Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Workbench: Planing Stop

Here's an old idea you've seen before, perfect for a lazy blog post on December 29th.  At the left end of my weirdo no-vise workbench I installed a planing stop.  It's just a half inch thick piece of Baltic birch plywood I had in the scrap bin, attached to the end of the bench with some T-Track and a couple knobs.

Planing stop works great at the left end of the bench
It was a little tricky to come up with a way to cut the groove in the end grain of the top slabs.  I considered (and even started) doing it with a handsaw and chisel, but the results were pretty horrible.  Next, I actually stood the bench slab on end and rigged up a superbly unsafe router jig.  In the picture below, you can see that (1) I am an idiot, and (2) that my wife's car is not in the shot. I am at least clever enough to behave foolishly while she is away from home.

To my wife: I swear I didn't do it this way
Thankfully, common sense took back over and I stepped away long enough to come up with a simpler solution involving some double-sided tape, a scrap of wood, and both feet planted firmly on the ground.

Routing a groove for T-Track
Once the groove was there, it was simple to cut some T-Track to fit the two bench slabs.  A few screws later, and the track holds a couple T-Bolts with handles from Highland Woodworking.  It's so convenient to have them right around the corner from me, but pretty dangerous for the wallet too.

Planing stop attaches with a couple knobs - easy to adjust.
Voila! One removable planing stop.
I like this solution because it is simple to use, and also because it fits my theme of having a bench that breaks down daily.  When it's time to quit, the planing stop board pops free, and the knobs just slide right out of the track and into a drawer.  Most of the time the parts stay in the drawer, since I don't use the planing stop every day.

Have a happy New Year!

There are other options for planing stops too.  What do you have on your bench?  Or do you just flatten boards with a planer like nature intended?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Blast from the Past: Wire Trick

As I have said in the past, the many volumes of the Popular Mechanics d-i-y Encyclopedia are fascinating to read.  They offer a glimpse into the shops of our fathers and grandfathers, where throwing out even a single useful scrap was frowned upon.  I'm sure that there was more than one basement workbench crowded with jars of bent nails waiting to be straightened.

In between the regular entries in the Encyclopedia, there are pages dedicated to simple tips and tricks.  Some of these "Clever Ideas" are pure gold, and we are starting to see them come back around today during our collective re-awakening to hand tool use.  For example on the page shown below at the 9 O'clock position we see that adding a leather strip to the inside of a vise makes a better working surface.  This trick is repeated even today by the most revered workbench gurus of our generation.

There are a couple other tips on the page that wouldn't be out of place in one of the magazines on today's newsstand.  A modified sawhorse used as a table saw outfeed?  Check.  Add scrap to a shelf to let you easily paint each side?  Check.

Then you get to the last trick on the page, in the bottom right corner.  How to straighten bent wire with an ingenious little jig.  I can imagine my grandfather bent over his bench, pulling a 2 foot section of wire through a few nails.  Many folks would agree that the generations alive in the 1930's adapted these habits out of necessity during the Great Depression.  I wonder though - when did this thriftiness leave us as a nation?  Was it purely generational, like flipping a switch?  Or did it slowly fade away until more and more shop supplies were purchased as needed from the shelves of the big box stores?  I wonder if you mapped it out on a timeline if you would find that in 1983 it was already fine to throw away wire, and we were in the last days of hanging on to bent framing nails.

Today it seems silly to keep those jars full of leftover screws, hinges, razor blades, brad nails, picture hooks, doorknobs, light switch plates, bent springs, washers, non-programmable thermostats, kitchen cabinet handles, rubber feet, and of course wire.  I don't have a whole bench full of the stuff like my grandfather did, but there is that one jar.  You know the one. It's in the back corner of the top cabinet over your bench.  The one that sometimes saves the day with a long forgotten bit of scrap, just the right size and shape.  As if it's been waiting like some little bit of magic for you to remember.  When that happens, I can't help but think out loud "Thanks, Gramp."

What is the weirdest thing you can't throw away? Are you a hoarder or a minimalist in your shop?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tail vise? I Wonder.

Wow, the titles to these posts are getting silly.  In this case though it's accurate also.  There is no tail vise on my bench.  Blasphemy!  For that matter, there is no face vise either, but we'll get to that later.

Because of my desire to break down the bench for daily storage, I challenged myself to come up with work holding solutions that don't require vises permanently mounted to the bench top.  Vises add weight and complexity, and the good news is that with a few accessories they aren't needed.  Hey, I'm not saying I wouldn't love to have a nice Benchcrafted Tail Vise, but it's not going to work on this bench.

If you haven't been following along, here is the bench in all its naked vise-free glory.

For the tail vise duties, I turned to a Veritas Wonder Pup.  This is a clever little gizmo that seats into a standard 3/4" dog hole.

I chose the the Wonder Pup because it has a shorter shaft than the Wonder Dog, so I can use it in any hole in the bench without hitting the cabinets below.  Both version have a total range on their screws of about four inches, so as long as your dog holes are closer than that you have total coverage to hold any length board.  In the picture above you can see that the first hole in the front corner is about three inches in from the end of the bench.  This is helpful because the handle of the Wonder Dog will overhang the end of the bench and be easier to spin quickly.  The screw pitch is fairly tight on these, so for big adjustments I hold the Wonder Pup by the screw and shake it around until the shaft spins around like a hula hoop.

To hold a workpiece to the bench, just put a regular bench dog at the other end and use the Wonder Pup to apply pressure.  As you can see below, even with thin stock the dog can be adjusted low enough to be out of the way.  By the way, I don't ever plane 1/4" thick plywood.  This is just to show the options for holding thin stock.

It's possible to get a bench dog low enough to hold 1/4" thin material.

Even among fans of the Wonder Dog, they will agree that it isn't great for working with thin stock.  The block on the end is 5/8" thick so it works fine for 3/4" or thicker material.  You often see the suggestion to add a thin tapered block to the end of the Wonder Dog, and the two screw holes in the block make this possible.  You also sometimes see the suggestion to add support shims underneath a workpiece to hold it up higher off the bench, but the difficulty is needing a lot of different thicknesses and widths to support different sized boards.

The standard Wonder Dog isn't great at holding thin stock.

All of the information above is old hat if you have read about workbenches elsewhere.  This is where I am going to take you off the beaten path.  Instead of messing around with shims or tapered blocks, I recommend making a shallow pocket in your bench top for the Wonder Dog to sit in.  Here is the outline of the pocket, just slightly wider than the head of the Wonder Dog.  The total length is about 7 inches so that both dog holes can still be used.

The plan is to remove the area marked in red.

To make the pocket, I made a quick router template.  I hogged out most of the material with a straight bit, then finished up with a dovetail bit around the edges.  This creates a sliding dovetail so that I can use a filler block in the pocket when I don't need it.  I used an 8 degree dovetail bit since I was trying not to undercut the LVL too much.  In a standard hardwood bench I don't think the angle would matter.

Use a router to create a sliding dovetailed pocket in the end of the bench.

The pocket is 1/2" deep, so the head of the Wonder Dog sticks up only about 1/8" above the bench surface.  This is adjustable, so you could of course raise the whole assembly to get anything between 1/8" and 5/8'.  With this pocket, the Wonder Dog is able to clamp thin stock like a champ.

Wonder Dog + 1/2" deep pocket = thin stock clamping goodness

The next trick is to make a filler block to close up the pocket when it's not needed.  Thanks to the dovetailed sides of the pocket, this can just slide in from the end of the bench. I made a block out of some Ipe in my scrap bin, but any hardwood should be fine.  I cut the block on the table saw to get the 8 degree sides and snuck up on a nice friction fit with a hand plane and scraper.

Filler block should be a nice friction fit
The block will be easier to slide after the two holes are drilled in it.

After I had the block fit correctly, I used a forstner bit to mark the locations of the dog holes from under the bench.  Then just drill the dog holes in the filler block and chamfer the edges of the holes.

This little modification really helps get rid of a big limitation of using the Wonder Dog as a tail vise.  When you want to work on thin material, just slide out the filler block.

Holding thin stock - filler block removed

Most of the time the filler block stays in the pocket, and the Wonder Dog works normally.

Filler block does not affect normal operation of the Wonder Dog

There are a couple other tips I can give you.  If you are trying to plane a thin board that is also less than two inches wide, you may find that the end wants to sink down into the pocket since it is unsupported.  For this, I kept a little offcut from the filler block and put it in the pocket to support the workpiece.  I haven't ever needed it, but I keep it in the drawer just in case.

Narrow boards may need a little support to keep them out of the pocket

One last thing about the Wonder Dog is that the top of the anchoring shaft sticks above the holding block.  This can interfere with planing, even on 3/4" thick stock.  This is another great reason to use the pocket even on thicker stock - to get the shaft out of the way of a plane.  It's not all that problematic though since most right-handed woodworkers will plane away from the shaft.

Top of the shaft can interfere with planing

I'm not suggesting that this little modification makes the Wonder Dog the perfect tail vise. For a permanent bench I would probably still consider a more traditional tail vise, just for the convenience.  For me though, this is a good enhancement to make the relatively cheap Wonder Dog perform a new trick. Sorry about that.

What type of tail vise does your dream bench have? Next time, more bad puns!  Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Workbench: Floating Bases

One of the key features of my workbench is the ability to take it apart and store it away quickly.  Like every guy with a small shop, I am trying to put all my stuff on wheels.  I came up with the idea of using base cabinets under my workbench instead of the more typical sawhorses.  The bases are an important part of this design, both for workholding and for stability.  They needed to be mobile but still sturdy enough to support the benchtop with all the forces from planing and pounding.

The retractable wheels on the bases allow me to quickly roll the cabinets under a stretch of countertop and get them out of the way.  When it's time to use the bench, I just wheel them out again.

I have two cabinets, one slightly smaller than the other.  Here is a picture of the small cabinet, with a bunch of drawers.  The height is just right for me, so that adding on the top slabs makes a workbench that is 34" from the floor.

Here is how the retractable wheels work, courtesy of SketchUp.  Way easier to show you this than to flip over the real thing!

I made a few changes when I built the cabinets, but these pictures give you the general idea. Underneath each base cabinet is a recess that is about five inches deep.  Inside, there are two casters on each side, mounted to a pivoting board.  This "wheelie" board is attached to the bottom of the cabinet with a couple standard door hinges I had laying around, but any strong hinge will do.  The hinges are shown in red above, and the yellow circles are there to remind me that the casters need to be able to spin freely. Don't put them too close to the corners.

Here it is right-side up, it is easier to see how the levers work in this view I think.

The levers are mounted with a couple bolts through the front apron of the cabinet and into the "wheelie" boards.  When you want to lower the wheels, just step on the end of the lever and the wheels get forced down which also raises one side of the cabinet off the floor.  These have a surprisingly strong lever action, and are able to lift up very heavy loads - at least a couple hundred pounds.  I suppose it depends on how much force you can get into the lever by stepping on it, but I have been eating my Wheaties and am well over 200 lbs.

But what keeps the wheels down?  Aha!  Take a look at the next picture.

Scrounging my pile of spare parts, I put a couple of door latches into the bottom apron.  When you step on the levers, they move down and the latches pop out to hold them in place.  Now you can wheel the cabinet around and when you are done, just give the latches a kick with your toe to drop the cabinet back down onto the ground.  These latches are cheap, and you can also buy just the latch at the big box stores.

In the picture above, you can see a hint of the arc that is cut out of the apron around each bolt - above bolt #3.  The bolts for the levers just pass through the apron and into the "wheelie" board.  You may also notice that one of the levers is lower than the other.  There is some flex in the wheelie boards, so when I was ready to add the latches I just cranked down on the levers until there was a quarter inch of clearance all around, especially in the back of the cabinet.  I then marked a line and this is where the latches ended up. I also made the apron removable in case things sag over time and I need to make a new one.

I have mentioned before that my garage floor has more waves than the Atlantic ocean.  In order to prevent the cabinets from rocking when they are dropped, I made them with three feet.  You can see that in the SketchUp pictures above, or in this picture of the back corner.

Once the cabinets are dropped down in place, they are very stable.  Not necessarily level, but stable.  This was pretty important since I don't want the bench to rock back and forth.  These things aren't going anywhere, since they are both pretty heavy.  The larger cabinet is about 30 inches wide and has my 13 inch planer mounted on a flip top, so that cabinet has to be almost 200 pounds with all the plywood and the planer.  The drawer unit is lighter, but I would still estimate it at over 100 pounds.  Add in 90 pounds for the top slabs and I've got a 400 pound bench that wheels away easily.

Here are some things I learned when building the retractable wheels, in case anybody wants to try this.  The drawings show the "wheelie" boards as 3/4 plywood, but this has a lot of flex when the wheels are up.  I had to do some weird stuff to stiffen the boards like you might do along the front edge of a shelf.  I recommend gluing up a double-thick board that is 1 1/2" thick, but I would use plywood again with no problems.  In order to do this, you need a slightly deeper recess under the cabinet.  I was trying to save every last bit of vertical space, and it got a little tight for me.  It's based on the height of your casters - with a 1 1/2" thick wheelie board, your recess should be at least 2 1/2" deeper than the caster height.  Plan to get the wheelie board roughly level with the floor when the wheels are down, though a little tilt is fine.

Next time I'll talk about some workholding stuff.  With a few accessories, I don't even care that this bench has no vises.

What next?  I've got more to talk about with the bench, but do you have a question?  Put it in the comments!

Sunday, December 05, 2010

That is one sexy box!

Not what you may have expected, but I got home from a work trip on Friday to find this waiting for me courtesy of the UPS guy.

Inside that, the exitment just keeps getting better!

Finally, this is what was inside. 

Excuse me now, I have to go play in the shop.  I'm grinning like a little kid with an ice cream cone.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Workbench: About the Top

For the top of my new workbench, I needed a solution that would let me take the bench apart easily at the end of the day.  What I eventually ended up with are two 10" wide slabs of LVL.  They are 7 ft long and a little over 2 1/2" thick.  The seven foot length is about as long as the beams can be since I want to stand them up on end for storage and I have a low ceiling in the shop.

I had seen an article in Fine Woodworking magazine a couple years ago that showed a couple of beams being used on sawhorses for all the typical workbench tasks.  The ones in the article were torsion boxes made of melamine and homasote, and I was all set to make these until I got the "workbench bug" like so many other woodworkers out there.  After reading - obsessing really - about historical bench designs, I wanted to go in a more traditional direction and make a solid bench top with dog holes to enable the use of dogs and hold fasts.

Some bench designs such as Bob Lang's 21st Century bench have a large tool tray between two separate sections of their top.  From this, I realized I could just make two slabs and not have to muscle around one large top.  When the two slabs are butted up together, my bench top is 20" deep.  If needed I could also move the back slab toward the rear and get a deeper top by leaving a 4"-6" gap between the slabs.

The final piece dropped into place at Woodworking in America.  Megan Fitzpatrick was kind enough to take me backstage and show me her "Gluebo" bench on the last day of WIA.  According to the Internet, the LVL she used is lighter than other lumber I was considering, such as Southern Yellow Pine (SYP).  LVL comes in around 37 lbs/cubic foot, and SYP is 41 lbs/cubic foot.  On top of that, LVL makes a stiffer beam so you can get away with a thinner top.  Like Megan's LVL benchtop, my top is a little over 2 1/2" thick.  Each LVL beam weighs about 45 lbs compared to a 4" thick beam of SYP which would be about 80 lbs.

The LVL makes an attractive top, but there are a few things I noticed when working with it.  The front and rear edges of the bench were pretty ugly since the plies of the LVL were exposed.  I ended up putting a 3/8" thick strip of maple on the front and rear edges of both slabs.  This makes it look better, but it also protects the long edges of the LVL beams which have a bad tendency to split and break off at the edges.  You will want to chamfer the edges of the slabs if you don't wrap them as I did.  The LVL also had a few voids but some careful layout allowed me to flip most of these down onto the bottom of each slab.

To attach the beams to my base cabinets, I am simply relying on gravity and "bullets".  The bullets are made from 3/4" dowels with slightly rounded ends that help line each slab up with pre-drilled holes in the top of the base cabinets.

When it is time to go to work, I just wheel out the base cabinets (more on that next, I promise!) and tilt the front slab onto the cabinets.  I put the bullets into the bottom of the slab first because the hole in the cabinet top goes all the way through so setting the top down could just knock the bullet through the top of the cabinet.  It was a little fussy to get the holes lined up perfectly between the slab and the base, so you may notice an extra hole on the left that I plugged up after the fact.

After the first slab is in place, I just get the second one up there and drop it in place.  The bullets are a little tight at first but after you use them a few times the fibers compress and the slabs just drop right in place.

With both slabs in place, the bench is very solid.  The top doesn't shift around at all, and the two slabs butting up together seems to really lock them in place.  The bases are pretty heavy, especially the one with the planer inside.  Even during aggressive hand planing, this bench doesn't move or slide around.

The only negative I have noticed is that the slabs may not sit fully down onto the bases, because my floor is not level in the garage.  There are a couple spots on my concrete floor that are really wacky, so there can be a small gap between the slab and the base cabinets, shown in the next picture.

This would be a problem with any bench, requiring me to level the feet to prevent rocking.  To account for the warped floor, I specifically made the base cabinets so that they will not rock on unlevel floors - but more on that next time.  The good news is that even with a small gap under the top slabs, the bench is still extremely solid and stable, just not always level.  I planned to use a deck of cards to shim up the top under the raised end, but in practice this doesn't seem to be needed.

So that's how I came up with the top for the bench, and how it works.  Next time, due to popular demand I'll show the bases and how the retractable wheels work.  Stay tuned!

I'm curious to know if anyone else has tried using LVL or another "wood product" for their bench top.  Come on Dyami, tell us about that Timberstrand!