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.