Many operations on low workbenches seem difficult or a lower-back nightmare until you overcome two obstacles. The first is that many operations are much easier when you are sitting down. Not just sitting on the bench but sitting on a sawbench or stool that is next to the low workbench. Dovetailing while sitting isn’t difficult as long as you allow your sawing arm to swing freely – just like when you are standing while dovetailing.
Likewise, traversing a board with the side stops (detailed below) is fairly easy. The worker remains stationary in front of the side stops and the board is moved from right to left. So, before you dismiss an operation as impossible with a low workbench, sit on it for a while before you pass final judgment.
The other obstacle to consider is your smooth, modern floor. Many low benches will move quite a bit because they lack the mass of many taller workbenches. Many early shops had dirt floors, or the work was performed outside (the book “Woodworking in Estonia” made this clear to me).
So, take your bench into the yard or find a way to immobilize the legs, especially for traversing. A quick solution is to purchase some adhesive anti-skid pads at the hardware store. Those help for all but the heaviest work.
Although a back may not call for the high finish that is necessary for, say, a cabinet door, it needs to be strongly made and of a type to suit the particular job. “Craftsman” discusses here some of the points to be considered when deciding just what kind of back a job is to have. —Ed.
I AM afraid that many of us are inclined to let the backs of our cabinets take pot luck, as the saying goes. We make a job, say, in oak, possibly putting in oak drawer sides, and backs, but hesitate before going to the expense of oak for the back. The reason (or excuse, however you happen to look at it) is that it is seldom seen, has little or no wear to withstand, and that, since the cheap back answers the purpose just as well, it is clearly a waste to spend money on an expensive one.
Well, it is logical enough up to a point, and, providing that it is merely the material that is cheapened and not the method that is worsened, no great harm is done. In fact, there are many pieces of quite light woodwork in which a heavily built back seems almost out of place. Still, it is nice to have a piece of work in which nothing has been skimped, and the argument that a cheap back answers the purpose as well as a better one may not necessarily hold good, as we shall see later. The safe plan is to consider each piece on its merits, and give it the best back that it is worth.
BACKS OF OLD FURNITURE If one goes back into the past one comes across some curious anomalies. Many of the antiques of the Queen Anne and mahogany periods of which we think so highly had wretched backs. I myself spent a good many years in a repair shop, and I can speak feelingly of the hours I devoted to gluing strips of canvas across gaping splits in panels and across open knot holes. I have seen a mahogany chest of drawers of the Chippendale period with magnificent show work—serpentine shaped drawers, fine carving, and so on—with a back consisting of pieces of 1/4 in. pine nailed across. An extraordinary inconsistency. Apart from its having no strength, the whole thing was bound to shrink and split.
Yet when we come to that much abused period of Victoria, we find exactly the reverse. Probably no finer cabinet backs have ever been fitted into furniture. Open the door of one of those huge Victorian wardrobes (there are plenty of them knocking about in seaside boarding houses). You will find the mirror back more strongly made than many a modern wardrobe door, and the carcase back a finely panelled framework often with moulded stiles or flush panels.
Perhaps one reason why there has been a tendency to fit lighter backs since Victorian times (apart from the all-round cheapening of materials and construction) is the introduction of plywood. It seems such an obvious use for ply, a material which is free from shrinkage and obtainable in such large sizes. Undoubtedly it is perfectly suitable for the purpose, providing the carcase is strong in itself, and does not rely upon the back to make it rigid.
TYPES OF BACKS There are various considerations that affect the choice of a cabinet back. There is, for instance, the question of size. A single sheet of 3/16 in. plywood might make an excellent back for a little cupboard, say, 15 ins. high, but would obviously be absurd for a wardrobe. Apart from this, however, the first consideration should be: does the job rely upon the back for strength, or will the back serve merely to enclose a space? Fig. 1 shows the idea. At A the back is needed to prevent racketing and to stiffen the carcase generally. At B, however, the carcase is already strong, and only a light back is needed.
In the latter connection, of course, it is sometimes an advantage to build in the back with the carcase. Items such as sideboards are often made in this way. As a general rule, however, it is better to make the back separately, because it simplifies the subsequent fitting-up.
THE PANELLED BACK For a thoroughly strong back the panelled type is undoubtedly the most satisfactory. It is perfectly rigid and is free from all shrinkage complications. It should always be used for pieces such as cupboards with large, heavy doors, which are particularly liable to distortion unless provided with a stiff back. Fig 2 shows the usual form. The whole thing is put together with mortise and tenon joints, and the panels are grooved in. One point to note is that if there is a shelf in the cupboard, the middle cross rail should be arranged opposite to it if possible. It may not always be practicable, of course, but the advantage is that it gives a level surface against which the back of the shelf can face (see B, Fig 3). If this is not done there will be gaps opposite the panels as shown at A.
The same difficulty sometimes occurs in a bookcase or similar item, but owing
to the large number of shelves it is not practicable to arrange for many horizontal rails. The better plan is that in Fig 4, in which the panels are flush with the framework at the inside. It necessitates fairly thick panels, of course, but it gives a far neater result than cutting out the back edge of the shelf to fit.
MUNTIN BACKS A somewhat distant relative of the panelled back is the muntin type. It is nowhere near as strong, and is rather a doubtful member of the family. Like some relations, you can’t deny them (and they are useful sometimes), but you are a little shy about mentioning them in the best circles. It consists of a series of uprights, say 3/4 in. or 7/8 in. thick grooved at the edges to take thinner panels, as shown in Fig. 5. The ends of the muntins are cut away as shown inset, so that the panels can be fixed directly to the back of the carcase.
Now, as the panels are generally about 9—10 ins. wide, and of deal, it is inevitable that a certain amount of shrinkage will take place. Consequently it is a mistake to drive in nails right across the width because the wood would split in the event of shrinkage. The better plan is that in Fig. 6 in which nails are driven in near the centre only. The edges extending into the muntin grooves are free so that they can draw out. Note that the heart side is outwards so that the free ends are pressed tightly against the carcase by the natural twisting tendency of the wood.
If, owing to the presence of a number of shelves, it is desirable for the back to be entirely flush on the inside, the muntins can be rebated instead of grooved as shown in Fig. 7. The beads along the rebates are not entirely decorative, but they serve to render the gaps less noticeable in the event of the panels shrinking. All these details about shrinkage apply only when solid wood is used, of course. In the case of plywood it does not matter.
Speaking of plywood brings us to another variation of the muntin back. In its simplest form the plywood back is nothing more than a sheet of plywood nailed or screwed in a rebate. For quite light jobs this is satisfactory enough, but to give a neat finish the back in Fig. 8 is better. A series of grooved and rounded horizontals is screwed on. They can be arranged level with the shelves as shown. The plywood panels fit between them in the grooves. For a flush effect the rails can be rebated instead of being grooved (see D).
DRESSER BACKS These are really in a class by themselves, for although they could be applied to pieces such as wardrobes, they are not so strong as a panelled back. One of two methods can be followed. That shown in Fig. 9 has the advantage of simplicity. The back is really a series of matched boards, tongued one into the other, with either a bead or a V worked at the joints. The boards are screwed or nailed directly to the top and shelves, and at the bottom to a rail specially fitted for the purpose. In the second method, Fig. 10, wide grooved rails are screwed at top and bottom and the matching fitted in the grooves. The wide rails give rigidity, the matching merely filling the space, so to speak. It can be either very thin as at A, or it can be stouter, the ends being tongued as at B.
Incidentally, a detail applying to all backs of any thickness is that the rebates in the ends should slope as shown at A, Fig. 11. If this is not done the projecting portion is liable to curl as shown at B.
Q: I have a question about using a handplane to make a spring joint.
I am using a No. 8 Stanley that I reconditioned, meaning that I flattened the bottom as best I could on float glass and sandpaper and installed a new Hock blade sharpened straight. I am using it to make a joint 7′ long for a dining room tabletop. I am using my No. 8 because it is the widest plane I have and the top is 1-1/8″ making the edge 2-1/4″ wide when folded over.
My question is why does it feel like I am hitting and missing along the length of the cut? I apply all the pressure I can on the knob at the beginning and on the tote at the end of the pass. To make the gap in the middle, I take a short cut in the middle, then a slightly longer cut in the middle, then another etc. But every pass, the plane cuts in some places along the length and not in others. Some hits and misses are approximately in the same places, but not always. Also, even though I apply pressure in the beginning, I usually get a couple of inches of a gap, maybe 0.003″, along the start of the joint instead of being tight there when the boards are stacked before clamping. Clamping does not close the gap.
I have made two passable joints out of the five I need to make, and they took several tries, so I am a little frustrated. I think I have read every article in Fine Woodworking, Popular Woodworking and Woodwork on spring joints, but there they are making short joints.
A: Without watching you work and seeing the edges in person, it’s difficult to diagnose the problem…but know that a perfect 7′-long glue joint by hand would be difficult for me, too. That’s a big one.
My best guesses, however, are: • You are applying a LOT of pressure at the beginning of the cut but not as much pressure as you move farther onto the edge, then a LOT of pressure again at the end. That’s a pretty common problem, because one thinks about transferring pressure at the beginning and end when part of the plane sole is off the board, but in the middle, not as much. So concentrate on keeping constant pressure through the whole cut.
• And if you haven’t attempted it already, clamp the two board together tightly, but in opposite directions, i.e. match planing. If you can plane them together well, minor errors can cancel each other out. (I find a long match-planing job pretty difficult, though, FWIW.)
This is a problem that faces every man who does woodwork. Provision has to be made for keeping tools so that they are out of harm’s way, for nothing is worse than a bench littered with tools piled one on top of the other. At the same time they must be easily to hand when needed. At the outset it should be realised that a distinction has to be made between tools in everyday use and those used only occasionally. It is of no use to keep, say, a hammer in a drawer or cupboard which has to be opened every time the tool is needed. The usual way is to keep it in the well or trough of the bench where it is always to hand yet does not interfere with items placed on the bench top. Much the same thing applies to pincers, chisels, screwdrivers, etc., though these are not normally kept in the trough but rather in a simple rack.
It is interesting to see what used to happen in professional workshops. A nail in the wall was invariably all that was used for such items as saws, and chisels, pincers, and so on were held in the simplest of racks fixed to the wall with a screw at each end; cramps were hung over a batten projecting from the wall or fixed to a convenient beam. Altogether a primitive yet effective method. On the other hand his more delicate tools such as the shoulder plane, compass plane, plough, etc. he usually kept in his tool chest in a special drawer or compartment. The everyday, more robust items he put in a drawer beneath the bench.
The reason for this rather crude arrangement for tools was twofold. First, there was frequently nothing permanent about a man’s job. He might be taken on and put off again in quite a short time. Secondly, he would certainly not be allowed to spend time in making any special tool rack arrangement. Hence nothing more pretentious than the homely nail was used, and even these might already be in the wall, an inheritance from the previous incumbent.
For the man working at home a somewhat more elegant system can be devised because he is more or less permanent in his workshop and can spend as much time as he likes in making fitments. Another point is that his workshop may be just a garden shed, and nothing rusts tools quicker than hanging them on a damp wall. The nail itself will bear witness to this in a short time.
The simplest form of rack is shown at (A), Fig. 2, and is the sort widely used in a workshop. It is simply a plain batten fixed to the wall with distance pieces at the ends. If there is a convenient wood window frame to screw to this simplifies matters, but in the case of a brick wall there is an advantage in fitting a plywood or hardboard backing held on uprights as at (B). It avoids damage to chisel edges against the brickwork and it lifts the tools away from the wall. A quite good idea is to make one distance piece thicker than the other so that tools of varying size can be gripped. A 1-1/2 in. chisel has a larger handle than one of 1/4 in. size and in an equidistant rack either the big one will not go in or a small one will drop through. The tapering gap will hold both.
A fitting that has become popular is the tool clip. It is made in various forms, the simplest being fixed with a centre screw. This however needs either a wood wall or a batten screwed to the wall as at (C). It is far better to fix a batten to the wall with plugs and screw the clips to this than to attempt to plug the clips individually. The value of peg board as a means of display has also caused a new form of clip to be devised which can be entered from the front. This has a cranked centre rod which is passed through the hole and held by tightening a nut as at (D). Clips can therefore be fixed through any convenient holes to suit the shape of the tool to be gripped.
To hold a saw to the wall the simple nail is effective enough, but the handle is liable to become damaged with continued use. The better fixing is that at (E) in which the front thin piece (ply or hardboard) will pass easily through the hole in the handle. At the back the distance piece (slightly thicker than the handle) is narrower so that the handle drops down after being passed over. In some cases it is an advantage to have a front piece pivoted on a screw (F). This has only to be turned when the saw is slipped over.
Planes can be stored in various ways. When there is space for the plane to be in a horizontal position it can rest on a pad of cotton wool kept lightly oiled, or a thin crosspiece can be fitted to one end of the shelf to raise the cutter from the floor as at (G). It is generally recommended that the plane does not lie flat, though the writer has never found any harm in it providing the wood on which it rests is not damp.
Sometimes there is room at the end of the bench for a plane rack to be made as at (H). Alternatively the rack could be fixed to a wall or cupboard side. Another system is that at (I) in which the plane is pushed up at the top, passed inwards, and lowered. There must be clearance at the top for this, but the front lip must be wide enough to prevent the plane from falling outwards.
Those who do wood turning will find the rack at (J) useful. The tools face opposite ways alternately as in this way they occupy less space. The notched uprights are shaped accordingly. At the bottom can be a trough in which other items can be kept, spanners, tommy bar, chucks, centres, odd scraping tools, etc.
Various racks can be made as at (K) to hold small tools; bradawls, punches, marking awl, files, and so on. The rack can either stand on a shelf as shown, or be made with end brackets (L) if to be fixed to a wall. The same idea is useful to hold boring bits as at (M), or for router cutters.
Cramps can be conveniently kept on a narrow shelf with brackets as at (N), being lightly tightened to hold them in position.
All of these suggestions can be separate items fixed to the wall and left open—at any rate in a dry workshop. For those who have the space, however, there is an advantage in having fitments with enclosing doors providing that there is space for these to remain open when work is in progress. In fact an excellent idea is to have a cabinet in which the upper part at least has built-out doors which can be fitted with shelves, racks, etc. The entire thing is then exposed and no time is lost in seeking tools and (equally important) putting them away when finished with.
At least once a month someone asks about lid stays for the Anarchist’s tool chest; now I’ll be able to refer them to this post.
Both Christopher Schwarz and I (now) use chains to hold out chests open, but they attach differently. Both methods work. As will multiple other methods, but these are ours.
But let’s back up two ticks. In “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest,” Chris directs readers to leave the back corners of the dust seal a little overlong and cut an angle on them. That will work if you’re gentle with your chest, and don’t use it all the time. If you are not gentle, and do use it all the time, that corner will start to break off – then you’ll need to come up with another method of holding your chest open.
After the back corner of his dust seal started to show its years, Chris added a rigid aluminum lid stay, held in place by knurled knobs. The problem – if you can call it a problem – is that to use it, you had to unscrew the knob, put the stay in place, then screw the knob back in. And reverse that to close the lid at the end of the day.
When I built the ATC I use at the Lost Art Press shop, I decided to add a nickel-plated chain to the outside, because I like shiny silvery things. So I bought a length of chain from McMaster-Carr along with some 3/8″ threaded rod, and found female-threaded finials on a lamp-repair-supply website. I cut two pieces of threaded rod to length, then epoxied them in place in the side of the dust seal and upper skirt. The chain fits over the rod; the finials screw onto the rod. (I’ve used this same approach on a couple of chests built on commission…but I added a threaded insert into the side of the lid and top skirt for extra insurance. Overkill, but I’d rather err on the side of solid when I’m sending out my work.)
Chris used a different approach, in part, I think, because he already had threaded inserts and knurled knobs from the aluminum lid stay.
He simply screwed both knobs in tight, then bought a dog collar.
In truth, though, both of us store our chests against a wall – so more often than not, it’s a wall, not a chain, that holds our chests open.