The Japanese Floor Workbench (Atedai 当て台) by Dominic Campbell – Part 2

Good hip and knee flexibility is needed when working on the floor, but tabi socks are optional! Credit: D.Campbell

When a work lifts your spirits and inspires bold and noble thoughts in you, do not look for any other standard to judge by: the work is good, the product of a master craftsman.

Jean de la Bruyere

Introduction

Gentle Reader, welcome to this second installment in my series of articles about the Japanese floor workbench called the “Atedai.” In Part 1 we looked at some of the design considerations and construction techniques involved in making this tool. In this presentation we will get to the fun part of putting it to use.

These workbenches, as I hope you will see, are incredibly versatile tools that can be used in endless ways. My objective in this article is to show you a number of those methods, some traditional and some less so, and inspire you to maybe give it a go yourself. 

I will use examples from my own work, as well as examples from master craftsmen (including a few National Living Treasures of Japan) who have completed rigorous apprenticeships and used atedai professionally much longer than I ever will. 

I have not received any direct training in this method of working but have ‘stolen’ many ideas and methods (lit. “Gijutsu wo nusumu” 技術を盗む) through observation and practice of their techniques. 

This is the way traditional apprenticeships run in Japan – the master seldom gives direct instructions and entertains few questions, yet the apprentice is expected to learn everything – through observation and practice – and is thus said to “steal” his master’s techniques. Only in my case, my teachers are Stan, books, the internet, and videos! 

I will use a fair number of pictures and video links in this blog, as they will show much more nuance than words can about how master craftsmen use their Atedai.

Disclaimer

If you live in a ‘chair culture’ and are just starting to work lower to the ground, then this may be the first time you have sat cross-legged on the floor since school. Take it easy! Go slow, improve your flexibility gradually and your knees will thank you. This style of woodworking is physical, and you must orient your whole body with the work to be efficient, and safe, which at first can cause some aches and pains. Bear with it – the results will be worth a little suffering!

If the floor is out of the question, don’t despair! There are a number of ways to use an Atedai either sitting on a stool or standing, which we will explore in this article as well.

With that said, let’s begin!

When placed low on the floor, an atedai workbench is much, much bigger and more stable than a standard table-style workbench. Using a woven-reed goza mat, or other soft floor covering, you can convert any reasonable space into an efficient work area in a couple of minutes. The goza makes it easy to spread your tools around you within easy reach to keep the work going quickly. It also makes cleanup of woodchips, shavings and sawdust easy. And of course there’s no worry about tools being damaged by rolling off the workbench. Win-Win. Credit: D. Campbell

Sawing

Sawing using an atedai falls mainly into two categories – rough sawing for stock preparation, and precision sawing for finer work/joinery.

Rough sawing doesn’t differ much from using low sawhorses… you lay your work flat on the bench, making sure to hang it over the side, or off the far end of the bench, and use your foot to stabilize the board while your hands work the saw. This is very quick and accurate and doesn’t require large, bulky, difficult-to-store sawhorses typically used in the Western woodworking tradition, but it is dependent on using Japanese saws.

Cross-cutting lumber using a Japanese pull-saw and an atedai. The craftsman in these videos is a well known “sashimono-shi” named Kimura Tadashi. Credit: Kotaro Tanaka

The process of rough sawing is the same, more or less, as when using low sawhorses. Using one’s feet to stabilize the workpiece helps significantly. You can also stand with both feet on the stock, which can be very useful when making big rip cuts in large stock.

Fine sawing can be slightly ‘fussier’ in getting the work where it needs to be, and can depend on the kind of joint you are cutting. That said, it often helps to prop the work up somehow, particularly when ripping. This can be accomplished by leaning it vertically against the end of the Atedai, or laying the work flat on the bench (a clamp can help here) and propping up the end of the Atedai – experiment and see what works for you. I have seen craftsmen using plane blocks to prop up the near end of the bench – an ingenious and elegant solution, yet maybe not as quick as just leaning it on the end…

Another famous sashimono-shi, Mogami Toyojirou, leaning the work vertically into the end of the atedai to raise it off the bench to saw hidden mitred dovetails, a classical joint. Credit: Kotaro Tanaka

Note the size of the stops on Mr. Mogami’s atedai are much smaller than my own, and very much in the sashimono tradition.

Any cross cut, like the cutting of tenon shoulders, can be made off to the side of the bench or, if your stops are low enough, in the middle of the bench itself. I prefer to saw to one side, giving my arm room to move back and forward without having to shift position too much. You can also use shorter Western joinery saws here, by pushing the work into the stops, almost like a bench hook.

Planing

Planing at the Atedai is accomplished in only one or two positions… sitting down crossed legged, sometimes with one leg extended, or while on both knees. Give it a try and see what works best for you in your work.

You reach with your plane, and pull. Simple.

In my experience, I have found that kneeling on both knees works best for powerful roughing strokes, because I can make use my upper body weight to press down on the workpiece while making powerful, controlled cutting strokes with the plane. Alternately, planing while sitting with one leg extended works best for me for finish planing. YMMV – experiment and find what works for you.

For really long stock you can, in theory, lunge forward with one leg and rock back with the planing stroke, but that still has a length limit (not to mention the need for very strong leg and back muscles) and standing up really has all the advantage in this situation. Traditionally, craftspeople such as Tategu-shi, joiners who specialize in doors and shoji, have a dedicated planing beam in their workshop, used standing, for longer stock preparation, and use their Atedai used for mortising and other smaller tasks.

Ono Showasai planing on both knees. Credit: 木工芸-大野昭和齋の指物わざ
Mr. Mogami planing with one leg extended. Credit:Kotaro Tanaka

“What about my Baileys?!” I hear you cry.

Fear not, Gentle Reader, for you can still use Western planes… both on the normal push stroke, as well as the pull… by adopting this work style. I often use No.5 and No.7 planes for initial rough stock preparation, and both can be used well low-down, although it must be said not quite as well as Japanese planes. To push I often kneel to the side, or sit on the work and push towards the stops. Maybe not elegant, but still good enough for me – either way, no one is watching, except maybe Master Sprocket, the neighbor’s cat, who meticulously supervises every step of my work!

Yes, you can use western planes on the floor. It’s maybe not as efficient without the use of your legs, but I have flattened tabletops on the floor with the help of a no. 5 and no. 7 plane. Have you tried pulling a western plane? It works surprisingly well! Just grab the knob with your left or right hand and place your other hand on the handle. Credit: D. Campbell
The honorable Master Sprocket come by for his daily inspection. He is a tough, but fair, task master that doesn’t judge my use of push planes at the low bench too harshly, so long as the work is completed on-time. Also instrumental in keeping the workshop pixies at bay. Credit: D. Campbell

Another way to use push planes is to stand the atedai on its side and clamp the workpiece to its face, which allows you to plane standing up… this can also be useful with Japanese planes when planing longer boards or when you just need to stretch your legs and rest your back.

By standing the atedai on its side, you can use push planes with ease. Remember to place the atedai on the side you don’t use to shoot with, in my case the left side. Credit: D. Campbell

Jigs for any number of planing tasks are used as much in the Japanese tradition as they are in the West for 45° and 90° angles and, except for being designed for the pull stroke, do not really differ. One jig, however that may be new to you is a rather simple, but incredibly effective, device helping to shoot long edges. It is simply a flat board with a stop, which elevates the board above the surface of the bench, allowing your plane to shoot the edge of a board. This is one of the reasons you will often see 2 stops rather than 1 long stop on the Atedai. One stop braces the shooting board and workpiece while the gap between the two stops allows the plane to pass through and finish the stroke.

Mr. Mogami planing the edge of this board with the help of a simple, but very useful, jig not often seen in Western woodworking. From the video linked to above. Credit:Kotaro Tanaka

Chisel Work

Just as when planing, there are a number of ways, and many more besides, to use chisels at an Atedai depending on the task at hand.

For mortising, and other similar tasks, a great way to hold the work is with your derrière. Yes, finally we come to the famous bum clamp. Sitting on your stock (while potentially uncomfortable on narrow or high stock) is one of the best ways to keep the work steady while positioning yourself for efficient and safe work with your eye directly over the mortise to help ensure the chisel stays plumb. As we will see, this is also very effective while at a standing bench too.

The veritable bum clamp displayed here by Mr. Toshio Odate. Note the cushion – a long day mortising without it isn’t much fun – and the nihon mukoumachi nomi in his hand, a specialized dual-blade chisel for cutting double mortices. Credit: Popular Woodworking

Hollowing work, like that used in kurimono carving, is often performed while sitting to the side of the bench directing all the force into the stop, and keeping the work steady. Be warned here, keep a mental note of where your left knee is in relation to your chisel! In this position it’s easy to make powerful horizontal hammer blows, and the last thing you want is a chisel jumping out of the cut into your knee.

In this photo I am sitting at the side of the bench performing the heavy chisel work of hollowing. Impact forces are directed towards the stops, which is why I installed larger than average stops on my bench. In my previous post, I mentioned leaving the underside of my bench untouched – you can see the irregular thickness where the leg is dovetailed into the top. Credit: D. Campbell
Akira Murayama hollowing a tray made of keyaki wood (zelkova). Any similarity to my own work is purely coincidental! 😉 Note – in all these pictures, and videos to follow, you will see the oil pot is never far away. This is, IMHO, the most important tool you can own – I implore you to make one!

The final ‘standard’ chiselling position is at the end of the Atedai, often using your foot to stabilize the work piece, although clamps may also be used. This allows for quick repositioning of the workpiece, if needed, and holds the work solidly enough for the work at hand (foot?). As you tend to chisel more or less vertically in this position, your foot isn’t in much danger, but it still pays to be cognizant at all times.

Mr. Nakadai Zuishin using his foot to steady the workpiece. Note, you will often see the use of tightly-woven cotton tabi socks by craftsmen of all trades in Japan. While traditional, I also use them because normal cotton socks are like sawdust magnets, and my wife is fed up with hoovering the house! It also helps keep the stock clean, especially important in the finishing stages.

This number 3 in a 9 video series of Mr. Nakadai, designated one of Japan’s National Living Treasures, making a beautiful serving bowl for the tea ceremony from pauwlonia wood. You can view the entire playlist on YouTube at this link.

Standing & Sitting

So far, we have looked at using the Atedai while it is resting on the floor, but there are a number of other ways to use it if your knees say “no”, or if you just prefer to work while standing up. 

A great way to integrate the planing bench into your normal workflow is to have a slightly smaller Atedai for use on top of your normal workbench. This can be a great option if you use a mixture of western and Japanese planes, and can give you the best of both worlds. If you dimension it so you can place the Atedai under your table workbench when not in use, you can quickly and easily pull it out when needed. 

A smaller atedai placed on top of a table workbenchj for planing while standing. Although smaller in dimensions, construction is the same. Note the slight angle towards the stopped end, which some prefer. Credit: Kiyoto Tanaka, a superb luthier https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQVqu3GRbQ0
If you prefer to sit on a stool when you work, an atedai placed on a lower table is the perfect solution. Credit: kougeihinjp https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Gkt3yrdZVw 

By placing the Atedai on sawhorses, you will have a versatile, and mobile workbench which, with some practice, will do everything you ask of it. Carpenters in the field will often use a bench similar to this, made with materials on site, although they can sometimes be rather quick and dirty affairs. 

In the photo above, Mr. Makoto Imai, a highly skilled carpenter, is using a similar set up, which was immortalised in ‘The Workbench Book’ by Scott Landis. The stop here is just a screw, which is all you need for most planing operations – although care must be taken if you don’t want to mark the end grain. I love the simplicity of this set up, and find Makoto’s work truly inspiring. Credit: Daiku Dojo http://www.daikudojo.org/Archive/20070414_tfgwc_asilomar_makoto_imai_demo/ 

While easier on the body in some respects, the lack of vises (Editor’s note: “virtually free of sin”) still means these workbenches require good flexibility and the use of body clamps. There is no escaping the fact that Japanese woodworking can be very physical. With that said, due to the need to lift your knee/leg up to, or to sit on, this kind of bench I have found the work surface needs to be slightly lower than your normal Western bench – for me about the height of my downward facing palm, with my arm by my side.

The traditional knee clamp holding the workpiece in place while mortising. This may look ungainly, but is surprisingly comfortable, and is a really quick and efficient way to work. This was my previous ‘workbench’, which I used a lot before I got started in kurimono carving, and needed something more stable under heavy horizontal chiselling. Credit: D. Campbell
Using your bench, to build your bench. This picture was taken as I was making the Atedai… with no stops and no feet I could still make the stops, cut out the sliding dovetails, and make the legs. No vise? No problem! That is the beauty of Japanese tools, for me. A heavy beam will stay put under its own weight, but legs, dowels, or similar, underneath will definitely stop it from shifting. The addition of a diagonal brace between sawhorses creates an incredibly stable working surface. Credit: D. Campbell

Miscellaneous 

As you have no doubt seen, the potential ways to use the Atedai are incredibly varied. In this section I will outline some interesting techniques and ideas that may help show you just what is possible with these benches, or at least give some food for thought.

Firstly, using low sawhorses of the same height as your Atedai is a great way to extend the length or width of the work surface, and is a great solution for things like doors or shoji frames. It can also be incredibly useful if combined with, for example, a chop saw set at the same height.

Combined with low sawhorses of the same height, you can extend the workbench surface lengthwise or sideways. A great solution when working with things like doors, or longer sections of stock. Credit: D. Campbell

Next, in a real blurring of east and west, you can put dog holes in your workbench – similarly spaced as you would on a normal workbench, for use of bench dogs, and hold fasts (Veritas make a lovely version which you can hand tighten). This can really add some versatility to your bench.

These holes will also give you an alternative to the ‘foot clamp’. By making a piece of wood with a hole drilled about ⅓ of the way in from one end, and a bolt passing through it into a dog hole (no need to attach a nut to the other end), you can create a foot-operated lever to press a workpiece into your stop, holding it very securely. The picture below shows Mr. Inomoto using this ingenious tool with his atedai

Isao Inomoto making one of his famous plane blocks using an ingenious ‘foot clamp’. A series of holes along his bench allow for different size blocks. Credit: Daiku Dojo http://www.daikudojo.org/Archive/20071028_inomoto_dai_making_seminar_day2_kiwa_kanna/ 

Conclusion

So, there you have it, a whistle stop tour of how to use an atedai. As you can see, the atedai is hugely versatile, and can offer all woodworkers, especially users of Japanese tools, a great way of working.

Low workbenches of various styles are used by a huge range of specific crafts within woodworking (as well as an equally large number of crafts outside of woodworking). I hope to have sparked some ideas that will be useful in your own work. Even if you continue using a Western bench, I hope you got a hint just what can be achieved with a couple of stops and your body…

While this way of working initially may appear quite simple, this simplicity belies the huge degree of nuance required to get the most out of it… from construction details to actual use. Often it’s not what the bench brings to you, but what you can bring to the Atedai, that determines the benefit it can provide.

You will also have seen that the benches themselves, as well as the methods of using them, are as unique as the craftsman employing them, so if something works for you, and is safe, crack on. There is no ‘one way’ to work with an Atedai, and I would love to see you at work with one of your own.

The best way to get a real sense of these benches in use is to view a range of craftspeople, including some of Japan’s “Living National Treasures,” actually using them, and so I wanted to leave a list of links for you to ‘steal’ some ideas of your own.

DC

Previous Posts in This Series

The Japanese Floor Workbench (Atedai 当て台) by Dominic Campbell – Part 1

The Japanese Floor Workbench (Atedai 当て台) by Dominic Campbell – Part 1

The Shokunin’s art is difficult, if not impossible, to separate from his work space, his tools and his equipment. The craft is not apart from his life so much as it is a heightened detail of life.”

Toshio Odate
My workspace, and newly finished workbench. Credit: D. Campbell

Foreward

Today’s article is a guest post by Mr. Dominic Campbell, a friend and deeply Beloved Customer residing in Old Blighty who, when he needed a workbench, decided to make a traditional Japanese atedai, a solution I too am very fond of, even if my knees aren’t anymore.

This is the first in a two part series about his atedai Dom was kind enough to share with us. This first part is about the design and construction of the atedai in question. The second part will be about how to use this excellent tool. Enjoy!

Stan Covington

Introduction 

I began woodworking, I guess, like a lot of the readers of this blog, with some hand-me-down western tools, and a pair of cheap, flimsy, store-bought sawhorses. A lack of space, the inclement British weather and my lack of any form of work holding made sawing and other simple tasks difficult and frustrating.

I then stumbled across a video of a Japanese craftsman working in a very similar manner, yet with far superior results… I had to know what this guy knew. While reading, practicing, and absorbing as much information as I could ( some would say falling down the Japanese woodworking rabbit hole), my work developed, and I built up my skills to a point where I felt the need for a dedicated workbench. Using Japanese tools for 95% of my work, I have found they work best as part of a system, and so decided on a Japanese floor workbench AKA an Atedai (/ah/teh/dai 当て台). This kind of workbench lends itself to a very flexible workspace. It can be adapted to use standing up, and easily stored out of the way conserving space when necessary, an important part of the Japanese tradition.

Much of my own work is kurimono (刳物), or carving from solid blocks of wood, as well as a bit of sashimono casework (指物) and tategu joinery work (建具), including kumiko-zaiku (組子細工). I tried to make one bench that would work for all of these specialties, but with an emphasis on the heavy chisel work needed in kurimono. 

The first trays, called Wagatabon (我谷盆), I made with my new workbench. All carved from solid blocks of walnut. Credit: D. Campbell

After keeping Stan up to date with my progress on the workbench build, and showing him what his tools had been up to, he asked if I wanted to share my thoughts on this style of workbench.

And so, in this mini-series, I hope to show you, Gentle Reader, a method of working, and work holding that may, or may not, be of immediate practical use to you, but that is interesting, and provides some food for thought, nonetheless.

Atedai Construction

Before we look at how to use an Atedai, we first need to build one, and although the construction of the Atedai is simple at first glance, there are a few important considerations and details to keep in mind.

It must also be said here that all workbenches are as varied as the people that use them, and this is no different for the Atedai. The type of work you do, the materials you work with, the training received, how tall you are, how you intend to use it… the list is endless…will all dictate your bench’s dimensions, design details and final appearance. It is not uncommon for craftsmen to have several atedai on-hand depending on the task undertaken. In this post I will focus on just a single way to get the job done.

A craftsman caressing his atedai’s top. This picture was taken by his wife who wished he would give her as much attention. But what would she say if he beat on her with a hammer? Be careful what you wish for. (SRC)

The Work Surface

The work surface is the heart of any workbench, and it is no different here. We mostly have the same considerations too: single slab, or laminated? What species of wood? How long? How wide? How thick? What height? Will it be flat or angled? There are no right or wrong answers, within reason, and is often a case, the final selection will depend on what you can get hold of, what you like, and the type of work that you do (you can start to see why craftsmen often have a number of benches in their workshops – they are easy enough to make, and store easily out of the way, taking little space, so why not?).

My own bench top is a 57″ x 17″ x 3.5″ sycamore slab (and 7″ high with the legs in). This is quite long for the work I do, but it gives the bench good weight/inertia, and is useful for the occasional long beam I have to work. It was not, however, easy to get flat, nor is it easy to keep dead flat along its entire length and width. You pays your money and you takes your chances…

An old beechwood atedai (SRC)

Four laminated atedai in a woodworking classroom stacked off to the side. Notice they are stacked on their left edges and not their right. This is because the right edge is used for shooting and must be kept clean and free of grit. (SRC)

A Few Observations

There are a number of possible answers to the questions posed in the previous section, and so I thought it would be useful to briefly explain my thoughts behind the selection and preparation of my work surface in order to give some insight into the kinds of questions you should be thinking of.

With regard to construction, you have to weigh up the pros and cons of each approach, and make a decision that works for you. A laminated top will tend to be a bit more stable, whereas a solid top could be liable to warping a bit more. A solid slab is a bit more traditional, can be made to move a bit less through certain techniques (as we’ll see below), and is quick and easy to put together – i.e. you buy it, and apart from surface prep, the top is basically done. That said, big slabs can be harder to find (depending on where you are), and can be expensive. I actually found it easier to find a slab, than it was to find smaller stock of the same woods…. most lumber yards near me won’t give small orders the time of day… it was either construction pine, or a big hardwood slab. I hope you have better options!

In terms of wood choice, most woods commonly used to make workbenches will work fine. Too soft and the atedai will be easily damaged, but too hard and the atedai may damage your work (especially if using softer woods), and become slippery. Woods with contrasting hardness between winter/summer growth like douglas fir can work, but problems can arise especially if you shoot a lot on the surface, as the winter wood and summer wood can wear down at different rates leaving ridges. I went with Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus – actually a kind of maple) as it has a fine grain, is medium hardness, and I could get hold of it in the right dimensions for less than £100… all important considerations!

To make sure my top was as acclimatized as possible, I left it for about 5-6 months in the workshop where it will be used (it was air dry when I bought it, but I don’t know for how long). My shop is an unheated 1 car garage, and not climate controlled (I use a small dehumidifier, however), so I expect some movement. That said, I wanted to give it the best chance of settling in before I started flattening the top, and doing the joinery for the stops and legs.

When I got hold of the slab, it had quite a bit of cup and twist – one potential downside of using big slabs – and it took some hard yards to make it flat and twist free. I left the underside untouched as much as possible – to retain as much weight as I could in the bench – planing only where the legs would go, plus a bit on either side. Preparing a big slab, unless you have an industrial sized planer, is a hand tool job, so prepare yourself for a work out.

The sides of my bench are 90° to the top, with special attention placed on the right hand side when sitting at the working end. This is traditional with atedai because the user indexes a plane vertically against the right hand edge of the top to quickly shoot the edge of boards to 90° , although I prefer to use shooting jigs to help when 100% precision is needed. You can also attach a length of wood to the right hand edge to form a support ledge for the plane when shooting.

As you can see in the pictures, this slab has a few knots scattered about, which I stabilized with CA glue, and planed flush. This has worked well so far, but if the knots come loose in the future, I will cut them out and patch them.

With regard to dimensions, the general rule of thumb is that if you work wider boards you tend to need a wider bench (although you can up to a point plane wide boards on the narrow bench, it can be hard to use the bench as a reference surface to check for twist). However, too wide is harder to keep flat, is heavy, and is more expensive. 

Too short a bench makes it harder, if not impossible, to plane longer stock. But again, too long is heavy, expensive, and harder to keep flat (can you see a trend here?). It is also impractical, unless you are Stretch Armstrong, as you can only plane as far as you can reach while sitting or kneeling. That said, you can (as you will see in Part 2) put a floor bench on saw horses (or your normal workbench) to use standing up to increase your reach, in which case a longer bench can help cover long stock prep too.

A zabuton cushion for use while sitting on the floor (SRC)

The final question regarding dimensions is total height, a combination of top thickness plus the legs. Most people use an atedai while sitting on a zabuton cushion placed on the floor like the blue one shown in the photo above. In this case, the bench top should be low enough to hit your knee so you can stop it from sliding, but high enough that your plane will not hit your knee (ouch!) when planing or shooting down the middle of the stops. Somewhere between 4-7 inches high normally work well, with a slab thickness of between 2-4+ inches, YMMV. If in doubt, go higher – you can always reduce the height slightly later down the road.

Another consideration is perhaps unique to the Japanese atedai, namely whether or not to build the top with a slope. Some craftsmen prefer the bench to slope down towards the end they sit at for ease of planing, but I prefer a flat surface. It’s a better all-rounder, and it’s easy enough to jack up the far end temporarily if desired.

To slow down any movement, I sealed all end grain surfaces (using Osmo End Grain sealer) on the completed workbench (top, legs, and stops). All of this combined (plus dovetailing the legs, as explained below) has worked well to stabilize the top, and movement has been minimal, although it’s always worth checking before any fine joinery task… little and often is a good idea for keeping a bench flat. 

The end grain sealing is all the finish I have applied to this bench. I left the top with the planed surface in order to keep it from becoming too slick. As I don’t use a lot of glue or finishes in my work, I didn’t apply anything else to the surface, but a light coat of oil can help things from sticking too much if needed, however.

The Legs

Now back to the construction of the atedai, we come to the legs, or battens, which should be thick and solid – in my case 4×4 inch sycamore attached to the top with sliding dovetails. 

You can simply toe-nail, or similar, the legs in place if you wish, but the sliding dovetail helps to keep the board flat and is, IMHO, a much more elegant, long term, solution. It is not uncommon in Japan for these benches to be passed down from master to apprentice, so I built mine too with longevity in mind. Sliding dovetails can also help knock the bench down for storage or transport, if that is something that you will need.

This bench was made entirely with hand tools. The double tapered sliding dovetail is hard to achieve using machines. Credit: D. Campbell (tools by C&S Tools)

After talking to Stan, I went with a double tapered sliding dovetail, which helps the legs fit extremely tightly (while also being much easier to slide in place), and helps resist humidity fluctuations, bangs and vibrations better than a standard tapered sliding dovetail – all important advantages for a workbench. 

The double taper in this case refers to a taper not just in the width of the dovetail (as is normal), but also in the height of the groove along its length, with the leg tapered to match. This connection can be achieved in any number of ways, in my case with plane and kotenomi. The tapers on my bench were around 1cm in width, across the board, and 0.5cm in height – this still made for a pretty tight fit. 

My legs right now are just a bit proud of the edge of the top while it settles in, so I can knock them in further later if needed. Their slight projection doesn’t interfere with shooting with a top that is 3+ inches thick however, so they aren’t causing any headaches being a little proud…

The Kote Nomi, or Trowel Chisel, excels at this work and is a joy to use. Credit: D. Campbell

As a final touch on the legs, to give the bench the most stable footing possible, it is wise to relieve the middle of the legs slightly – just enough to keep it clear of the floor. Also, some thin rubber, cork, or in my case, part of an old chisel roll, help to prevent the bench from sliding around. You don’t want to use anything too thick however, as that will absorb too much shock, reducing the efficiency of your hammer blows when chiseling.

A view of the underside of the atedai showing one leg tightly inserted in a self-locking double-tapered dovetail. The legs are slightly relieved in the centre to prevent high-centreing on uneven surfaces. Non-slip feet are optional – just don’t make them too thick. You can see where I have left the underside rough-sawn to retain as much weight as possible. Credit: D. Campbell

The Stop(s)

The work you do will determine what kind of stops you need. Sashimono-shi tend to use much thinner stops, while those using the bench for kurimono, or hollowing work, will often (but not always) use more substantial stops to stand up to the forces involved, often with just one stop across the entire width of the board. Again, it’s horses for courses.

Back then, to our good old friend the sliding dovetail. In my case for the stops, I used a regular stopped sliding dovetail. I didn’t taper the stops at all, as I wanted to make sure they stay in place firmly – a sideways knock on a tapered stop will send it flying too easily for my liking.

Completed stops. You will get plenty of sliding dovetail practice while making an Atedai. Credit: D. Campbell

My stops are quite substantial, much bigger than I have seen sashimono-shi use, but stop short of a full width stop, in order to leave room for morticing longer stock (see part 2, coming soon, for the venerable bum clamp), as well as a gap for shooting. If you decide to make your own atedai, you will need to consider what work you will use it for, and plan your stops accordingly.

One useful feature of the stops is that being dovetailed, you can make several and interchange them, or remove them completely, depending on what you are doing. These benches really are incredibly versatile, and are completely custom to the work you do – a joy to use.

Summary

The finished Atedai, ready for action. Credit: D. Campbell

And there you have it. Four sliding dovetails and you have yourself a workbench that is ready to go to work.

I hope, in this post, to have given you some insight into how to build an atedai workbench for yourself, and some of the considerations you must think about if you do. They are simple benches, but there are a few important considerations to think about before you decide to make one. If you have any questions, just leave a comment below, and Stan or I will do our best to help.

In Part 2 of this mini-series I will show you how you can actually go about using such a workbench, some further customizations that one can make, and some examples from other craftsmen to help inspire you – I hope you’ll join us. 

Yours in wood,

Dominic Campbell, Kent, UK

Other Posts in This Series

The Japanese Floor Workbench (Atedai 当て台) by Dominic Campbell – Part 2