I wasn’t the first person to use Southern yellow pine to build a workbench in 2000. But it sure felt like it when I built the above workbench for Popular Woodworking Magazine.
At that time, almost all of the workbenches I’d read about and saw in workshops were made from European beech or white maple. And most were what we call a European bench, German bench or Ulmia-style bench.
I was making $23,000 a year at the time, and we had a 3-year-old girl, so I couldn’t afford a commercial bench or even the wood and vises (about $800 to $1,000) to build one in beech or maple.
I was desperate to make a bench. I was working on a pair of sawhorses topped with a door I had scavenged from the Coca-Cola plant where our shop was located.
One day I went to the home center to price out some plywood and spotted a gleaming pile of clear 12’ 2x8s – the same stuff we used for joists and rafters to build our houses in Hackett, Ark. My normal Pavlovian response to yellow pine was my arms turning rubber – yellow pine can be incredibly heavy, especially when it’s packed with resin.
But instead of that rubber feeling, something clicked in my head. I could make workbench out of yellow pine. Then I did some quick math: Eight 2×8 x 12’ boards would cost only $76.56. Add the hardware, a face vise (later replaced) and the Veritas Wonder Dog, and I could make the bench for $175.
The bench ended up on the cover of the February 2001 issue, and we showed it off to readers during an open house one evening. Their reaction was split down the middle. Someone called it a redneck bench. Someone else said that at least it was better than my sawhorses. But a few people asked a lot about the mechanical properties of yellow pine.
It’s amazing stuff. It’s stiff, hard (after the resin sets up) and stable. In fact it’s way more stable than beech or oak.
As a result, I’ve continued to build benches from yellow pine since 2000 with no complaint. My first Roubo (2005) and Nicholson (2006) workbenches were made from yellow pine. And I’ve built at least 25 or 30 benches from the stuff during classes or at woodworking shows. (That actually was our gimmick for a few years – we built a bench during the show and gave it away at the end of the show.)
Today, the $175 Workbench came back home to me. John has had it for the last 10 years in Indianapolis. He’s moving house and won’t have room for it. So Megan Fitzpatrick and I rented a truck and brought it to the storefront.
It’s now a bench for students when they take classes here. We scooted my father’s workbench under a window, and it fits perfectly – like it was made for the spot. We now have eight workbenches in the front room of the shop, but we’re not going to expand the number of students we serve above our normal six.
Instead, the extra bench is going to be used by Brendan, Megan or me while classes are going on. We all have commissions that have to get out the door, and delaying projects by two, three or five days while a class goes on can be stressful.
The construction of a drawer seems a straightforward and fairly obvious piece of work; there is an accepted way of making it which experience has proved reliable. Yet drawers were not always made in this way, and it is extremely interesting to see how woodworkers of past ages solved the problem of making and sliding them.
It was not until the 17th century that drawers in furniture were used to any extent. The chest of drawers was entirely unknown, and it is with something of astonishment that one comes to realise that through all the centuries previously men had been content to bundle out the entire contents of a chest in order to reach something at the bottom. When the idea did come, however, its advantages were quickly realised, and from the middle of the century the chest of drawers became established and has remained popular ever since.
Most early drawers were supported by the rather curious method shown in Fig. 1. A groove was worked along the side, this fitting over a runner fixed to the carcase side. It seems a little strange that the method should have been adopted because it must have meant more bother than putting runners between the drawers; furthermore the grooves rather weakened the sides. Still, they used thicker sides then than we think necessary to-day.
The actual construction is really very crude. The front is rebated at ends and bottom, and the sides glued and nailed on. So also is the bottom, which fits in the rebate at the front and is merely butted beneath the sides. The entire weight of the contents is taken by the nails holding the bottom. Occasionally one comes across a piece made by a man who had ventured into the mysteries of dovetailing. In Fig. 2, for instance, is a drawer which is lap-dovetailed at the front and has a through dovetail at the back. The bottom is attached in the same way as before, but since this actually rests upon the runners there is no strain on the rails. The weakness, of course, is that as the wood wears away the nails are left in projection and so score the runners.
Both the foregoing examples are of oak furniture. During the second half of the century walnut gradually superseded oak, though it was mostly used in veneer form. Oak remained the chief wood for linings, however, and thus it is in the drawer in Fig. 3—the sides, back and bottom are of oak. In some instances oak was used for the groundwork of the front also, but it was soon realised that it was not the ideal wood for veneering. It was too coarse in the grain, and, owing to the presence of the medullary rays, which were harder than the rest of the wood, marks were liable to show through to the surface owing to unequal shrinkage. Consequently deal was mainly used for the fronts as in Fig. 3. Dovetails are used here, but they are of a very coarse type and run right through, a poor way of doing the job because the exposed end grain at the front offers a poor grip for the veneer. Furthermore, the joint eventually shows through at the front, owing to the front shrinking and leaving the dovetails standing up. The example is interesting, however, in that the sides as well as the front are rebated to hold the bottom.
As men’s skill increased they began to make altogether neater dovetails, and in the next example in Fig. 4, which dates from the early 18th century, an altogether more refined construction is apparent. In fact it is really the beginning of the modern way of drawer making. Note how the dovetails are lapped at the front, and how narrow the pins are between the dovetails. They run almost to a point. A rebate is still worked in the sides to hold the bottom, but the interesting point is that the maker has realised the desirability of raising the bottom slightly to prevent it from sagging and rubbing on the drawer rail. He has accomplished this by making the rebate extra deep and fitting a slip beneath. The advantage is two-fold, for, apart from raising the bottom, the slip gives a wider bearing surface and so reduces wear.
The practical reader will realise that the front is rebated to hold the bottom, this being evident from the half-dovetail cut at the bottom, the purpose of which, of course, is to conceal the rebate. At the back the bottom passes beneath the back.
Note incidentally that the grain of the bottom runs from back to front as in the previous examples.
In this particular example a cocked bead is fitted around the front, rebates being cut all round to accommodate it. As a matter of passing interest we may note that later in the century the rebate was worked at sides and bottom only. At the top the bead extended the full width so that no joint was visible. The small sketch at A, Fig. 4, shows how a slip of walnut was let into a rebate when a projecting thumb moulding was needed. The veneer at the front concealed the joint.
Fig 5 dates from the late 18th century, and here the bottom is fitted into grooves in sides and front. Otherwise the construction is similar to the previous example. We may consider here why the groove was used in place of the rebate. It has been pointed out that in previous example’s the grain of the bottom ran from back to front, and the reason for this was that, since most drawers were wider than they were deep, the grain ran across the shortest distance and was therefore stronger. This meant, however, that the bottom was most liable to split owing to the great width running across the grain. By grooving the sides and allowing the grain to run from side to side, there was no need to fix the bottom except at the back. It was thus free to shrink without being liable to split. In any case, there was less distance across the grain to shrink. To prevent any sagging in wide drawers a centre muntin of stouter stuff could be fixed. The likelihood of this being the reason for the change is shown by the fact that in nearly all drawers in which the grain of the bottom runs from back to front and is fixed rigidly the joints have opened.
There was, however, one weakness in the grooved sides. They were weakened by being cut practically half-way through, and the only bearing surface was that of the drawer side thickness. This accounts for the introduction in the early years of the 19th century of the drawer bottom slip moulding, A, Fig. 6. The side was not weakened and the bearing surface was approximately doubled. The alternative form was introduced later.
I’ve taught a lot of woodworking students of all different skill levels – from beginners to professionals – all over the world. Despite that, I was shocked and delighted by the full-time students at Rowden Atelier in Devon when I taught a tool chest class there in 2014.
Most of the Rowden students had less than a year of coursework under their belts when we ran the course, and David Savage instructed me to push them to work at a professional pace through the week.
David thought they would be accurate but a bit slow. I had no idea what to expect. When I teach a tool chest class, I usually have time to instruct, time to build the project, time to work with each student one-on-one and time for many cups of coffee or tea.
Not so at Rowden. The full-time students were monsters and nipped at my heels all week.
It turns out the training there is even more impressive than David suspected. And after watching the students for more than two weeks, I remained deeply impressed. Not only did they have a firm grasp of joinery, machine work and hand work, they also knew how to draw, paint and do a bunch of tricky veneer and inlay stuff that’s frankly beyond me.
They had been schooled in the realities of business – all of the instructors there are hard-bitten professionals. And they had been given the opportunity to work at an extremely high level on some of David’s own designs for clients.
Had I been in my 20s, I would have dropped everything in my life and enrolled myself.
When David Savage died on Jan. 18, he had already stepped away from day-to-day management of the school and put it in the good hands of instructors he hand-picked and trained. Many of them – David admitted – were even better woodworkers than he. Daren Milman, Ed Wild and Jon Greenwood are all world-class woodworkers and instructors.
“Despite (or even fuelled by) David’s recent death, his vision for teaching the next generation of cabinetmakers at Rowden continues to surge onwards,” according to Matthew Lacey at Rowden. “We knew this was coming, of course, and his presence is greatly missed by all of us. But, because of the work he did over the last 15 years setting up the group there today, day to day nothing has changed.
“The same goes for the students at Rowden, learning the craft of cabinetmaking, pushing themselves as they move through this part of their furniture-making adventure. The next generation of students are now coming through Rowden to start their cabinetmaking story, lead by David’s philosophy and guided by the team he put together to achieve this.”
If you are considering a woodworking education, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better school than Rowden. Its roots stretch back to the English Arts & Crafts Movement, but the design aesthetic is entirely contemporary. The shop is located deep in Devon where you are surrounded by nature, high-quality machinery, beautiful bench rooms and drawing/painting studios.
Though I miss my friend, David, I am glad he left Rowden in the hands of these capable instructors. And I look forward to meeting the future generations of capable and confident woodworkers that will come from Rowden.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. We’ve never published a single sponsored post here at Lost Art Press, and we’re not starting now. The above opinions are my own.