Bench Stop and Holdfast

You can saw on horses, but the plane needs a bench. The plane, the bench, and the stop probably all arrived at about the same time—for one does little good without the others. Unless supported by a bench top, light wood will bend away from the plane, and unless there's a stop at the end of the bench top, the wood will fly off the end with the first stroke.

André Roubo, whose Parisian wooden dome inspired Thomas Jefferson to poetic reverie, illustrated a joiner's bench that is now known by the great French joiner's name. A Roubo bench has legs attached to the massive top with characteristic dovetail and tenon joints. There is an adjustable stop through the top and a fixed stop on the left front leg. Directly beneath the top is a drawer and a little swing-out tallow pot. A shelf for tools rests between the stretchers that strengthen the legs.

The top and face of the Roubo bench are also pierced by holdfast holes. The L-shaped holdfast is brilliantly simple. Set its shaft in a slightly oversized hole, bonk its top with a mallet, and it becomes "cocked" in the hole, holding the pad down with the force of the captured hammer blow. To release it, just tap it on the back of the head and it springs free.

The bench illustrated by André Roubo has no vises.

The bench illustrated by André Roubo has no vises.

Roubo bench tops are single massive timbers, two feet wide and as long as needed. It's the sort of plank you might split and hew from a massive storm-felled oak, but timber this wide is certainly harder to get. I have seen a late nineteenth-century French workbench made by using narrower heavy timbers, the width filled out with a tool well or till. The back legs are still tenoned through the narrow top timber but maintain a wide stance by splaying out to the back.

These later benches also have screw vises instead of stops on the left front. Roubo shows a screw vise on the leg, and Francis Nicholson's 1812 illustration shows a bench with a screw vise passing through the front skirt.

We see Nicholson-style benches in many British genre paintings of the Romantic era, but the bench that became the dominant form is neither French nor British. The key component of the German bench, as illustrated on the opening page of this chapter, is the tail vise, a screw-operated box moving in a track. Fitted with moveable dogs, the tail vise can pinch a piece of wood on the bench top and hold it for planing. None of the surface has to suffer the damage or intrusion of the holdfast. The end vise also gives another place to work, clamping wood vertically between its jaws.

Brilliant work has been done on all of these benches, but the advantages of the German bench were immediately recognized. Yet with all their accessories that make them handy for sawing, chiseling, and such, their essential function for the joiner is giving a level and solid backing for the work of the plane.

As Bernard Jones wrote in The Complete Woodworker, "Planing up is the actual foundation of a job." Small, unintended twists and tapers become magnified as you build. If the work is to "seem that it is one intire piece," only properly dimensioned stock can grow into tight joints and flat frames.

Planing is not just a good start but also the best finish. A finely set, well-sharpened smooth plane takes a gossamer shaving and leaves behind a gleaming

An English-style bench as illustrated by Francis Nicholson in 1812.
Front to back: small iron plane sharpened as a scrub; iron jack plane; transitional trying plane; wooden jointer; wooden smooth.

surface. But trying to do all your work with that finely set smooth plane would take forever. That's why the joiner employs a trio or even a quintet of bench planes. Just as the speeds on a bicycle match the rider's strength to varying terrains, the joiner's planes make progressively finer and broader cuts as the work progresses. Trying to bring rough stock to precise dimensions with a single plane is like riding a one-speed bike in a hilly town.

I'll stretch the hill analogy to serve for the function of planes as well. A plane surface has no hills, no valleys or twists. Push a long plane down an uneven timber and the plane's body will span over every valley, allowing the iron to cut off only the hilltops. Subsequent passes with the plane continue lowering the hilltops until they are no more.

The plane iron (as the cutting blade is called) not only levels the hills, it also leaves a shallow valley with each passage. Unlike chisels, bench planes usually work with many overlapping strokes on surfaces that are broader than their blade. If the corners of the plane iron were square, like a chisel, each stoke would leave a square valley with ragged margins. That's why a plane iron's corners are rounded to varying degrees—to make the depth of cut diminish to nothing at the margins. You start leveling a surface with a plane bearing a deeply protruding, heavily rounded iron, and each plane in the progression takes a finer cut with a more squared-across iron.

Woodworking Tools and Installation Tips

Woodworking Tools and Installation Tips

There are a lot of things that either needs to be repaired, or put together when youre a homeowner. If youre a new homeowner, and have just gotten out of apartment style living, you might want to take this list with you to the hardware store. From remolding jobs to putting together furniture you can use these 5 power tools to get your stuff together. Dont forget too that youll need a few extra tools for other jobs around the house.

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