Another Workbench Journey Begins

Metz

About 8 a.m. Wednesday morning I’ll pack a thermos of coffee and hit the road for North Carolina in the hopes of gaining some small understanding of the craft culture of ancient Rome.

Thanks to Will Myers, there’s a large load of dry oak waiting for me in North Carolina that I’ll use to build two Roman-style workbenches. The benches are separated by about 1,400 years but share the same DNA.

The reason I do this stuff, which is admittedly a bit bonkers, is the same reason I started building nearly vanished French and English style workbenches in 2005. I’m not looking for a better workbench, just another one that might make sense for your work and mine.

For me, the appeal of 18th-century French and English workbenches is that they are simpler. They are far easier and faster to build than your typical Scandinavian or Germanic bench. I don’t have anything against those central and northern European benches. The ones that are made by woodworkers for woodworking are great.

But not everyone wants to build a bench that is that complex, with a tail vise and a shoulder vise, a fifth leg, a dovetailed skirt and square dogs. Some of us would rather do something else with our time.

loffelholz_vise

In the same vein, the Roman workbench has always interested me. It is even simpler than a French or English bench. No stretchers. Simpler joinery. Less mass (perhaps). And during my last 11 years of ongoing bench research, I’ve concluded that the Roman workbench has never fully gone extinct. Instead it has gone out to pasture, so to speak.

By building and using these two Roman benches in my shop, I hope to learn their strengths and weaknesses – all bench forms have upsides and downsides. None is perfect. My hope is that I can show how these even simpler benches can be used to hold boards so you can work on their faces, edges and ends. Because that goal has never changed for woodworkers, whether they wear togas or flannel.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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11 Responses to Another Workbench Journey Begins

  1. rwyoung says:

    Or a tube top.

  2. waltamb says:

    Hi Chris,

    Will be watching closely for a “Woaman” bench (you know from the Monty Python pronunciation of Roman).
    I think to date the most simple bench I have seen is the Japanese bench described by Odate San.
    A special plank on a slope for planing.
    I applaud you for your work and those of us who have enough years behind us chasing the perfect shop set up would love to have all the time back wasted on creating the perfect work appliance or space.
    Onwards and upward!

    • Lee Blanton says:

      Odate actually described two types of benches in his book, but yeah, they’re both about as simple as it gets. There’s the planing beam, as you described, then there’s the planing board, probably more analagous to a workbench. It was one of the things I was most curious about when I started looking into Japanese style woodworking, but I realized there is really nothing much too it. According to Odate, doesn’t matter what wood you use, no real specified size or shape, just a flat board on the ground, the only real notable detail he mentions is that the horses it rests on should be installed with sliding dovetails to prevent warp. I definitely get the impression that when it comes to tool chests, benches and the like, Japanese craftsmen tend toward the basic, unadorned, whatever you have lying around type of approach.

  3. Brian Wenzl says:

    I can already tell you I’ll buy the Roman Workbenches book. If you want to Kickstarter it so I can pay today I am happy to do that. Please take my money in exchange for this book.

  4. abtuser says:

    I’ve been looking forward to this one.

    • Yup. The story behind those is interesting. You’ll be getting an email from me about them soon enough – I need to run some ideas by someone who thinks about these things all the time.

  5. Chris Decker says:

    Maybe we can look forward to The Anarchist’s Workbench?

  6. I am super excited to see how these end up. My somewhat dodgy education in the classics meets my newfound love for woodworking!

  7. Looking forward to see how these perform. I’ve been needing to update my bench, the top is great but the legs are terribly “wracky”. Bad design on my part. Thanks for doing the research on this, it’s definitely interesting stuff.

  8. Given the size of the legs I’ve seen depicted i’m guessing they have to splay out in two directions to hold up to work. A design that’s been around that long has to resist movement. Any details you can share on the matter? I need to get my Medieval bench built and i’m still short on info. Can’t wait to see what you come up with. Good luck and Regards. J.

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