Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Bench Finishing

This summer during vacation I managed a rather large woodworking project to completion using volunteer labor. My friend Sean had come up with plans for breakdown benches that would look medieval, and store flat. I'm actually working to make a pair of these benches in my shop, but I'm much slower and my shop is more primitive than Sean's: I expect to finish my two before we go to Pennsic next year.

Sean, on the other hand, is a powerhouse for bulk woodworking. You may remember the post I made about his 20 box run. At the time he completed the boxes, these benches were a pile of rough cut lumber in Sean's barn. In less than two months he converted that pile to what we thought was 30 collapsible benches (it turned out to be 29 bench tops and 28 complete benches).

The bulk of the bench parts were sent down to Pennsylvania with Jay on Wednesday, but Sean stopped by our house to deliver most of the bench sides at 11 p.m. Friday, the last possible moment we could have taken them with us. These benches would be outside for the next two weeks, and needed to be finished before being put to use. I promised Sean two things before I left: first, that I would take pictures of the benches after they were finished and assembled; second, that they would be properly stickered for storage during the following year. Implicit in those promises was a third: that the benches would be stained, sealed, and assembled.

So the first week of my vacation, I took a trip to Home Depot looking for staining and sealing supplies. Jay wanted to stain the benches green, so they would be identifiably ours, and after long deliberation, I chose Minwax water-based stain in an Olive tint rather than Hunter Green. Minwax Helmsman spar varnish would be the sealant. This started a two-and-a-half day marathon of staining, sealing, and convincing people to help complete the project.

With 28 total benches being finished for assembly, we recruited everyone willing to wield a brush. We went through a lot of protective gloves during this: probably 15 different people helped out with this project, the most important being Anne, who started staining and coordinating volunteers while I was still finishing the sand table. At one point the gloves we had made us feel like villains in Firefly. "Two-by-two, hands of blue".
Eventually (after several runs to The Borg) there were enough stickers to properly stack the benches between sessions. These came in handy during the finishing, since we could sticker them while they were drying from stain or sealant. Here's the full pile of 28 benches stickered while the Spar Varnish was drying:

Everyone's technique was slightly different: some charged the brushes more than others, some spread the finish more thinly or evenly than others, and some were faster than others. At the time, I could have cataloged these differences and told you who had sealed or stained each bench part, like looking at a finger print. It was fascinating to see all of us doing the work in essentially the same way, but having visible differences in the outcome. It makes clear that running samples for different finish combinations and techniques can be a valuable exercise.

The benches were completed by Wednesday. Nicodemus assembled the benches once they were dry and we enjoyed using them for the rest of the two weeks.

Sean expected the benches to withstand at least a 500 pound load (something they could plausibly be asked to do). I don't think they were ever tested to that degree, but through two weeks of use, being hauled about and seating up to four people at a time, the benches were enjoyed by the entire camp, and served without sign of failure!

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