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The Uber Bench

May 15, 2011
by

On April Fool’s Day, I got an email from Franco. A former business acquaintance of his named Bob, was clearing out his father’s basement workshop. Pictures of the workshop were attached, and there was just about every tool imaginable, from vintage hand tools to large contractor-grade table saws. When I read that everything was for sale, I about pooped my pants.

But then I thought: “Wait – it’s April Fools Day… Has Franco picked up on my penchant for practical jokes?”  After a couple back-n-forth emails with Franco, he convinced me it was legit. While there was going to be a yard sale for everything in a few weeks, they were looking for handy-guy types that knew what they were looking at to preview and buy some of the premium stuff before the sale went public. It also meant that Bob didn’t have to move it out of the basement for the yard sale.

A few nights later I met my friend Eric, and Franco and Bob over at the workshop and all I can say is that I was mesmerized. Bob’s father, Robert, had spent many decades perfecting this basement workshop and he had customized every power tool stand to fit the way he liked to work.  It was like going through a museum. While Robert had customized everything, he left himself breadcrumbs – extra bolts or jigs were always labeled in permanent marker with their purpose and specs.

Though Eric left after 30 minutes or so (he had his son with him), Franco and I stayed for 3 1/2 hours (!) while Bob told us stories of working in the basement many years ago with his father. It was so cool exploring all the nooks and crannies. Every few minutes one of us would be digging in a corner and exclaim “Holy Crap look at this!” and it would be some custom jig for a router table with notes written all over it how to use it. Or there would be a small ziploc baggie full of bolts with a note in it that said “Bolts for attaching Workmate to Sears Table Saw.” Sometimes it seemed like we were digging through an old small-town hardware store.  And every jig or bracket or stand was painted the same gray/green color, and any screw or bolt with red marker on it meant that those were the key bolts to take out in order to temporarily remove the jig with the minimal number of bolts. His level of detail was inspiring.

While I know you want me to get to the meat of this post – I have to take a few more seconds to talk about Robert. First, his lettering in all of his notes was perfect – he must have taken drafting classes. And he wanted things the way he wanted them – for example – EVERYWHERE we looked there were little 3/8″ diameter metal tubes about 4″ long screwed to stand legs, walls, even the insides of doors; they were angled out and up at 45 degrees, and in each one was a little pencil. He wanted to be able to place a mark on his work anytime anywhere.

So that night I told Bob I’d buy the contractor table saw setup, a vintage pipe-bending tripod and threader set, and this awesome metal-top workbench that had a system of custom metal storage drawers built into the space between the legs.

We setup a date a couple of weeks later to dismantle all of Robert’s customizations and take things away. Sue came with me, and Franco also arranged the same day to take the things he was getting. (It was beneficial for all of us to be there as we could gang up to carry heavy things out of the basement.) It took Sue and me almost two hours to get the table saw apart and packed in the B.A.T.  We decided we’d have to come back another time for the workbench, since it appeared to have several power connections and conduits connected to the adjacent vintage drill press/sander machine. (You had to flip a switch on the workbench to run the neighboring drill press and/or sander…)

A few nights later at BAB, I setup the awesome table saw and its adjoining work surfaces. The jigs and sleds that came with it impressed many of my woodworking friends. It has several Incra jigs and it’s total work surface area is about 50 square feet. Sweet.

Because I knew the metal workbench would be heavy and complicated, I begged my friend Eric to come back and help me with it, and after he agreed, I found a date that worked for me, Bob, Eric and Sue. So about a week ago we met back in Robert’s basement. Bob had moved the table out from the wall, and taken off the surface-mounted clamps and vise that were attached to the top.

For about 15 minutes, we tossed around several ideas how to attack this thing – we needed to dismantle it without damaging anything so that it could go back together.  We started by flipping it on it’s side – that made it a little easier to remove bolts and screws.

Beached Bench

Big vise at end of bench top

LOTS of bolts to remove

We got all the visible bolts removed but still had no idea how this tank comes apart. We discussed cutting it in some key places; but I knew if we cut the wood supports then I’d have to rebuild/replace them. We also considered cutting the metal; at least I’d be able to weld that back together. We also questioned whether we had to take it apart at all. Besides the weight (probably 400 pounds empty), maybe all four of us could just carry it out? But a quick measure of the exit doors told us the bench would not fit and we’ll have to flatten it.

Then we got the idea to flip it over onto it’s top. A new perspective might make it easier to figure out. With some slight prying and patience, the bottom “tray” (that supported the drawers) came loose and we finally removed a piece of this beast.

FINALLY, something comes loose

With a little more nudging and pulling, we realized that each drawer support tray was an individual assembly, and was only doweled to the next support, without glue. Good ol’ Robert – he designed this thing to come apart and go back together!

The rest of the trays needed to be lifted and then shifted back and forth between the table legs until one end could clear the feet and be pulled free. That sounds a lot easier than it really was; the wood trays needed lots of hammering to push them sideways, and a few dowels were broken, and a little wood splintering. It took the four of us nearly three hours to get it taken apart and packed into the truck. It looked like a pile of junk.

B.A.T. hauling Bench

We unloaded everything back at BAB. I knew that I should put it together sooner than later, lest I forget how it all fits.
The parts were all  laid out in our big front room:

The bench with legs folded

Insert this between legs

Not sure what these are...

40 drawers of goodness

Close-up of Robert's labels

It wasn’t until a week later that I got around to assembling it. I started by flipping the legs up.

Workbench upside down

Three trays installed

Then each tray had to get hammered into place. There were some vertical dividers attached to each tray; unfortunately those suffered the most damage during dis-assembly and I had to remove the old wood screws that fastened them to the trays and replace them with longer screws.

It took me about three hours Friday evening to get HALF of the trays in place. It was pretty slow progress, but that’s better than NO progress. And considering there’s no instruction manual, and I have to sort through all of the bolts.

I resumed the project on Saturday afternoon, after Sue & I went to the Modernism auction at Selkirk’s. I found that many of the dowels holding vertical pieces in place were broken, and I couldn’t find my box of dowels. I took a pic and sent out to my friends to see if anybody had some.

Dowels needed

Even though I didn’t get any more dowels, I was able to take a few broken pieces and glue them into holes. I also didn’t think I needed as many as Robert put in the first time.

Things went a little faster with the last three trays, and then I could finally tighten all of the bolts that hold everything together.

All drawer trays installed

I needed Sue’s help to flip the bench back upright. Then I could install the thin sheet of plywood that covers the top set of drawers, which also becomes the bottom of a flat storage area directly under the bench top. There was also a shallow drawer that’s in the center of the unit, with vertical dividers on each side.

The last task was to attach all of the pieces that install on the top – unfortunately, I was not there when Bob removed them so I’d have to figure it out on my own from that box of bolts.

There was a big metal shop vise attached to the front corner of the bench top. I sorted through the bolts and figured out two of the three connections. But then I found that the third one – actually had a bolt that was inside the tabletop. I could see the end of the bolt in the hole, but the head of the bolt on the underside was inaccessible – the continuous hinge of the bench leg covered it up. Bummer.

Hidden bolt in center of pic

I asked Sue if she knew where any magnets were; she said no but the only thing she could think of was the Buckyballs, probably because I’ve left them laying around several times. (Buckyballs are super-strong Rare Earth magnets that are basically a desk toy.) First I thought “Nahhhhh…” but then, “Maybe they would work…”  So I stuck one onto the end of a bolt and used it to pull the hidden bolt out of its hole.

Fishing with a magnet

Pulled out hidden bolt

– – –

But now that I had it sticking out, I couldn’t let it go. So I needed something to hold it in place while I slipped the vise over it. A single Buckyball could hold it to the table. They really ARE strong!

Bolt held up by Buckyball

Bolt with balls ready for a nut

Then I slipped the vise over the top, and put three more Buckyballs around the bolt holding it to the vise. Then I could take a small screwdriver and pop out the single ball below the vise.  Slipped over washers and a nut, and the impact driver had it tight in a few seconds.

I decided not to attach all of the electrical boxes that Robert installed, as half of it was customized for that drill press that was next to the bench back in his basement. The large vise at the other end of the table was just a simple threaded pipe to install – but it seemed really tight after about half way closed. I kept opening and closing it while watching the parts below the counter, thinking maybe I installed something incorrectly that could be interfering with it. Then I thought that maybe the alignment rods and threaded pipe were getting out of alignment, since it got tighter as it closed up more. That could happen if I had the thing in upside-down. So I unscrewed it all the way and looked at it closer. I should have known better and looked at it as I installed it – Robert had written “Top” on the side that goes up. Duh.

It was time to call it complete, so I popped in the 40 boxes of tools and supplies.

Leftovers

Not surprisingly, there were a few extra bolts and parts leftover. That’s what happens when four people take apart something as fast as they can and randomly toss all the bits into a box, and only one of them has the task of reassembly.

– – –

Finally, the bench is completed in all of its glory:

The completed Uber Metal Work Bench

Thanks to Franco for telling me about this opportunity, and thanks to everyone that helped – definitely could not have been done by myself.

And a final note about Robert: I wrote in the beginning of this post that he was very thorough and wrote notes everywhere, labeled all parts with “A”s and “B”s or “L”s and “R”s, and saved every manual. It was somewhat charming when I found a note that he had written on the back of the center drawer:

Robert left his mark

I’m proud to have this one-of-a-kind bench in my workshop.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Mom Peterson permalink
    May 20, 2011 12:25 am

    Tom,
    Thanks for sharing such a wonderful story. And, what a precious “find” for you. Also reminded me a little of Dad’s handiwork. I know you will enjoy all the tools. So happy for you.

    xxxoooxxx

  2. Dustin Bopp permalink
    May 16, 2011 7:54 am

    I am sure many could say the same, but this story brought a little tear to my eye thinking of both my late grandfathers. I still envy their woodshops (and organizational skills) and aspire the same for myself. I am certain Mr. Vavra would be proud and satisfied that his talents and efforts are appreciated and his valued tools will continue to be useful to someone who appreciates them as much as he did. Very good story.

    • Tom permalink*
      May 16, 2011 6:28 pm

      Thanks Dustin. There’s nothing better than using the same tool the same way our forefathers did. And it was hard to walk around Robert’s workshop without bringing back happy memories of my own father’s tools and when he taught me how to work with my hands.

  3. Tom Finan permalink
    May 16, 2011 6:10 am

    Stuff is just stuff. Objects that have a person, time, place, and a STORY attached to them have inestimable value. Thanks for sharing this.

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