The Bench in My Garden

I waited a while before giving the pine garden bench it’s protective layers. I wanted the wood to be thoroughly dried down so that the oil-based finish would have the least opposition from moisture forced out by the heat of summer. Now it has three coats so I expect it to last the next 15 years. I have decided not to leave it out in the fall and winter but place it back for the outdoor sitting periods of mid spring, summer and half of autumn. Whether I do we will see. I will be 85 by the end of the trial. This bench sits alongside the oak alternative that has no protection at all. We shall see which one lasts the longer. Any bets?

An added thought here. Some of you swear by this or that finish. Well, I used a waterborne finish by Ronseal and applied three coats to a project I no longer need so I cut it up.

After ten years of living permanently outdoors and out in the open the wood inside remains like new with the finish unbroken and without water penetration. Here is a section I sawed through ready for disposal and the wood was spruce, which is not known as a durable wood at all.

In the Costa Coffee cafe this morning a man from the south here says, “Cor! Warmeneere, ennit? with no breaks between words and the two staff look at each other for an interpretation.

He looks at me as if to ask what’s wrong with them and I say, It’s not what you said but how.” He stretches the vowels and consonants and it comes out, “Itswaaaarmeneeeeraaaiintit.” I looked at the two staff, turned my hands palm up, looked up and said, “Hot!” “Ah! they said simultaneously and in clear and precise English. “Yes! It is warm today, isn’t it?”

Last week I demonstrated my craft to some people and it made me think! I have been training staff to teach and aid others in woodworking. It made me think about how we hold our different points of view. When I used to demonstrate hand tools at woodworking shows, the organisers had me there because they needed to enhance their efforts. All in all I was a draw to the shows and then again I was also a change of wallpaper; “Something interesting for the punters.” as they disparagingly put it. I didn’t mind that point of view because I got to reach their audience with a new message about what I considered to be more real woodworking methods. Once or twice the message came to me, “Don’t say you really don’t need the machines that are sold here because look what you can achieve simply without them and in half the time.” It didn’t stop me though because their vendors were complaining proved that the message was getting through.

It made little difference to the vendors, they still sold their stuff, but it made a huge difference to the “punters” because they saw a dovetail emerge from five hand tools that they already had. These of course were the novice amateurs, the ones who loved real woodworking. The ‘professionals’ were the ones I found the most hard to reach because they already knew all they needed to make a living. In the case of my demonstrating to teach this week one of the friends there said that the spokeshave needed a lot of pressure to make it work. I had to consider this because it didn’t take much effort for me at all. I realised that several things were happening at once. One, the hidden one, was her assumption that hand tool woodworking took muscle mass and strength and that she must press the tool hard to the wood. This alone increased the friction and that then led to the need for the much greater force she felt the tool needed to get it to work. The second thing was that she thought the tool sole was flat to the wood when in fact it was the leading edge digging into the wood that hindered the action.

Going against the grain, incorrect presentation, poor holding and so on all led to a need for changing attitude and some more explanation. One thing I have found the most difficult to deal with always is preconceived ideas. Taking each one of these and explaining that it was not at all the tool that was wrong dismantled all opposition. when I said, “Relax, use much less force, think more, now try.” The tool slid across the wood and the shavings curled away with each successive stroke. In the same group a man deferred to the others and said, ‘No, I have used one of those before.” I am sure that was true. But what was most likely not seen was that the bit was just newly sharpened. I have yet to pick up another’s brace bit and find it sharp. If only he had tried it, I am sure it might have reformed his opinion.

I say all of this because being a lifelong woodworker using both the so-called power equipment and then hand tools has left me with my own quite strong opinions. Each time I approach those who think they know, I see into their eyes and find a brick wall of unbelief or, worse, cynicism. Unbelief and cynicism are the two great enemies of learning and understanding.

I have been working from my plywood workbench for two months now and to me it is flawless. There is no discernible movement in the wood via shrinkage and expansion and it is rock solid. I had to make considerable adjustments to my own attitude to even consider using plywood as an alternative option, after all, it’s the product designed for mass making as well as stability. But the greater obstacle was how would people feel about me using plywood instead of some premium hard maple, ash or such. And then the zebra striping. Once I realised that we must all progress what we believe in and do it and live responsibly the barriers were gone.

28 Comments

  1. Reuben on 28 July 2019 at 11:48 am

    What finish did you apply to the Pine Bench?
    Recently finished a prototype ‘thinking bench’ for the Patio where I experimented with various techniques, including the finish, just to see how it stands up to the British weather. I went with ‘Danish’ oil and then paste wax on the horizontal sections.

  2. Tom Bittner on 28 July 2019 at 1:45 pm

    I bolted wheels made out of plywood to move my picnic table into an area out of the weather in late fall. I then rolled it back out when the weather improved and then removed the temporary wheels. ( A 6” hole saw I had around made a quick wheel). That extended the life of my table for many years. I used paint to protect it and recoated when needed over the years.

  3. Ken on 28 July 2019 at 3:10 pm

    In all events a permanent set of non absorbent feet would help. Even the metal button type should make a difference. And perhaps, for those who lack sufficient indoor space, raising on higher non-absorbent blocks and covering for the winter. Absent that end grain standing in puddles or frequently damp concrete will likely be the first failure point. Kind of like the furniture version of trench foot. Covering though can be a mixed blessing in less than dry climates. You might want to periodically uncover it on dry days and let any underlying dampness dissipate. Something like a bench having few contact points (with the cover) will be less troublesome in that regard than say a table. You need to let the breeze circulate underneath anything you cover and be aware that condensation will form on the underside of anything cold and waterproof. Knocking up a simple frame to keep air between furniture and cover is worth considering.

  4. Ian Jefferson on 28 July 2019 at 3:19 pm

    Sharpening and tuning hand tools. It can’t be said enough how important this is.

    What a revelation for me brought to me by friends of Paul Sellers and of course Paul himself. Apparently little things make a massive difference. A little lubrication on the sole or side of a hand saw or an adjustment of a bevel on a plane and developing a system to keep sharp that isn’t daunting. I sharpened up a couple of hand saws that are of dubious quality and they work just fine now and when I do something terrible like saw steel in reclaimed wood it only makes me sigh a little and back to the bench where 10 minutes later they are sharp again. Chisels are more like 2 minutes and planes are more like 5 for me but occasionally I will put an edge in a jig to recalibrate myself before going back to the slightly convex bevel Paul teaches us is OK.

    Sometimes I come across defective tools either from manufacturing defects like my Record 044 where the blade would not protrude from the skate and I just contemplate what geometry has to change to get the edge to cut easily.

    I still use and old oil stone for some edges and the diamond plates and strop for the main work.

    Whether intended or not Paul seems to have taught me that there is no right or wrong usage for any tool. I use a #78 rebate plane to refine tenons even using the non reference side of a larger piece for example if I want to do cross grain from either end. It works fine so long as the blade is slightly proud of the side in question.

    I still use plenty of power tools but I hate using them because of the dust an noise and more and more often I find hand methods are just faster and more flexible. With hand eye coordination and a hand saw I can beat setup time more often than not.

    I’d love to see Paul operating at full speed though making a box or other utility item.

  5. Joe on 28 July 2019 at 4:11 pm

    My only concern on the plywood bench was the zebra striping on the top when you are working on it. Now with a few projects filmed on it I can say it looks quite nice.

  6. jay gill on 28 July 2019 at 5:58 pm

    We are rapidly approaching the day when power tools will no longer be an option for most wood workers. We need to reduce the amount of CO2 by replacing power consumption, and splitting the grid into smaller parts.

    “power tool” will return to being water powered. Hagley Museum (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hagley_Museum_and_Library) has an amazing shop fully water powered. As always I’m amazed at what people in the 1800’s achieved with hand, wind and water power. See The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World for an outstanding overview of how our ability to measure evolved.

  7. Robert W Mielke on 29 July 2019 at 11:28 am

    I generally wood with the wood I have on hand. I’ve built two outdoor benches, one of pine and the other of poplar. Neither bench has any finish on it, yet. These benches are under a roof overhang so the rain doesn’t reach them. They are well sanded and stable to sit on. They work for me.

  8. Marc on 29 July 2019 at 11:35 am

    Have you consider that your “power tool” could be powered by hydroelectriccity? No CO2 emissions here.

    • Paul Sellers on 29 July 2019 at 1:49 pm

      No. The alternative ways of powering massive machines were only the stepping stones to industrialising the world filled with their own empires with the ultimate being electricity and the motors they drive. Or of course nuclear power. Machines were invented solely to displace the need for skilled workmanship and craft and so dumb down crafts skills across every industrious home workshop and small business. They in turn required people only to merely maintain them should a thread snap or a board twist in the new industry of mass manufacturing. I have no nostalgia for massive mills and vintage factories nor the methods of production. The true skill was in the men who designed and built the mills and its mechanisation and machinery – amazing stuff.
      The then so-called and once revered British Empire made massive inroads into the development and use of gunpowder, water pumps, coal and working working men, women and children to the bone so it could dig ever deeper into the bowels of the earth for coal to feed the furnaces for melting and smelting iron and ores to then feed further its insatiable desire to cross seas and continents by which it could then “rule the waves” and fly its flag. Other european countries of course did exactly the same but perhaps not to the same degree as Great Britain as it was then called and known as. It was of course mostly rooted in greed. Ownership of mineral rich lands translated into dominance and only few races escape wanting to dominate ultimately. Now of course countries seem ever more to want to try to clean up their acts but can’t because the Industrial Revolution has expanded to worldwide greed pollution. Just an alternative point of view.

  9. Graham Fitton on 29 July 2019 at 12:38 pm

    Hi Paul,

    I just finished my workbench with a few mods. I did a hybrid of the two designs. The top and aprons as per the original, the trestles were made up of laminated smaller sections of pine so I didn’t need to dig the mortises and built them in a similar way to the plywood version.

    I’m so happy with the result. Not the flawless example you built, but the best thing I’ve built in a long time. Love the knife wall technique and using hand router plane inside the aprons.

  10. Loxmyth on 29 July 2019 at 12:52 pm

    Re the comment about elevating the piece to get end grain off the ground when not in use: I’ve seen suggestions that fence posts should have their end grain “packed” with epoxy to try to reduce water uptake. Might be an interesting experiment to try that with outdoor furniture.

  11. Michele Abbiss on 29 July 2019 at 1:56 pm

    Your benches are beautiful! Not sure if we can purchase Ronseal in Canada, but I’m going to look for it:)

  12. Mike on 29 July 2019 at 4:40 pm

    When did they put a Costa on Bridge Street? Man, you leave the country for one lousy decade…

    • Paul Sellers on 29 July 2019 at 4:58 pm

      Yes, two Costas. This is in the old jail complex right next to the river.

  13. Mike on 29 July 2019 at 6:08 pm

    They only had the one on the square when I left. Of course, no doubt I wouldn’t recognize a lot of the town today; they re-did the precinct after I emigrated, and no doubt there’s been a lot of other changes.

    • Paul Sellers on 29 July 2019 at 7:42 pm

      The precinct was not one of the towns better design development moments I must say really. Quite lacking in in any sort of vision in my view. I think Abingdon county council councillors seem a bit stuck in a rut where they rely on old moneyed ways and little innovative thinking. I suspect it’s more that they can’t keep pace or up to date more than anything. But the people of Abingdon are what makes the town tick, not the county council.

  14. Derek Eder on 29 July 2019 at 6:39 pm

    Thank you Paul for sharing so very much of yourself with us. Your generosity and depth of being are treasured gifts.

    I used to feel irritated when I read nitpicking comments about plywood, power tools and grammer until it dawned on me that these too could be a highest complement. People feel comfortable enough with you to share their opinions openly. I suspect Tage Frid would not have been so welcoming : )

  15. Mike on 29 July 2019 at 11:48 pm

    Eh, the county doesn’t know Abingdon’s alive. The town and district are what really messed up the precinct. It was a novel idea when they built it, an attempt to get away from the slums which had previously occupied a lot of the area, but it was built according to the whims of the time, rather than with a real eye to the future.

    If you’re really interested, the Abingdon historical society has some interesting old pictures.

    No doubt you’ve wandered around in the vicinity of Albert Park, but if not it can be very enjoyable.

  16. David on 30 July 2019 at 12:07 am

    Stick to woodoworking, Paul. Politics isn’t your strong suit.

  17. Mike on 30 July 2019 at 12:44 am

    He’s not 100% on local politics, but he’s not wrong, either. He’s probably more up to date on the minutiae than either you or me.

  18. Rob Collins on 30 July 2019 at 3:07 am

    Paul I believe that your political analysis is spot on: precise and clearly thought out. Just like your woodworking.

  19. Mike W. on 30 July 2019 at 3:16 am

    The problem we have with plywood in the states is the availability of a decent grade. The big box stores seem to only carry CDX grade or furniture grade with interior grade glue and 1/42″ exterior veneer. I have yet to see a lumber yard with any Baltic birch, sapele, okoume. Whenever I want this stuff I have to order it and the shipping is almost as much as the ply. I live in a major east coast metro area.

  20. Doug on 30 July 2019 at 4:03 am

    Paul in regards to the disdain expressed by the power tool crowd the following might be appropriate..

    “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance– that principle is contempt prior to investigation.”
    –Herbert Spencer

  21. jeff killian on 30 July 2019 at 5:42 am

    Mike, If North New Jersey, or Southern NY there is always Kuiken Bros lumber for a whole host of plywood sheet goods.

  22. Justin M. on 30 July 2019 at 1:18 pm

    Mike,

    Where is your “major east coast metro area”? I have lived in both NY and DC and can help you out if it’s either of those.

  23. Jhon Z Baker on 31 July 2019 at 11:24 pm

    Everything you wrote in this post is fact as far as I am concerned. Sharpening is the important skill in hand tooling I’ve found and when I part time at a woodworking store in the states I often give advice on hand tools and sharpening and leave the questions about the CNC to the other employees. As a luddite I don’t use one and don’t want one in my shop – I’ve come to the agreement that it is woodworking but it isn’t the woodworking that I admire or aspire to.

  24. Mike W. on 4 August 2019 at 5:54 am

    Justin M.

    I live half way between Richmond and DC.

  25. Andrew Churchley on 4 August 2019 at 5:34 pm

    I always use one or more preservatives on garden furniture and constructions. But wherever end grain rests on wet concrete or stone, or faces the sky, it can soak up water, making these locations the first to rot. I like added protection to prolong life. I have had good results with sacrificial, treated wooden feet nailed on (galvanised) with the grain horizontal. These are more quickly and cheaply replaced than an entire garden bench. I put sacrificial wood caps on top of the posts supporting my raised beds; nothing new about this, they have been used on fence posts for donkey’s years. My garden seats with cast iron feet rust and stain the concrete. Not any more – a proofed wooden runner screwed to the feet on each side, prevent this staining and also make the heavy benches easier to slide. I hope these simple suggestions may be useful to some of your readers. Finally, thanks for your two great gifts, the knife wall and the oily rag pot. I am very impressed by the thin but very even oil film left by the latter. All my tools now have a thin coating on them!

Leave a Comment