Roman Legs: Four or Eight?

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Today I turned the first four legs for the low Roman workbench but I left my lathe set up because I might need to turn four more tomorrow.

While most images I’ve come across of Roman workbenches show them made with four legs and with staked construction, there is one image from Herculaneum that looks a lot like there are eight legs. The image below is actually an 18th-century drawing of a painting from that doomed city that has deteriorated – all we have left is this image (plus a host of wrongly interpreted images).

eight-legs

Suzanne Ellison and I are fairly convinced this image is accurate for a variety of reasons that I’ll discuss in the forthcoming book. But even if the 18th-century image is accurate, a few experts have suggested that the Roman image it is based on is inaccurate.

It’s a bit of a hall of mirrors to discuss. But the bottom line is that some people think that the Herculaneum image actually depicts a work surface on top of two four-legged sawhorses. I tend to disagree. But there is no way to settle the issue.

So what I’m planning on doing is making the bench with four legs, like this image from Pompeii.

four_legs

Then I’m going to work with the bench and see if I think it needs four more legs to be robust enough for operations such as hand mortising.

So stay tuned.

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These four legs feature 4”-long tenons that are 1-3/4” in diameter. I roughed them out on the lathe and then shaved and scraped them to the finished shape. I like the process and the finished texture.

— Christopher Schwarz

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15 Responses to Roman Legs: Four or Eight?

  1. admiralbumblebee says:

    Could you explain your use of a flat card scraper on the lathe? Are you just going at it unpowered and rotating by hand? Perhaps something else to it?

  2. stroyno says:

    In your research on Roman workbenches, how often do they show people working at them while sitting? I want to think most you have shared show them standing (like the cherubs), but the image from Pompeii show the worker sitting on a simple stool. Interesting, to me at least. I don’t think I could work on a something for very long without needing to get up and move around the bench to get a better angle at something. Just curious if this was common or not.

    • There is about 1,500 years of evidence for benches of two heights: knee high and thigh high.

      As you’ll see in “Estonian Woodworking,” knee-high benches can be pressed to do a lot of surprising things.

  3. amvolk says:

    I hope you will answer the “admiral’s” question and I have a couple of my own. How high are you aiming to make your bench? In the Pompeian bench image, there are some items under the bench to the right of the woodworker’s feet. Do you know what these might be, especially the duck head shaped thing? Almost looks like a holdfast.

  4. hbra12 says:

    “Roman Legs: Four or Eight?: Since you asked….. I would very much opt for eight. The Pompeii image is very much a small bench, to my eye less than a quarter of the mass of your slab. As I recall you said the top was around 100lbs and that you may be sitting on it for some operations? I know you are lean but…. I would be seriously concerned about a leg snapping (sic). Obviously keeping the rake and splay angle slight on the legs will help (much less than the Pompeii), but would hate to hear about crushed toes.

  5. T-shirt Idea: “Herculaneum School of Woodworking” with “Lost Art Press” under it, on the left side front…

    …and a graphic of tiny cherub wings on the back.

  6. I am unable to decide whether the few images of Roman benches have 4 or 8 stakes. I am also unable to decide whether the secondary image is accurate. The more artistic, the greater the possible license or error. Also, this may be a 6 stake bench with the single stakes on the craftsman’s side. But there is one powerful difference among 4, 6 and 8 stakes. Six and 8 stake benches can be constructed to be broken down. The bench being constructed has a huge, thick, very heavy top. Given the dark clouds of history, artistry and volcanic activity, I would suggest a build with eight legs. Then at least the bench could be broken down and moved, be more stable on uneven surfaces and have 8 feet on the ground to support the heavy burden. The last benefit would favor 8 over 6 stakes. Moving a large, heavy structure with 4 permanent projecting stakes puts the stakes at risk from trauma.

    I am concerned that the bench top is radically skewed from the direction of the tree’s long fibers.

  7. Is it me or does the image from Pompeii actually look like a three legged bench? The “fourth” leg looks like an object that extents upward behind the bench. A three legged bench would make sense with all the dirt floors back then since a three legged stool doesn’t wobble.

    • bsrlee says:

      Ad Idem.

      The 4th leg – left rear from our perspective – looks to me to be another furniture part that matches the part being mortised on the bench. IIRC Roy showed at least one 3 legged shaving horse during the 35 or so year of his show.

      And if no one has noticed because they don’t teach the ‘Classics’ like they used to – that wall painting is VERY naughty, you just have to know the references.

  8. The cherub image also helps me in my historical research proving that woodworking naked is totally a thing. Checkmate, lady across the street!!

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