tool mark, scratch, and ding with the finish on! I’m working on yet another box, and trying to keep that in mind. Such is the learning curve.

The second box is made of jequitiba, a South American hardwood I can buy around here for about $2 a board foot. It is quite pale, almost grey unfinished, and I was excited with how it came out with a coat of BLO, three coats of shellac and wax. It is apparently a stable wood and I’ve found it easy to work. I think I’m going to be using a bunch more of this.

Which means I have to go to the lumber yard. Which means I have to drive through the city. I don’t do emoticons, but imagine a pissed off looking one here.


While my thoughts on flattening wood may eventually be formalised in a philosophical treaty on the place of man in nature (low), just some quick thoughts today.

I buy all wood at 1 1/4″ and generally need it between 3/4 and 3/8. It is what it is, and I’m getting used to dimensioning. I have found that about 70% of the wood I use, of several different types, re-warps after flattening. To avoid the heartache of getting close to finished width then having to plane way more off to deal with re-warping, I’ve slowed the process.

A few variables should be noted that affect the wood. Everything I can buy is being stored in open air warehouses. No climate control. Being right on the Caribbean humidity is high. Always. Forever. The end of the world will come and it will still be 85% humidity here.

Additionally, I’m not entirely sure how this wood was ever dried in the first place. With my remedial Spanish I know it’s kiln dried, but that only means so much.

Lastly, my “workshop” is the converted maid’s quarters built by the owners of our house. We have no maid to quarter, and so I get it. No climate control, really. A dehumidifier helps keep things around 50% humidity.

It’s an understatement that moisture is a problem. (sounds like the start of an adult diaper commercial)


Case in point, the small board above was flat yesterday. Birthed from a warped board, it has returned to form with the penciled corners marking the high spots. This board is headed to 1/2 inch width, with a bit more than a 1/4 to go.

I’ve started to leave the boards some time to get it out of their system. It’s showing some promise. I’ll flatten one side doing as little work as possible to do so. I then take some big bites out of the other side with a scrub plane. Then it sits getting the best airflow it can in my shop.


After a few days, I’ll check and fix the flat side, then take a few more bites from the other. Once the flat side has held flat for a few days, I’ll do the finally dimensioning work. I have two pieces holding after using this approach.

I’ve also taken a note from jointing to flattening faces. I find it tedious to slowly plane down high spots, and I’ve started to create a hollow as I cross plane the wood. The cross grain planing is pretty reliable to give me a flat(ish) board from side to side, and the hollow works between each end. Once I’ve carved a belly, I then mark the high spots and bring them down.

I don’t know if that explanation, or the technique, make sense, but it appears to be working. Wrote more than I intended…

Between good enough and psychosis

Events, too banal to detail here, conspired to keep me from sleeping last night. So, I’ve spent most of the day either staring into the middle distance or trying to finish a box with shellac.

In finishing the box today I realise how much I have to learn, and practice. I stopped myself from letting drips ruin it. Yeah, this box is already consigned to a dusty life in the workshop, but it’s still worth trying to make it as well as I can.

For whatever reason, I keep thinking of the Japanese artisan who makes a bowl every day and then destroys it, hundreds of times just to internalise the process. Not sure if that’s real or just orientalist hokum, but the idea of doing something so much that it becomes your nature is fascinating.

great, now throw it at the wall

While it may be tedium to the journeyman, it’s something that hobbyists miss out on. It takes a hellofalot of self discipline to make the same thing repeatedly just to hone a skill. But, who doesn’t get a bit…what’s the word, jealous?…when you watch a master craftsperson free hand dovetails.

I’m on track to make several iterations of the same box. Which is step one to making other boxes. Maybe I’ll get bored, maybe my wife will find me sitting atop a mountain of tiny boxes giggling to myself. Not that she’d find that out of place.

Dunno, just the crap running through my head today as I feel like cold shit warmed up.

Good enough for me

Greg Merritt posted a good piece yesterday on Integrity vs. Compromise. It was compelling to me because I’m trying to reset my approach to work with a focus on getting to a level of craft that I can be proud of.

I have been rushing to do work in the shop for the last year, and that has meant a lot of wasted effort and minimal or short sighted planning. More often than not, this requires some level of compromise. Either finding a make-do solution to salvage a piece that is just a bunch of mistakes glued together, or worse, lowering my own expectations of what I wanted to accomplish so that they match what actually came out.

As a beginner woodworker and hobbyist, I know that some of this is part of the learning curve. I’m ok with humility, but I’m not ok with lowering the standards of what I think I can do.

A few things led to this rushing around. Mainly a lack of time. Many weeks I had maybe 3 hrs of shop time, so I pushed to get done what I could when I could. Another part of that was the enthusiasm to try every project as soon as possible. Distracting. Halfway through a box and thinking of a stool. Learning basics of shaping wood and worrying about dovetails.

With my shift back to working from home I have a lot more time. And I am trying to break some bad habits. In doing so, I’ve sat down and thought out the skills I want to work on and then linked projects to those. For the near future those skills are going to be dimensioning wood from rough stock and dovetails. I’ve got a whole slew of boxes that I want to work through, and I’ll probably repeat a few to get where I want.

The whole point of woodworking for me isn’t to make stuff. It’s to make things as well as I can.