Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Carpenter's Rite of Passage


After a strong cup of coffee, sawhorses are the carpenter's best friend. They provide a stable and functional work surface and are an essential part of any building task. When I was doing construction work for my meals, if we needed sawhorses we would build them out of whatever was lying around the jobsite...essentially for free. A good carpenter can make a functional yet ugly pair in fifteen minutes. So, it was usually not I who build them. Those tasked with their assembly were fortunate to be able to customize them to his or her own working style. Therefore, they were usually too short for me. Ugh. Here's instructions to build MY perfect pair, coupled with a wordy manifesto on sawhorse construction.

Store bought sawhorses build of plastic or metal are great products, but I find them lacking for a few reasons:
  • Cost. Free vs. $20-$30..duh.
  • Uniform height. If adjustment exists at all it is a pain, especially on the metal guys. On the plastic guys it sacrifices durability too.
  • Durability. 1/8" of plastic vs. 1-1/2" of wood? Hmm.
  • Stability. Plastic flexes. Metal legs fold.

There's one manufactured product that I will stand by, sawhorse brackets. These are big metal hinges that you nail or screw your legs and crossbar onto. With a little additional bracing on the legs, these guys can be convenient and effective.

Folding is the best trait that store bought sawhorse possess. It's not something that you can do with most site build horses. But, if your work is going to be done in one place, why bother with folding horses? Build new ones wherever you go OR make them nice enough for some carpentry bragging rights.


So, these sawhorses are designed for height, durability, and ease. They have a table height of 36". They are constructed of 2x stock and have plenty of redundancy. They don't fold, but they are nice enough to become an outdoor table when not in use. 15• is the magic angle. The cut list:

  • 2 - 2x4 @ 36" for crossbar bottom.
  • 2 - 2x6 @ 36" for crossbar top.
  • 8 - 2x4 @ 36" with 15• ends for legs.
  • 4 - 6" x 36" strips of plywood for leg braces (1/2" to 3/4" is fine).
  • 4 - 6" x 12" strips of plywood for end braces, off cuts from the leg bracing.

After making the cuts, layout your fastener locations. This will make the rest a breeze. Build the crossbar by screwing through the bottom center of the 2x4 into the 2x6. Then fasten the first leg with one screw. I did this by placing the crossbar on the ground and holding the leg in place on top with my foot.

Layout marks on leg

Squaring up the leg

Halfway there

With one screw in, you can square up the leg with the crossbar before sinking the other three screws. Repeat the process. After the legs are on, the trapezoidal plywood end bracing should be placed against the nearly finished assembly. You can then scribe the cut lines to ensure clean edges. Finally, screw on the leg braces. I assembled these with 2" and 3" screws...because that's what I had lying around. A clamp or two comes in handy too, but isn't required.

Scribing the end braces


Two last pieces of information/justifications. First, the 2x6 crossbar is tall and skinny. You might have looked at other sawhorse designs and seen that many speak of the virtues of a wide, flat crossbar. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. I can't express how angry it makes me to see eHow hacks suggesting a bullshit idea like a wide crossbar. A tall crossbar allows for saws to (inevitably) cut into the sawhorse while ripping plywood without fear of cutting it in half. If it was wide there'd be a greater chance of catching your saw in the crossbar, having it buck, and losing limbs. Furthermore, a skinny crossbar will provide one point of contact between the horse and your work surface. This lowers the possibility of wobble. With a wide crossbar you have to work like hell to make sure your sawhorses are on a level surface to prevent a wobbly table, nearly impossible when working outdoors. Second, (and yes, I'm using the same paragraph) let's talk about redundancy. You do not need two crossbars. You do not need end braces or leg braces. These pieces of wood are designed for redundancy. A lot of stress is exerted on the fasteners in any sawhorse. The bracing removes stress from the fasteners. Other designs have some lovely joinery that serves the same purpose, preventing busted screws. The additional crossbar provides another surface to screw into. Four screws in each leg prevent rotational tendency of the legs better than two. Screws won't shear and the sawhorse will stay rigid year after year. As an added bonus, the second crossbar allows you to easily replace a chewed up 2x6 without having to disassemble the horses completely.

I bet you didn't think that so much thought could go into such a simple tool of the carpenter. That's exactly why I consider sawhorses a rite of passage for anyone building stuff for themselves. It forces you to think mindfully. You will know you've hit on the perfect sawhorse when it happens. You will appreciate the time and planning that you put into their design. You will have gained an education in the nature of your materials and the forces which you apply to them. You will be able to make sure your friends see them serving as a sideboard in your dining room. "Oh, those? They're nothing. Just something I threw together to BUILD THIS HOUSE, BITCH."


1 comment:

  1. Best post ever. Love you Duff!!