Research on the Earliest Workbenches


People often ask us where we find the interesting plates and images of early woodworking for our books and this blog.

Though it sounds snarky, the true answer is “on our computers.”

There isn’t some grand repository of awesome images of early woodworking images that you can visit and suddenly become Jeff Burks or Suzanne Ellison, our two hardest-working researchers for Lost Art Press.

Both researchers have taught themselves to work in other languages and comb the network of research libraries across the globe that are stitched together by the Internet. Though all three of us have been doing this a long time, I’m never surprised when one of them turns up a new database of images.

If you haven’t fallen asleep yet, here’s a brief peek into how we operate to nail down one single detail.


So this year I’m building a pair of Roman-style workbenches for Woodworking in America. One of them will be from a fresco at Herculaneum, which was covered in thick ash after Pompeii erupted in 79 AD and rediscovered in the early 1700s.

The fresco doesn’t exist anymore, according to Suzanne’s conversations with Italian antiquities experts (she’s a brazen one). But there are engravings that were made for royalty and (eventually) a more general public throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Once you start looking at these engravings however, you can see that they don’t agree.

For example, in plate 34 shown above the bench has been drawn at other times without a holdfast, without holdfast holes, with four legs missing, the toolbox moved and the oil on the shelf moved. So in order to make sure it’s OK to use a holdfast on my reproduction, we have been researching this tool for about the last year.

Scholars are little help on this question. Books on Roman tools were written mostly by people who don’t know what a holdfast is. That’s not to crap on their mortar board. Many modern woodworkers don’t know what a holdfast is.

So Suzanne dug up the original royal volumes of the images shown in plate 34. Then we compared those images to frescos that survived to see how accurate they were drawn and then engraved. The answer is: The accuracy on the early royal drawings is remarkable. So it’s fair to say that the artists saw what they thought was a holdfast in the fresco.

In our research we both stumbled onto “The Antiquities of Herculaneum” by Thomas Martyn and John Lettice (1773). (Download the excerpt here.) In the section on plate 34, the authors have a footnote saying a holdfast was shown in a Gruter marble. Is Gruter a place? No. A person. Yup.

Jan Gruter compiled “Inscriptiones antiquae totius orbis romani, in corpus absolutiss” in 1603, an enormous 1,678-page compendium of Roman and Greek inscriptions.

So Suzanne and I spent hours last night scanning all the pages and pulled out the four images of woodworking tools. Did we find the holdfast?


Below are the four images. One of them has a snake-like thing that could be a holdfast.

The net result of all this work is that I feel fairly confident in adding a Roman-style holdfast to that bench (blacksmith Peter Ross has graciously agreed to make all the hardware for these benches).

But I will have an asterisk by my holdfast at all times.

— Christopher Schwarz

P.S. What motivates Jeff and Suzanne to do this sort of work? I don’t know. In this particular case, Suzanne’s grandfather is from San Giuseppe Vesuviano, which is near Herculaneum and Pompeii.

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized, Workbenches. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Research on the Earliest Workbenches

  1. joefromoklahoma says:

    Is that a bevel-up or a bevel-down asterisk??

  2. saucyindexer says:

    One of the keys in this research was tracking down the footnote references in the 1757 royal edition as well as eliminating the the watered-down (and poorly translated) copies. The Martyn and Lettice edition helped in determining the Grutero footnote in the original Italian was Janus Gruterus. Another 18th century volume, ‘The History of Inventions and Discoveries’ by Johann Beckmann (English translation, 1789) used the Herculaneum engraving in a discussions of saws. Additional notes on other tools in the engraving noted the “cramp” shaped like “the number seven” and continues with these cramps can be seen in Roubo’s ‘L’Art du Menuisier.”

  3. waltamb says:

    The original Naked Woodworkers?

  4. Mike Siemsen says:

    Putti, not just for nail holes.

  5. woddawg says:

    Pompeii was a town, like Herculaneum, that was buried by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. My wife and I got to tour Pompeii back in 2011, an experience I will always cherish. Very eerie seeing the plaster casts of the people that died in the disaster. I hate to think of all the workbenches, gone, up in smoke!

  6. Many years ago I went to fishbourne (a roman villa) in west sussex UK and recall that they referred to something called a dog iron I don’t recall any images so with your memory jogger of a post here’s my quick research page 57 the book looks facinating.

    • bsrlee says:

      The book is fascinating, it includes a variety of Roman dovetails, some used in peculiar places. The Romans seem to have used odd dovetails on boxes with one side of the tail at 90 degrees and only one side sloped. The book also shows how the Romans used continuous hinges (aka piano hinges) as well as drawers on cabinetry, both possibly Roman inventions, marguetry/veneer inlay, all sorts of interesting stuff.

      Not present in the book are the casts of furniture that you can sometimes see in general photos of the ruins of Pompeii – same as the casts of people and animals, just furniture. Possibly because the frame and panel constructed armoires only seem to have survived as castings not as carbonised parts like beds and shelves.

      • I have seen book case made with the shelves having a sliding dovetail with one side having that non-tail. providing the top and bottom of the book case are locked in place the shelves will hold – certainly half the work – those Romans knew a thing or two…

  7. weyrichwood says:

    Let me take this opportunity to reiterate how much I enjoyed Jeff Burks’ posts. They were something quite special and helped to make reading this blog very worthwhile. Not sure why they dried up all of a sudden…

  8. jarvilaluban says:

    Fascinating as always.

  9. Ryan Cheney says:

    The post about the two cabinet makers who left a note hidden in one of their cabinets before “running away” was one of my favorite posts from this blog ever. I think that was a saucy indexer contribution.

  10. It seems that the problem with documentation is the same in the present as well as the past. Sex sells. Not that i mean that literally. Talking about Kings and Queens and large wooden badgers has more interest than what you’ve got sitting on the kitchen table. Though it’s not very sexy, those of us interested in making the past real want to know what’s on that table. So, we have to glean what we can from the little tidbits that show up from time to time. In the absence of large volumes of data I think a modicum of latitude is in order. I believe you should make and use what you want on your workbench as long as it doesn’t offend the technology of the time. The most significant difference between modern and period woodworking that i’ve seen is in the Spelling.

  11. tsstahl says:

    If Peter Ross makes a curly-cue hold fast, I’ll almost certainly spring for one. Pun sooo intended.

Comments are closed.