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Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Popular Woodworking’s February 2013
A dream postponed – and that’s okay.
II have dreamed of my workbench for years. It will be solid maple, top to bottom. It will have the traditional face and tail vises, with a sliding dead man in between. The top? Two 31?2“- thick laminated plates separated by a series of four individual tool trays – as Robert Lang put on his 21st century bench (October 2008, issue 171).
I have considered every detail. Length and height? Check. End? Check. Round or square dog holes? Decided. Leg construction? Solid wood, flush with the front edge of the top to facilitate locking.
At the end of January last year, my wife found me sitting in my unheated shop, staring at the void that will one day occupy my workbench. “To have fun?” he asked, smiling from ear to ear. He knew I was thinking about my workbench.
Now, my beautiful wife is not a carpenter, but she loves me. And you know my poor table saw has been working in the moonlight as a countertop for a long time. So when she heard me say I should build a workbench, she got an idea. With great secrecy, she visited her favorite online retailer (the same one where she orders most of her children’s books and toys) and typed “workbench” into the search bar.
There! The site presented a series of legs for prefabricated benches, made with structural expanded plastic resins. The ad copy promised a bench in an hour – just add plywood and 2x4s! Then, with great excitement, he blew the birthday budget and clicked “Buy”.
And that’s how on my 38th birthday I found myself sitting alone, shaking in my laboratory. And that’s how he knew I was thinking about my workbench. He was overflowing with pride: he only knew that he had given me something great! How could I tell her the truth? My solid maple workbench could never have plastic legs!
He soon withdrew into the house, but his radiant joy lingered. Like fine dust, it began to settle. It landed on my grandfather’s old jack plane. That plane is ugly, but it works and connects me to him. It lit up on the duvet holder I’m making for Mom to hold the hand-sewn quilts my great-grandmother made. It landed on a wreck of the rocking horse I made for my three children.
I began to understand that the reason I love woodworking is because it connects me to my world and the people around me in mystical ways. Voice data modes from a plane skirting an axis. Ways magically shown by my daughter while covering her hair with long shavings like Nellie Oleson’s curls. Inexpressible ways.
This year I got my real birthday present sitting alone in my dull gray shop, pondering how to tell my wife that I can’t use the gift she so proudly gave. I realized I could use those legs.
Except apparently my solid maple workbench is made of southern yellow pine, because I can’t afford maple right now. It’s too tall, because I couldn’t really shorten those plastic legs. And it has some encrusted surfaces to facilitate locking, because the structural foam plastic legs cannot be made truly flush.
Maybe it’s a bad Frankenbench, but it works great. And every time I use it, I remember my true 38th birthday gift: a new appreciation for the fact that I work with wood for the connections it creates. –Paul Olsen
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