'Frontier Style' Workmate - NO POWER TOOLS




About: I made a beer mug with only a knife and a hatchet. I think that says a lot about me.

To me, working wood is one of the best ways to exit stress - after running after midnight, computer throwing (to bad people), melonspitting (try it, it's not so easy as it seems), clay kitten shooting and good ol' beerdrinking.

So one inglorious day I decided to make a kind of "outdoor workmate".

Why? Maybe because I uselessly tried to drain stress by all other ways - sometimes it just all goes wrong. Or maybe because I almost broke the hand of my neighbour the last time I asked him "to hold something in place for me". Okay, I should have told him that steel rod was still quite hot. He got surprised, I missed, he started yelling as someone who just got smashed on his hands (after getting them burned, a bit) and I had to do the job whole on my own again.

Communication is in the detail.

While my neighbour was waiting to be stitched (or amputated, or both) I realised I needed a help I really could trust. Mechanical help. Faith in the machine. That's how I came to that workmate.

In the line of previous projects I decided to build such a useful "neighbour replacement" entirely from wood. Frontier style: without any power tools, without screws & bolts. Only wood, blood, sweat, tears & patience. And a bit of common sense.


- learn it the hard way, it'll be peanuts with power tools later (the keyword is craftmanship)

- in therapeuthical woodworking power tools are useless (the keyword is smashing)

- a frontier style device made with power tools is like a peated single malt made in japan (even though they make decent cars, and commentproof whale killing devices) - it looks the same, but somehow somewhere there's something missing (the keyword is peat, salt, mist & bagpipes)

- I'm a romantic - power is in the hands, not in the tools

In my toolbox: knife, chisels, mallet, hammer, hatchet & saw. And beers (considered as "power tools" in some countries).

Welcome to the jungle.

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Step 1: Frontier Style?!

'Frontier style' is a concept that can be used, and misused. Since I'm living in Europe and being unfamiliar with some topic-related sensivities, I really don't want to create a comment-apocalypse because somewhere somehow I should have formulated this or that differently. So let me say a few words on how I used that concept in this project.

The 'frontier' refers to the 18th & 19th centuries, when new settlers arrived in North America. People came, moved to the west, and settled. The frontier was like the virtual line connecting the most western settlements. The more new settlers moved to the west, the more the 'frontier' moved along. 'Frontier people' were pioneers, coming from (mostly) Europe - for a lot of reasons - and building a new life in unknown land.

I'm aware that there's a kind of negative connotation on the term, also - person A settling on land used or occupied by person B. I guess there were a lot of cases where this process occured friction-less, and there where a lot of cases where this wasn't. Whatever, so far history.

I interpreted 'frontier style' as a way of building with a minimalistic set of tools & resources.

The question was: 'What would I do if I arrived on new ground?'.

Good chance I would pee on it, first. But then I'd start building a workmate.

Step 2: Building a Stool

For this project you'll need a log, and a few poles. That log, a piece of poplar in my case, is the only piece where I cheated since it had been cut with a chainsaw. Yes it could have been done with a hand saw, but no, I didn't.

Use hatchet and knife to peel off the bark and to get the surface nice & smooth.

Aim is to raise it from the ground, so you'll need to put a few legs under it. Use mallet & chisel to digg three holes in the base of the log and insert those poles. Digg those holes properly: not too wide, not too tight. You don't want the pole to 'swim' in its socket, but you don't want to split your log neither.

Set the log on its legs and adjust the poles by removing stuff with a saw.

Very nice, you just managed to make a bar-stool.

Let's make it a workmate.

Which wood I used for the legs? Well, in this step, I was forgotten totally where it came from. No worry, I discovered it later...

Step 3: Getting Connected

A workmate has to be heavy - you don't want the whole to start waggling like a penguin every time you're using it, no? A log is already heavy, but you can make it heavier by adding weight between it's leggs. A boulder is just perfect, but to get it in place you'll have to do some effort. Very much effort...

Choose a few smaller logs (hazel is perfect) and insert them into the legs. Detail: you'll need to drill 6 holes first, two in every leg. With a chisel (I tried the dog, but all he did was eating the chips).

So, turn the stool upside down, remove the legs one by one and start digging again. Frontier style is about digging, you'll discover.

When two of the three connections are in place - use a mallet and smash - you can insert the boulder and put the third. That boulder won't go anywhere.

Turn it on its legs again and OOOOOOOOH NOOOOOOOO!!! Yep, that's when I broke a leg, and that's when I remembered where that wood came from. From one of our prune trees, a branch that broke during one of past winter storms. Prune is heavy wood, soft-toned, very nice to carve. But it breaks easily, and is worthless in construction building. I should have known better, whatever.

Back to work, turn that rage into energy and build another one. Willow, this time.

When the legs are in place, the boulder's in place and the connections set, it's time to use frontier woodworkers best friends: wedges. Cut some hardwood (beech & oak is perfect) to wedges and smash them between the legs and their sockets. Cut the excess. Craftmanship is in the detail.

Step 4: Why Aye Man

This is the step where the most dirty words are used. Those beginning with 'f', you know.

Aim is to insert a nice, solid, thick, hazel pole THROUGH the log. Yep, straight through. Without power tools. In this step your dedication to the project will be set to the test, knowing there's a powerful drill just one meter away...

No need no power tools, we're frontier men. Why aye, why aye man! Start chiseling in the top of the log, somewhere between center and border, and aim a 45° angle. Do some math, or good extrapolation, and mark the zone where the pole should come out. Start digging there also, fighting on two fronts.

When the normal chisel starts to disappear, change to another level.

Once I bought that nice, long, handforged chisel on a flee market, and somewhere I knew that one day this nice piece of art would help me through a difficult period in my life. This was it, I went through the log, enlarged the intial wormhole and managed - after 4 hours, or 5 or so - to slide the pole nicely through.

Frontier style is not about much tools, it's about the right tools.

Step 5: Sculpting the Strong Arm

That hazel pole will be the keystone of the project. It will clamp whatever you want to clamp tightly to the top of the log.

To do so, you'll need to ... drill holes. No kidding.

Start by making a 'finger' in hazel. Circumsise a piece of log, and use hatchet & knife to reduce the diameter on one end. Next, chisel a 45° hole in the thickest end of of the big hazel pole and insert that finger.

Insert the 'culumet style' piece you made in the log and mark where it comes out. There's where you'll make the next, long, hole. Long, because you'll need space to insert a big wedge.

When the first hole's done, make another one a few fingers away from the first.

The more holes you'll make, the more possibilities you'll have to clamp stuff.

Take a piece of harder wood and split & carve it to a nice, long, wedge.

Assemble the whole: calumet in the log, wedge in the calumet.

Note that I made a second 'finger hole' to enlarge the clamping spectrum. And because I like chiseling.

The only thing you need to do anymore is reinforcing the calumet to prevent it from splitting.

Make a few grooves all the way round in the wedge-zone and turn a few lengths of rope in it. Line-cord, fishermens knots. All natural.

Step 6: Go Clamping

You deserved it, that beer. You just made a full natural, full wooden (yeah, don't forget that boulder), heavy, reliable, handy tool that will be your best working mate the years to come. Only with a few basic tools.

How to use it?

Exit wedge, lever calumet, insert piece, descent calumet, insert wedge, push that wedge (manually is just perfect).

Simple & solid.

Hope you enjoy it as much as I did. For a few days I managed to daydream in the frontier zone...

Like I said, I'm a romantic.

Thanx for watching!

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    22 Discussions


    4 years ago

    I can see that you are some writer! (: nice job

    trying to look into basic woodworking tools

    1 reply

    4 years ago

    Looks cool. I've never see anything like this before.
    Do you own a shaving horse and a draw knife?
    Would make quick work of the tenons for the legs.

    1 reply

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    Thanx, I'm planning to make such a tool for a while - looks like a good summer project!


    Nice idea. WRT saws though have found the 21" Corona Razor tooth to be worth the money. It cuts a lot faster than any bow saw I've ever had and will handle most firewood sized material. http://www.coronatools.com/item/rs-7160?referer=hand-saws

    1 reply

    Agreed, it has the same type of teeth configuration as the pliable BACO saw I used to make the workmate, its cutting power is just terrific. That bow saw was just for the picture ;)


    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    Thanx! Believe it or not, but it was my own Stump Throne (see previous I'bles) that started me thinking - it's so damn heavy that I thought 'this would be a great workmate!'. One idea led to another and this project came out ;)


    5 years ago on Introduction

    Once again, you produce not only a quality object out of local materials, but you have some of the best lines in instructables. You are not alone in this aspect:

    "The question was: 'What would I do if I arrived on new ground?'.

    Good chance I would pee on it, first."

    1 reply

    5 years ago

    Hilarious commentary and awesome instructions, as per usual :). Added bonus of this design: all-wood joinery means that if one used slightly green wood for this, even as it warped with age, this should remain sturdy

    1 reply

    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    Thanx Mie! Hilarious?! This? ;) Glad you like it, and you're right btw, it's a concept you can build with the freshest wood you can find. Real frontier style!


    5 years ago

    Very cool. that hole all the way through the log must have been a killer. Well done