Introduction: Roubo-Style Workbench

Picture of Roubo-Style Workbench

  This is going to be less of a step-by-step tutorial and more a series of tips and a review of what I learned making my workbench.   
  After examining many, many workbench designs and almost settling on a German-style bench, I came across the 17th century French workbench of Andre Roubo.  This design seemed to have surpassing versatility and an aesthetic superiority to every other design.  In the construction process I learned of the trade-off between functionality, design, and ease of construction.  I have made awkward-looking workbenches in one day which function perfectly.  I've also made beautiful tables quickly and easily which are only useful as buffet tables.  To make this workbench functional and attractive required that every surface be planed properly, and every corner be a perfect 90 degrees.  

Step 1: Some Large Pieces of Wood

Picture of Some Large Pieces of Wood

  This style of bench begins with a few very large slabs of wood.  The top and legs are each 5" thick to provide a simple shape with no joists or apron and the heavy stretchers provide ballast.  The top is 72" long and only 20" deep.  The narrow top discourages me from putting too many things on the bench at one time (treating it like a table, which it isn't) and the overall small dimensions are compensated for by the workholding features and dead weight.  Holding down a heavy beam or large plywood sheet is no problem and the bench doesn't rock or scoot.  
  The legs and stretchers are reclaimed old growth Douglas fir.  Though mine were salvaged (and thirty winters have hardened these beams nicely), here on the West coast, 6"x6" Douglas fir is a standard dimension.  But finding a mass of wood for the top that's both deciduous and contiguous is a taller order.  The top of a workbench should be hard.  Exactly how hard depends on a few factors; if you're going to be working primarily with hard woods, then your bench should be hard enough to take some use but not so hard that it might mar the wood you're working.  It's better to dent your bench than your workpiece.  For my bench I opted for poplar wood, as it's harder than pine but still affordable (kind of).  By happy coincidence I found a supplier selling it in 3 1/2" thicknesses*, which fits the leg joinery perfectly (the final beams were 3 1/2" x 5" x 72").  To keep costs down I used a reclaimed beam of glued-up Douglas fir for the middle 13" of the top.  Since most of the work on a bench takes place around the edges I saved the hard wood for that area.
*My original intent for this project was to use only reclaimed wood I could get for free.  Though I ended-up purchasing the poplar beams, I think sitting in my garage as long as they did before I completed this project qualifies them as reclaimed wood.

Step 2: Tools

Picture of Tools

  I had intended to construct this bench using only hand tools.  I succeeded in doing all joinery and crosscuts, most of the drilling and some of the planing by hand.  For the long rip cuts and planing I used a bandsaw and a power planer/jointer.
  Of Japanese saws I can scarcely speak highly enough.  The narrow, self-straightening blade has replaced my western saws for most straight cuts.  
  A brace and auger bit makes easy work of hogging-out mortises which can be cleaned with a chisel and mallet.  I use a rubber mallet which is easier on the tools and the ears and I haven't noticed much of a difference in efficiency using a solid wood mallet.  
  These tools or acceptable analogs are available at TechShop.

Step 3: Joinery

Picture of Joinery

  The legs connect to the top with two huge through tenons, one of them a dovetail to keep from separating.  I spent more time on these dovetails than on the rest of the bench.  I fit the legs to the front and back poplar rails before gluing the rails to the rest of the top.  This made dry fitting easier, though I would be gluing the top together before permanently attaching the legs.
  The outside of the legs must be completely flush with the edge of the top slab.  This allows the entire side of the bench to work as a clamping surface but is a difficult feature to achieve.  I intentionally made the legs a quarter inch too thick then planed them down after being fitted. 

Step 4: Legs and Stretchers

Picture of Legs and Stretchers

  One misstep here was only making shoulders on two sides of the stretcher tenons.  More shoulder space means a stiffer joint.  
  Everything was dry-fitted several times before the final assembly, wherein I used drawbored dowels and urethane glue.  A larger bench might need to be broken-down for relocation, but at 72"x20", heavy as it is, I can move this around if I need to.

Step 5: Wedge Issues

Picture of Wedge Issues

  There is a lot of glue involved here.  I wet every tenon and coated the inside of every mortise before attaching the legs to the stretchers.  Once the six parts were loosely assembled the top slab was dropped on.  After it bottomed-out (by means of lifting each side and slamming it on the floor a few times) I used the draw-bored pins to tighten each of the stretchers' joints.  
The through tenons on the top are cut slightly narrow so the joints must be made tight by adding wedges.  I cut the straightest-grain scrap I could find and coated each in glue before driving them home.

Step 6: Cut and Plane Again

Picture of Cut and Plane Again

When the glue is dry it's time to chop off those wedges and through tenons.  
  Pictured is the wood nut for the leg vise, detailed here.

Step 7: Adding the Hardware

Picture of Adding the Hardware

A workbench must be able to hold workpieces, otherwise it's just a very heavy table.  On the left side I installed a leg vise, detailed here.  On the right I installed a quick-release tail vise and outfitted it with a fat wooden chop.  This provides a larger clamping area and accommodates a bench dog.  To prevent rust I disassembled the vise, stripped-off the paint, then polished and clear-coated the bare metal parts.  For the cast iron body pieces I applied a black oxide patina then a clear coat.

Step 8: Turning the Knobs for the Tommy Bar

Picture of Turning the Knobs for the Tommy Bar

Nothing much special going on here.  I used the wood lathe at TechShop with a small skew chisel to bore-out the hole until the pin fit snugly then I made a ball and pared it off.  The wood had been repaired with polyester resin.  

Step 9: Holes

Picture of Holes

  Dog holes should be close to each other and close to the front edge of the workbench.  A quick release vise will make short work of readjusting for different-sized pieces, but too much of a part hanging over the throat of the vise means a weaker hold.  This is why the holes should be closer together than the allowance of the vise.  My holes are 3 1/2" apart on center and 1 3/4" from the edge of the bench to allow easy access to three sides of small or narrow pieces.  The 3/4" diameter is almost universal and works fine for me.  
  To make my dog holes straight and perfectly verticlide, I first tried using an angle guide on my cordless drill (I don't have Forstner bits that fit my brace drill).  Due to poor manufacturing, the guide didn't work.  Plan B was to make a bit extension using the lathe at TechShop and guiding it straight by use of a square.  I clamped a board to the underside to prevent tear-out when the bit breaks-through
  When the battery died I switched to my brace drill which I should probably have used from the start.  Once inside the wood the flutes guide the bit straight down. I had preferred to use a Forstner bit since it makes slightly cleaner holes, but I had to sand each hole clean to get a perfect fit for the bench dogs so the brace was as good a choice.  Also, the auger bit evacuated the waste better and didn't get as hot.
  Besides the series of dog holes, I drilled four more holes for use with a holdfast or other workholding devise.  These should be placed such that the holdfasts can have the most effective reach across the surface. 

Step 10: Custom Bench Dogs

Picture of Custom Bench Dogs

  Store-bought bench dogs are ideal if you have too much money.  For the rest of us, I have found that 3/4" round brass stock is common among metal scrap and one only needs six consecutive inches of it to make the largest of bench dogs.  Using a vertical mill at TechShop I planed-off a flat inch at one end and now it's functional.  The addition of leather makes a slightly tighter and gentler hold on the workpiece.  At 5 1/4" I call these "bench huskies".  Not as cute as bench corgis, but more useful.  

Step 11: The Final Finish

Picture of The Final Finish

After a light sanding and damp cloth dusting, the first coat of oil can be applied.  A workbench will take a lot of scratches and gouges and a film-forming varnish does not take well to this.  But oil will weather water, wine, and  wood stain.


Willyd57 (author)2016-10-08

I am building this style bench this winter in my shop. Still looking for 6x6 timbers for legs and a nice slab of some sort for the top. Did you find a good set of plans for this bench or did you just wing it. All the "Roubo" bench plans I have found are not old school like the one you built and I don't like em much. If you do have plans please let me know where you found them. Cheers dude!

CStanford (author)2016-04-18

Hello, may I ask where you sourced the vise screw? Thanks.

ulma doctor (author)2016-03-28

wow what beautiful work on the bench, it will last 3 lifetimes!

pskvorc (author)2016-02-23

"This is going to be less of a step-by-step tutorial and more a series of tips and a review of what I learned making my workbench."


Ragbear (author)2016-02-17

Nice video,

One question you may be able to answer... Do you have a supplier's name or brand that I can use to get the criss-cross leg vise support? I was afraid that I would end up making some, and if they're not perfect, they don't work correctly.

VersHandel (author)2015-12-14

You may want to view David Barron's solution for the mortises in the top and the matching leg tenons. It's Roubo made easy.

gedtech (author)2015-05-18

Sweet, nice attention to detail. :-)

broken board (author)2013-11-19

i love how you use your hand drill. that is some lost skill today.
i laughed when i saw your fantastic jet power tools,
essentials are essentials i guess.

broken board (author)2013-11-19

wow i thought is was nice b4 i saw the beautiful woman sitting on it,

RandomIdeaMan (author)2013-09-15

Fantastic work bench! I wish I had the skills (and time to develop the skills) to make one of my own.

EoRaptor013 (author)2013-07-10

Is that Queen Titania, in earthly disguise, posing on your bench?

Very nicely done. I'd like to see more of the work on the main leg/bench mortise and tenon. It looks like the leg is actually thicker than the poplar beam; did you have to mortise out some of the Doug fir, as well?


Scotttland (author)EoRaptor0132013-07-16

Yes, that's my faerie queen.
The legs are thicker than the poplar rails but the tenons are cut to the same width; this is not evident in the pictures since I took them before cutting the other sides of the tenons. The extra shelf this makes on the leg adds a little bit more stability to the joint, but it's not used on every example I've seen of the Roubo bench.

GrfxGawd (author)Scotttland2013-07-18

You seem to have left out any instructions for the beautifully mounted materials assistance device located on the top of the bench in the lower image. I would very much like to have one for my workshop as well. Can you provide information or sourcing? I already have electric blue dye.

wtpetersen (author)2013-06-05

Beautiful! I'll be making myself a similar one someday, these tips are really helpful

robbadooz (author)2013-04-21

Beautimus!!! What a pleasure just to follow your work. Thanks!

broken board (author)2013-03-29

wow what a fantastic job
i will make this one.
thank you.

HibbityDibbity (author)2013-03-05

Right, but in terms of milling the beech, I'd assume that quartersawn pieces would be favorable over flatsawn ones due to warping potential. Right now, my beech lumber is in cylindrical form lying in the woods, so I could potentially even rift saw it, but if it's not going to make a difference once it's laminated together, warping-wise, I won't waste too much time and lumber with fancy milling.

In that case, rip it into two or three pieces, flatsawn or whatever you can get from it at 5" thick. It sounds like its going to look great.

HibbityDibbity (author)2013-03-04

I'm in the beginning stages of planning my own bench (beginning stages = drooling over pictures of other people's benches). I've got some beech that I've been wanting to mill up and use, and I think I may incorporate it into my future bench. Do you know if it's better to use flatsawn or quartersawn wood for the bench top? Or, since you're laminating it all together, does it really even matter?

Bigger solid pieces look nicer, but a laminated slab will be more stable over time. That being said, if you haven't ripped it yet, use pieces as thick as possible. Beech is a really good wood for a benchtop since it's pretty hard and also light in color.

unkldave (author)2013-02-13

A real functional beauty. I'm looking at various benchs to build and this is one of the best. The dovetails are kind of intimidating though.

clazman (author)2013-02-11

Nice work!

My choice for a finish is flooding with Watco Danish Oil and wet sanding with 220 grit wet/dry paper (a procedure I learned many years ago from a Norwegian friend of the family) then wiping down to remove excess sanding’s. Multiple coats will be required ending only when the wood no longer accepts the oil especially end grain. When I learned this I was a very young and "green" woodworker and was astonished of sanding with a fairly coarse 220 grit, but it works!

The result is a very pleasing and yet durable finish. An occasional application of Watco's wax completes the finish.

Buso (author)2013-02-11

My first email included this project.

What a great itroduction. It's perfect.


cybearia (author)2013-02-10

Thanks for this. I'm planning on making a bench soon and I was thinking the New Fangled Workbench from Fine Woodworking mainly because of cost and ease. Other build journals for Roubo style benches looked so intimidating to me- would you recommend it?

Scotttland (author)cybearia2013-02-11

The biggest challenge for this bench was the dovetail tennons. You can either forgo these in favor of one square tennon or use them as a valuable opportunity to develope joinery skills. Otherwise I highly recommend the Roubo style. It's nice to have the open flat surfaces where you can clamp things without having to fuss with aprons or crossbeams. And as Chris Schwarz says: your workbench can never be too heavy or too long, but it can be too wide and too tall.

johnaobrien (author)2013-02-10

Very nice job. The process was almost the same as I did with my workbench. I got the plans from "The Workbench Book" from Taunton press. The one I built was a design that is many years old and discribed by Frank Klaus. It was a great project and has given me almost thirty years of enjoyment. I know yours will be enjoyable to you for as many years if you make it that long.

johnaobrien (author)2013-02-10

Very nice job. The process was almost the same as I did with my workbench. I got the plans from "The Workbench Book" from Taunton press. The one I built was a design that is many years old and discribed by Frank Klaus. It was a great project and has given me almost thirty years of enjoyment. I know yours will be enjoyable to you for as many years if you make it that long.

technofossil (author)2013-02-10

WOW!! Good job on the instructions. Great job on the work bench.

cerberustugowar (author)2013-02-10

Now that's a big beefy bench. Looks great

pfred2 (author)2013-02-06

Round dog holes do make more sense than square ones. Instead of brass I just use hardwood dowel for my bench dogs. Someday I need to make a new workbench, but for now my totally reclaimed bench I use is good enough. I have a grand total of $2 into making it. That is what my side vise cost me at a flea market to buy. The rest of it I found here and there.

I've found Formby's "Tung Oil Finish" to contain less Tung Oil and more of other ingredients. As in it isn't really Tung Oil, it is more varnish, or shellac or something with some Tung Oil in it. I have some real Tung Oil, trust me you don't want to use that stuff! If it dries I haven't seen it happen yet. My workbench is mostly finished with motor oil. I don't always get to woodwork on it.

You can see my workbench in this picture:

I didn't use an auger when I drilled out my dog holes:

Check out this design of bench dogs:

Another shot of them:

I like those a lot.

This is my whole peg collection:

A picture of my tail vise taken apart:

I made all of that vise myself except for the metal bits. I found those in my grandfather's cellar. The wood they were attached to pretty much wasn't there anymore. But it gave me an idea how to make something.

jorricks (author)pfred22013-02-10

Hey PFRED2 you are a man after my heart. I mean that in a manly way :).
If it works do not fight it.
Keep up the good Salvaging!

pfred2 (author)jorricks2013-02-10

Thanks. At this point I think I am done salvaging. I'm just trying to use up all the junk I've collected now.

spiritwalker6153 (author)2013-02-10

Magnificent workmanship.

Machine (author)2013-02-10

Stunning bench! Beautiful.

thebeatonpath (author)2013-02-10

WOW...just WOW!

bishopdante (author)2013-02-10

That is a fine bench.

mje (author)2013-02-10

Excellent work and excellent article. I understand that Roubu was a joiner, not a cabinet maker, so he did not require a very large work top for the assembly of carcasses on his bench.

vincent7520 (author)2013-02-10

amazed !… Made my (rainy and cold) sunday !!!… thank you !…

jmatthews10 (author)2013-02-09

Looks amazing :-)

HicksCustomFurniture (author)2013-02-07

This is a really good...beautiful work! As ringai says nice it'd be a shame to actually use it!

ringai (author)2013-02-07

Your bench looks great! If I built it, I wouldn't want to do any woodworking on it!

Edgar (author)2013-02-06

Gone to the Blog, watch the Crazylfie and the Antartic Base, too:

seamster (author)2013-02-06

Beautiful bench. Impressive work!

rimar2000 (author)2013-02-05

Chapó, master.

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