Five years ago I bought a pile of 12/4 ash with the intention of building a new workbench in the French Roubo style. The lumber was just for the base, because it was all I could afford at the time. Having no machines yet I had the yard mill it to dimension (2 3/4” x 5”) and then picked it up in my 1980 Mercedes wagon (red). Just back in Los Angeles after several years in NY, I was eager to get my own furniture practice up and running; I had a garage, some saw benches, a lot of hand tools and several books dedicated to making furniture by hand. I studied the books by night and worked on the bench by day. The first thing you learn in such books is that, if you’re going to build furniture by hand, you’re going to need a good workbench. By the time I ran out of money and had to take a full time woodworking position, I’d trimmed everything to length and cut all the joinery for the base.
My business grew; but making orders and building custom pieces took every spare moment and before I knew it the pieces for my base had become supports for various items around the shop. I finally got a break this month and decided to pick up where I’d left off. The only problem was that my tastes had changed; I didn’t want a French Roubo bench anymore. I’d fallen for the English Nicholson with it’s wide aprons and lighter engineering. After much thought and a few drawings I decided I could still incorporate the original base into the design.
The base was more or less ready for assembly, but I still had to find lumber for the top and aprons. This is easy enough if money is no issue; you simply run to the hardwood lumber yard and pick up a load of beech or maple. But even for the cheapest species of hardwood I was looking at almost $500 to finish the bench. I’d read a few blog posts by noteworthy woodworker/designers, however, about building a Nicholson bench with humble framing lumber from the Borg. To the Borg I went.
I knew Home Depot and Co were off limits…any large, busy yard would have nothing but soaking wet lumber fresh from the mill. No, I would have to find an out of the way, forgotten yard where no one ever goes and the timbers have been sitting around drying for years. I knew just the place; Eagle Rock Lumber and Hardware. I made the short drive from Silver Lake and sure enough, as I stood alone in the vast lumber yard I came upon a stack of almost clear douglas fir 4x4s, bone dry. I couldn’t believe it; not only was the lumber at an agreeable moisture content, but it was actually quality stuff-tight grained and relatively knot free. Overcome by excitement I blurted to a very bored looking staff member ‘you guys have some really good stuff here!’ He didn’t share my excitement.
I purchased 9 4x4s and 4 2x8s each 8 feet in length. It was heavy work getting all that dense heartwood up to the shop, but it had been a long time since I’d handled framing lumber and it felt good to stack it all and begin milling the 4x’s for tops and 2x’s for aprons. The tops are laminated. They are in two 13” sections (maneuvering a 26” wide by 3 1/4” thick slab alone is not an option for me), and the aprons have been milled and laminated as well.
I began cutting the dados in the aprons that will fit over the 5” wide legs of the base. I did them completely by hand because making a router jig to make 4 cuts didn’t seem worth the effort. Plus after all the milling it’s nice to chisel and shave with the homemade router plane. It’s amazing how well the plane works and it took about 15 minutes to make. I got the idea from the British woodworker/writer Paul Sellers whose teachings on hand tool woodworking are priceless.
The first dado took over an hour, which was disheartening. But I quickly adapted and was able to cut the other three in less than 2 hours. I borrowed one other idea from Sir Sellers; my dados are wider than the legs and tapered on one side to allow for a wedge. As I work at the bench any wracking in the base will simply draw the wedge down further into its housing, locking the bench together ever tighter. Now all that’s left is to cut the recesses on the legs themselves and assemble the thing. Stay tuned for updates.