The Roman Workbench Begins

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This afternoon I got a good start on my first Roman workbench – a knee-high bench with almost no workholding, aside from holes for pegs or holdfasts.

I’m building it using a red oak top from Will Myers, who dried the slab in his homemade kiln in North Carolina. The legs are some white oak stock that is sold at the lumberyard for making rustic mantles. (I was going to instead use some firewood I have in my shop, but that firewood is actually going into two upcoming commissioned chairs.)

The real fun part of the project is the measurement system. Thanks to Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney at burn-heart.com, I have a Roman ruler to guide me as I design and build these two workbenches. I’m using his Cubitus Ruler, which combines several Roman systems onto one pretty stick.

So here is the cutting list for this first Roman workbench:

1 benchtop, measuring 3.4 thumbs x 14 thumbs x 4.9 cubits (or 87.8 thumbs)
4 legs, measuring 2.2 thumbs x 2.2 thumbs x 1.25 cubits (or 21.3 thumbs)

Before you do the math, just think of the cubit as the distance from your elbow to the tip of your middle finger. And the thumb as the length of the second segment of your thumb. That’s accurate enough.

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Today I dressed the front edge of benchtop with my jointer plane, making sure it was square to the benchtop (the benchtop is the heart side of the slab, FYI). Then I marked the final width of the benchtop using a large square – my panel gauge is in my other shop.

That’s when I found that I had to remove almost 1/2 thumb of wood in places to make the front edge and back edge parallel.

I looked for my hatchet. Dangit. It’s also in my other shop.

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So I decided to traverse the edge with my jack plane. After marking the final width of the benchtop, I use my jack to create a chamfer on the corner that touched the line that represented the final width of the benchtop. The chamfer acted as gauge – as the chamfer disappeared I knew I was closer to my finished width. It also protected the corner from spelching during the traversing.

This dodge worked surprisingly well.

Tomorrow I’ll dress the benchtop and start shaping the legs.

— Christopher Schwarz

P.S. The book “Roman Workbenches” is unlikely to have any photos because we are printing it via letterpress, so I’m not sure why I’m documenting every step. Old habits die hard, I suppose.

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27 Responses to The Roman Workbench Begins

  1. jarvilaluban says:

    Is that Charlesworth?

  2. waltamb says:

    Looking good, can’t wait to see how these benches unfold.

  3. rdwilkins says:

    Yes, it’s the curse of having two shops. Guess you’ll have to buy two of everything from now on. Could you just send me all those shavings in a bag? I’ll glue them all together for my bench top.

  4. >”…we are printing it via letterpress…”
    Whaaaaaat?! You’re not hiring a bunch of scribes to make copies…like the Romans did? 🙂

  5. That slab is badass. I suddenly feel the need to give Will a call and truck on out to West Cackalacky.

  6. volzwgn says:

    Looks like some awesome ray fleck on the benchtop. How much does that benchtop weigh, in stone of course…

  7. You could always hire someone to make some great etchings of the important steps for your book. I swear, there really is nothing like a good etching.

  8. David says:

    Are these thumbs and cubits sized to your body parts* or are they some standardized version?

    * – keep it clean, Chris. Keep it clean.

  9. abtuser says:

    Agree with others here, love the slab. I have that burn-heart Roman ruler too, as a rule-of-thumb, it could come in handy on this project.

  10. Chris Decker says:

    Did anyone else make a Tim Allen-esque grunt when they saw that first picture? I can’t be the only one.

  11. So the Romans had a leg vise with which to dimension the slab???

    • You aren’t really going to play that silly game are you?

    • This reminds me of the old ‘chicken and egg’ joke about how do you make a workbench without having a workbench to do it on. Then Mike Siemsen came along with his damn buckets…;)

      • You don’t need to have a bench to build a bench. Edge-jointing a slab without a bench is simple work – I show how to do it in the “Build an 18th-century Workbench” DVD. Basically you put the slab on the ground and push it against a rock.

        I don’t have a rock in my shop. But I do have a vise. And I’m not a re-enactor.

        • “New from Rockler: Shop Rocks!!!” Seriously, regardless of how the slab is gets dimensioned I am exited to see the finished benches and read the book. Keep up the good work.

    • abtuser says:

      Hack half a tree stump off at the depth you want – like a giant bench dog. Push your slab against the stump (if you don’t have a rock handy). Support the rest of the slab with half logs or something that would do the trick. Dimension away.

  12. jmwagle86 says:

    That is a beautiful stick of wood!

  13. Mike Ramsey says:

    I need a couple of those rulers to screw with the germans here who start talking in millimeters.

  14. miathet says:

    I know I’m late but I am thinking of the run on Schwarz high end custom rocks flying off the shelves.

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