Who Says a Workbench isn’t a Piece of Fine Furniture?

Maple and cherry cabinetmaker's workbench

The workbench features a 3-in.-thick maple top and plenty of storage down below for my most cherished hand tools.

When most DIY homeowners think of a “workbench,” they picture an old door stretched out across a couple of crusty sawhorses in a basement. When a fine woodworker thinks of a bench, we picture a piece of oversize fine furniture. Some are graced with contrasting woods and exposed joinery, and others may even include decorative dovetail joinery and perhaps a bit of metal work thrown in for good measure. A workbench is often the first piece of furniture a potential client sees upon entering a shop. As such, it should serve to reflect the values and abilities of the craftsman.

Cherry drawer fronts featuring brass ring pulls

Cherry drawer fronts feature beautiful brass ring pulls that add a touch of distinctiveness to an otherwise utilitarian tool.

After a long wait for the perfect workbench, I’m happy to report that my next humidor, or any furniture project for that matter, will be built atop a maple bench complete with cherry drawer fronts and brass drawer pulls. All of my most important hand tools—including handplanes, chisels, squares, rulers, and more—fit into neatly organized drawer compartments. The bench weighs in at about 375 lbs (without loaded drawers), meaning I can handplane tough woods without having to worry about the bench wracking under stress.

When Workshops Were Beautiful

A tool cabinet inspired by Duncan Phyfe

Furniture maker Bill Crozier’s tool cabinet, which was featured in Fine Woodworking magazine, is typical of the cabinetry most artisan’s would construct in their youth and keep for a lifetime.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, woodworking shops were full of beautiful cabinetry, stout storage chests, and a romantic mystique that is often lost in today’s world of power-assisted woodworking. Most cabinetmakers would pour their hearts into the construction of a custom tool chest during their apprenticeships. These chests would follow them throughout their careers, indeed their lives. With any luck, this humble bench will serve in much the same manner. It will assist another woodworker long after I have departed this Earth. But at the end of the day, the signature on the underside of the bench top will still read “Gabriel, 2012.”

Off Topic: New Shaker Desk

Shaker writing desk

This pine Shaker writing desk features three hand-cut dovetailed drawers and a traditional oil finish topped off with paste wax. Click image to enlarge.

When I’m not building custom humidors, I can generally be found in the workshop concentrating on any number of projects. Most recently, I just finished the final coat of paste wax on a new Shaker writing desk outfitted with three dovetailed drawers.

Shaker furniture isn’t about fancy joinery, exquisite inlay, or high-gloss finishes. Instead, it’s construction centers around perfectly executed joinery (not necessarily complex) and only those elements required to make it function for its purpose. Ornamentation is subtle–in the case of this desk, a simple cock bead along the bottoms of the aprons and stretchers is the only “bell or whistle” to speak of.

Old Growth: Wide Boards

The piece was built from pine obtained from a locally felled tree. The holy grail of fine woodworking is the “super wide board.” Old growth trees yielding 18-in. wide stock are all-but-gone from our forests. Luckily, this tree, which had been damaged in a storm and thus had to come down, was sawn into a variety of plank sizes, some of which were as wide as 18-inches!

dovetail jointIn this image, you can get a sense of the typical half-blind dovetail joinery used by the Shakers to join drawer fronts to drawer sides. A difficult joint to execute flawlessly, the half-blind dovetail joint is a joy to behold–a real “head-scratcher” for those unacustomed to furniture construction methods.

Dealing with Sap

Pine is an inherently “sappy” wood, and while consructing the drawers for this desk, I had to come up with a way to set the sap and keep it from weeping to the surface over the course of time. This is similar to the way in which Spanish cedar used in cigar humidors  sometimes weeps small, sticky globs of sap. In my case, I turned to an old tried-and-true method to set the sticky stuff: I baked my wood. That’s write, I plopped the drawer parts (before milling and assembly) into my oven and baked them at about 160-degrees for one hour before taking them back into the shop. You can read more about this process in an article published at one of my favorite woodworking websites, FineWoodworking.com.

Off Topic: Havana’s Living Dead

Juan of the Dead, Cuban horror film

Juan racks 'em up along Havana's famed Malecon sea wall in the new Cuban horror film, Juan of the Dead.

“The day after Havana is invaded by the living dead, Juan and Sara emerge from their dilapidated apartment building to find the streets filled with people roving aimlessly, their wide eyes blank.

“It all looks the same to me,” Sara shrugs.

From the New York Times • 
December 10, 2011

George Romero: Please Step Aside

Cuba’s answer to the hit camp horror film, Shawn of the Dead is no small potatoes. Director Alejandro Brugues’ second film was executed with the aid of a mind-blowing (at least by Cuban standards) $2,000,000 budget. And while Juan of the Dead has absolutely nothing to do with fine cigars, or the construction of handmade humidors, it was just too funny to pass up mentioning in my blog.

Like all Cuban art with political overtones, the central ideas behind the story are veiled beneath an umbrella of interpretation that protects the producers from potential trouble with the island’s government. Cuba guards her reputation carefully, and those artists who perhaps don’t agree with the island’s politics, often turn to producing art that can be interpreted in multiple ways – either positive or negative – depending on which way you look at it. The appearance of “Juan” at a time of great change in Cuba is perhaps no accident.

But this blog isn’t about politics. I take no stance either way. I am a humble furniture-maker suffering from a love of silly, often absurd horror films. This one fits the bill. I’d give it three coronas….err, stars!

Watch the Trailer

Notes on Humidor Construction: Corner Joints

Marketing is an interesting concept. It seems as though advertisers can find a whole host of ways to spin just about anything—as long as it helps in t he sale of a product. Humidors are no exception. Lets take corner joinery as an example.

Are lock-mitered joints overkill for desktop humidors?

There are plenty of retailers out there touting the supposed fact that all humidors should be constructed using lock mitered corners. This type of corner joinery is produced using a special router bit sporting an odd profile which can be used to produce two mating corners that lock together. It’s a good joint if well-executed (the set-up on a router table can be rather finicky), but is it necessary? In a word: no. Don’t get me wrong, I use a lock miter bit from time-to-time, but the fact of the matter is: with today’s modern waterproof glues coupled with a well-cut rabbet joint sporting no gaps and tight corners—you don’t need to incorporate lock-mitered corners on small desktop humidors. It’s overkill.

No Need to Over-Engineer

That said, I can’t blame a retailer for running with a great marketing ploy. The idea behind promoting lock-mitered joints over conventional rabbet joints seems logical. A rabbet is so much simpler, so much more humble. How could it possibly be “just as good?”

An example of a rabbeted drawer.

The key to answering this question has to do with glue surface. Woodworking joinery requires a surface for glue to bond to. More surface area equals more area to bond to, and quite frankly, both joints have plenty of real estate for glue to adhere to.

Now, do I sometimes fall under the seduction of the lock miter joint? Sure. I admit it, I’ll cater to folks who want this sort of joinery in a humidor-or any other type of project I might be building. But do I think one joint is particularly better than the other? Absolutely not.

Who is Gabriel?

Exactly who is “Gabriel” and what do the Havana shipyards have to do with custom-made cigar humidors? I’m going to assume that anyone visiting this site will ask this question.

I am a first generation American, born to a Cuban immigrant who came to the United States about a year-and-a-half after the Cuban Revolution that sparked the rise of Fidel Castro. A great-grandson of the founder of the Compañia de Fomento Marítimo de La Habana Cuba (The Maritime Development Company of Havana, Cuba), I seem to have inherited the same woodworking and carpentry genes that allowed him to transform what was once a small, sleepy shipyard, into the island’s largest ship repair operation. Incidentally, it was also home to the Palmer Line, a cargo service also within the family whose ships regularly traversed the Florida Straits between Havana and Pensacola, FL in the 1950s.

My great-grandfather, Gabriel.

Rebuilding a Bridge to Family
Despite the fact that I was born in the United States, I visit my family in Cuba regularly. If you’re Cuban-American, the idea of spending money to visit the island can be a source of great controversy. Understandably, those who experienced the violence of the revolution first-hand, and escaped it, often look at those of us who maintain such close family ties as pouring dollars into the revolutionary government through our travels there. And while I understand this point of view, I cannot forsake my family to make a political point. Blood is thicker than politics.

Materials with a Meaning
During one of my visits to Cuba, I came home with a small supply of Spanish cedar. Any cigar enthusiast knows this wood species imparts a wonderful aroma to fine cigars when used to line a quality humidor. I quickly set about designing and building humidors lined, in part, with Cuban-origin Spanish cedar. My goal is to incorporate as many materials of historical or national significance as I can in my humidors: handcrafted objects that incorporate “materials with meaning” make for items that become instant heirlooms. Back in the Cuba of the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s, my great-grandfather Gabriel was one of the most well-respected ship builders on the island—a man able to deliver an item of superb quality for not “one dime more or one dime less” than what was quoted. Today, some 50 years after his death, I hope to rekindle his pride through my works. As you browse my site, please understand that every item I produce is crafted by hand, one-at-a-time, with great purpose.

Y Punto.