111 Days to go... TABLE TOP TIME

Since I found a location and signed the lease for the school in San Marcos it has been a mad dash to get prepared. Every moment besides promotional opportunities like Barton Creek Artist Market at the Barton Creek Mall in Austin and the Gruene Artist Market in Gruene TX has been dedicated to bench building. Over a year ago I came across a Craigslist deal on enough 12/4 poplar to build the benches for my school. I've been holding onto it until I found a location because the size of the benches would be determined by the location. Unfortunately having that lumber handy has meant that I've pilfered a board here and there. I know I'll be able to get 6-8 student and 1 teachers bench outa the lot which will allow for classes of 12 (opposite corners) but the goal is to eventually have a bench for each of the 12 students. The design of these benches will be very simple. A big thick top that'll take a beating and last a lifetime and legs large enough to prevent racking and also hold vises. I've build two other benches utilizing concepts from Christopher Schwarz's two workbench books (available from Lost Art Press and plan to use much of his principles in these. The biggest design changes will be because of the school application. Things like higher stretchers to aide sweeping, storage for appliances, maybe even a mid shelf for material. I also plan on putting leg vises on all four legs so that when large groups utilize the facility (clubs, seminars, charities) up to 48 individuals can participate. Maybe spreading those legs out closer to the edges to give students sharing the bench more room.

To me the most important part of a bench is it's top. It needs to be sturdy, heavy, rigid yet compliant enough not to damage what you are working on. I have poplar because it's cheap, which makes it perfect for a bench. Yes it's fairly soft, light, isn't a particularly attractive, and smells funky when you cut it but... this is just a workbench. Because it's soft I figure I'll be flattening the top a little more often and given similar diminsions it might be a little springy. All that means is you adjust the design to reflect the properties of the wood you are using. I'm guessing that a 4.5-5" top will compensate for any shortcomings of poplar and get it's weight up. Size wise I'm going for approximately 7' long and close to but not over 2' wide. After dimensioning 8 sticks came out to about 22-23" so that's about right.

So with that settled top building commenced. My first step was rough cutting the sticks to a little over 7'. The thinking is I'll wait to the very last step to cut the ends square and to diminsion. Let me tell ya, a chainsaw for rough milling... just plain fun. It's like using a back hoe to dig a grave for a hamster. Total overkill. Tim Allen would be proud.

Once they were rough diminsioned to length it was time to repeat the process for width. I doubt a single board in my stack was the same width so to the band saw I went. I'm lucky in that my dad just purchased an monster band saw that originally came out of a community college. Just a little refurbishing, some new bearings, belts, and guides... runs great. He uses it exclusively for cutting green wood for his woodturning hence it has a 3/8 skip tooth blade with a large set. This all means that I was able to use something a lot heavier duty than my 14" band saw for this particular ripping opperation but there is no reason I couldn't of used the smaller one. Now this being a rough diminsioning I knew I'd be cleaning up, squaring up at a later step so I wasn't concerned about making perfect cuts. I just wanted it in the ballpark with enough room to clean up to my final diminsion. So I squared the fence to the blade and put it a little under 5.5" out. Because 12/4 boards are generally flat sawn this means the diminsioned stock is close to quartersawn when tilted its side as it'll be in this glue up. which will make it fairly stable.

The result was I now had 12/4 boards a consistent width, which will become the tops thickness, and with one almost straight edge. Every other edge was either twisted, cupped or bowed. So the following steps involved getting these boards straight and square. Note: at this moment I do not care about the top because I know the last thing I'll do in this build is flatten it. My only concerns now are getting the sides as straight and parallel as possible (consistent width from board to board is not that big a concern) and the bottom as flat as possible because it is the reference edge for the entire build. Repeat... the bottom has to be as flat as possible. Not cosmetically perfect, just flat.

Diminsioning square stock is fairly simple and can be done with hand planes and I have done it in the past with hand planes but... I'm not a masocist and I'm in a hurry to build a lot. I own a thickness planer and knowing I'd be building all these benches I'd had my eye out for an power jointer. There is an outlet power tool store across the highway that happened to have a RIGID jointer not only on discount, but also on sale. So for $250 I picked up a 6" jointer. It's not the longest but it got decent reviews and would work.

The process starts with making one face flat. This involves running it over the jointer to remove any twist, cup or bow. The trick I found is to always run the cup over the blades so the board rests on both sides. If you run it with just the middle touching you can induce twist because it'll rock over that center point. If you have a bow in the board have the bow face down so it removes wood from both ends. The other way it'll just follow the bow and it'll never go away. Also be sure not to push down as you can flex the board.

Once one face is flat then run it thru the thickness planer to make the opposite side parallel. This I found a slow process because I couldn't take off too much due to the lunchbox's power and my small shop vac clogging. But eventually you'll get 8 boards that when pressed together make a combined uniform thickness. Note I said 'pressed' together because even though they were parallel and had no twist I noticed that some bowed between milling and glue up time.

The final step of milling was flattening the bottom. Because the stock was all warped in it's rough form when I band sawed the thickness that saw cut was not at a perfect 90 degrees. Plus, it was a human cutting a 7 foot straight line so... not perfectly straight. So the last step was truing up the bottom over the jointer. Now when you do this you have to make sure the face is flat against the fence, don't worry about the bottom. Those first few passes require a lot of concentration to keep it there. Keep the face against the fence and the bottom will be cut down to square and flat. Also, pick the ugly side to do this on. Remember, this is the bottom of the top, so nobody will notice knots, wane, tear out, etc... So flatten the ugly side for the bottom.

Now comes the stressful step. And to whatever salesperson who called me in the middle of this step... you got what you deserved, how dare you call a woodworker during a glue up!

The first thing I did was find a place that was flat to work on. My original bench was just a solid core door. Over the years it has developed a bit of a sag. My solution to this was to use my winding sticks on top of that bench as my glue up base. I use a pair of aluminum angle irons as winding sticks. Just magic marker one so they contrast each other and there ya go. Placing them on my first bench I could see it still had a bow but there was no twist. So I just propped up the center of the winding sticks the appropriate amount to create the perfect base. I also place them at the spots my legs will be mortised in just in case the wood had moved in the few hours between milling and glue up. At least I'd know the critical spots of the top would be flat and coplaner.

A glue up of this nature is not the time to skimp on glue. It's just too important and glue is cheap. So buy yourself some new glue and truly slather it on. I will say I really like using cheap spatula's you get at the dollar store for this operation. When dry the glue just falls right off when you bend them. Now I tried gluing one at a time. I tried gluing them all at a once. Really in the end I found no difference in speed or open time. It's fairly easy to slather it on when you don't care about squeeze out or runs. You'll know you have good adhesion when you get an even squeeze out on botttom and top. The instructions say you can remove the clamps after 30 minutes but I just left them on until another top was diminsioned and ready for glue up. Which was anywhere between 4 hours and overnight. The key things to remember are to make sure the freshly diminsioned bottom was on the bottom and your two best boards are on the outside.

Also, between glue ups, I'd finish flattening the bottom of the prior top because no matter how much you prepare pre glue up, it won't be perfect. But luckily I didn't have to remove but a sixteenth on any of the benches to make them perfect. This also spread the flattening process out because let me tell ya... you're gonna get a workout.

Luckily I found the worst planing tool ever designed in one of my Dad's cabinets. It's a Craftsman Professional Electric Hand Plane. There is no way in hell this thing is ever going to plane a board flat, or smooth, or square. There is not camber, or left/right adjustment and this thing cut a good millimeter more on one side than the other. But as a scrub plane... where perfection isn't the goal just mass material removal... perfect.

I basically used the electric plane across and diagonal grain to remove squeeze out and high spots according to my straight edge. This generally took about ten minutes. I'd then spend the next twenty, because I'm an out of shape wimp, using my wooden jointer to flatten it out perfectly. I'd work across, diagonal both ways and then length wise. Then rinse and repeat. By the end of the second go round the bottom was good enough to be a reference for the rest of the project.

So as of today I've got 7 bench tops absolutely crushing a couple sets of plastic saw horses out on the driveway and a yard a couple inches thick of fresh poplar mulch.

Also, as a little diversion from milling, Dad and I drove out to Seguin and harvested some freshly felled hickory. These are destined to become a couple hundred mallets to go along with all the pecan and mesquite ones we've already turned. These are for a school promotion you'll be hearing about in two weeks.

Up next... legs. Strong, muscular, gorgeous, legs. Check back in a week for an update on them.