The single-point planing stop is one of my most useful bench workholding appliances (the other two are a holdfast and my leg vise). There are lots of commercial ones available, including those from Tools for Working Wood and Benchcrafted. I like blacksmith-made ones. Not because they function better (they don’t) but because I like the way they look.
Many woodworkers are terrified of cutting a huge mortise in their benchtop. Don’t be. It’s easy work and is worth the trouble. Here’s how I do it.
The wooden section of my planing stop is 3” x 3” x 12”, a historical size. So I lay out the location of the mortise with knife lines and blue tape. Then I chop the perimeter with a wide chisel to keep my opening crisp during the whole process.
I try to drill out as much waste as possible. Here I’m using a 3/4” WoodOwl bit. These chew through benchtops better than any bit I’ve used.
Then I use a jigsaw to remove the big chunks.
Then I nibble up to my chisel line all around the mortise. This is a key step. The saw kerfs break up the waste, allowing it to be easily pared away. And the kerfs serve as a guide to being 90°. When the kerfs disappear, the mortise wall is 90°.
Then I pare away the corduroy-like bits of wooden waste on the walls.
I don’t have any 3”-thick stock. So I glued up the planing stop from two pieces of 8/4 oak. Then I sawed and planed the blank until it was a tight fit in the mortise.
Fitting a blacksmith planing stop looks harder than it really is. The tapered shaft calls for a tapered hole (that is, if you cannot heat up the shaft in a forge and burn it into the block). Measure across the corners of the tapered shaft – that’s the largest dimension.
The biggest dimension is at the top of the planing stop. In my case it was 1”. So I first drilled a 1” hole that was about two-thirds the length of the shaft. Then I measured the shaft at the bottom, corner to corner. And I chose a bit that was about .01” smaller.
If you don’t have a bit that suits the shaft, grind down the corners to match an existing bit.
The goal is that the tapered shaft should wedge in the bottom of the hole. Yet it won’t split the wood. Too loose is better than too tight. That’s because “too loose” can be fixed with epoxy.
Hammer the planing stop into its hole. Then knock the whole thing into your benchtop.
If it gets loose over time, shim the mortise or planing stop with veneer. If it’s too tight, remove the stop (you might need a sledge) and plane it down. After a year or so, it will be tuned up and things won’t move too much.
One of the things we strive to do at Lost Art Press is give away as much information as we possibly can, whilst still eating, sheltering and being (you’re welcome) fully clothed.
And so today we are offering my 2017 book “Roman Workbenches” as a free download. You don’t have to register, give us your email or type in some code at checkout. Heck, you don’t even have to prove you’re not a robot. Robots are welcome to download it as many times as they like (poor misbegotten robots).
All you have to do is click the link below, and the pdf will download to your computer or phone.
“Roman Workbenches” was the precursor to “Ingenious Mechanicks,” my most recent book. “Roman Workbenches” explores the origins of the first-known Western workbench. “Ingenious Mechanicks” traces the development of the workbench through the 1600s.
We printed “Roman Workbenches” via letterpress, which was a crazy and fun experiment. It was a short press run. And the letterpress company, Steamwhistle, closed its doors shortly after publication. (It was not our fault, promise.) After we published “Ingenious Mechanicks,” the Roman book became somewhat of an orphan.
So we are inviting you to adopt it today – free of charge. It has its shots and is ready to go home with you.
I get a lot of odd email through my personal website, and most isn’t worth mentioning. But there’s one email I get every week that I want to put to bed. It goes like this:
Someone told me you host classes where people build a roubo bench for a week with you and take it home is that true
Sorry, no. It’s not true. We hold some classes at our storefront (complete list here), but I don’t teach much these days. And we don’t have the facilities to teach a workbench class.
I still love to build workbenches and research their history. But there’s no way I could manage a class like that in our little storefront. So if you see this rumor repeated out on the internet, would you mind stabbing it in the eyeball for me? I feel bad for the people who keep asking me with high hopes.
There are lots of people who teach workbench classes. You might ping Mark Hicks at Plate 11, who teaches some classes in his shop along those lines.
I’m flattered to be asked. But like I said, it ain’t me.
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.
In 1744 John Wister built a summer house in Germantown, a rural area northwest of Philadelphia. The house later became the primary residence of the family and was known for its gardens, orchards and farm. When Charles Jones Wister (1782-1865), grandson of John, inherited the property he named it Grumblethorpe. He took the name from ‘Think-I-To-Myself’ a comedy by Edward Nares.
The Historic American Building Survey of 1934 notes, “Charles J. Wister had a taste for mechanics and in 1819, added a frame workshop.”
Wister’s workshop was on the second floor of the extension with a loft above. In the photo of the shop you can see the steps in the back left corner leading to the loft.
In the survey drawing of the second floor the workshop addition is at the very top, on the right is an enlargement of the shop. His shop was a generous 26’ by 10’-10’’ with a forge (F) connected to the chimney and a bellows (G) that was positioned below a cupboard.
The lathes (see photo) are under the windows in the back right corner. The cabinetmaker’s bench was likely on the left hand wall (under window #213?).
In 1920, a year before the workshop photo was taken, Jones Wister, great-nephew of Charles, published ‘Jones Wister’s Reminiscences’ with a chapter on his great-uncle. Here are excerpts with a brief description of the workshop:
”…The youngest of his family, born 1782, he early showed desire for learning and excelled at school and in college. He was celebrated as an astronomer, poet, lecturer and skilled mechanic.
Much time was given to his books and philosophical studies. His recreation was found in his workshop, where he had a forge, two turning lathes, and a cabinet-maker’s workbench, together with numerous mechanical tools.
At the last visit I paid my cousin at Grumblethorpe, I asked permission to revisit his father’s workshop, and found it just as I remembered and my great-uncle had left it, everything covered with dust, but intact, as it was sixty or seventh years ago. Nothing had been disturbed. He was to Germantown what the Weather Bureau is to the country. Three times daily he took the temperature, read his barometer, making careful notes, which were regularly published in the GermantownTelegraph, then owned and edited by Philip R. Freas.
He had an observatory, equipped with a telescope, through which he watched the heavens, and upon every clear day, observed the sun crossing the zenith. He issued bulletins of the time, and every clock in Germantown was set by his standard.
…He was a remarkedly versatile genius, for besides all his other accomplishments, he could repair clocks, and many which needed repairs were put into working order by his hands…
I should have taken more interest in my great-uncle’s educational researches, had not his shop possessed greater attractions. The long and short foot lathe, beautiful cabinet-maker’s bench, not to mention the blacksmith’s forge, won my enchanted admiration, and were much more to my taste. For here it was he turned the Wister tops, celebrated among all Germantown boys. These tops were made from dogwood, could not be split, but could split the tops of any playmate opponent, whose top was unlucky enough to be hit.
There are a few men still living today for whom my great-uncle turned a spinning top…He was a merry and humorous old gentleman, and when a new boy would be presented to him would astonish him by asking, “Why is a cranberry tart like a pump handle?” After the boy had puzzled awhile, he would quietly say, “There is no resemblance.”
The Bucks County Historical Society in Doylestown, Pennsylvaia has some of the tops make by Wister, other small items and some of his tools.
In 1820 Wister started a notebook to record his workshop activites and titled it, ‘Various Recipes & Formulae Used in the Shop.’ I believe the notebook is in the Eastwick Collection of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia with no digital copy available. However, in early 2010 an enterprising young intern at the APS posted several photos of items from the Eastwick Collection including this recipe from one of Wister’s notebooks:
Charles Wister was one of the early users of photography in Philadelphia and, according to notations in the APS archive, he took photos of Grumblethorpe. Did he take photos of his workshop? If so, and if they survived, the APS may have them.
What mysteries are waiting in the the various archives holding Charles Jones Wister Sr.’s notebooks and photographs? For now, we have one photograph taken 56 years after Wister died and a sparse account of the workshop that is dated around the same time. I will be sending a note to the Operations Manager for Grumblethorpe to find out what remains in the workshop and possibly get some photos.