Visiting the Saalburg Workbench

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This is an excerpt from “Ingenious Mechanicks” by Christopher Schwarz. 

Throw the Bench Down the Well
It’s not unusual to find Roman artifacts stashed in wells. Archaeologists have recovered thousands of tools, domestic goods, nails and even coins from the bottoms of Roman wells. The reason: Stashing valuable goods in wells was a typical Roman reaction to the threat of an overwhelming attack. If the Romans threw their precious bits down wells before retreating, there’s a chance they could recover their valuables later. And if they weren’t able to recover their items, there’s a chance their attackers wouldn’t find them, either.

But before we start discussing the fall of Saalburg, let’s look at how it started.

The Saalburg fort was founded about 85 C.E. as two earthen enclosures to protect a mountain pass. This was later improved to a wood and earth fort. In the second century C.E., Saalburg was expanded to become an impressive stone fort that housed a “cohort,” a unit of about 500-600 Romans. The fort served as one of the important links in the “limes” (pronounced “lee-mez” and not like the citrus), which was the frontier between the Roman Empire and the hostile Germanic tribes to the north.

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Return to Rome. The reconstructed Roman fort at Saalburg offers a glimpse of the fort as it likely stood 1,800 years ago. Walking through one of the fort’s four gates is thrilling. Even more fascinating are the objects on display in the fort’s museum.

About 260 C.E., the Roman limes fell. All areas east of the Rhine River were lost to the Germanic tribes of the north. Saalburg was abandoned during this time, apparently without a fight. Yet the fact that the fort’s wells were filled with tools and other important commercial objects suggests that its occupants felt threatened.

After the fort was abandoned, it was used as a quarry. And its history and very existence faded away until the late 19th century. After decades of research into the Saalburg fort by archaeologists, Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered in 1897 for the fort to be reconstructed. It is now an open-air museum and research center for archaeologists who study the limes and Roman technology.

We Go Below
Today, below the museum is a climate-controlled room with thousands of Roman objects. That’s where museum educator Rüdiger Schwarz took us one summer day in June. Its entrance is below grade, like a cellar door. Then you traipse down a few steps to a masonry-lined room that looks like the mechanical area of a school or office building. There’s equipment to control humidity. Lots of locked doors. Any janitor would feel at home.

Rüdiger unlocks a couple of doors and the scenery changes. It’s still a climate-controlled basement, but the hallways are lined with wooden shelves that go from floor to ceiling. And they are filled with bricks, pottery and woodwork. All of it neatly labeled. Though we’re walking at a normal pace, I stumble when my eye latches onto a label or an interesting ceramic. My feet don’t know what to do – move or stop.

We make a left turn; as do the shelves. To my left are banks of wide and shallow drawers filled with hundreds of artifacts. The only sound is a buzz from the lights above as they flicker on and warm up. I don’t suffer vertigo, but the floor seems to sweep upward as we pass into a cluster of wooden objects – wheels, stools and pieces of bridges that are bound in iron. Every wooden object is blackened from its time in a well that had no oxygen but lots and lots of iron objects.

And then there it is – the workbench standing on four legs like a lame dog. None of its legs are in the same plane, likely the result of it being waterlogged for hundreds of years and then being dried out in 1901. At some point, the benchtop split in its middle across its width, but it has been mended and looks sturdy and ready for straddling. There’s a piece removed from the back end where archaeologists attempted to date the bench – the offcut is also handy so you can see the annular rings of the tree and the way the iron has leached its way deep into the fibers of the workbench. It is black through and through.

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Well, well, well. Some of the restored wells outside the walls of the Saalburg Roman fort. Many of these wells were filled with Roman artifacts. During our visit we failed, however, to locate well No. 49.

I want to sit down, but the only seats available are 1,800-year-old stools and benches. And that’s when I realized the bench was between my legs.

“Pick it up.”

For me, the Saalburg workbench is a touchstone and a mystery. As the earliest surviving workbench, it is a link to woodworkers who existed centuries before us. Their tools are remarkably similar to ours. Yet their workbenches are a bit foreign. Many of the benches are knee-high and have workholding schemes that are dirt simple and somewhat alien.

When I’ve shown images of these early benches to other woodworkers, many have ready explanations for what this peg did or that notch was used for. But they don’t really know. The only way to find out – aside from cloning an old Roman woodworker – is to build these benches and build furniture using them. And even then, it’s difficult to be certain you are on the right path.

Meghan Bates

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More Crucible Lump Hammers on Thursday

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A large number of Crucible Lump Hammers will go up for sale in our store at noon Eastern time on Thursday, Nov. 15. This likely will be the last batch of lump hammers we will sell before Christmas.

This is our largest batch so far – Raney has been toiling for weeks in the Crucible Lab to get the heads milled and the hammers assembled and finished. We hope this batch will last a good long time so that everyone who wants one can get one, but we simply don’t know if we’ve made enough this time. So mark your calendars and set an alarm to avoid disappointment.

And Sweatshirts!
We now offer high-quality Champion sweatshirts that feature the Crucible logo – an ancient symbol used by alchemists in recipes to depict a crucible. These sweatshirts are the best we can get our hands on – hence the price. (We’re taking very little profit on these.)

One last note: If you have a question about Crucible, please send it to help@crucibletool.com. Sending questions about Crucible to Lost Art Press will only delay you getting your answer. Crucible is a separate company with different people handling different chores. Thanks.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Blue Spruce Sliding Bevel & Try Square

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Blue Spruce Toolworks is known mostly for tools that cut – knives and chisels – and not tools that lay out. That’s a shame because the Blue Spruce bevel gauge and try square are excellent tools with some special features.

We’ve had the try square in our shop for more than two years now, and it is the tool we all use in the machine room to check things for square. I chose the Blue Spruce for this difficult task for a couple reasons. One, if it gets dropped on the concrete floor and is knocked out of square (this has happened twice) it is easily returned to perfection in moments thanks to its internal mechanism.

And two, the ceramic coating on the tool stops rust. Our machine room is climate controlled, but it is a much harsher environment than the bench room.

In use, I quite like the ceramic coating on the tool. I wasn’t sure I would. I have an aversion to anodized aluminum for some reason. The ceramic doesn’t look like fancy aluminum foil around a Christmas package. It’s matte and smooth.

You can customize the look of the square – there are currently nine color options (including an anodized finish). You can choose the finish on the blade, the wood infilled into the handle and the hardware. Chances are that no one you know will choose the same combination as you do, making your square easy to spot in a class or bench room. At $150, this square is a steal. The quality and engineering are outstanding.

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Bevel Gauge
The bevel gauge is the latest addition to my tool kit. As I delve into teaching chairmaking and other staked pieces, I have students asking for my recommendations for bevel gauges (also called sliding bevels and siding T-bevels).

Of course, I love the bevels from Chris Vesper. Always have. But the waiting list for those can be months at times. Lately, I’ve been recommending vintage Stanley No. 18s, which are great but can be difficult to find, depending on the weather.

The Blue Spruce bevel is as outstanding as its fixed-blade brother discussed above. You get to pick all your colors and stuff (it’s like your wedding!). The bevel locks crazy well. Better than the Stanley No. 18. I haven’t compared it to the Vesper bevel, but it’s fair to say both lock plenty hard for tough workshop use.

The bevel is $175. That might seem steep compared to the cheap bevels at the home center or the woodworking store, but those don’t lock for crap. And they have several fundamental design flaws that make them suitable for melting or burning. The Blue Spruce is one of those tools that you’ll fall in love with the first time you use it.

Both tools are highly recommended.

— Christopher Schwarz

Standard disclaimer. I buy all my tools at full retail with my own money. I’ve never been sponsored or accept free tools for review. I’m not an affiliate of any website. I hate that stuff.

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Chair-a-thon This Weekend

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Chris and I have been as busy as Santa’s elves over the past few months, building all manner of chairs. A month or two ago, faced with the dilemma of wanting to build more chairs but already having a through-the-roof “chair-per-capita” count in our homes, we thought we’d put together a little show and sale at one of the Lost Art Press Open Houses – and this weekend is the one!

To further entice your presence at the show, here are some of the chairs that I’ll have in the show. With the holiday season approaching, we thought we’d combine a gallery-style show with a furniture sale – many of the pieces below will be for sale, as noted, and all will be available for examination and sitting!

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Tage Frid inspired stool: This three-legged stool, in the style of Frid’s classic design, was my first chair, made while I was a student at The Krenov School (then the College of the Redwoods) from some lovely curly tanoak. It is not for sale – some lucky Arkansas-born anarchist has got it at his house and is kindly bringing it to the shop for this show.

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Staked Dining Set: This four-piece set of white-oak staked furniture (two chairs, a bench and a table) were my first foray into staked furniture, with milk-painted accents and solid joinery. The set makes a nice breakfast nook setup, which had been its use in my house until I started down the rabbit hole of building far too many chairs. This set will be for sale, as a complete unit, for a handsomely low price.

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Settin’ Chire: This greenwood ladderback chair was made in the style of Chester Cornett, with carved pegs, octagonal posts and rungs and a three-slat design, all made from green red oak from Eastern Kentucky earlier this year. It’s seat is woven with Danish cord in a plain weave. It will be for sale.

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Jennie Chair: This Jennie (or “JA”) chair was built using white oak posts, rungs and slats that were salvaged from Jennie Alexander’s garage last month during our trip a few weeks ago. It has a simple Danish cord seat. I’m just finishing it up today and tomorrow, so this will be the newest piece from me in the show. This piece is not for sale.

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Twin Bookmatched Stools: This pair of three-legged, braced-back stools made from a single slab of olive ash were just finished, with a unique bookmatched pair of slab seats. These are low stools, akin in seating style to the classic “cockfighting” stools popular in 19th-century Britain. They’ll be for sale as a set, it would a shame to split them up.

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Five-legged Staked Chair: This is a new design that I came up with for my upcoming class at the storefront and at Port Townsend School of Woodworking later in 2019. It has a braced-back crest with flying supports akin to the bookmatched stools, and a massively sturdy five legged stance, made from some mighty red oak. It, too, will be for sale.

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Høj Footstool: This simple footstool, made from red oak and Danish cord, is a blending of Danish modern and Appalachian post-and-rung styles, thus the name, “Høj,” a rural word in Denmark for a hill. This stool will be for sale at the show.

I’ll also be showing various projects and tools I’ve been working on, have a few other small items for sale and demonstrating some of the techniques used in the construction of these chairs. We’ll also have a variety of fun activities, including some “Chiremaker Crown” craft activities. And, a “Chairmaker’s Sighting Square” might just be getting raffled off…

So, I hope you can find the time to come join us!

— Brendan Gaffney

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Make Your Own Dang Shirt (or get it Forwarded)

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We get asked on an almost-daily basis why we don’t ship things overseas. The answer is: We do. We ship our books to our international vendors so they can sell them to customers with a reasonable shipping cost.

But what about T-shirts, bandanas, chore coats and the like? That’s where it gets complicated.

Shipping directly to Europe is a tax nightmare for us (thank you, EU). And on advice of our attorney and accountant, we have decided to sell only through our international vendors so that we don’t end up doing a lot of paperwork.

Shipping to Canada, Australia and other countries is a different kind of problem. It’s insanely expensive. Even with a fully automated, high-tech warehouse with accounts with all the international carriers, we can’t get shipping rates that are even close to reasonable. The cost of shipping a book is usually more than the retail price of the book or bandana or sweatshirt.

We have tried many schemes (too many to list here) to sell shirts and the like outside of the U.S., but they all failed or were too complicated to maintain.

Lost Art Press might look like a big company at times, but are only two guys who run the thing. There are physical limits to what we can do – and publishing books will always be at the top of the list.

I offer a couple solutions for those outside the U.S. who want some of our specialty products:

  1. Use a parcel forwarding service. Many LAP customers have had great success with these services. Here is a list of five recommended by Huffington Post. I wish we could get rates as reasonable as they get. It must be magic.
  2. Print your own shirts and sweatshirts. You can download our logo file here. There are thousands of services all over the world that will let you print your own shirt, jacket or (shudder) thong with the logo.

I wish at times we were a big company that could have a person dedicated to shipping. And that we shipped a million parcels a year so we could qualify for the dirt-cheap rates. And that I had to attend marketing meetings three times a week to get harangued to sell more of the things that suck. And then I had to meet with the executive types above me to explain why we needed a $500 digital camera to continue making books. And that I had to fill out performance reviews and attend classes on how to harass your employees legally. And then I wake up from the bad dream.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Anarchist’s Gift Guide Supplement No. 2: IKEA Tapes

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Today I had to return to IKEA to buy some sheepskins to outfit the stick chairs I’m building, and I was stopped cold by one of the company’s displays.

It was a bunch of 36” plastic flexible tapes, offered for free like the ubiquitous IKEA pencils. These tapes were plastic, marked in both inches and centimeters and were dispensed like you remove a page from a desk calendar.

I grabbed two (by accident). They are exactly what you need for measuring along unusual curves in the workshop. When I make chairs, I’m constantly trying to determine the length of a curve without resorting to math. Bending a metal tape measure around a curve is a crap idea. And so I usually steal a flexible cloth tape from Lucy’s sewing kit to do the job.

Now I don’t have to.

These silly free tapes are an absolute boon if you work in curves. And the price (free) is beyond fantastic. To thank IKEA, be sure to buy one of its $1 cinnamon rolls (and feed it to the birds outside) or sample the free cookies (they are made from the same material as the furniture, I suspect).

— Christopher Schwarz

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Custom Cabinetry, Part 1

Making Things Work

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The word “custom” gets stuck on virtually anything these days, often as little more than a marketing device. Sometimes it means personalized, as with the socks in the illustration above; sometimes it’s intended to connote exclusivity, as a result of which the object in question will seem more desirable (at least, to those who want to feel special). But when you consider some of the stuff that’s sold as “custom,” you may find yourself questioning the meaning of the word.

What, for example, is custom drywall? Sure, drywall can be finished in a variety of textures, but that variety has been part of the mudder’s art for most of the six-plus decades during which drywall has been North America’s go-to covering for interior walls and ceilings. This historical fact has not kept drywall businesses around the country from incorporating “custom” into their names. Custom vans? I thought…

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