The Dominy Workbench Under Glass

When I open the book “With Hammer in Hand” about the Dominy workshop, it opens up to one of two places every time. Sometimes it opens up to the first page describing the anvils in the Dominy shop. This particular crease in the book’s binding must be the work of William Munsell Roberts, the previous owner of this somewhat rare tome. I don’t give two toots for anvils (unless they’re dropped on things).

The other place my book falls open is page 55 – the page that describes one of the Dominy’s magnificent workbenches that was in their workshop in East Hampton, N.Y., until the contents of the shop were relocated to the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

This massive 18th-century workbench – 148-1/4” long by 29-1/2” high by 28-1/4” deep – looks nothing like the modern workbenches in woodworking schools, workshops and catalogs. There is no tail vise. There is no trestle base. No quick-release, shoulder or metal vises. Instead the workholding is dead-nuts simple. There is a huge twin-screw vise in the face-vise position. There is a sliding deadman used to support long boards on edge. And there’s a single-point planing stop.

This bench is – for me – the link between the Old World workbenches of Andre J. Roubo, Peter Nicholson and Joseph Moxon and the workbenches of today. The bench has a Roubo-style skeleton. The top is a massive 5-1/2”-thick slab of red oak supported on legs that look like they are small tree trunks. The legs are flush to the front edge of the benchtop, just like in Roubo’s illustrations. The planing stop is right out of Roubo. It’s big and wooden and adjusted with mallet taps.

The twin-screw vise and sliding deadman look like the workholding arrangement shown in Charles Holtzapffel’s book, published in England, on woodworking and cutting tools (I own a reprint of the 1875 edition).

In other words, the Dominy workbench was one of the most inspiring forms as I launched into my research for “Workbenches: From Design & Theory to Construction & Use.” I had considered building a Dominy-style workbench, but I never could get enough details to answer all my questions. And, until earlier this month, I’d never even seen the thing in person.

Last Sunday after the Lie-Nielsen Toolworks Hand Tool Event in Philadelphia, I took off with a couple willing souls to the Winterthur museum. For me, this was a lot like my first visit to Graceland, but without a pair of bickering friends and a Mazda 626 with a dogmeat camshaft (I’ll save that for another blog entry on “Craftsmanship of the Jungle Room.”)

We got to the museum on a Sunday afternoon, took a tour of the furniture and then climbed the steps (I took them two at a time) to the museum’s gallery where the Dominy workshop is located.

I almost walked right by it.

The Dominy workshop, the most complete and preserved workshop for our country’s early history, is consigned to two behind-the-glass displays. What you could see behind the glass – peering through the simulated shop windows of the display – was intoxicating. But it was dimly lit and so far away that I began to despair. The photos in Charles F. Hummel’s book got me closer to the object of my intense desire.

I thought about trying to flash my press credentials to favor a closer look (perhaps a peek at the undercarriage of the bench), but it was late on a Sunday and the museum staff had their hands full with the regulars. So I took some photos to study and took consolation in one small fact.

My family sure will be pleased to hear that I won’t be building a 12’-long Dominy workbench – yet.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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8 Responses to The Dominy Workbench Under Glass

  1. I recently got a behind the scenes tour of the Dominy Workshop, guided by Charles Hummel. It was booked through Olde Mill Cabinet Shoppe. What an awesome tour, and to be so close to the tools was very exciting. However, when you crowd 12 antique tool lovers in the small shop, it makes taking photos ridiculously difficult. In other words, I never could have gotten such a great shot of that workbench with 11 bodies hovering over it. So that’s what it looks like!

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  2. Verne Mattson says:

    I had a laugh about your "longing to look at the undercarriage." I would have done the same thing…in fact I did this past week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They have some stunning furniture made in Philadelphia in the late 1700s. The carving on some of the pieces is astonishing and humbling.

    Anyhow, they also had some Duncan Phyfe (sp) chairs out where you could walk right up to them. So, like any good woodworker I dropped to my knees and took a look under the seat. I immediately heard an annoyed "What are you doing?" Of course it wasn’t a museum guard, it was my wife, reigning in her crazy husband.

    To see an inspiring piece of woodworking in person is, well, doubly inspiring. How lucky to get an upclose look at the Dominy bench!

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  3. Wow. Charles Hummel is still giving tours? Holy cow. Now I have to go back to Delaware.

    Thanks! (I think.)

    Chris

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  4. Chris C. says:

    chris,

    There might be hope yet for getting a closer peek
    at the Dominy shop: If you are a paid contributor to Winterthur,
    some of the higher levels actually allow some more up close
    and personal views of the artifacts. You’d have to check
    the details of membership, but I think it can be done.

    Chris

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  5. Scott says:

    I was with the village carpenter along with many others including Eugene Landon (a definite bonus)on the behind the scenes tour and didn’t want to leave. You will also have to take the guided tour of the 175 period rooms of furniture. I did manage to get some pictures in the Dominy Shop, but as stated earlier, difficult to get good shots with over a dozen people walking around. I can send them to you and you can decide if they help you. I have more of a closeup of the deadman.

    The best part was enjoying all this without my wife complaining about being there for over 7 hours.

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  6. Mike Siemsen says:

    Chris,
    I have found that the best day to visit museums is Monday. They are closed to the public but the curators are at work. It can be a hassle but if you call ahead and have specific interests and some knowledge and credentials they can be very accommodating. The curators are always looking for more knowledge about a topic and enjoy talking with interested individuals. they can also open drawers and let you see inside desks and such.
    I typically carry a mirror attached to a telescoping stick, a small flashlight, something to measure with (tape) and a digital camera. If you shine the flashlight at the mirror it will illuminate what ever you are peering at. This makes it easier to see tops and bottoms of pieces.

    A long while ago I was meeting my brother at a museum in Baltimore, he met a friend of his in the Lobby, He told the man he was there to meet his brother who restored antiques. The man said " He is up on the third floor." My brother asked him how he knew this since we had never met. "He is lying on the floor under a sideboard" was the reply. He went upstairs and there I was!
    Mike

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  7. Rob H says:

    Great Pictures!

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  8. Bruce Jackson says:

    Chris,

    When you build the Dominy, you will need two men and a boy to lift that damn top! I can guarantee you that, having hauled my fair share of green firewood through 36 inches of snow going uphill both ways when I was a strapping youth.

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