Make a Roubo-Style Workbench
Words and photos: Damion Fauser
Diagram: Graham Sands
A workbench has one primary purpose — to secure and/or support the workpiece. For me then, the best style of bench is the one that offers the most flexibility in terms of options for securing the workpiece for performing tasks on the face, edge or end of a board.
For this reason, I’ve always favoured Roubo-style* workbenches. Through my own experience I’ve found these to have the greatest workholding flexibility. Simple in design and construction, they have several characteristics that set them apart.
The front faces of the legs and the rails are flush with the front edge of the benchtop. You can mount your front vice so that its inside jaw is the vertical plane formed by the front edge of the benchtop and the front faces of the legs and rails. This is particularly useful when working on large workpieces such as dovetailing cabinet carcase components. This style of bench also allows you to install any style of vice, from the traditional leg vice to modern steel vice hardware.
A sliding deadman is a device that adjusts laterally on the front verticalplane of the bench and has a series of holes in which a peg can be inserted to support a workpiece at different heights. The deadman rides on a peaked rail attached to the bottom front rail and in a groove on the front underside of the benchtop.
This creates the ability to support large workpieces, such as doors, to work on their edge, by securing one corner in the front vice and then adjusting the deadman to support the diagonally opposite corner. I find this particularly useful for planing the edges of doors for fitting to a cabinet space, or for cutting hinge mortises.
A bottom shelf provides lots of square footage for bench accessories such as shooting boards, bench hooks
and holdfasts. The size of the frame supporting the benchtop provides enormous mass, ensuring stability when conducting dynamic tasks such as handplaning.
A while ago I made a set of three Roubo-style benches for my students to use. They are not exact replicas of a Roubo bench in a purist sense, but I’ve borrowed enough of the key features that the heritage is obvious.
I chose to make the benches in Tasmanian oak for one particular reason. This species is generally cut on the quarter so it allowed me to edge-glue wide boards to form the benchtop whilst using the cut of the timber to minimise wood movement across the top. Any native hardwood would suffice for the top of this style of bench though, but for flatsawn boards I’d recommend making your benchtop from a lamination of thinner strips turned to expose the edge grain. The base can be made from any species at hand, but if you do a lot of handplaning, the denser the species the better.
These benchtops are 50mm thick, which is the minimum for effective use of holdfasts. Thicker can be better in terms of mass and holdfast effectiveness, but you will quickly increase your volumetric stock requirement.
I’ve installed four small Carbatec vices on each of these benches, so that with two students standing on opposite sides of the bench, each will have a front vice and an end vice. To install these vices you will need to disassemble the vice mechanism by unscrewing the primary screw until it disengages from the base of the vice.
Use the holes for the screw and the guide rods on the base structure to make a template for drilling holes in your vice jaws.
After milling your jaw stock, attach the template to one piece with temporary double-stick tape and use that to set a stopblock on the fence of your drill press (photo 1). Remember to allow for the thickness of your benchtop.
As I had 12 vices to install, this allowed me to quickly and repeatably drill all the holes I needed without measuring on each block.
To prevent the front jaw of the vice toeing in under pressure, I also made a supplementary inside jaw block for each vice that I glued and screwed to the underside of the benchtop.
Each vice was lined with leather that I cut from scraps, available from reputable leather suppliers. I got mine from East Coast Leather for $7.70 per kilo. Ten kilos got me enough to line both jaws of the 12 vices for the student benches, as well as re-lining the jaws of the two vices of my personal bench.
The frame components are all 91 x 91mm in section. I produced this by laminating two pieces milled from 50mm roughsawn stock. Frame construction was achieved using the largest size tenon for the Festool XL Domino DF700, which is 14 x 140mm. Each frame joint has four of these, which provides more than enough long grain surface area for the glue bond (photo 2).
And it made the construction superfast, particularly as I used a story stick and some spacer blocks for layout (photo 3).
If you don’t have this machine then mortise and tenon joinery is your best bet, just remember to add sufficient length to the provided cutlist to allow for the tenons. The top is attached to the frame with four dominos at the top of each leg.
By using a traditional front vice mechanism as the end vice, I am able to run two rows of parallel bench dog holes, compared to the one row commonly associated with shoulder vices. This allows the user far greater workholding flexibility when working on the faces on large pieces, or for securing non-linear objects. I drill my dog holes at 19.5mm diameter, to accommodate common off-the-shelf holdfasts and dogs.
With the two rows, it is important to have each pair of holes equidistant from the vice, so I made a boring template (photo 4) to ensure accuracy in this regard. In conjunction with laying the benchtop on a sacrificial sheet of ply, this template not only ensured accuracy, it helped with preventing breakout and assisted with keeping the holes plumb.
I used a spade bit for speed, drilling 4–5 holes and then working on something else to let the bit cool down.
Photo 5 shows the underside of the bench joinery and groove for the sliding deadman.
Photo 6 shows the Domino DF700 XL with completed leg joints.
These benches have a lot going for them. Simple and quick to make from any material you can acquire, they offer enormous flexibility for securing your workpieces.
* André Jacob Roubo was a renowned French master cabinetmaker of the 1800s. He was also the author of comprehensive writings on furniture making, marquetry, carpentry and building. His workbench design is favoured by many woodworkers.
Damion Fauser is a furniture designer/maker based in Brisbane. He teaches woodwork from his Darra workshop. For information see damionfauser.com