On the ‘Make or Break Show’

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This week I sat down for a detailed interview with Brandon Cullum of the “Make or Break Show” podcast to discuss workbenches, plus how we dig up historical techniques here at Lost Art Press and the exact moment I knew I was going to do woodworking for the rest of my life.

It’s an hour-long interview and delves into areas I rarely go (Brandon is a very well-prepared interviewer, and he did his homework). So in addition to woodworking, we discuss my love of trailer fires and the random way I got into both writing and woodworking as a profession.

So if you aren’t sick of me yet, give it a listen here. Also, be sure to check out the other 76 episodes – there are some good interviews in there.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Custom Cabinetry, Part 2

Making Things Work

Matching dresses When my sister and I were little, our mother made many of our clothes.
(Clearly one of us was destined to become an entertainer, the other a woodworker.)

The relationship between custom and costume referred to in my previous post is telling in several ways.

First, as the history of the word “costume” makes clear, custom work should take into account the character of the context for which it’s made. Consider an old house–say, a Craftsman bungalow from the early 1920s. This is not to say that everything made for the house has to match the original millwork, but it should at least be premised on careful observation of any existing fabric that defines the place’s character–and I am talking about that particular place, not some vague notion of “Craftsman” style you once heard about on HGTV. Like any style (or sub-style), Craftsman was expressed in widely varied ways.*

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Wait, I Can’t Smell Kitty Litter

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I don’t talk much about the logistical side of Lost Art Press because it’s not woodworking. And I try to stick to woodworking as much as possible.

But occasionally, it’s necessary to drop the curtain and acknowledge a milestone.

About six years ago, John and I filled every order from our houses. I had our order processing computer propped on a folding table, and I’d put my feet on the litter box as I manually printed out every label for every order. John and his family did the same thing (without the litter box – John has dogs).

It was a good kind of drudgery. John and I now know enough about order systems and customer service that we’re picky about how our boxes are packed and our customers are treated.

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This year, John devoted a ton of his time to find a new fulfillment service for Lost Art Press and Crucible Tool that makes everything better for you and us. The service is TF Fulfillment, and it’s northwest of Indianapolis in an area that is a hotbed of services such as this.

What’s in this for you? The warehouse is climate controlled and humidity controlled, so your books will arrive without having absorbed excess moisture. (We’re also starting to shrinkwrap all of our titles to help control moisture. We’re not wild about the extra plastic and extra expense, but it’s the best way to protect our goods.)

Also, TF Fulfillment is far more automated and modern than our previous efforts. So you are less likely to get a shipment with the wrong things in the box. One person picks the books. A second person checks their work. Also, we have the same two people working on our orders every day. So they know the difference between “To Make as Perfectly as Possible” and “With All the Precision Possible.”

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Also, TF does a great job of packing boxes. If you’ve received a box from us in the last couple months you might have noticed. Good packaging means fewer damaged books.

I also think it’s important to say this on occasion: I couldn’t do this without John. We’re equal partners in Lost Art Press, and we both do difficult jobs that we wouldn’t wish on other people. I get a lot of credit because my name is at the bottom of most of these blog posts, but this business wouldn’t be successful without the both of us.

OK, back to woodworking.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Ways to Make Me Click a Button

Some typical social media posts in my feed:

“I’ve just received this crate of Triton tools to review. They’re awesome and…” Click. Unfollow.

“This is the first in a series of unboxing videos on my latest acquisition. I can’t wait for you to…” Unfollow.

“Here’s a tiny detail of my latest project. I don’t want to spoil the surprise. Any guesses as to what it is?” Nope. Unfollow.

“To bring you more fantastic content, I’ve started a gofundme page…” Unfollow.

“There’s only a few more weeks left until the BIG REVEAL where I get to show you the beautiful project I’ve been working on all these weeks. I’m so excited to…” I am excited as well. To unfollow you.

“I hate to tease you, but…” Unfollow with extreme prejudice.

“I can’t wait to show you what I’ve been working on. But I have to manufacture some false drama first because I am otherwise completely out of things to say. And my business sensei (the Money Chicken Wizard (TM)) says I have to post something on social every day or people will forget I exist. So here’s a confusing photo of something really close up that will only confuse you. Feel free to leave a guess in the comments if you are as helpless as I am.” Thank you for your honesty. You may stay in my feed.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Lump Hammers on Sale Now

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Visit the Crucible Tool website to purchase one of our lump hammers. They are $85 plus shipping. This is likely our last batch before Christmas.

Remember: If you have a question about Crucible, please send your email to: help@crucibletool.com.

— Christopher Schwarz (Illustration by Raney Nelson)

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Meet the Author: Chris Williams

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Chris Williams grew up in a typical, conservative Welsh family (his words). His mother was a homemaker; his father, a tax inspector. He has one sister.

Although his parents weren’t craftspeople, Chris’s lineage includes shoemakers, cabinetmakers and joiners. Thomas Jenkins, born 1813 and a distant great-grandfather to Chris, is famous, locally. Jenkins kept a daily diary, which has been published as a book: “Selections from the Diary of Thomas Jenkins (1826-1870),” edited by D.C. Jenkins (Dragon Books, Bala, North Wales, 1986; republished by Historia Wales, 2012).

Jenkins was curious and loved to learn – in 1843 he founded the Llandeilo Mechanics’ Mutual Instructing Institution, which met at his house. He built boats, a bridge, violins (which he learned how to play) and more than 250 coffins. He collected fossils, explored caves and conducted science experiments. A lover of astronomy, Chris says Jenkins found work installing sundials in the yards of the big country homes that dotted the landscape. According to the editor’s introduction in the book, Jenkins also erected public lighting, brought gas and water to his town, was involved in mining, beer brewing and census enumerating, fathered 12 children and was named a constable of the Lee Court. He walked everywhere, and later in life built “a homomotive carriage with three wheels.”

“He was an amazing man,” Chris says.

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A recent picture Chris took of the Wales countryside (Black Mountains, 2017)

Chris enjoyed a childhood spent playing in the countryside with friends, climbing trees and building dens.

“I didn’t like school, particularly,” Chris says. “I wasn’t an academic, for sure. I enjoyed woodwork, metalwork, technical drawing.”

Chris spent as much time as he could in the school’s woodshop. It was the mid-1980s, and he says the woodshop had an old-fashioned feel to it, starkly different from the clinical and sterile white cabinets and Formica worktops of the school workshops he sees today.

“Our woodshop was a proper workshop, with bloody wooden benches and tools and timber,” he says. “It was what I think a proper workshop should look like.”

His school’s career officer, having noted the amount of time Chris spent in the school’s woodshop, recommended a carpentry/joinery apprenticeship.

“I went home and told my parents and they said, ‘Yeah, fine,’” Chris says. “My parents had no aspirations for me at all. It’s different, the way I bring my kids up. We’re really keen on their education. Not overly pushy, but we’re very aware of it. If they’re behind and not doing it, we try to explain why they need to do it. I didn’t really have any of that. They were good parents, but I think it probably would have helped me if they had possibly encouraged me a bit more academically.”

Chris’s apprenticeship was with the local council, maintaining council offices, farms and schools – anything council-owned. Most of the buildings were big, old, beautiful Georgian properties, which Chris enjoyed.

Chris’s foreman was in his late 50s. “He was really good,” Chris says. “He was extremely knowledgeable.” Chris surmised his foreman did his apprenticeship shortly after WWII. The area, then, was quite rural. “His apprenticeship would have been really quite primitive,” Chris says. “Very few machines. They had a wheelwright’s shop and there was an undertaker’s shop there as well. So it harkened back to a really old Wales.”

It took awhile for Chris and his foreman to come to terms with each other. “I don’t think he really liked me at first, but we seemed to hit it off later,” Chris says. “I wasn’t cocky, but I liked to laugh and joke, and he was more serious.”

Chris earned his City & Guilds qualification and began working at a young age self-employed. “It was ridiculous to start at that age,” he says. “My parents separated, and it was a funny time for me. I can’t say I was lost, but I didn’t quite know where I was going, really.”

Chris can point to two things that jumpstarted his furniture making. First, his fondness for “simple country furniture” began with a book he found in his technical school’s library – “Furniture Making Plain and Simple” by Aldren A. Watson. He was 16. And then, at around 19, after earning his qualifications, he befriended a carpenter, who always made his own furniture. “He’s a really clever guy,” Chris says. “He’s a lot older than me and he lived near me. And I’d always call on him and see what he was making.”

Chris’s first piece was a settle – a bench with arms and a seat that opened up. “It was the first thing I ever made for myself on my own,” he says. “I just went for it.”

Nobody taught him – but he realized furniture making, carpentry and joinery all carried similar principles. “If you’re interested, you just soak it all up,” he says. “That’s what I believe. I’m genuinely one of these people that if I really wanted to learn how to do something, I’ll put everything into it.”

A Kitchen Workshop

Chris was young, and living with his mother. The only machine he owned was a lathe, which he kept in a small outbuilding in the garden. His mother would often come home from work only to find Chris building 10’-long oak gates on the kitchen table. He was also interested in blacksmithing – he would heat things using the fire inside and then walk the fiery item, with tongs, through the living room to then work on it outside.

“I realized there was a chance of burning the house down so I thought I better not carry on with that,” he says.

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A chair at St Fagans National Museum of History

By this time Chris had heard about “a mythical chairmaker … [who] made chairs by hand without the aid of electricity and lived in his workshop.” (You can read more about that meeting here.) Chris was also visiting St Fagans National Museum of History regularly, and while he noticed the chairs there, he didn’t pay close attention.

“At that point I didn’t really know what I was looking at,” he says. “And lots of people didn’t really know, either. John coined the phrase ‘Welsh stick chairs.’ People will dispute that, but he did.”

With some research, Chris discovered this mythical chairmaker had written a book – “Welsh Stick Chairs.” He drove to Newport, Pembrokeshire, to buy a copy. John Brown, who was dropping off more books to sell, held the door open for him. Chris had no idea.

Chris says the book was a “revelation,” and at age 21 he made his first chair, in his mother’s kitchen, on a Black & Decker workmate.

“It’s terrible,” he says. He still owns it.

Chris accepted work as he could find it. He sold his first settle, and then another. He continued making simple furniture – anything he could fit in his mother’s kitchen.

A couple years later he began renting space in an old farm building. Aside from the lathe, he had no machines – he couldn’t afford them. If he needed something planed, he would go to his friend’s joinery shop and use the machines there. He worked like this for a couple years.

And then Chris’s partner, Claire, wanted to travel. Her contract job as a research scientist ended. So she came home and said to Chris, “I’m going traveling.” Chris decided to go with her.

The flight, an open-ended, around-the-world-type ticket, was expensive. “I never earned a lot of money,” Chris says. “I generally mean that. You’d be shocked if you realized how little I earned.”

So, Chris made three chairs. Then he put them in his van and drove them around to people he knew, friends and past clients, to see if they were interested in buying one.

“Within a week I had sold the three chairs, and I had the money for the ticket,” he says. “I was really pleased that people had faith in me to buy these chairs. I wasn’t really known for making them at that point.”

Chris and Claire travelled extensively – to Australia, New Zealand and the Cook Islands. While in Melbourne, Chris picked up a copy of the November/December 1997 issue of Fine Woodworking – in it was an article about John Brown. The article included a picture of John Brown’s workshop, with daffodils coming out of the hedgerows. (The daffodil is the national symbol of Wales. On St. David’s Day, everyone wears a daffodil on their lapel.)

“I thought, I just want to go home,” Chris says.

Meeting John Brown

Chris doesn’t buy woodworking magazines. Or books. “I find them quite unsettling because I’m not the most confident person,” he says. “When I read other ways of doing things I always wonder, ‘Am I doing it right?’”

But he did buy all the copies of Good Woodworking that featured John Brown as a columnist.

Once back in Wales, Chris and Claire bought a house. Determined to meet John Brown, Chris pulled out a phone book. While all the names listed included a last name and first initial, John Brown’s name was different – it was listed in full: John Brown.

“I just rung him up,” Chris says. “And he answered the phone, and I was kind of really nervous and he answered the phone and he went JOHN BROWN, like that. And I kind of had a mild panic attack, and I started mumbling because it’s weird talking to somebody who you’ve put up on this huge pedestal, isn’t it, really?”

Chris explained who he was – he said he had made some chairs and wanted to be a chairmaker. He asked John Brown if he could visit. John Brown said yes.

“I drove down, and I eventually found him and I knocked at the door,” Chris says. “Where he lived was very remote, very difficult to find. Typical John.”

John Brown was a bit gruff when he opened the door, but Chris soon realized it was because he was in the middle of gluing up a chair.

Chris watched him, while also taking in the space – rustic (a word John Brown would hate, Chris says, but one that properly defined the space) and simple, with hand tools, art, quotes from the likes of John Ruskin and poetry – some of which was carved into the walls.

“It was just totally different,” Chris says. “A totally different way of life.”

After the glue-up was complete, John Brown made a pot of tea. The two drank tea and talked. And then John Brown made another pot of tea.

“Obviously we got along,” Chris says.

Throughout it all, though, Chris was feeling self-conscious.

“I had a baseball hat on as a result of a few too many drinks one night,” Chris says. “I was staying with friends in Auckland, and they decided it would be funny if I peroxide blond-ed my hair.” He laughs. “I was rip drunk. And I said, ‘Yeah! Whatever!’ It went wrong and I looked like a carrot. So they had to do it again and I can remember my scalp burning. So I had this bizarre look – dark eyebrows and a kind of yellow hair. It was ridiculous. So I had a hat on and I could see him looking at my hat, thinking, ‘When is he going to take it off?’”

Weeks later, Chris told John Brown the story. John Brown laughed.

A 10-year Partnership

Chris first contacted Lost Art Press out of anger and loyalty to John Brown.

“I felt that people were missing the point sometimes about John Brown and there was a lot of misinformation,” he says.

Chris S. had recently pulled his public email address, so Chris W. had to be creative in reaching him. But the two connected, and a partnership – and friendship – formed.

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Chris Williams teaching at Lost Art Press, May 2018

Fast forward to May of this year, in the Lost Art Press library. Chris W. had just finished his first week-long chairmaking class. Several students were finishing up and Chris would stop, periodically, to offer warm goodbyes. He sat in Chris S.’s dugout chair and told the story of his life in a booming, but not overbearing, voice, complemented with heavy laughter. When he quoted John Brown his voice dropped low, each syllable weighted heavily, bringing life to the mythical chairmaker from Wales.

Chris W. spent the next hour in this chair talking about his relationship with John Brown. But this is a profile about Chris, not about John Brown. And those aren’t my stories to tell. Those are Chris’s stories, and they are the backbone of a book that has been years in the making.

Some teasers: a meeting at Axminster; a move to Llandovery; Vaughn Williams’s “The Lark Ascending”; tea; a test; a partnership; a friendship; a gallery; a trip to Exempla in Munich; an intense argument (involving, of all things, a restaurant bill and flatulence); an apology; a life change; a move to Carmarthen.

When John Brown retired from chairmaking, to study art, he gave Chris all his chair templates and offcuts. Chris bought some of his tools and helped him move to an apartment, an old Georgian with a big box sash window overlooking the Tywi Valley.

Chris went back to his old rented space at the farm and continued making chairs. A few years later the farmer, who had become a dear friend, died.

“I had to move out,” Chris says. “I wanted to because I couldn’t bear being there without him. He was the loveliest guy.”

Chris began working out of his home’s garage, but found there were too many distractions. The recession hit, and Chris’s chairmaking customers dwindled. He threw himself into general woodwork, but then his arms, overworked, failed him – tennis elbow in one, golfer’s elbow in the other, and recurring tendonitis in both forearms.

“My hands were bright red and blue,” he says. “I could barely hold a cup of tea it was so painful.”

John Brown died in 2008.

A Surprise Twist: Furniture Conservation

Chris visited a local furniture restorer, Hugh Haley, owner of Phoenix Conservation. Hugh knew Chris was a bit in limbo in terms of work, health and a shop, so Hugh asked Chris if he wanted to move his shop to Phoenix, where he could make chairs. “And if you like what I do, you can perhaps help me a bit,” Hugh told Chris. “Brilliant,” said Chris.

Within two months Hugh was diagnosed with cancer. Chris immediately offered to help.

“It’s woodworking, but it’s different,” Chris says about furniture restoration. Hugh had a lot of work coming in that he could not handle. So Chris began doing the work for him. Hugh lived behind his workshop, and whenever Chris had trouble he’d either take the item or a picture back to Hugh, who would then explain to Chris what he needed to do. In time and after two surgeries, Hugh recuperated. And today, while Chris still builds chairs, he continues to restore furniture for Hugh.

“I’m so grateful because it’s another new world, another new skill I’ve learned,” he says. Much of the work they do is for museums and historic houses. “So we get to work in some of the most amazing houses,” Chris says. “It’s incredible.”

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One of Chris’s finished chairs, April 2018

Chris makes about a dozen chairs a year. “I don’t actively want lots of chair orders,” he says. “I like making them, but I’ve got to be in the right mood or want to make one. When I’ve done weeks of fiddling with old wood and it’s messy and this and that, it’s quite nice to work with new, fresh timber.”

Chris and Hugh keep a large stash of old furniture parts for the wood, mahogany and pine from the 1700s. That way, if Chris needs to make, say, a new drawer side for an antique piece of furniture, he can use the same type of wood from the same period in which it was made.

“You can see where the guy before me has cut dovetails,” he says. “I hate cutting them in a way but you’ve got to recycle the wood because it’s the same wood, it’s the same color, it’s the same era. … I love looking at them and taking them apart. It’s interesting. It’s really nice, you feel very – not attached – but when you’re repairing furniture, you’re seeing everything. You’re seeing the faults, you’re seeing why that has fallen apart and that’s quite good in making new furniture. You think, ‘Well, don’t do it like that because that’s why it’s failed.’ … And it’s wonderful when you come across a maker’s mark on a drawer bottom where somebody has written in pencil who they are and what year. That’s lovely when you see that. It’s really nice. I like that kind of thing, to know where it’s come from.”

Forging a Future of His Own

Chris and Claire have four children, ages 15, 13, 11 and 7. “I’m not an expert on being a father,” he says. “It’s hard. You’ve got five people living with you, with five different opinions.”

The children are involved in sports – football, rugby and swimming. Once Chris is home from work, he and Claire split the tasks, shuttling the kids back and forth from school and activities, taking turns cooking, loading the dishwasher and switching out laundry. It’s wearing but Chris says, worth it.

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Exterior of Chris and Hugh’s shop.

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The interior of Chris’s shop, as he was setting it up in June.

Chris maintains normal working hours – typically 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. And lately he’s been thinking more about teaching. He’ll be back in the states next May to teach another chairmaking course. And Hugh has suggested that Chris teach some classes at Phoenix.

His first chairmaking course at Lost Art Press was also the first class he’s ever taught – and he was nervous. He thought he might hate it, or not excel, or even, be good at it.

“I think the consensus was that everybody had a really good time and it went well so that’s encouraging,” he says. “I’ve had some constructive criticism from students, and they’re right about what they said.”

And here, much like an axe splitting through wood, it’s clear Chris has chosen his own path. John Brown has influenced Chris’s life immeasurably, but Chris is not John Brown.

“John would come out with Zen-like phases, he was very philosophical,” Chris says. “And he used to say to me, ‘think round.’ When you’ve got this thing in front of you and you’re constantly turning it while you’re shaping it, it’s almost like a dance. You turn it, plane, turn it, plane, and you’re thinking round. And I know everyone [in the chairmaking class] thought it was hilarious, but it means something. You get that into your head as you’re doing it, and it does work. I think that’s always stuck with me. I’m not trying, pretending, to be John Brown. I could never do it and I don’t want to do it. But that is one of those things that has always stuck with me. Until coming here, I never knew I would say that. Obviously, it’s tickled a lot of people.”

Whereas John Brown often dealt with people awkwardly, Chris says, Chris enjoys being around people. He appreciates conversation (with people he likes) and loud laughter. He’s opinionated but compassionate. Professionally, he exudes calmness, encouraging his students to “be in the zone.” He uses phrases such as “be at one with the plane.” He regularly told students that it’s OK if their chair doesn’t look like his chair – that that’s good, even. And if they go home and make another chair using different methods? Fine.

“Put your own take on it,” he regularly told the class. “The form will still look fundamentally the same.”

An example: Chris sands away his tool marks, preferring a smooth surface. But he recognizes that many makers prefer to leave tool marks, including chairmaker Peter Galbert.

Whereas many folks find a comfortable spot on that horizontal axis, Chris recognizes the importance of growth, of riding that curve, both as a maker and a human being.

“I think I’m always kind of open to new things, and I kind of run with it then,” he says. “And you meet interesting people, like I met Hugh. He’s just really eccentric, very similar to John but in a different way. I seem to be drawn to this type of person. I’m not consciously doing it. I do pride myself in having friends who are quite poor to friends who are quite rich. I don’t care who you are, what color you are, gay, bloody whatever. If I like you, I like you.”

That said, he doesn’t force friendships. “You can’t consciously do that,” he says. “But I do try and see the best in people if I can. Or, I’m trying to see that more.”

Chris recently failed a mindfulness course.

Actually, “fail” is the wrong word. Because despite what he calls the “macho-made environment” sometimes prevalent in his circles, he recognized the need to be more present in the moment. So, he signed up for a class.

“I’m sitting there with my teacher – she was lovely, we got along really great – and she taps this bell and then you’ve got to get in the zone. And I’m sitting there and I’m thinking, ‘Well, right after this I’m going to make a set of sticks and I’m going to glue this or that …’ and that’s no good. I couldn’t switch it off. And we tried for weeks. In the end, I just said, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t switch off.’ And she said, ‘Chris, it’s fine.’”

But he did take something away from it.

“I try to live more in the now,” he says. “That’s one thing I have learned. It’s hard. You can’t change the past. It’s happened. You can’t go back. And you can’t try to think too far ahead. Try to think smaller, you know? It’s hard.”

Perhaps, but Chris also manages to immerse himself in the moment better than most – it happens any time he hears his own music while thinking round.

“It sounds romantic but I honestly mean this,” he says. “Whenever it’s cold out, in the winter, and you drive to work in your car, it’s always lovely walking into the workshop, which is warm. We used to use a lot of pine and I can smell it now. Even when I smell this certain pine at home, it’s really nostalgic. It’s quite bizarre. And I always felt a kind of comfort that you were in a warm place and you were in a place that you enjoyed being. And I still feel like that sometimes. If I’ve done a particularly nice job with what I’m doing I feel – ah, I’m being paid to do this – which is really special, you know? But I’d be lying if, probably at least once a week I think, ‘What am I doing? I need to get a proper job.’ But even if I won the lottery or inherited millions I wouldn’t change anything. I’d just do what I wanted to do and not worry about finding customers.”

Of course, it’s very likely that customers would find him.

— Kara Gebhart Uhl

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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.

Bench-2

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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