Starting the Roman Workbenches


With several hundred pounds of red oak now sitting on my workbench, it’s time to get serious about building the two benches for my next book, “Roman Workbenches.”

The simpler of the two benches has a top that is about 3-1/2” thick, 18” wide and 7’ long. This will be a low bench – somewhere slightly above knee height but below the groin. The height will require some experimentation because the operator needs to sometimes straddle the benchtop for some operations.

As a result, 38” would be too high, even with my ostrich legs.

This bench’s workholding is super-simple: a planing stop (copied from one recovered at the Roman fort at Saalburg) and a Roman holdfast. Both iron bits were made by blacksmith Peter Ross. In the last couple months I have become very fond of the Roman holdfast, which holds like crazy.

This simpler bench will also feature some holdfast holes that occasionally will have some tall wooden stakes in them. More on this later (those of you who have read “Woodworking in Estonia” probably know what I’m tilting at).

The second workbench will be taller and made with a larger slab of oak. It will have a wagon vise (perhaps the first one ever illustrated), a series of forged-iron dogs and a twin-screw vise. Oh, and a ripping notch.

Both benches will be made using staked construction with no stretchers connecting the legs. For a variety of reasons I’ll explain later, the legs’ tenons will be cylindrical instead of tapered. Boring these 3”-diameter compound-angle mortises might seem like it will require a ship’s auger. But I have a plan.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

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

26 Responses to Starting the Roman Workbenches

  1. waltamb says:

    I wish I could post pics here… I have some sitting benches I roughly made 30 years ago and while the legs rotted on the bottom of one and have been replaced. Both have massive crack & Checks but still seem solid.
    Considering some new legs and move them into the shop to use as saw horses sine nobody sits on them here anymore.

  2. martin says:

    The world can never have enough 38 inch workbench jokes…

  3. Does this mean we aren’t going to get to see a ship’s auger in action? 😦

  4. nateharold says:

    Leaving the heart in there or ripping it free? I have some big, squirrely oak and I’ve been avoiding the heavily checked heartwood. But cutting ever-so-close as I need that wood!

    • waltamb says:

      I do not assume to know what is going through the mind of C.S.
      I know he knows to avoid the wood surrounding the pith by every means possible.
      However… it might prove useful to build it with the worst possible scenario to see if it will “Explode” or not.

      • There are many ways to stop the cracking from the pith. The Japanese would kerf the pith and put in a softwood wedge. That’s the easiest solution I know.

        • waltamb says:

          The Japanese method to kerf the whole log is very effective when used in softwoods for post & Beam construction and they go so far as to place the kerf exactly on the north side of the tree.
          This allows the log to shrink and the kerf widen.
          I personally have never seen this used on Sq Timbers in western work especially Hardwoods.
          Furthermore, on the slab top C.S. is planning it would be tricky at best to monitor and modify over time.
          The Bench Top he is planning will take a 3-4 years or possibly a full decade to reach some sort of equilibrium, that is if it does not “Explode” first.
          But I believe the experiment is to see if workbenches were actually ever made straight from dead Green Timbers.

      • Just a few points…and perhaps a different perspective on this matter…

        Se-wari 背割 or 背割り“spine divide” or “back split” method of relieving stress in timber by kerfing top of member is not just Japanese (pardon me but I don’t have the Middle Eastern, or other Asian language translations at memories tip) nor is it relegated to just the “North side” (??) of a bolt of log to later be in a Cant for timber framing…

        This method is also used in all species (hard and softwoods alike) with good effect if facilitated appropriately and is employed also outside the world of timber framing. (Note: “post and beam” work is that work held with “metal plate and fastener” more common in the late 19th century.) It is not common in “Western work” (per se) but is becoming more common as the Asian modalities spread in popularity among younger Craftspeople, Wood Artisan and Timberwrights..I (et al) have used it for decades in both soft and hardwoods alike to very good effect.

        As for this particular slab project, it would be most german in application. It should not be necessary however, if the table is “worked correctly” …the grain well “read” and the Artisan has good understanding of “green woodworking” techniques; which I believe is most likely the case in Chris “wheelhouse,” of skillsets.

        Even if the slab does “wonder a bit” here and there, it is nothing of great concern or outside the scope of normal maintenance for such a piece as this…I’ve laid floors of “green wood” with slabs over 50 mm in thickness that had “pith” within them, and the outcome though “rustic” in nature among some members…they never became unserviceable or out of context for the work…So for a workbench like this… there should not be any “exploding” at all and slabs should be more than serviceable with just a minimum attention to certain details as found in such historic modalities of design and construction….

        • Jay,

          Thanks for the notes. If you can remember any other earlier international references to the technique, I’d appreciate them. I only know Japanese references to it.

      • Hi Chris (et al)…

        I would love to share that information…and I do plan to in much greater detail within a tome to be published when I can get all my notes gathered and “brain cells” in order…Plus, I need a good editor (hint hint) to help me with the finer details of all this “publishing stuff,”…ha,ha…I would really (at least) like to have what I has been accumulated in direct context matter from my travels, studies and applications saved and shared by other for future dissemination…

        I have been blessed to have seen and/or experienced many wondrous practices, like watching a Goat’s intestine being turned into a water level in the mountains of Northern Turkey, or some “line layout” methods of Kath Khuni architecture of the Himachal Pradesh (Jay Thakkar et al are the “academic” authorities there)…So many cherished methods not to be lost…and academia alone is not the best source for protection…Young modern practitioners must learn and internalize these modalities before they are lost…

        I have wanted to get this stuff out of my head for decades and know I must before I get any closer to “kicking” the proverbial “bucket.” I will at least leave my notes to folks like you for future reference as so much of this could be lost as many means, methods and material selections are still not inscribe well (if at all?) by so many rural cultures still practicing these millennia old systems within the “folk arts” around the world…



  5. abtuser says:

    Plenty of them in those HWs towns. Almost bought one a while back. Felt I would have been screwed if I didn’t have anything to work on though.

  6. abtuser says:

    Whoops. I should have bought one then posted as they’ll probably be gone now by next week. Road trip…

  7. Assertion 38 was ridiculous, I agree. Seems odd and perhaps petty to mock and ridicule a man with the same goals as you in preserving the craft and making it accessible to everyone.

    Don’t post the comment, I’m not writing to stir a pot. I’ve learned a lot from both of you. I’m not humourless. It’s a funny joke. It’s just you’re an influential guy and preserving the craft should be (and needs to be) about inclusion and not exclusion.

  8. I am looking forward to this projects continuation…Much can be gleaned from these “modern experiments” replicating ancient means, methods and material applications…

    Thus far (reading back through all the comments) I would further note some interesting points and/or observations:

    First…1m (~39″)…isn’t even a ridiculous height beyond the suggest 38″ for some wood working practices…I have timbers I am working on currently that sit much higher than that. It should be understood that so much (80%?) of what we “think” we know about these “old methods” is not well understood at all…Only through building items like these benches do we further comprehend the finer details of their application within their context of many uses…Also, a bench is a specific and often custom tool…I am 1.9m (~75″) tall and work with some guys “tickling” 2.1 m (~84″)…so…size is relative to a user and applied methods of use…many of which are still not understood well at all today, and/or still not employed here in the “modern west.”

    As for “ship augers” (and related) they are a must for all to use at least once (if not many times!!) in actual practice…They are a wondrous tool and teach so much in and of themselves about wood, wood grain and the tool itself…Though indeed laborious as they can be in some applications, when sharp and well understood, they are not as tedious or slow as many assume…considering all factors about them comparably…they work very well…

    Everyone should try the “burn and char” method of mortising wood just once at least….It is still amazing to me just how quick this can be even with lithic methods…I’ve had small children make bowels in hardwood chunks of considerable size with this method quite rapidly. The same methods are pertinent to more advance mortising and wood removal needs as well…A “squarish” piece of Steatite (aka soapstone) heated red hot moves a lot of material pretty fast with these modalities…

    Green wood seldom “explodes” from being green…it explodes because of not being understood or applied in practice correctly…While “equilibrium” is a relative thing that can be expedited and/or controlled to applicable needs of a given task or goal…The concept of “dry wood” is much more “modern” in our “Western” woodworking culture than in actual material practice when a global perspective of woodworking is taken into consideration. Not only within the modern context…but also historically wood was (and is) worked green very often. I have maintain for most of my career that…most…wood worked now and historically is work “green” and not “dry” (by modern standards of what “dry” is…)

    Lastly…I should expand that the “back split” method is very extensive in nature and application…I still learn more about it everytime I employ it (or see it used.) It is used in both vertical and horizontal work timber, craft and furniture. More than single kerf systems exist, and perhaps are just as common. Orientation is not typically on a cardinal direction but determined by wood species, grain and application of member.

    This is going to be a great project!!!

  9. waltamb says:

    To everyone who has read my quote: “Explode” in regards to using green wood slab… It is not my proposed result nor my quote. A certain author and Builder of woodworking projects proposed this as one of many possible scenarios.

  10. Apologies…Walt…my comments are not directed at you on this topic specifically…I get the word “explode” used all the time (almost daily sometimes…ha, ha) in regards to the woodworking I do…Now when I see it or have it come up, I have a “Pavlovian response” to reply to what so many think about it…Sorry this Dog does drool…

    • charlie says:

      Overheated dry American homes can make green wood “explode” in the wintertime. I think European cottages were cooler so green wood could equalize easier.

  11. Well that is a view Charlie and I don’t dispel that it probably does take high tolls very often with many (most?) DIYer efforts in their attempts at “green woodworking,” and any that are new to the artful methods of it…Of that I have no doubt…

    Nevertheless…when done properly..(in most applications)..they do not “explode” at all…I grew up (for part of my life) in the Cochise Stronghold of the Dragoon Mountains of Southern Arizona…so I have experienced the “exposure gambit” of what “dry” looks like and what it can do to such furniture…Europe is a very narrow comparative example, since the range of green woodworking methods and systems are global in nature from places as far as the mountain Artisan of the Zafimaniry in Madagascar (both furniture makers and Timberwrights) to arid regions in Turkey and beyond…Actually (all in) most of the areas are very warm and not always that humid at all…and…far outside European modalities.

    So I agree…climate and humidity…does affect these many systems…Yet again…it is not the environment that is the challenge in green woodworking, but proper understanding, in regards to applied means, methods and materials…

Comments are closed.