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Building a Roubo Bench by Will Myers

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Will Myers

In the summer of 1996, an afternoon thunderstorm brought down a large red oak on my neighbors land.  Prior to the storm, I had never noticed the big tree even though it was only about a 150 yards from my home. 

A few weeks later my neighbor asked me if I would like to have it for firewood.  When I walked over to take a look at it, there was a beautiful red oak about 38 inches in diameter.  It was by far the largest tree in the small stand of timber.

A few months earlier I had bought a larger chainsaw and an attachment to saw boards with it called an Alaskan sawmill.  It worked pretty well and I decided I would use it to saw the oak into boards. 

The trunk of the tree was only about 9 feet long before the first large limbs branched out.  My saw could only cut 23 inches wide so I squared the log up and started sawing 1 inch thick boards.

I had thought I might try to cut a bench top from the tree if it was sound. About 6 inches out from the pith I dropped down and cut a slab. I knew this thing would be tough to move once I got it cut.  A six inch thick, twenty three inch wide, nine foot long piece of green red oak is HEAVY!  I mean small car heavy!  Of course, I was alone that day, but somehow I did manage to get it slid on the back of the pickup.  This is how the journey to my new workbench began.

Quite bit time passed.  My big chunk of red oak was shuffled around, moved here and there, and seemed to be in the way a lot.  In the intervening years the wood had dried.  It had twisted pretty badly and cracked on the ends.  At the time I cut the bench top out the only plan I had was to build some kind of undercarriage to set it on.

The only reading I had done on building workbenches was in Roy Underhill’s “Woodright’s Workbook“.  I had heard of Andre Roubo but really didn’t know much about the benches he documented in his book “L’art du menuiser” in the late 1700’s.

In 2010 I read a copy of Christopher Schwarz’s book “The Workbench Design Book“. His in depth study of the Roubo’s designs got me to thinking about the slab of red oak again. 

I really liked the plate 11 bench, but the plate 279 bench Roubo called the “German” bench is the one that really caught my eye.  This was the design that I decided to build. Finally in January of 2011, I drug out the slab of oak to try and make something of it.

The first big issue was to get started flattening the slab. The bench top had about an inch or so of twist to it.  I pulled out a jack plane and worked around on one end a little going across the grain taking as big a bite as I could. 

The wood was hard and dry and after about 30 minutes I knew there was going to have to be another plan.  With the slab sitting on saw bucks I put wedges under the opposing high corners to split the difference of the twist.  Then I attached a couple of 1x6’s to each long edge with drywall screws using a level to get them both in the same plane.

The screws did leave a few small holes.  You could use clamps to hold the rails if you wanted to avoid the holes; the screws were just quicker.  I borrowed a big router from my uncle and built a sled to attach it to out of plywood and a couple of 1x4 scraps.  With a straight cutting bit in the router, I took about 3/8 inch off with each pass.  For me, this was terribly boring work.  It took around two hours on each side and probably a few years of life off the router.

If you get the guide rails level with each other, the result is a pretty smooth dead flat top. After finishing up with the router, I made a pass over each side with a jack plane to smooth up the few little pieces I missed with the router. 

With the top and bottom complete I hand planed the long edges square to finish it up.

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