Starting the Roubo: Stock selection, sawing and planing

Back for more?  Great!  When we last talked, I was discussing why I needed to build a workbench and why I chose the style that I did.

As I mentioned last time, the majority of my inspiration for my bench came from Chris Schwarz’s Workbenches book.  In this book, Chris mentioned that he bought the lumber for his benches from his local home center because he was able to find quality southern yellow pine there.  Being in the same general region as him, I decided that would be the best bet for me as well.  Once I took entirely too much time making sure that I knew how much I needed, I jumped in the truck and hit up my local Lowe’s.  No specific preference, it’s just the closest.  Rather unfortunately for me, almost as soon as I found the  2x10s and 2x12s, a store associate found me and offered his help.  I, being at times too accommodating, accepted his help but felt rushed while going through the stack because of it.  I didn’t take as long as I should have to pick through what was there, which meant that I came home with several boards with knots in them.  On this point, my advice is this:  don’t be in a rush when you’re picking your stock.  Make sure you get what you want, not just what’s on top.

Once I got it all home, I loaded it on my lumber rack to acclimate.  I really only needed a couple weeks or so, but life happened, good weather didn’t, and it ended up being about three months before I started doing any work on my bench.  I chose to start by ripping the boards to laminate the top.  I’m not entirely sure why, though that would allow me to size the base to the top instead of building the base to the dimensions out of the book and hoping that my top would be the same size as Chris’s.  And that’s where I encountered the first hurdle.

This bench is my first serious woodworking project that I’ve done on my own, and without power tools.  I knew from – I don’t know, probably doing a few little things with my father when I was young – how to crosscut a board for the most part.  But how in the world do I rip a board that’s eight feet long by hand?!?  I don’t have a sawbench or sawhorses.  What I ended up doing for my first board was prop one end up on a two-step stool that I use in the shop.  Once I got close to halfway through the board, I tried standing it up against the track for my garage door.  This actually seemed to work better than the stool.  It was still far from perfect, but it cut quicker that way.  Altogether, I think it took me close to two hours to cut that eight foot long board.  I REALLY didn’t like what that seemed to mean for me getting this bench done.

Luckily for me, before I had opportunity to rip my second board, I took another class at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking (which I will from now on refer to as MASW).  This particular class was on making fine writing instruments with Barry Gross.  Okay Buddy, now what in the world does turning pens have to do with making a workbench with hand tools?  Well, it just so happened that none other than Chris Schwarz was also there that week, teaching another class.  The way the school is set up, all three classes eat lunch at roughly the same time in the same cafeteria.  One day I found myself at the same table as Chris and struck up a conversation with him.  I’d already taken a class with him the previous fall, so I wasn’t as star-struck as I otherwise would have been.  I told him that I was working on the Roubo from his Workbenches book, but that I was making it entirely with hand tools.  I explained that it was a lot harder work than I expected, and that I’d only ripped one board so far.  He responded by asking if I’d heard of overhand ripping, which I hadn’t.  Chris, being the type of person that he is, offered for me to stop by his class when I had a few free minutes so he could show me.

What he showed me appears to be covered in a video on the Popular Woodworking website (, but I’ll try to explain it the best I can.  Clamp the board hanging off the front of your workbench with your cut line past the bench.  Starting the cut is a bit awkward, especially if you’re right handed.  Start it like you normally would on the right end of the board.  Then take your saw and hold it in both hands in front of you, with the blade pointed down.  Then put the saw back into the kerf in this orientation, moving the saw up and down.  If the blade starts to bind up, decrease the angle of the saw (teeth down from vertical) for a bit, then straighten up again as you can.  Again, if you’re having trouble picturing, check out the video. Using this method, the time it took me to rip an eight foot long board went from two hours to half an hour or less, stopping frequently.  I may need to stop less when using this technique on a shorter bench.  Or maybe I just need to work out more.

I didn’t want to rip all of the boards at once, because I saw a tip somewhere to not prep more boards than can be glued up at the same time.  Since my shop time at present is limited to a couple hours a day, I only ripped one board at a time and then started planing them.  That’s when I ran into my second hurdle.  How does one hold such a long board on a bench with no end vise?  What I ended up doing was using my face vise (super-cheap metal thing) and a bench jack that I made from salvaged 2×4 pieces and a 1″ dowel piece.  Works well enough, it seems.  Well enough to get the bench built, anyway.  Okay, so now I can edge joint my boards.  I wasn’t too worried about getting perfect since I knew they would have to be planed flat once the whole top was laminated.  Now time to plane the faces.  I tossed the board on the bench top, put in two more 1″ dowel pieces and a piece of scrap on the end for planing stops, and went to town planing.  Roughed with my coarse-set jack plane, then went back to finish with my jointer plane.  But my jointer wouldn’t cut in the middle of the board for some reason.  Hurdle number three.  I found out with some help from my wife that the bench top was bowing down in the middle when I was planing there.  I suppose I could have added a support piece going from the underside of the top to the shelf, and one from the shelf to the floor, but it would have to be exactly the right length to keep the top perfectly flat.  What I did instead was just skew the jointer plane for the finish passes, so I was cutting diagonally across the board instead of down the length.  This way, less of my plane sole was registering on the surface of the board.  Typically the opposite of what one wants to do with a plane, but it seemed to work for my situation.

I’m going to leave it there for this episode.  Check back soon for the next chapter in my saga!

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