She Ain’t Pretty-She Just Looks That Way. (My Out of Shape Studio Part 6)

Shelley-FrankensteinI can’t remember when in school I was assigned to read “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelly. But I do remember that I couldn’t put the book down. In Shelly’s book, a scientist named Victor Frankenstein creates a living grotesque creature in a rather “unorthodox” way. I have been working like Frankenstein on making a jeweler’s bench by taking apart old desks and creating something new. After reflecting on my route to making a bench, I’m starting to feel less like a crafty artist and more like a mad scientist. I seem to be obsessed with finding or creating the perfect bench for my studio.

Desk #1

Desk #1-found on the side of the road. A good solid maple desk. I had great ideas for how I wanted to transform it…but once I got it home I figured I could fix the lifting veneer and use it for a desk….in my office. I gave up the pretty antique table that shook while I typed and moved in the giant maple desk.

Desk #2- also found on the side of the road. This one had a metal frame and metal drawers. But the top was 1 ½” maybe two inches thick solid wood—with a teak veneer. I saved the top. The other parts were way past their due date.

oak desk
Desk #3

Desk #3- this desk was also free—this time I found it in the classified ads. Two university students from Poland were graduating and didn’t want to see the solid oak desk go out in the garbage. They had originally found it on the sidewalk in Ottawa, but thought an ad would ensure it went to home and not the landfill. I had to take my trusty and rusty trailer to Ottawa to pick it up. Worth the effort. THIS desk would become my “Franken Bench”. This desk was solid, and….too pretty to cut. Sigh. My dad is a woodworker and taught me to cherish well built furniture. I couldn’t cut this desk up.

Desk #4

Desk #4- Ah…this desk I PAID for. A whole $10. This desk needed a new life! Sadly—it was already a “Franken Bench” of sorts…the top was in 3 pieces. The body has been modified several times. Painted up it looks nice…still not a jeweler’s bench but it is handy in my studio.

old desk
Desk #5 with top from Desk #2

Sigh….Desk #5- yes there’s more. Writing this out is making it clear that I have a problem. (And it’s not just that I’m running out of space for old desks!) This desk is an old teacher’s desk, from a one room school. I’ve used it for as long as I can remember. My grandfather gave it to me. It has the original paint color on the legs. I added height and wheels and the top of desk #2. Not bad. Nice and sturdy—except I was thinking the locking wheels would be stable. I don’t like the little bit of movement when using an electric tool or when sawing metal.

rolling desk
1/2 of Desk #6 with slot board on the side for added storage, and a chunk of 1″ floor board on the top.

Desk #6- was a “Lady’s writing desk”. I found it in the classified ads. Paid more for it than all the others combined. My husband brought it home…and I promptly started to take it apart. I don’t think he expected that, but I didn’t expect the desk to be so small. I could actually sit at it, lift my knees—and lift the desk. So I used its disembodied drawers for years—with wheels. I love furniture on wheels in my studio.

Desk #7 was from a chemistry lab. The chemistry lab desk top is coated with melamine…or some other 1950’s very tough material. I dragged the top home from school when the lab was being demolished…my dad used it for years on top of two saw horses for various projects. So there is no “preciousness” about this wood. It comes with holes drilled in, saw marks, spilled glue and varnish—I won’t have any worries about just working on it.

So that brings me to desk #8. The most “Franken” of them all. It is made from desk #6 and the chemistry lab work top (desk #7) and some 2×4’s, scrap wood, slot board, lots of screws and some paint. franken desk 1I think this collection of desk parts may work out.

Lessons learned along the way to this “Franken-Bench”:

  1. Sturdiness: The top is very solid. The legs do not move.  When using a rotary tool or sawing, there is NO vibration.  (Now I will have to improve my skills, as I can’t blame the shaky table for errors!)
  2. Height: The 2×4 legs are not delicate. Over the years I have learned that I like a work bench that is higher than a desk, but not as high as a work bench. My finished “Franken Bench” is 36.5” high. That will be my working height as my bench pin attaches and is flush with the top of the bench. If my pin was higher than the top of the bench that would be the finished height. I also had to consider where I rest my arms. Some benches have arm rests. I’ve also seen arm rests that can be attached. I will have to work at this bench for a while to see if I need any. Given that the bench legs are 2×4’s I can also cut them shorter if I’ve made the bench too high.
  3. Storage: The drawers from the lady’s writing desk are just the right size to fit underneath—wheels still on! I added a piece of slot board to the side to increase storage and a thick board on the top so I can slide out the drawers and use it for extra space. Another part of my vision for this bench is to add this desk organizer to the top. 111088 I like to keep tools in designated places—as there is nothing more frustrating than looking and looking for a misplaced tool. Talk about a mojo zapper!
  4. Function: I may have wasted a lot of time adding the middle drawer—but my thinking is that this drawer will catch metal shavings…but it is probably more of a good spot for hiding snacks. I will add trim around the top edge to catch spilled beads and wayward bits. But I want to use the bench for a while to see that I don’t want to clamp something on the edge.
  5. Style: Lastly I painted it. Not that I’m going for a beautiful studio… the color makes me smile. And as I discovered paint hides a lot! It also unified all the disembodied parts…. This franken bench fits in with my other misfit studio fixtures. And I’m working on convincing myself that a beautiful hardwood jeweler’s bench just wouldn’t work for me. (Yeah right!)

    Dream bench….

Tips on finding the right bench for you:
Decide on your budget. I have no money to buy a beautiful bench so I had to find or create one. Have I wasted a lot of time looking for and building a bench that I could have spent better on making jewellery? Answer: Yes.

  • Sit at as many benches as you can—take classes, go to workshops and demonstrations. If you are more comfortable working at a regular table height—that is the best height for you. Working at desk #5 actually hurt my back. It was too high. I tried a high bar stool—but my butt favored my cushioned office chair that swiveled and was on wheels!
  • Think about how you work. How much space do you need? What tools do you like handy? What do you want to store on or in your bench?
  • Here are a few more places to look for information about workbench heights and types: 105 Jewelers Bench Comments by Charles Lewton-Brain

Information about Mary Shelly’s novel from Wikipedia: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, is a novel written by English author Mary Shelley about the young student of science Victor Frankenstein, who creates a grotesque but sentient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. Shelley started writing the story when she was eighteen, and the novel was published when she was twenty. The first edition was published anonymously in London in 1818. Shelley’s name appears on the second edition, published in France in 1823.

Link to original article by Brian Meek “Franken Bench”

Tips on setting up your bench from Rio Grande on an episode of “Beads Baubles and Jewels”

Title inspired by the song: “She ain’t pretty” by the Northern Pikes

12 Responses to “She Ain’t Pretty-She Just Looks That Way. (My Out of Shape Studio Part 6)”

  1. Reading this is wonderful. I recognize much of it in my own life as an artist in search of the perfect work stations. I have given up counting how many desks, benches and tables I have “cannibalized” (my term – lol). My husband is a terrific enabler of my “work bench goal” addiction. One thing I’ve learned from an old drawing table is that the long flat bar on the ”tummy side” that can be raised and lowered at will is a perfect addition to the jewelers bench (just don’t forget to raise it before you start working with those rolling bits). Thank you for the encouragement! Maybe I’ll send a picture when I’ve got it a bit closer to what I want.

  2. Debbie Stillman

    Thanks for sharing. What an adventure of desk finding! On another note, if you truly enjoyed reading Frankenstein you definitely need to read “The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein” by Theodore Roszak. In this digital world where I have my kindle, this hard cover book is one of the few that remain in my possession and I have read it at least 6 times over the years. It’s totally different than the types of books I read but the story telling is fantastic. I do have to warn you, it does get a little weird in some places but aside from that, I love the story.

  3. Diane Lee

    I loved this article ! I’m just like that too…..I saved an old old rather large “secretary’s desk” that is like a tank in heaviness, and has a beautiful solid wood top that’s 2″ thick… father and I stripped the top and varnished it…..the “beast” has drawers, and the top has this “drop in” area for a typewriter that you can simply open and close, hiding the typewriter, “think Murphy bed” ! lol ……I know I’ll find some use for that drop in well, perhaps a tool chest to keep out of sight…..etc. But, the other old thing I loved was a huge old solid wooden door, straddled on 2 metal file cabinets……the length is perfect, sturdy, and if you get messy, you don’t get upset, it’s just old stuff, but it works so well…’s not pretty, but it serves the function perfectly….. 🙂 Thanks for sharing, it’s great to know other artists do the same things 😉

      • Joan E. Landers

        Earlier this morning, after I had been looking for enamel and metal clay suppliers, I ran across your website and read your article on the desk-workbench. It sounds and looks like you’ve made a good one. It reminded me of the first workbench I made from parts of a workbench that I acquired by saving S&H green stamps that were acquired when one grocery shopped or got gas for my car. This was back in the early 1970’s. The parts came in a box that you had to put together: the top of the bench is approximately a 2″ thick compressed coarse shaved wood and glue mix, plus the 4 steel right angle tapered legs and 4 steel right angle supports for the bottom shelf, all of which I kept; the 3 peg-board sides and masonite bottom shelf were used for a different project. I used 1/4″ or 3/8″ plywood for the 3 sides, 1/2″ ply for the bottom shelf, and then added a top and bottom track for 2: 1/4″ sliding doors that I could a sliding travel lock on if I needed to in case a furnace person might be there to service the oil burner. I reinforced the legs with 2×3’s so that I could add heavy duty casters in case the workbench needed to be moved. Once all of this had been accomplished, it then was painted a light blue. An addition to the workbench, built entirely from scratch and attached to the back of the bench, is essentially a 3-level sliding-door bookcase made from 1×8 pine lumber with 1/4″ plywood doors which also could have a sliding travel lock. This “bookcase” goes the full length of the workbench, and holds many of my small hand tools for jewelry making and projects, etc. I also converted a small unused sitting bench into a soldering bench by adding 3: 12″ high x 14″ wide sides, topped with a piece of plywood, 14″ wide x 24″ long; on top of the ply I used 2: 1/2″ right angle aluminum strips, 14″ long, the open arms of the “V” facing the plywood top, and on top of this a piece of hard transite, 14″Wx24″L was placed. Then I drilled 2 holes each through the transite, up-ended portion of the “V”, and lastly thru the plywood so that I could use 4 mechanical screws, washers, and nuts to bolt everything together. All three units worked very well for the several years that they were used. Then my life changed, and for the last 30 years, the workshop has sat unused waiting for my return, which I hope to accomplish in the near future. Joan E. Landers

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