A Nicholson in New Zealand: VI

Some more progress in the last couple of days. Yesterday I finished flattening the tops, using the clamped frame of the bench and the planing stop to support the tops while I planed them. Once I could align the front top, I also began making the hole for the planing stop.


Today I completed the hole for the stop, and was then able to screw the top down. I did need to rack the bench to get the ends level—wasn’t able to get them absolutely square, but within 1-2mm. With the bench now pretty much together (the legs just need to be bolted to the aprons, I could begin laying out the holes for the holdfast. I tested out the thickness of the wood on some scraps and am delighted with how well the holdfast works. Just had time before finishing for the day to bore one of the storage holes on the end. I’ve not done much work with augur bits, but the old Irwin bit I’m using is cutting beautifully—just as well, as an augur bit file of any sort seems to be not merely unobtainable but entirely unheard of in NZ—so I hope boring all those other holes will go equally smoothly.

A Nicholson in New Zealand: V

Much slower progress now that I’m only able to steal an hour or two here and there to move ahead with the bench. Today I was slower still because for some reason while making the bearers I was only able to saw straight every other time I tried. I couldn’t quite work out what I was doing, but it did make getting equal length bearers tricky.

At least I am now close to the point where I will no longer have to rely on improvised planing stops on a crappy, wobbly, old kitchen table…

A Nicholson in New Zealand: IV

The family returns tomorrow, and I’ve been flat out in the last two days trying to get as much done on the build as I can. Happy to have completed both leg assemblies, even if the joinery is not everywhere as tight and clean as I would like. The shape of the bench is now clear, and it stands together with only a couple of clamps to hold the aprons to the legs. It feels really solid—each of the leg assemblies weighs around 13kg, which is about the same as each of the aprons (with ledgers) and a bit more than the tops. So the whole thing is already around 75kg, and there’s more weight to be added in the bearers and the packing for holdfasts underneath the tops.


For the planing stop I used a random piece of hardwood trimmed off a bed many years ago. It has close straight grain and should stand up to some punishment. In the legs some of the pink stain on the bevel edges of the joists is still visible. The tops of the aprons are yet to be jointed, but I’ll leave some visible there too. I could have planed these off too, but as well as a reminder of the kind of wood I had to work with, I quite liked the vaguely Tron-like effect of leaving the pink outlines along the joints of the legs and between the tops and the aprons.

Still to be done: adding the bearers, jointing the tops of the aprons and bearers, adding a hole in the top for the planing stop, screwing the top down, adding the crochet, boring the holes, bolting the legs and adding the packers. Some way to go, but at least at this point I have something that looks more like a bench than a pile of planks.

A Nicholson in New Zealand: III

Much more time on the plane today, with both the aprons flattened and square, as well as all the legs. The cleanest sections of the joists included one section with a partial waney edge, visible in the shot above. I’ll mostly be able to hide this inside the joint with the top, and I’m happy for it to be visible from the ends—a reminder of the wood’s origin.

The ledger in the centre is the only really finished wood I’ve purchased, and will be the least visible on the inside and underside of the bench. It is also more expensive than the joists, but at 19mm will give me around the right thickness for holdfasts, and it did save more planing.


One of each of the tops and aprons was quite cupped, and required a lot of flattening. In doing so I’ve made each noticeably thinner (2-3mm) than its counterpart. This isn’t really an issue for the apron—I simply made the outer part of the legs on that side thinner too. It may be for the top, but as the other top was already pretty flat I decided to wait until the whole thing is assembled. If necessary I can bring the other top down to the same level—but I’ll wait until I can see how noticeable the difference is.

Another advantage of the family being away is being able to use our IKEA dining table as a workbench—not for the first but hopefully for the last time.

A Nicholson in New Zealand: II

A precious New Year’s gift from my wife: four child-free days at home alone, which I planned to use to get well ahead with the bench build. Much of the first day was taken up with preparation. I’d diligently practised “sharpening monogamy” but when late last year I wore my coarse waterstone away altogether, I decided to try switching to oilstones in the hope they’d not need replacement so often. I thought that I don’t do enough woodworking for the extra time sharpening to be an issue, and I think this will be true for honing tools already set up with a decent edge. However, for building the bench, I was also wanting to set up a no.8 jointer plane which I’ve never really gotten to sing as I’d like it to. I found that oilstones—at least at my present level of skill in using them—are really too slow for this. After far too much time trying to get the edge in shape, I switched to sandpaper on a piece of glass for establishing the initial bevel. With that as a base, I’m really happy with the oilstones, and the way the jointer works on the long edges and faces of the bench parts. Having spend so much time learning how best to use the oilstones I didn’t get as much planing done as I’d have liked, but I did find time also to glue up some of the leg pieces and to scout the two main rival local DIY centres for some of the other wood needed for the build.


A Nicholson in New Zealand

Having realised that I needed to build a decent bench if I was going to make anything worthwhile out of wood, I spent some time considering options. Everything about the massive eighteenth-century French (Roubo) benches appeals to me, and I still think I will eventually build one. But in the end I decided it would be better to improve my skills before investing in the wood and hardware that I would like to use for such a bench. And so instead for my first bench I decided to build a Nicholson out of very ordinary wood, following Mike Siemsen’s guidance in the Naked Woodworker. Mike’s video, Workholding on a Viseless Bench, convinced me this would give me everything I need to get on developing my skills without spending a fortune. (That said, the cost of the kind of quite ordinary wood used in the bench is much higher in New Zealand than the estimates Mike gives for materials bought in the US. I’ve kept track of what I’ve spent, and will post on this when the bench is done). I thought I’d blog the build not only because it seems that’s the thing to do, but also because I’m not aware of anyone having done so in New Zealand before now and what I discover might be useful for others here.

There are plenty of sawmills here, and I could have gone direct to one (as I’d considered when planning a Roubo) but as the point of the build is to keep costs down, I’ve used wood available in our local big-box DIY centres. That immediately limited my options. The only wood thick and wide enough for the top and aprons was 290mm x 45mm radiata pine joists. These are stained pink to identify them as boron-treated to make them durable enough for use in construction. As much as my three-year-old daughter would have loved me to build a hot pink workbench, I wasn’t too concerned as the stain is quickly planed away.

The Naked Woodworker DVD also includes plans for sawbenches, which Mike suggests you build first, but the kind of wide boards specified are either just not available in NZ’s DIY centres (10″) or prohibitively expensive (6″). I plan anyway to build a sawbench which will double as a workbench for my five-year-old son, so I skipped the sawbenches and made do with a combination of old plastic packing crates and kitchen stools to support wood.



I began with three 5.4m joists, which I’d allowed to acclimatise in my garage for a few weeks. A week before Christmas, I took advantage of a sunny day to knock them down to length outside (I’d barely be able to manoeuvre them in my 6m-long garage). Although I’d carefully picked through two large piles of joists, looking for the straightest and cleanest specimens, identifying four knot-free seven-foot long lengths in the three I’d chosen proved impossible. (The piles were date-stamped as having been milled and treated over a year ago, so it seemed unlikely that waiting a few weeks would see any change in what was available.) The best I could manage was four six-foot lengths with only the odd tidy-ish knot here or there. I don’t really need a seven-foot bench at present, and given that I expect this to end up as a second bench or assembly space, I’m quite content with it being six feet.

Before finishing for the day, I also managed to rip some of the remaining sections in half for use in the legs. This was a useful exercise—the first time I’ve done any significant rip cuts by hand.