Why I Like My French Bench: Reason Numeral Quatorze

One of my early workbenches was more than 30″ wide. At first, I was thrilled with this width as it allowed me more places to pile junk as I worked on a project.

Then one day I was working on a toy box for a nephew and I wanted to level the finger joints. After fussing and flailing around like a rooster in an empty henhouse I conspired to sleeve the carcase over the end of the bench.

Denied. The bench was too wide. Zut alors!

Lucky for me, however, the bench was a big solid-core door (it had once been the door to our building’s cafeteria). So after 10 minutes on the table saw, my benchtop was 24″ wide and the carcase fit perfectly over the end.

I like narrow benches for a lot of reasons. I can reach the tools on the wall. They allow me to clamp all around typical carcases right to the benchtop. But I really like a narrow bench when I have to level dovetail joints on a carcase or cabinet.

That is when the Roubo really shines. Today I was leveling some finger joints on a blanket chest and just slapped the thing onto the bench as shown in the above photo and went to work. In the photo I’m knocking down the end grain with a Shinto-rasp (it saves me sharpening time on my block plane when I start with the coarse tool).

Heck, even the 16″ overhang on the end of the bench contributes to my bliss. Most carcases are stable with that amount of support, and the legs below the top help brace the work as I flail away on the end grain.

When the carcase is a bit small, like this blanket chest, I have to switch to an outrigger platform (shown below) to work the ends. But I’m still working against the entire benchtop – the top, the right leg and the stretchers. Having them all in the same plane reduces the amount of clamping I have to do to secure my work.

— Christopher Schwarz

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13 Responses to Why I Like My French Bench: Reason Numeral Quatorze

  1. Old Baleine says:

    Chris- Are you working without a necktie?

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  2. Al Navas says:

    Very, very nice, Cris.

    I am not familiar with the Roubo, so please tell me HOW you hung the box on the end closest to me, as in the first photo.

    I assume you simply opened the end vise wide open, hung the box on the bench, secured it, and the near end simply hangs on the top edge of the jaw?

    I cannot do with my massive Sjobergs what you have done with the Roubo, as mine has a very small end vise 😦 But I CAN straddle the box over the bench :), as it is narrow like the Roubo.

    Al

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  3. Al Navas says:

    Sorry about the typo of your name, Chris!

    Al

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  4. Verne Mattson says:

    I like a narrower bench for the reasons Chris outlines above. I had a 30" wide bench, but no matter what I clamped or planed I very rarely used the entire width. The bigger workspace for certain layouts was nice, but I don’t miss it.

    Since the bench was so wide I never considered hanging any casework over it. When I eventually make the blanket chest I’ve promised my daughter, I’ll have to try it.

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  5. Today is casual Tuesday. No necktie.

    As to how you hang the box on the bench, WYSIWYG. Gravity, mass and one hold-down keep everything in place the entire time. Trim one corner, shift the case over. Trim the other corner. Flip the case over and repeat.

    Almost any narrow bench will handle most casework this way. It’s a very powerful way of cleaning up the exterior faces of your casework as well.

    Chris

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  6. Chris F. says:

    I’ve seen some people suggest (in the context of drawers) that it makes sense to fit the front and back pieces in the opening then cut the dovetails such that the end grain lies slightly below the face grain of the sides. This way you don’t need to plane the end grain, and when the face grain reaches the end grain you know the drawer is basically fitted.

    Have you used this technique?

    Would it be useful with casework? Or does the increased size of a carcase make it less useful?

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  7. Chris,

    This is a great question and a topic I plan to explore further.

    Bottom line: Planing end grain is difficult. Planing lots of face grain is difficult. So the best strategy (opinion follows) is to minimize the amount of planing — no matter which way you go.

    If you make your case sides proud make them proud by as little as possible. If you make your pins proud, do the same — make them only slightly proud.

    There is a balancing act here that is a bit hard to describe. For example: If you smooth plane your assemblies *before* glue-up, you might want to make your pins proud. If you don’t smooth plane before assembly you should consider making the pins recessed a tad.

    Everything is, I’m afraid, part of a bigger system and strategy.

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  8. Eric says:

    So what would be an optimum distance from the edge for the legs of the bench?

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  9. Eric,

    I would think that anything from 16" to 20" would be sufficient for typical casework. If you build jewelry boxes, ignore this advice. Likewise if you build armoires.

    Chris

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  10. Tom Knighton says:

    Cool idea. I’m going to have to remember this one down the road!

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  11. Chris, say you want to build a bench that is not as wide as 24" (say, 20"). How thin can you go and still have the bench be stable? Or at that point, do you need to set the back legs at an angle? Or add sled-type feet on the two sets of legs?

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  12. That is a great question that I don’t know the answer to.

    Perhaps my comment on the blog to the effect will get some skinny-bench people to speak up.

    I would imagine that a 20" bench would be fine (especially if placed against a wall). Rob Tarule built a Roubo bench that is featured in Scott Landis’s "The Workbench Book" that is 17-1/4" wide. I have to say, it *looks* a mite tippy. But I could be dead wrong and hope to be on that point.

    Angled back legs are the English solution to this stability question.

    Wish I could help!

    Chris

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  13. Verne Mattson says:

    I think stability probably depends on overall mass. My new Holtzappfel is 24 1/2" wide and my old bench was 30". The old bench had an oak top about 1 1/2" thick with a lag-bolted 2×4 base. My new bench is ash with massive legs and stretchers and a 3" ash top – so it’s heavy! The overall base dimensions are the same, but the new bench is *far* more stable. Also I have levelers on the inside of the legs of the new bench, so the contact points on the floor are more like 17" apart – 7" less than my old bench.

    I’m sure there is a point where a narrow bench would be unstable, but my guess is that it would come at a point when the weight of the piece on top of the bench exceeds the bottom of the bench. Or the force of planing across grain coupled with workpiece weight could cause stability issues.

    I’d hate bolting my bench to the floor – I don’t have enough space as it is, so I occassionally need to shove it around a bit.

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