How to Build a Workbench – Apron Recesses (part11)
Cutting the housings
NOTE:Just so you know, this is an older workbench series. Paul has a newer Workbench series. If you are interested in the updated version of Paul’s workbench please click the button down below. This page links to a cutting list, tools list, FAQS and much more.
I have seen many (and even had to work on) low-grade benches without aprons. Admittedly they were assembly products shabbily made by workers who knew nothing about much beyond earning a living, and so I didn’t expect much at all. Aprons are critical to a good bench in many ways not the least is the absolute unwavering rigidity essential to a hand tool workbench.
Imagine the benchtop sections glued permanently to the aprons and you begin to see them more like a rigid length of angle-iron anchored at the extreme edges. A perfect harmony of parts. On this bench you can chop mortises and pound just about anywhere along its length with zero flex and bounce back—dead rigid. For someone like me who doesn’t like having to move to over-the-leg positions to reduce inefficiency it’s an absolute. This bench does it all.
On my benches I don’t rely only on the housing dado. I want something that locks and continues to lock the legs into the apron housings and never turns lose. I also want my bench to be disassembled for moving from time to time. A wedged housing dado resolves the issues. The idea came to me when I needed to build 15 benches that could be dismantled and shipped to another venue on tour or simply moved from an upstairs workshop to a downstairs workshop. The doorways were narrow and so too the stairs and the lift (elevator US) was a mere 6’8″ by 3′ by 4′.By adding a simple wedge to the inside of the legs, at each of the joints, I could guarantee the lateral stability absolutely essential to a hand tool woodworking bench. The more it racks the more rock solid the wedges seat in each of the joints and there lies the increased success of what was already a truly solid and functional bench.
Knock-down benches often have faults but these benches have been tested by hundreds of students over the years so include this feature and enjoy a good bench. When I have made benches in the past, I found that even with glue and screws or bolts, shoving them across uneven floors carelessly or regularly can rack the joints, break the glue line and weaken the rigidity of the bench. Including the joint around the leg area is quick and simple with a handful of basic tools and eliminates this problem. Imagine, a mallet, a 1” chisel and a very simple poor man’s router.
The drawings show the position of the recesses, one to each end of both aprons as exact opposites. You will measure the recess by following the measurements. You will make the wedge to suit later. It’s best to layout the joint with the square and pencil, so that you can fully visualise where you will be cutting. Begin by squaring the line 9″ from the end of the apron as shown This housing dado goes from the bottom edge of the apron board up and in my case stops 2 13/16″ from the top edge.
Stand the leg frame onto the apron and against the first line to establish the exact line for the leg itself, in my case just under 4″. Now I measure and add 1″ to the bottom and 1 1/2″ at the top and join the lines. This is my wedge allowance.
See drawing above an image here:
Square the lines onto the bottom edge and then run a gauge line set to 5/8” between the lines. To keep parallel to the bench top you can either use a marking gauge or set your square to 1/16” more than the thickness of your benchtop. That way the apron will stick past the main benchtop by 1/16” and you can plane it level after the apron is glued to the benchtop.
With the layout completed, use the knife and square to establish the first knifewall. Take care that the square doesn’t slip and give a false line.
Chisel into the knifewall with the 1” chisel slightly inclined towards it. This establishes the exact line for the bench leg.
Deepen the wall with vertical chops along the length and alternate between vertical and horizontal cuts, down to the 5/8” depth line established by the gauge.
The second knifewall is angled. Use the square as a straight edge and repeat the cutting as you did for the square knifewall. Continue as above until you reach the depth line.
You must now remove the waste from between the walls, which is simple and straightforward. Start near the surface, about ¼” down and chop away the waste. Take care not to cut downwards and forfeit the exact depth you need across the surface.
If you cut down to about 1/16” above the gauge line, you can then use the router or the poor man’s router to establish the final depth.
Three more to go and you are done. Then we can start assembly!! Whoohoo!!
Thanks, Ken. We are enjoying it as well.
The recesses for the apron are done in the same manner as the recess for the diamond plates, and those don’t move without adhesive or caulk under vigorous sharpening. (My chisels were in terrible shape until I found Paul’s sharpening method.) I had my mind made up to make another style of bench, until I followed WorkingWood, the youtube videos, and this blog. I’ve watched you chop, saw, plane, etc… The quick release vise and the apron with this housing are what eventually sold me on the European bench. OK, enough talk, I need to get in the garage and prep this wood!
Paul, thank you so much for your instructive and insightful presentations. I recently finished a small version of your bench, and it is amazingly sturdy. I even used your wedge technique for the legs, and it works perfectly.
And my chisels have never been sharper!
Just a quick shout out, you are missing an HREF tag on the third drawing image. Meaning the user cannot click on the image to enlarge it 🙁
Edit: You can remove my post if you fix it, no worries
Here’s the link to the third image. You can see the picture enlarged here. https://paulsellers.com/2012/06/making-the-workbench-11/dsc_0413-2/
I just built really nice sawhorses and payday I’m getting the lumber for the bench. I can’t wait! I really thank you for sharing all this. I’m getting excited because I’ve had benches I’ve built but none like this one. Thanks again. I watched your dovetail sandpaper box video and I built a music box today for a friend that’s having a baby.
Hi Paul, I am working on assembling my first workbench based off your design. The only difference is I have scaled down the dimensions a bit to fit into my apartment and have eliminated the well board as a consequence (at this time, anyway). My question is this: Is it possible to somehow hinge the aprons to fold flat against the underside of the benchtop for storage and transport without negating the stability and usability of the bench? I am a little concerned about damaging the aprons when I inevitably have to temporarily store the bench out of the way. I have also considered making the aprons bolt on to the main top, but am too new to woodworking to be confident that would work well. My other concern with bolting directly into the wood is wear. I do not want to strip out that connection if I have to store the bench for company a dozen times a year. Any insight and suggestions would be greatly appreciated!
Every time you make a component adjustable in some way you incorporate a link like the link in a chain or a link in a chain of command. The more people you have between the boss and the minion on the shop floor, the less effective the boss becomes. It’s no different between knock down benches. The key to this design of bench is the rigid corner created when the apron becomes integral to the bench top. Like a piece of angle iron, but more so, the angled corner becomes the rigid backbone of the workbench, giving it the absolute inflexible solidity I think is important to my benches. Bolts will work, but you are right to think that eventually bolting an dun bolting will gradually erode the integrity of the wood surrounding the bolted area.
Solid it is! Thanks, as always, for all that you do to help
Even though I do not plan on knocking down my bench, it seemed to me that using the wedged leg system would compensate for imperfectly cut housings. Given the fact that the housings in the aprons would be my very first attempt at such work with hand tools, I figured that the wedges would make the joints more secure. I was right; the bench is rock solid even given my introductory skill level. Thinking that pine would compress too much, I made the wedges out of salvaged oak trim.
Hi Paul, thanks very much for the series. I’m just getting the materials to make my own bench. I wondered if you could comment on Joel’s note above. Are the wedges best made from a different type of wood to the bench pine? I noticed that your wedges in the video are a different colour from the rest of the bench.
Yes, a harder denser wood is better. Just about any of the hardwoods will work fine. Oak, cherry, poplar.
Cheers Paul! Thank you so much for this and your other blog posts and youtube videos. I think I’ve made an error and I’m curious about how to recover. The photo and description in your blog post say the distance from the top of the dado to the top of the bench is 2-13/16″. So I started cutting the dado at that measurement (have only the sides chiselled down a little over 1/4″. After flattening the glueup the thickness of my benchtop is 3-5/32″ (I can feel the cringe from here.), so according to your youtube video that distance from the top of the dado to the top of the apron should be more like 3-7/32″
So I have a couple questions.
1. Can I just drop down mark a new angle and start cutting to the new line and just ignore the two grooves that will remain? Or should I scrap the apron and start over?
2. Where did the 2-13/16″ in the photo & text above come from?
I really don’t remember now how I arrived at the measurements without going back and rewatching I’m afraid. I assume here that you are talking about the tapered recess forming the recess to receive the leg and the wedge? This is really arbitrary if that’s the case. All the recesses can have a different angle for the wedge if the wedges are cut to correspond to each individual wedge that’s all that would matter… so that the wedge does indeed tighten of its own volition as needed during use of the bench.
I determined the distance from the top of the apron to the top of the housing dado by measuring the thickness of the top that I had made. I wanted the apron to be about 1/16″ above the top of the bench so that I could then plane it down. I figured it was easier to plane down the edge of the apron then the entire bench top!
If you misjudged that, and the dado is too high, I think that gluing a strip of wood inside of it would probably be fine. It’s really the wedge (along with the bolt) that makes the whole bench rock-solid. Hope this helps.
Thanks Paul, and Joel. Since I hadn’t actually removed the materiel yet, just deepening the knife wall, I just moved my top line and removed materiel to the *correct* line. It’s a little ugly, but there is plenty of wood for the leg to rest on. I’ll have to have a wedge with a slightly different angle for that spot, but it looks like it will be OK. Not the only error I’ve made, and won’t be the last. Working around my errors is teaching me the most.
Thanks again for this wonderful series. I’m sure that when I’m finished, I’ll be much happier with this workbench than I would if I’d spent thousands of dollars buying a premade “European” model!
I lost count of the number of mistakes I’ve made. As for it being “a little ugly,” who is going to climb under the bench to look at that, anyway? Also, it’s a WORK bench, not a fine piece of furniture. At least that’s my attitude.
Some old friends with whom I used to restore double-hung windows were here (Chicago) this weekend (guess why) and they were AMAZED at how rock solid this bench is. It’s a solid design. Enjoy!
Hi Paul (great name by the way!), I’m at final assembly of my bench. I made the wedges about one inch at widest, from oak. When I made them, I planed surfaces smooth. I used each wedge to trace required angle for the housing, and all chiselled out to match. The wedges fit very well, however they just don’t want to wedge in and tighten, instead they stay loose, and easy to push up and out with my hand, even if i beat them in, they just work loose again. What can I do to encourage the wedges to wedge and jam in nice and tight? (I’ve got the bits over the wedges to stop them coming out). Love the videos and blog, hope the move is going well. I’m from the chalfonts originally, now living in Brisbane Australia.
Perhaps your hardwood is too dense and doesn’t compress, try a softer wood.
Welcome to my lack of planning ahead. The housing dados I’ve got to cut have to run through knots so one side won’t be the same distance from the end as the other. It’s not a huge distance, perhaps an inch either way, but I really do wish I had thought about this. I’m doing my best to avoid the larger knots.
I downloaded the workbench videos 1-11 from your YouTube site and I am planning on building this bench as soon as the winter weather abates a bit. But I cannot locate the rest of the series, can you help me? Thank you for all your hard work.
I think you found the whole thing.
Decided I build a proper work bench & give up on my Workmate … (small garage .. will dimension it to ~30″W x 48″L x 38″H, structure of legs assembly matterial D-Fir )
Loved the Vids and have a Question:
In almost all reference people using 2×4 / 2×3 and laminating the wide edges (narrow side up) for the top.
I have a pretty good deal on Poplar for the top side (no SYP in South California). but dimension are 1.75″x ~10″.
I was thinking to laminate it Wide Side up, 2 layers deep – Less Cuts (less loss), and edge planing.
Will it be good enough ?
Am I missing something about strength ?
Appreciate the advice !
The reason we laminate the way we do is because each piece counters the other with regard to opposing grains and such; simply put it give strong resistance to internal tensions in the wood and counters distortion. You can laminate two flat faces but the countering of distortion is lessened. I have laminated that way with no problems. Use screws from the underside to get even pressure across the width. When the glue has dried, back out the screws as they are no longer needed.
There had to be a good reason for that lamination.. 🙂
.. it seems that the better way is to rip it all to ~3″ wide and laminate them that way (I guess you point out that I should also “reverse” the ring pattern is possible) .
I was wondering how I was going to put pressure on the wide side … did not think about screws – so simple ! will save it for next time !!
Thanks again !
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