Last week, our good friend, Robell Awake, came up from Atlanta to help finish the two 12’ Nicholson benches the three of us started last summer. Last year, we built four leg units in anticipation of our move to the new shop and since we’re finally settling in, it was time to get those things completed.
Robell arrived at the shop first thing Tuesday morning and we picked right up where we left off last summer, both project-wise and conversation-wise. We dug out our notes and doodles about the build, re-read Nicholson’s description of the bench construction, and set to work.
During these four days of work, we selected and planed the top, side, and shelf boards, notched the front and back of the legs to receive the side boards, notched the side boards to mate into the legs, made and installed “transverse bearers” to support the top boards, scribed the rear edge of the rear top board to the wall and around the post, and assembled them both with hide glue and cut nails.
The great thing about this bench design is that even though these are made of lightweight wood, they are incredibly rigid (mostly because of the side boards). And, especially when fastened to the floor and wall, these things are bomb proof.
The build was an invigorating workout. There was a good amount of planing and ripping that needed to be done and, even though Robell said it was nothing compared to Atlanta, the heat and humidity was slowing Mike and me down. Despite the exertion, this kind of work is rewarding. To look at these massive finished workbenches and consider that my friends and I made these things with our own two hands is an empowering realization.
And the camaraderie was inspiring. As we labored side by side, we talked about life, craft, and the value of handwork in the 21st-century. This week with Robell confirmed for us again that hand tools are social and convivial tools. As we sawed and planed, we told stories and joked. If we had ear protection while standing at screaming machines, we’d have missed all that fellowship.
After we got the first bench installed into the wall on Friday afternoon, we decided to spend the last few hours of Robell’s time with us riving stock for a future bench build – a reproduction of the 18th-century Dominy shop 12’ bench. This spring, my arborist brother-in-law took down a glorious red oak and, after Mike and I rived in half, he dropped it off at the shop, where it sat until this Friday. Before quitting time on Friday, we rived the 5-1/2” thick x 17-1/2” wide top and several leg and rail blanks. Soon, we’ll rive the rest and then this stock will sit to air dry.
Robell is an incredibly talented craftsman and we are so grateful for this help. We look forward to collaborating with him again in the future – he’s passionate about hand tools and seemed energized to continue exploring their efficiencies. He’s even on a fascinating research trail to investigate historic Ethiopian woodworking. Mike and I are excited to see what comes of that. If any of you readers know of any leads, please let us know and we’ll forward it along to Robell.
With the Nicholsons just about behind us, Mike and I are going into editorial mode. At this point, we will begin editing our author’s manuscripts for Issue Five. We’ve got some incredible material on a wide array of topics and I can’t wait to dive in.