Workbenches from The Empire of Germany/Holy Roman Empire and etc.

Hellwag3One of the workbenches in Andre-Jacob Roubo’s French masterwork on the craft is called out as a “German” workbench in Plate 279 of “l’Art du menuisier.” It features a sliding deadman/leg vise, lots of storage and a complex tail vise.

While I am still searching, I’ve yet to find an historical bench that matches the image of the German bench in Plate 279 (in contrast, I’ve seen hundreds of benches that match Roubo’s Plate 11).

So what did 18th-century benches look like from the area we now call Germany? The answer, of course, varies. Here we’re going to look at a 1764 bench from “Hallens, Werkstätte der Künste” (I think I have that right; I’m not the best at reading German blackletter type).

This entire plate could occupy a book of discussion because there is so much to see and explore. But let’s stick to the bench for the most part.

It is drawn as being made from fairly thin components with joinery providing the rigidity. Tusk tenons do most of the work in keeping the base from racking. And lest you think tusk tenons are weak, please ready this fun article from Will Myers where tests them to destruction.

The first thing I noticed about the bench (besides that the tail vise was missing its dog), was the tool well. This might be the earliest depiction of a tool well I have in my archive – I’ll have to check.

Also interesting: the face vise. It’s a shoulder vise that looks like it hasn’t quite cast off its crochet origins. Check out the nice bead to the left of the hook, which is really the only ornamentation on the bench.

Finally, we have the system of dogs that works in conjunction with the tail vise. I usually curse modern manufacturers for placing the dogs and drawer so they interfere with one another, but it appears this is not a modern problem. Two of the dogs are in the way of the drawer. Sigh.

And finally finally, look below at Fig. 20. A bench like this (where the legs are not coplanar to the front edge of the benchtop) requires a board jack. And this is a nice one.

I hope you enjoy the plate as a whole – there’s lots to see here.

This is the most conventional of the German benches we’re going to look at. Next up, some vise mysteries.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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14 Responses to Workbenches from The Empire of Germany/Holy Roman Empire and etc.

  1. dtchristensen says:

    Hi Chris,

    Long time listener, first time caller. Thank you for everything you do for the community!

    Regarding the above: brilliant! I only wonder if that is in fact a drawer, or perhaps a drawer-like tray which sits atop the upper stretchers and can be easily moved laterally to avoid the dog conflict? It would be a very flexible alternative to a drawer, although there’s a risk of it falling in at the back…

    Take care,
    Dane

  2. disneytodd says:

    I still don’t get the full purpose of item number 3 it’s in my book of plates to.

  3. Can you give me more detail on the face vise. Perhaps an enlargement . Agree it looks something like a single bench screw to be backed up by the board jack. ??? It is all fascinating. Thanks.
    Jennie

  4. Andy in Germany says:

    That is almost identical to my modern German workbench. I have a draw in exactly the same place as Fig.4, and it continually gets in the way of the dogs. there’s no stopper at the back so theoretically you can just push it backward and out of the way which is fine until you clamp something and remember you need to get your chisel out of the drawer…

  5. bsrlee says:

    The bit that weirds me out is that there seems to be no connection between the front legs and the back legs once you get below the batten that connects them to the top. I’m voting for an error on the part of the engraver, who was probably being paid by the page not the line. The front vice seems to survive that form in so called ‘Scandinavian’ benches.

    And No.21 is available from Pfeil (and presumably others) in a choice of two blade profiles, I have one bought on a ‘sale’ but have yet to use it in ernest.

  6. Where is figure 20?

    • tsstahl says:

      Item 20 in the above plate. Right lower quadrant; looks like the jack that came with my 86 Caprice (and every other domestic US car for decades).

  7. nateharold says:

    Item 11… what is that thing? A teensy veneer press?

    • tsstahl says:

      The cat ears above it are wedges for a screwless-moxon style vise in my estimation; it is turned on it’s back. This would make it useful for horizontal and vertical holding. But what do I know?

      My hang up is the knife in 25, I can’t figure out what use it has. I googled, natch, “scharfstahl dazu” but came up with pictures of barns and sheep. I’m certain my reading of the letters is wrong to begin with, though. Another mystery to idle my lunch time away with. 🙂

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