Green Wood & Workbenches

plate4_Roubo005

The question of whether early workbenches were built from green wood or seasoned wood has a simple answer: yes.

But what was the common practice? For that question, I turned to A.J. Roubo’s “l’Art du menuisier” for the simple reason that Roubo’s work is still the legal standard in Europe for determining what is proper woodworking practice.

All the following translated passages will be found in “To Make as Perfectly as Possible: Roubo on Furniture” in 2016. The translations are by Donald C. Williams, Michele Pietryka-Pagán and Philippe Lafargue.

The logical place to start is the text for Plate 11. But Roubo doesn’t offer advice on the wetness or dryness of the wood. Following are the only discussions of workbench wood selection in Plate 11:

This bench is of elm or beech wood but more commonly the latter, which is very solid and of a tighter/denser grain than the other….

One should observe also to put the heart-wood side of the bench on top because it is harder than the other, and if the wood experiences dimensional changes, it is more likely to change from this side rather than shrinking from the other side.

It should be noted that throughout “l’Art du menuisier” Roubo discusses certain parts that must be well-seasoned (i.e. dry). But he doesn’t mention it in Plate 11.

If, however, we look to Plate 4 we get some clues. Plate 4 is about the maintenance of a wood yard outside your shop – how to stack green wood so it will dry without warping or rotting.

The reason you need a wood yard?

What I am saying here is only general. I know perfectly well that all woodworkers cannot have great wood yards nor large provisions of wood. But still, for reasons of economy, they should always do their best to be well prepared with samples, and to watch over their preservation as best as they can, so as not to be obliged to have to buy some from the merchants. The wood that they sell is almost never dry, and the woodworker will pay dearly for what the wood merchants have.

In the text for Plate 4, Roubo doesn’t discuss workbench wood directly. But workbenches are discussed:

Beech is found cut into planks of 15-18 lines, and even 2 thumbs thickness by 7, 9 and 12 feet in length.They also sell slabs of this wood for making woodworking benches, tables for the kitchen, and butcher tables, tables that have a length from 7-12, and even 15 feet, by 18-30 thumbs in width, and 5-6 thumbs thickness.

And Roubo also discusses dryness in general:

The more wood is hard, the more time it takes to dry. That is why one should not reasonably use wood that has not been cut at least 8 years in order to be able to do good work. It is not necessary, however, that it be too dry, especially for pieces of joinery, where the wood has no more sap and where the humidity is totally expunged: this cannot be appropriate [once the sap no longer is flowing from the lumber and the moisture has departed there is no need to season the lumber any further].

Interestingly, French timber merchants still follow this rule, according to Bo Childs, who brought over all the French oak for the French Oak Roubo Project. Our slabs were at least 10 years old.

What I take away from the text to these two plates is that seasoned wood was the norm in the shop. Roubo offered no exceptions for workbenches (something he does offer later in the book on garden woodwork).

This lines up with my experience building these benches: chances are the wood is going to be semi-dry. Not fresh cut. Not dry as a popcorn fart. Eight years is not enough time for these slabs to fully acclimate, but you can build benches with them. They’ll move around on you quite a bit the first year or so. But it’s easy to manage if you own a handplane.

— Christopher Schwarz

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10 Responses to Green Wood & Workbenches

  1. captainjack1024 says:

    Your wood seasoning scale measurement equivalent to popcorn related emissions has left me chuckling to myself at work for the last ten minutes. Fortunately, my coworkers are already relaxed about my oddities, and are leaving me to it. My wife says that I never really got past being a ten year old boy, and this seems to be further proof. Well spoken, sir. 🙂

    • knewconcepts says:

      Growing up in Kansas, the scatological expressions truly were (and still are) the perfect choice for succinctness and clear meaning.
      One that I still use quite a lot is:
      “As independent as a hog on ice”
      If you have ever seen a hooved animal try to maintain its balance while the ice on the ground is doing everything possible to prevent standing, you understand the saying (and others).

      Lee (the saw guy)

  2. bloksav says:

    Interesting that Roubo suggests using elm for a work bench.
    I think it would look great, given that there is a more dramatic grain pattern compared to beech.
    Maybe it was worth a try, the question is whether it should be a 5″ or a 6″ top.

  3. I love the nebulous nature of the response…It reminds me of when students/clients ask me if a timber needs to be built with dry wood or green and I respond with…”Yes.” The puzzled looks on their faces are priceless…

    As for employing the “French” as the touchstone for “means, method and material” for the “Roubo Bench” seems a logical choice. However, for “benches” in general and even those that resemble Roubo’s, I would still suggest that more are (and have been) built of unseasoned (aka green wood) than from seasoned and/or air dried wood. Further, (we all have our bias) I look more to Asian woodworking modalities and “folk styles” than I do the “refined” methods, means and materials of the later European wood working systems…

    All beautiful in the end… 🙂

  4. mylordsladiesandgentlemen says:

    Can you explain the ‘thumbs’ measurement system? Could this be the original ‘rule of thumb’ ?

    • The French word for “thumb” and “inch” are the same: pouce. We decided to stick to the literal translation for these books.

      We explain the French measuring system “feet/thumbs/lines” in “Roubo on Marquetry.”

      I have no idea if it relates to “rule of thumb.” There seems to be some support to the theory on Wikipedia:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rule_of_thumb

      • mylordsladiesandgentlemen says:

        Thanks.

        Well there’s only one way to celebrate that bit of knowledge gained – with a ‘finger’ or two of scotch.

        Cheers.

  5. dball4457 says:

    I know a guy in NW Arkansas with a bandsaw mill and some nice white oak. I’m wondering how long would be be the minimum time a 5 or 6 thumb thick top would need to be dried to make a bench. Would 5 years be enough?

  6. waltamb says:

    This is the type of historical info I was hoping you had.

    THX

    >

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