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.