Sunday, January 21, 2018

More on portable woodworking

My trip away from the rain here in the pacific northwest is now over and it's time to assess how my evolving portable woodworking setup worked.

I recently made a base for my portable bench, described here, so it could be freestanding.  When we arrived at a nice campground in the desert, I took it out, put the bench on it and ... took it off five minutes later.  The benchtop was only about four inches lower than it is on a picnic table and wasn't nearly as stable.  I had wrongly gotten away from my original concept, which was a compact bench/toobox that would take up little space and could be used on a picnic table.  A picnic table has mass and stability so you get a rock solid work surface.  If you want more of a true portable workbench than this, you should make a Moravian travel bench like OK Guy did.  As for me, there is always a picnic table available when I want to use my portable bench and I'm tall enough for the height to be fine.  An alternative you might consider is making a somewhat taller portable bench that is designed to sit on the seat of the picnic table rather than the top.  That way, you would have more flexibility to choose the height you want.

I made another mistake too.  Unlike in the past, I went way overboard with the tools I took.  It was ridiculous.  Because I was going to be away for some weeks, I somehow thought I needed to bring every tool I might possibly want.  That was silly.  If I wanted a full complement of tools, I should have stayed home.  All these tools were heavy and cumbersome, a major production each day to get them out and put them away.  I didn't use most of them.  In the future, I will go back to a modest tool set.

Those were the misses, but there were some hits too.  I had taken rough lumber to prepare by hand and I was pleasantly surprised by the accuracy I was able to achieve using my picnic table bench.  I normally take a hybrid approach to stock preparation in my shop, using my Millers Falls miter box, ripping on my bandsaw, jointing the edges by hand and roughly flattening one side with handplanes before turning to my lunchbox planer.  It took a lot of work and calories but I achieved equivalent results by hand, a real confidence booster.  Fun too.

The big surprise came when I started to cut dovetails.  I sawed with considerably more accuracy than I ever have before and I am not entirely sure why.  It happened consistently enough that I don't think it was a fluke.  There are several possible explanations.  I had my Lie-Nielsen dovetail saw sharpened by Bob Rozaieski recently and this was the first time I used it.  It starts easily and cuts better than it ever has, including when it was new.  The second thing is that I unloaded the saw absolutely as much as I possibly could, to the point that there was almost no weight on the teeth throughout the cut. The final thing was that the height of the bench on the picnic table meant that I could stand upright while sawing and still keep my arm horizontal.  It is an extremely comfortable sawing position.  I think the answer to why things went so well lies in these three factors, though I don't know how to sort them out.

Portable woodworking may seem like a fringe activity that you wouldn't want to try, but it's a lot of fun.  Being outside in a nice natural setting, fresh air, sunshine ... is very pleasant.  Life sometimes takes you away from your workshop, so the choice is to take a break from woodworking or create a portable option.  There are expedient options that would work just fine.  You could make a "bench raiser," out of construction lumber, get yourself a couple of canvas tool rolls and use any available container to carry your tools.


  1. Great post! Could another reason be that you were outside with superior light?

  2. Andy,

    "Being outside in a nice natural setting, fresh air, sunshine ... is very pleasant." You found the key. It's not that I can't be away from the shop but working in a beautiful open air setting is very enjoyable and worth the effort to bring tools and bench along.

    I'll bet in a couple more trips it will be seamless.