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Editor’s note: this article originally appeared in the February 2013 of Popular Woodworking
A dream deferred – and that’s just fine.
I’ve dreamed about my Workbench for years. It will be solid maple, top to bottom. It will have traditional face and tail vises, with a sliding deadman between. The top? Two 31⁄2“-thick laminated slabs separated by a set of four individual tool trays – like Robert Lang put on his 21st-century Bench (October 2008, issue #171).
I have considered every detail. Length and height? Check. Finish? Check. Round or square dog holes? Decided. Leg construction? Solid wood, flush with the front edge of the top to facilitate clamping.
Late in January of last year, my wife found me sitting in my unheated shop, staring into the void that my Workbench will one day occupy. “Having fun?” she asked, grinning from ear to ear. She knew I was thinking about my Workbench.
Now, my beautiful wife is not a woodworker, but she does love me. And she knows my poor table saw has been moonlighting as a work surface for a long time. So when she heard me remark that I really 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 books and kids’ toys) and typed “workbench” into the search bar.
Behold! The site presented a set of pre-fabricated bench legs, made of structural foam plastic resins. The advertising copy promised a bench in an hour: Just add plywood and 2x4s! So with great excitement she blew the birthday budget and clicked “Buy.”
And that’s how on my 38th birthday I came to be sitting alone, shivering in my workshop. And that’s how she knew I was thinking about my Workbench. She was brimming over with pride – she just knew she had gotten me something great! How could I tell her the truth? My solid maple Workbench could never have plastic legs!
She soon retreated into the house, but her 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 it connects me to him. It lighted on the quilt rack I’m making for Mom to hold hand-stitched quilts my great-grandmother made. It settled upon a scrap from the rocking horse I made for my three children.
I began to realize that the reason I love woodworking is because it connects me to my world and the people around me in mystical ways. Ways given voice by a plane skirting along a board. Ways magically displayed by my daughter as she drapes long shavings across her hair like Nellie Oleson’s curls. Ways inexpressible.
This year, I received my true birthday gift sitting alone in my grey, unlit shop, pondering how to tell my wife that I can’t use the gift she had so proudly given. I realized that I could use those legs.
Except, as it turns out, my solid maple Workbench is made of Southern yellow pine, because I can’t afford maple right now. It is too tall, because I couldn’t really shorten those plastic legs. And it has some scabbed-on surfaces to facilitate clamping, because the structural foam plastic resin legs couldn’t be made truly flush.
Maybe it’s an ugly Frankenbench, but it works great. And every time I use it, I remember my true 38th birthday gift: a new appreciation that I work the wood for the connections it creates. –Paul Olsen
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