Woodworking I: The Low Saw Horse

I’ve been doing most of my sawing and cutting, mostly bamboo for the yard, on two cinderblocks using bodyweight with tabi. For the most part, this worked great, especially because the rough surface of the cinderblocks holds round things like bamboo in place pretty well if you secure the stalk with your foot.

Improvised saw station made from baseball bat blanks

Eventually I had dimensioned wood to saw, and I realized the cinderblocks were going to marr the surface of the wood. So I picked up some baseball bat blanks when they were on sale at woodcraft, and this seemed to work pretty well for a while. I could arrange them into different configurations depending on how I was cutting, and they were heavy and tough enough to stay put.

Until one day it didn’t work, and I fell and slipped while sawing. The accumulated sawdust had made the whole setup too slippery, and I could feel it starting to fail, but stubbornly pressed on because I wanted to finish my project for the night.

The problem that I had put off for years finally had to be solved. I already had some tall sawhorses from Ikea that I *should* have been using for sawing, but I learned early on that I liked to work with my whole body and hunching over a hip-height work surface was something I wouldn’t do for long. I also had found that clamped work tended to shift while sawing, and one time a clamp loosened enough to fall on my foot. So the Ikea trestles were out, and clamping to the workbench was also out.

Vices? My workbench is a battered mdf table, because previously I mostly did finish work and didn’t need a proper vice or thick table. I have a 6″ portable vice, but haven’t even set it up yet, as I have nowhere to attach it. But even if I did, vices seem to have the same hip-height problem as before, and also seem very limiting and fiddly. You have to keep moving the work around in the clamp to get everything sawed, and it seems like there’s a propensity for some awkward angles. With the cinderblocks setup took a second or two at most and was infinitely adjustable. I wanted something like that.

low horse design from 大工 齊田綾のブログ

I clicked around on the internet for a while and found a post by a japanese carpenter detailing the kind of “木組みの馬 (timber horse)” they use in their shop.

Perfect. I figured if I made it a little bit lower than the existing floor tables I liked to use, I could throw a tabletop on a pair of them eventually and have a low table for detail work as well. I measured the low table I liked to use – 15″ – and decided to shoot for lucky 13″ as the height.

For materials, I had the bat blanks, but they weren’t enough for the legs, just the top and the feet. I had some rough maple stock I’d been meaning to do something with. I figured I’d take a little off the top and practice my rip cuts. I used my cinderblocks to hold the stock in place. Since the stock was rough, this worked perfectly. However, the wavy grain of the maple made it difficult to get a straight cut.

Once the stock was cut, I realized I would need to plane it. However, I had not yet made a planing board; I needed sawhorses to do that properly. So I made a quick one with some screws and a very square 2×4. Months later, this has held up very well, so I recommend it.

This was my very first time planing, and I have since learned how to make things square, but I mostly managed smooth and trapezoidal on my first go. I don’t think I would start learning to plane with curly maple if I had a choice. I used both my veritas plane, and my japanese smoothing plane I found on ebay. I like them both, but the japanese plane is more comfortable for small work and makes softer, cleaner shavings. The weight and length of the veritas plane makes it easier to make things square, and for takedowns of big boards its added weight makes things fast and easy.

For joining the blocks, I had originally intended to use mortise and tenons. I did this for the first of eight joins. Cutting the joins, I tried to make the mortise the same width as my largest chisel, because then it was very easy to make it the right size. However, I quickly discovered why ash is used for baseball bats. It is TOUGH. I depleted all my energy for the day cutting the hole for a single mortise, with seven more to go.

Despite the wood being difficult, the actual layout of the mortise was very easy. I had cut the tenon to my chisel width, so marking it up was as simple as center, trace, tap. I eventually had to use a drill to help clear out some of the tougher parts of the wood, because it wasn’t moving very quickly. Even the poor drill struggled a bit; I could feel heat along its body when I set it down.

The result: a respectably straight leg, definitely good enough for a first sawhorse! I couldn’t really get it out once I got it in, so 一期一会.

Woodpecker square is a hard standard to live by.

The rest of the legs were attached with dowels, which made the work go much faster. I made a small drilling jig out of the offcuts when I was making all the pieces the same size, and it helped me align everything. I don’t think the dowels were quite as good as the mortise and tenon, so when I make a second pair, I will probably make them out of softwood with mortise and tenons. One other trick I sometimes do is use the left direction on the drill to “mark” where I need to drill. It doesn’t seem to damage the drill, and makes soft, neat indents that are the perfect width.

At this point I decided I wanted to round off the legs a bit, so I drew a curve and cut slivers out with a saw until I had an approximate curve. I finished off with the rasp and finally the power sander, as the ash really benefited from the use of power tools.

The last steps were glue, fill, detail sand, which happened over the course of several days because the various components needed to dry. I like quickwood for wood filler, I haven’t found its equal. The traditional method to making these sawhorses would be to fit the joins better and not glue them so they could be disassembled, but that was a little beyond my skill. I used some kettlebells and bessy clamps to really align the joins properly, so that even if they were individually imperfect, together they made a level, flat surface. It worked surprisingly well, and I was relieved that my limited skills didn’t hold me back from making something functional.

And the final result: two very tough low sawhorses. I’ve been using them the past few weeks, and they are everything I needed. I will do some things differently next time, but these are much safer and sturdier than simple wood blocks.

I put them to work the next day!

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