Using the roman workbench

Earlier this year, I read a few articles from the lost press art, about the roman workbench, then again with mortise and tenon magazine, which peaked my interest.
I must admit I was impressed, but also sceptical. I mean most of us use a tall bench, with a vise, and only see a chair maker use a similar bench. For this reason, and because we don't know any different, we think we won't be able to carry out, some tasks.

I wanted to build one, so that I could use it outside, especially with summer almost here. It appealed to me, with the fact, that I could just pick it up, and carry it outside. Also, the fact that I needed an extra saw horse, pretty much sold it to me. Any one who uses saw horses for sawing with hand saws, on a regular basis will know that, a bench of this size, will make life very easy for this task, because of large amount of surface area.
So I built this with the idea that, in the worse case scenario, I had a very good saw bench. So it wasn't a big deal, if it didn't perform in other areas.
On building the bench, which was 1250mm in length, 385mm in width and 505mm in height (spare materials available to me at the time , determined the size ), I set the goal to build a piece of furniture (TV unit) , solely using the bench. The TV unit features dovetails, housing joint and conical mortise and tenon joints. Below is a summary of each task as I built the unit.

sawing
I knew sawing would be really good on the bench, but I was still surprised at how good this operation was. I especially noticed the difference in ripping. This was a real pleasure, especially with wide boards. Not having to put down your saw, and move the material and/or sawhorses. This really sped up the ripping process. Crosscutting was also made easier but, not as noticeable as ripping. Shorter, narrower stock was carried out by using the planing stops and some times, a support piece , much like a bench hook.

Planing
Edge planing, again, with wide boards was very easy. The wooden stops support the board, and I used a wedge to tighten the board, while I planned. Narrower pieces were planned against a planing stop. End grain planing long wide boards was a little awkward. I opted to put the board on a diagonal, at the edge of the bench. I used a scrap piece , secured by a holdfast to pivot the board, and a clamp to secure it.
This could've been done by making a new shooting board but, at the time I didn't want to do that. Short, wide boards were end grain planned the same way as edge planing was carried out. Creating a bevel on an edge wasn't a problem either. The pegs were arranged the same way as edge planning, the board that I used to put the bevels on, was only 80mm wide. This was a problem, until I figured out that, if I inserted the pegs from underneath, and I wedged the board as normal, but only finger tight, I could gently tap the pegs down, as I tightened the wedge with my free hand.once I was happy with the height of the pegs, so that I wouldn't rap my knuckles, i tightened the wedge with the mallet.
This didn't really work to well in reverse, so I just let the pegs fall onto the ground, it was quick enough to repeat the process, so I didn't worry about it. I will point out that, most of the planing was carried out, in the same fashion as sawing, meaning, one leg on the floor and one knee on the bench. Once I got use to it, it began to feel very natural.

Dovetails
The first joints I cut on the bench were dovetails, on the main body of the unit. I cut the tails first but, it would've been easier to have cut the pins first. This didn't really cause me a problem  because, my tail boards were only short. I think it would've been more problematic if the boards were longer. I cut the tails with the board flat on the bench. I found this really awkward but, I did get into the rhythm of it, eventually.
On my first attempt at removing the waste between the tails, I proceeded to use a coping saw as I normally would. Within seconds I snapped the blade and, I got enough feedback to know, this technique wasn't going to work for me, at least not without a lot of practice. I removed the waste by drilling holes, with a brace and bit. I was then able to remove the rest, quickly, with a chisel. I enjoyed using this technique and I was surprised at how quick it actually was. I removed the two shoulder portions of the tail board, by placing the board on its edge and locking and supporting it, with a hold fast.
This would only work on boards up to a certain width, and in my case, I felt I was at my limit at 300mm. On the main body of the unit, I was able to cut and remove the waste on the pins, as I normally would, because the board was short (200mm). I sandwiched the board between some scraps and the pegs,
then wedged it. I got very little vibration when sawing but, I did have to push against the board to help.

Housing
Apart from feeling a little foreign, This was by far one of the easiest things I've done on the bench. Put two pegs in and support the piece and your good to go.
I did this the same way I normally would. Sitting, doing this is pretty sweet too.

Mortise's
Again, I done this as usual other then sitting on the board. I had to be more careful to keep the chisel square, again only because it's foreign and, I'm not use to it. I cut the tenon portion the same way as I cut the dovetails, and removed the waste the same way.

Sliding dovetails
I initially thought that creating the two bevels would be awkward. This couldn't be further from the truth. Once I figured out that that, if I inserted the pegs from underneath, wedged the work piece and kept the pressure on, I could tap the pegs low, to stop me rapping my knuckles, and not to hinder my plane. I found cutting the housing portion a little awkward but, once I was finished with the saw cuts, the rest was easy. Again I done this as I normally would. I did have to support the board, when cutting the housing, as I could not put my weight on the bench. So when I started cutting, the bench just rocked, so I placed the board 90° which solved the problem. I then removed the waste with a chisel and router plane.

Conical tenons
This took a bit of thinking of how, to hold the work piece, so I could shape the legs and add the conical tenon. I used some 6mm string, through one of the dog holes and stood on it. Two pegs were placed either side, to minimise side movement, and one was places at the end of the piece, this acted as a stop. As the leg started taking shape, I started to run into problems. as i pulled with the spokeshave, the leg would slip on the peg often. After some thought, I added a pin to the peg, and this solved the problem.


Work holding
Work holding on the bench is pretty simple. The pegs and wedge are the main/most used for holding the work. I got to grips with using them together pretty quickly. Using only the pegs, was pretty much for butting up work pieces. I did also use them to mark out, wedging the pieces between the bench, myself and the peg. I used a holdfast occasionally which worked well but, sometimes got in the way. A non slip mat is a good addition to any bench, and with very little downward pressure, sometimes only the weight of the board itself, is enough to keep it in place.
While using a drawknife and spokeshave, I used some 6mm string and a pin/nail.
To date this is the only time I've used these. Finally, your own weight. Sitting and kneeling to hold your pieces, is common practice with this style of bench. When you get over the foreign nature of  sitting on pieces, it becomes pretty natural.

All in all, I would really recommend people to build one. These benches are not to be shunned. With some trial and error, I've found the bench to be very useful, and there has not been anything i couldn't do on it to date. Admittedly some tasks were very awkward, and a tall bench is better suited. As a result some of the joints are not up to my normal standard but, there not to bad, which proves it is possible to make furniture, with multiple joints on the bench. The piece of furniture had a lot of joinery incorporated into it , and proved to be a good project to learn how to use the bench.

Below, the finished piece in its new home. this was finished with 3 coats of osmo oil.




Comments

  1. Good job man.You have convinced me to finally build a Roman bench.I found 3big slabs of hard wood washed up after a flood and was juggling the different bench ideas in my mind.But this has sealed it for me.thanks!!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi, Thank you very much for your article, was informative and a good example of how to make best use of the "Roman" Styled workbench - I'm in the process of making my own version with some serious inspiration from a Sculpture who posted a Youtube clip, Peter Coates did a fantatstic job on his bench that you might find really interesting since you like your bench so much - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Vc9D0WAX7o - thanks again for the notes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for taking the time to read the article. I have since recorded two YouTube videos, which are more informative, more so the part 2,

      https://youtu.be/d1JJdRKHJcQ

      as my use has involved alot since the article was published. I will check out the video, it's always good to see others using the bench.

      Delete

Post a comment

Popular posts from this blog

My essential tools

Japanese toolbox