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