On my day off from teaching at David Savage’s shop, David and his wife, Carol, insisted on taking me over the border to Cornwall to see Cotehele, a fantastic family home on the Tamar River that has been remarkably unchanged for more than 400 years.
The house had some remarkable original furniture, including six collapsible tables that they suspect were made on-site. But I have only 15 minutes to write this so we’re going to look at the workbenches in the house’s workshops.
Cotehele House was built about 1300 and rebuilt by three generations of the Edgcumbe family between 1485 and 1560. The house is mostly Tudor, and is largely untouched since its last remodeling in the 1650s.
The workshops on display are recreations, as is typical in historic properties. So don’t make too much out of where the benches are sitting or what’s on them. In the saddler’s shop they had two workbenches. One was clearly a woodworker’s bench that looked very similar to Peter Nicholson’s drawing of one circa 1800.
The bench has had a hard life. One interesting aspect of the bench is that when you stand before it, you cannot easily see the rear apron, just like in Nicholson’s “Mechanic’s Companion.” But the apron is there.
But what isn’t there are the “bearers” under the top that Nicholson discusses. Still, the bench seemed sturdy enough to still work on. Some people might think it a bit low – my guess is that it’s 27” or 28” high. The benchtop was about 10’ long.
In the wheelwright’s shop they had a second Nicholson-pattern bench on display, this one is interesting because of the storage lockers built into either end. You access the lockers from doors at the ends. What’s interesting about this particular bench was the lack of holes for anything – pegs, holdfasts etc.
This bench was a bit taller than the one shown in the saddler’s shop. But it was also about 10’ long.
There was lots more to see in the house, but that will have to wait for another day. I’ve got a tool chest to finish.
— Christopher Schwarz
7 thoughts on “Workbenches of Cotehele”
Regarding the low bench height; people were significantly shorter then.
The research is mixed on that. Geo. Washington was more than 6′ tall. A little Googling will turn up articles. More significant is the use of wooden stock bench planes.
My research as a 6’2″ man is that going through period doors is liable to cause sudden onset headaches. I think Chris can repeat these experiments, as he is also long legged.
Schwarz is right. Heights have varied considerably throughout history, and there are indications that the 18th-19th centuries were actually a *low* in average heights. The Romans tended to not be much shorter than a normal 18th century population, and their workbenches were literally bench height. So workbench heights are more about design and purpose than actual ergonomics, though that does play a function.
The Romans were notoriously of short stature. Caesar wrote in the Conquest of Gaul that the Gauls were contemptuous of the short stature of the Romans, who averaged 5-5.5 feet tall based on the research I’ve read, including the remains from Pompei.
I have been studying British workbenches for some time now and have come to the conclusion that the French form of holfast is probably something of a rarity in British benches. On the other hand the bench tops are often scored with many cuts, and I think this is due to the use of the humble and long forgotten bench knife. today’s woodworkers will cringe at the thought of marring their perfectly finished bench tops, but back then they probably didn’t give it a second thought. Some people have suggested that the holes in the apron sides are for holdfasts, but I feel the thickness of the apron would not give a good grip to the holdfast, I think it is far more likely that they were for some form of wooden peg to help with supporting longer boards. I have visited Cotehele on many occasions and have admired the benches. I can thoroughly recommend a visit
Paul Sellers has storage in the ends of his benches too. I guess it’s ok then for him to do that since historical reference exists. His benches are of course “too tall” at 38″. I however think his are too short but only by a few inches. I really don’t care about historical records as to how I do things. It’s what works for me, not what worked for someone else 200 years ago that matters in my book. Nice to see how they did it and to learn from the past and to use that info when it fits but I’m not going to go without tail vise because Roubo did. To each his own. Live long and do it your own way is my motto. Prospering is a nice option to go with that as well. I hope that was nice enough. I hate or else threats, makes me wanna be bad. I have enough problems with that without encouragement.
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