Early Holdfasts. Roman Benches

Le Raboteur 01 - Conclave Triadis humanae 1670-1686

Holdfasts are one of the most essential items for bench work. But when were they invented?

It’s easy to date them to the 17th century, but what about before that?

Jeff Burks has been doing some research on this item and shared some of his notes with me. While there are still a lot of questions, we can at least date the holdfast back to the 16th century.

Here are Jeff’s notes:

This is the current state of my research into an illustration known as “Le Raboteur.” The source for this image was an oil painting by the Italian artist Annibale Carracci (1560-1609). I don’t have an exact date for the painting, but I know it was acquired as part of the Orléans collection in the beginning of the 18th century. It was subsequently bought by the Earl of Suffolk. On Oct. 11, 1856, the painting and eight others (including a Da Vinci) were stolen from Charlton Park. As far as I know, the original painting has never been recovered. So far I have found five different renditions of the painting as engravings. They are below. The painting depicts Christ and Joseph working at a carpenter’s bench with Mary looking on.


Le Raboteur – Conclave Triadis humanae 1670-1686 (shown above)
Etching published in Paris by Pierre Hallier, Print made by Jean Pesne
Inscription Content: Lettered in margin with title and ‘Anibal Carache Pinxit. P.Hlalier cum privil. Regis / Et se vend ches Pierre Hallier Marchand sur le petit pont proche le petit Chatelet à Paris’. Within the image ‘J. Pesne sculp.’ British Museum.

Le Raboteur 02 - La Samaritaine 1786

La Samaritaine / Galerie du Palais Royal
Print made by Jacques Couché 1786. Etching and engraving, printed from two separate plates.

Inscription Content: Lettered with production details “Annibal Carache Pinxit – J. Couché Sculpsit”, title, continuing: “De la Galerie de S. A. S. Monseigneur le Duc d’Orléans / A. P. D. R. / Ecole de Lombardie / I tableau d’Annibal Carrache”, size of original painting, and seventeen lines of description, in French. From the first volume of ‘Galerie du Palais Royal’, a set published between 1786 and 1808. This is the first of twenty-eight plates engraved after paintings then attributed to Carracci in the collection of the Duke of Orléans. British Museum.

Le Raboteur 03 -Delaplanche 1780-1800

Trade card of Delaplanche, a French ironmonger (magasin de quincaillerie et outils) with address. The image depicts the Holy Family and is modeled after Le Raboteur, with the addition of tools sold at the shop. The image is etched and the text is engraved. The card is undated, but Waddesdon suggests 1780-1800 because street numbers were introduced circa 1780. Waddesdon Collection.

Le Raboteur 04 - Sainte Famille, Dite Le Rabouteur 1831

Sainte Famille, Dite Le Rabouteur
Museé de peinture et de sculpture…Volume 11
Etienne Achille Réveil, Jean Duchesne 1831


Le Raboteur 05 -Illustrated London News 1856

The Illustrated London News printed a story about the theft at Charlton Park in its Nov. 8, 1856, issue. Included with that article was a woodcut engraving of the painting. The print was republished in ‘L’Univers Illustré’, 6 March, 1862, p. 108.


— Christopher Schwarz

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17 Responses to Early Holdfasts. Roman Benches

  1. Jeff Burks says:

    The oldest image of a holdfast might actually be from the Roman era. This information comes from an 18th century engraving that is supposed to be a copy of an original artwork that was excavated at Herculaneum (buried 79AD). The only problem is that I have not yet been able to locate a photograph of the original artwork to confirm the details.

  2. Daniel Ridgeway says:

    Is that a chalk line that Joseph is using?

  3. Michael Anderson says:

    Maybe you could check with this guy: Roger B. Ulrich. He wrote the book on Roman woodworking, literally. http://www.dartmouth.edu/~rogerulrich/tools_woodworking.html.

    • Jeff Burks says:

      I was just discussing his book with Chris the other day. He owns a copy of the book whereas I have only read parts of it online. I don’t recall seeing anything about holdfasts in the chapters I was able to view.

      It is probably just a matter of time until I locate the source. Lately I have not had a lot of time to do research. If I do find something I’ll be sure to let Chris know about it.

      • raney says:

        Sheesh, Jeff – just start a damn blog already!

        We’ve talked about this too many times, but you really do need to get as much of what you’re doing documented. It would be a huge service if you’d just put a blog on your site, and keep a running index for those of us who sleep and can’t keep up with the pace of your research. Please!

  4. Paul in Oz says:

    Ancient Egyptians drew lots of pictures. Anything there?

    • andrae says:

      The evidence is surprisingly scarce. It is believed that they simply squatted and worked on the ground until later periods. They made considerable use of the adze. Some New Kingdom images show workers sitting on three-legged stools and also using work tables. The tables have the general appearance of a dining table today: thin top, relatively slender legs. Remember that wood was relatively scarce and therefore often imported at expense. As far as I know, there are no depictions, or actual artifacts, to suggest something like a holdfast. Of course it begs the question, how *did* they hold workpieces? Maybe they just drove copper pins into the table.

  5. nate says:

    I am always amazed by your research, thank you for sharing. I am wondering though, in the artwork of this post, the jointer plane leaning against the crate on the ground/floor, very interesting handle instead of a tote. I cant imagine using it at workbench height, knee height maybe but not comfortably. I have seen old pics and artwork of planes much older but with more traditional totes, any thoughts?

  6. Randy says:

    Anyone know if Carracci’s original painting was based on actual photographs from Nazereth? 😉

  7. Brett says:

    The Romans definitely had holdfasts. In Romans 12:9, St. Paul wrote “hold fast to what is good.” 🙂

  8. Paul Gardner says:

    Looking forward to the new Lost Art Press shirt with this picture on the front and on the back… “Jesus is my holdfast”

  9. E.G says:

    Hi Chris,
    Just a note, you wrote “Sainte Famille, Dite Le Rabouteur”, but it’s written “Raboteur” on the drawings (I’m french sorry, couldn’t skip this one 😉 ). Rabot is plane in french but you know that since I think you speak and read french. Raboteur, can be translated in the name of the person who’s doing the action of planing (not really used from nowadays). By the way HoldFast is “valet d’établi” in french. Funnily valet could translate in ‘Jack’ (like the jack of a king). So something at your service for the bench. The way I understand it is that it is a Jack like Jack plane, jack knive. Kind of an allarounder tools for many tasks to work on the bench.
    And Rebouteux, is physiotherapist in the old times on the country side, can be useful for woodworkers !

  10. Michael says:

    ” “To Make as Perfectly as Possible” A translations of Andre Roubo’s writings on marquetry by Don Williams and a team of translators, researchers and woodworkers. This book is also in our hands and is an enormous piece of work. More details on this book on the blog.”

    Can we please have an update. I don’t mind if its been delayed a year, I’d just like to know that’s how long I’ll be waiting.

    Thanks Chris! : )

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