Roubo-Style Workbench

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Introduction: 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

  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

  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

  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

  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

  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

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

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

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

  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

  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

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.

2 People Made This Project!

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47 Comments

0
walshj59
walshj59

Question 2 months ago

Late to the party. Story of my life. But if still there please indulge me. I built a Roubo years ago (Tutelage: Christopher Schwartz). Just got to a point of accessorizing and actually using it. Many ??? about dog holes, holdfasts, bench vises relative to a 5 1/4" thick benchtop.
1. Do dog holes, necessarily, need to be through holes?
2. Is there a specific type (dimension) of holdfast that works better in a deep hole if I did drill
through holes. Or one that would work in a "half hole" if, say I made my DH's just 4"deep?
3. The front face of my end vise, since attached( lag screws) at very underside of benchtop,
is not high enough to be flush with benchtop. My hardwood cheeks will compensate but then I lose effect of factory dog in the front face of the vise. Any problem you can see
with my installing a front cheek that is an inch higher than the rear so as to use this entire
face as a dog?
Thanks in advance if you are still there. Otherwise see you on the Other Side. JW

0
Scotttland
Scotttland

Answer 2 months ago

1. They don't need to be through holes but do you really want dust and other things falling inside and blocking your dogs?
2. There's many different types of hold fasts, hooks, and clamps for different purposes, though if you need something to hold work down, and not just hold it in place, then you need a through-hole. That being said, most of the work you do on wood is likely pushing it down or sideways, not up, so a sideways-clamping device is probably fine. The steel holdfast I made here is an invention of an older time when making anything with working threads was an expensive undertaking.
3. I have the same things happening with my vise, and the dog that came on the vise serves no purpose. That's okay because my fat brass ones work better anyway.

0
walshj59
walshj59

Reply 2 months ago

Thank you for taking the time. I actually re-read your text and it helped me with question #3. So, regarding the tail vise, you actually installed just one big fat cheek on the front vise face and none at all on the rear face? And, I presumed you recessed the back vice face. So, there is really nothing between back (metal) face/ bench edge and the fat cheek you attached to the front face? Except, maybe, thin strip of leather or something?

0
Willyd57
Willyd57

5 years ago

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!

0
CStanford
CStanford

5 years ago

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

0
ulma doctor
ulma doctor

5 years ago

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

0
pskvorc
pskvorc

5 years ago

"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."

Excellent!

0
Ragbear
Ragbear

5 years ago

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.

0
VersHandel
VersHandel

5 years ago

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.

0
gedtech
gedtech

6 years ago on Step 11

Sweet, nice attention to detail. :-)

0
broken board
broken board

8 years ago on Introduction

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.
JUST ENVIOUSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS

0
broken board
broken board

8 years ago on Introduction

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

0
RandomIdeaMan
RandomIdeaMan

8 years ago on Step 11

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

0
EoRaptor013
EoRaptor013

8 years ago on Introduction

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?

Thanks!

0
Scotttland
Scotttland

Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

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.

0
GrfxGawd
GrfxGawd

Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

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.

0
wtpetersen
wtpetersen

8 years ago on Step 11

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

0
robbadooz
robbadooz

8 years ago on Step 11

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

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.