Thursday, April 10, 2008

Workbench Zen

Taking pride in not only what you build,
But where you build it

I find it rather ironic to see a beautifully made piece of furniture come out of a wood shop only to discover that the wood shop looks like a bomb went off inside of it. Tools left out everywhere, saw dust piled high, glue and paint stains on the work bench top, a broken get the idea. Maybe it’s just me but a work environment like the one described is no where I would be able to, nor would I care to work. I’ve been in a lot of wood shops, from high end production houses to basement hobby rooms and the one thing I’ve realized is that a well kept work space is very conducive to well made work. There is no coincidence in my mind of this.
The workbench
If you’ve gone through the trouble to build yourself a nice heavy-duty cabinetmakers workbench or spent your hard earned money to purchase one or maybe you’re one to use a hand-me-down “Work-Mate’ style bench your great grand Uncle left you, first and foremost is to keep it clean. Make sure the top is flat, clean and free of tools. Scrape it off after you do glue-ups or if you need to stain or paint on it, cover it up. You stand over this space for hours and hours on end, dreaming about how you’re going to transform some pieces of wood into a beautiful piece of furniture so; you may as well enjoy it. Even more, be proud of it. Make sure your vises work. A little oil every now and then and some adjusting to keep things running smoothly are imperative. How can you expect to split a knife line with a dovetail saw if the piece you’re trying to cut won’t stay perfectly still and chatter free? If your bench has a tool tray, brush it out at the days end, put your tools away in a tool cabinet or at the very least, hang them on a wall near by.
Where do you put your workbench? If at all possible, place your bench in front of, or near a window. The natural light will not only make things easier to see, it will make you feel better. Lighting is so very important when thinking about a workspace. Natural light mixed with artificial works best. I have a fixture directly over top of my bench as well as an adjustable lamp with a magnifying lens attached to the bench top. I’ve also installed two banks of fluorescent on the ceiling behind the bench. The more the merrier; I don’t think you can have too much light. Another thing to consider is the color of the walls in your bench room. I painted mine egg-shell white. This helps reflect light as well as keeps a neutral base when composing wood species for a specific design. I mentioned putting away tools and keeping a bench top clutter free, however, I do have a short list of tools I think everyone should keep at their workbenches.
The necessities
I find it very useful to keep this handful of tools at or on my bench at all times. It saves running to look for these most used items. First off a few sharp pencils; you may think this an obvious choice but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in other shops and had someone marching around screaming “Where are all of the pencils gone?” A 6” and a 24” metal ruler; I keep these hanging on the wall just above the bench. The six inch for measuring widths of smaller stock etc. the 24” I have is the centre finding variety. I find this comes in very handy for lay-outs.
Next is a measuring tape. Another obvious one but I always keep one here on the bench as well as one over in my machine room and another in my apron. You can never have enough of these. An 8” engineers square; a well machined precision square is essential when laying out joints. Two sets of dividers; I keep two sets of dividers hanging on the wall just above my bench. Used when laying out dovetails, they can be easily reached when doing multiple drawers and you want to keep the same measurements. A mallet; I made a simple mallet out of hard maple a few years ago and keep it standing proud on my bench top at all times. A small block of Paraffin wax; This is great when planning, just a few wipes on the plane sole and things get a little smoother. I find it also helps to rub on the teeth of your saw blades.A dust brush; It’s a great habit to get into, after you make a saw cut or plane a board just a quick swipe across the bench top and you’re done. You’d be surprised at how many times I’ve turned over a nice piece of finished stock to find a dimple or mark left in the face due to a tiny little wood chip left behind by an earlier operation. The brush keeps things clean.Under my Bench there are a few appliances that I always have at arms reach as well. These workshop aids are irreplaceable in mine. A shooting board, a miter hook and a bench hook. This trio pretty well covers all of the joinery jigs I need in my day to day shop activities. Any specialty or one off jig hang them on some un-used wall space out of the way, but these three, keep them close. They not only protect the bench top, they make the joinery easier.Lastly are a few hold down, clamping items. I always keep two 16” wooden cam clamps under my bench for an extra couple of hands when needed as well as a traditional style hold fast. This required drilling some holes in my bench top, but an incredibly useful aid to have around for holding odd shaped items or over sized pieces a traditional clamp can’t handle.