Saturday, November 9, 2013

A response to Roubo regret-bench edition

Another blogger has recently written a post explaining why he is retiring his Nicholson bench in favor of a Roubo that he is now building.  Before I respond, I want to emphasize that I think a Roubo workbench is an excellent choice with a number of advantages and I have no interest in arguing about whether a Nicholson bench or a Roubo bench is superior.  They're both superior in my opinion.  However, I do want to respond to some of the criticisms of the Nicholson design.

Despite the title of the blogger's post, many of the things he doesn't like about his existing bench aren't because it is a Nicholson.  Both designs can be adapted to a wide variety of vise configurations.  Both can be made different sizes.  The two issues he writes about that seem most related to the Nicholson design are that he thinks the top is bouncy and doesn't work well with holdfasts and he doesn't like the aprons.  These are the issues that I want to discuss,

The complaint that the top is bouncy on a Nicholson is one you hear frequently.  I think it can be valid but that is entirely a matter of how it's designed and built.  If you make the top from construction lumber and space the cross-members fairly widely, the top can in fact be bouncy in places.  My personal view is that standard construction lumber 2x12s are too thin for the top, although I'll explain below how I think you can make one with them that would be very rigid.  I made my Nicholson with full 2" vertical grain douglas fir and put cross-members every 14".  It's rock solid with no detectable bounce at all; it just goes thump.  Even though it's 8' long, I'd put it up against a  6' foot Roubo with a 4" top anytime.  The main points I'm making are that you can make the top as rigid as you want by adding cross-members, which is very easy to do, and you can have a Nicholson with a top that is just as rigid as a Roubo.  In fact, my claim is that a Nicholson bench using about the same number of board feet of material will be as or more rigid than a Roubo, particularly for a long bench.  I believe that this flows directly from the properties of wood.  For obvious reasons, a 12" skirt is highly resistant to flexing.  If you add a 2x6 to the bottom half to support the cross-members it gets even stiffer.  The flex is coming from the top.  Adding cross-members limits it.  As for holdfasts not working well in a 2" benchtop, my Gramercy holdfasts work great; I have never had any problem and I don't have any extra blocking.  I think this is another reason to have a full 2" top though.  Thick benchtops have the opposite problem and apparently have to be counterbored.

As for the skirts there are three criticisms that I have read:
  1. They take up space that could be used for storage under the bench;
  2. The make it hard to clamp things to the top of the bench;
  3. You won't use them.
It is certainly true that skirts limit access to space under the bench and, depending on what you want to store there, this could be a problem.  You can still have a shelf with plenty of room for planes, etc. and I am not sure what you would want to store under your bench that the aprons would interfere with, but it's a possibility.  I have nothing under mine and like it that way.

The clamping difficulty was an issue raised by Chris Schwarz I think and I can't understand it at all.  I clamp things to the top of my Nicholson bench all the time.  It's true that you need clamps that span the width of the skirt, the top and whatever you are trying to clamp, but that's not a big issue to me.  Alternatively, you can clamp on the ends of the bench and, if you have a split top, you can also clamp from the middle, something I do regularly.

I use the skirts on a regular basis and I am surprised that there are some woodworkers who don't.  They're great when you are jointing the edge of a board.  Roubo benches accomplish the same thing by having the legs in the same plane with the top and a sliding deadman.  Whether you prefer a sliding deadman to a skirt is a matter of personal preference, I think.  I like the fact that the skirts do double duty, as a structural element and for holding workpieces vertically.  I can't imagine how you can think they are like "curtains on a dog house."  What does he think a deadman is, a sliding door on a dog house?

I think that Nicholson benches are sometimes regarded as inferior to Roubo benches because the former are often made with construction lumber, use much less material, can be very inexpensive and can be made quickly and easily.  Mike Siemsen has a nice one that he makes in a day.  To me these are strong advantages in that they make a quality bench available to a broad range of woodworkers.  A fair comparison between a Nicholson bench and a Roubo bench, though, is to make both with the same amount of material and the same craftsmanship.

This last observation points to the real issue in my strictly personal opinion.  A Nicholson bench looks and is very utilitarian, functional, practical.  A Roubo bench often exudes craftsmanship and style.  This isn't to say that it's not highly functional, only to describe its appearance.  It's better looking to many, particularly if the Nicholson bench is made from construction lumber.  I made my bench from vertical grain douglas fir that had been rejected for millwork for minor imperfections.  It looks great to me, standing there plain, capable, unpretentious.


  1. When I first built my Nicholson bench, I remember having trouble with my Gramercy holdfasts. So I also thought that the top was too thin for typical holdfasts. Maybe I need to rough them up a bit more and give it another shot. It hasn't really bothered me though, because the Veritas hold-down works really well.

    1. If I recall correctly, Bob Rozaieski put in blocks under the holes. If I was making a top with construction lumber, I'd just glue on 2x2 strips along the line of the holdfast holes because they would also help to stiffen the top

  2. I love my Roubo bench, and have no plan to replace it with anything. That being said, I built it in a class where I had 12 other guys to help move the six inch oak top around.

    I think the best advantages of a Nicholson bench are exactly the reasons you say many people view them as inferior. If I had to build a bench by myself again, I definitely would build a Nicholson. I think many of the other pros and cons between the two are a wash.

  3. I've worked on my Nicholson for 4 years now and love it. That's not to say that slab type benches aren't great also, I'm sure they are, but never have I not been able to do anything on my Nicholson that I needed to do. As for bounce, I've had no issued there either, though I always chop mortices, etc. over the leg; just a habit. I've also heard people say they are not heavy enough and they'll move during planing. This has never been an issue for me either. I've done lots of face planing on my bench, sometimes with irons that are not as sharp as they should have been, and it's never moved once.

    To each his own. Pick the bench that speaks to you and suits your needs. For me it was the Nicholson.

    1. Reading an old blog and ther is a picture and post from Jamie. Miss you sir! God bless.

  4. Jamie,

    Good to hear from you. Your NIcholson is one of the very best I've seen. Regarding weight, my experience is the same as yours. Your bench can weigh as much as you want it to. Mine is as heavy as a Roubo and never moves at all.

  5. I've had no problems with my 1-5/8" tulip poplar top, in spite of the handwringing one reads over the holes elongating and holdfasts pulling out. Granted, it only gets used a few days a week on average for the last 2-3 years since I built it, and there's more than one hole that gets used, but I honestly do not understand the problems people have with holdfasts. I have Phil Koontz and Gramercy holdfasts.

    Anyway, you and others have nailed it as far as mortising over a leg. I use a handscrew to clamp the work to my planing stop, and stand at the end of the bench (learned that from Jeff Gorman). Rock solid. Dunno about the rest of the top bouncing; if I whale on my top with a mallet, the auger bits laying on it will move a bit, but it doesn't bounce.

    Aprons are another thing that are great if you embrace them. I've turned into a big fan of the crochet, and have no desire for a face vise (except on my metalworking bench). Since I've never had the desire to clamp work to my benchtop, I guess I don't know what I'm missing in that regard. My suspicion is that people build a Nicholson because it's cheap, and then expect it to work like a German of French bench, which it ain't!

    I won't even start on end vises on a Nicholson…I've ranted about that enough on twitter :).

  6. I think you missed the major point of my blog post. The major point of the post was that I am switching to a smaller bench for my smaller shop. And in doing so, I am customizing the new bench to meet my personal work holding needs. It just so happens that the Roubo bench will meet my needs and the Nicholson bench will not. Specially when it comes down to specific types of work holding devises. My criticisms of the Nicholson bench has less to do with the design not working for woodworkers and more to do with the design just not working best for me.