The Second Roman Workbench Begins

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While I call this bench a Roman model, perhaps I should call it a Holy Roman Empire workbench. It comes from a 1505 drawing in a Nuremberg codex, which discusses tools, weapons, clever doorways, instruments of torture and a love potion.

The workbench, as drawn in in 1505, is the same Roman form you’ll find in frescoes and stone carvings from the early part of the Roman Empire. The only difference is that this 1505 bench has been equipped with a lot of advanced workholding thanks to Martin Loffelholz, the author of the codex.

loffelholz_vise

I’m trying to replicate the bench as close as I can to the codex’s drawings. The top is a single slab of oak from Will Myers and Lesley Caudle in North Carolina. The legs are massive tapered things that are staked into the underside of the top. The twin-screw vise will be made from wooden components (that I am making). The metal components for the wagon vise are being made by blacksmith Peter Ross. The wooden screw for the wagon vise is from Lake Erie Toolworks.

This week I got a good start on prepping the benchtop and the legs. This red oak is pretty green – I haven’t put a moisture meter on it, but my guess is that the components are somewhere about 30 percent moisture content (MC). Despite this, the top and legs are fairly stable. The slab for the benchtop (4-1/2” x 17” x 84”) was pretty flat so I dressed it on both faces in an hour. The long edges – also rough – took about 45 minutes to dress and true with a jack plane.

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The legs are massive 6” x 6” posts, and I got those squared up and cut to rough size this morning before breakfast. I still need to taper them, which I’m going to do with a band saw and a jointer plane.

I hope by the weekend to be boring mortises for the legs and still be hernia-free.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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11 Responses to The Second Roman Workbench Begins

  1. Sergeant82d says:

    Wow… That’s about as obviously the (an) ancestor of our beloved French (and German, with its’ twin screw face vise) bench as its possible to get! Only missing the stretchers and lower shelf, and it’s done. Very cool pictures, can’t wait to see the completed piece.

    Speaking of torture devices, there’s an entire museum dedicated to torture implements in Germany that I toured while stationed there….

  2. What a weird creature! Will be very exciting to see how it performs, but I expect it’ll do just fine just because of the sheer mass. Tapered legs though? For what purpose? Elegance? Or just because? Maybe legs were made from thick branches, and work was minimized on them to get on with moneymaking projects, as well as maximizing weight for lower center of gravity? What was usually beneath the bench? Wooden floors, stone slabs or just dirt? Maybe the large surfaces on the bottom of the legs are for weight distribution to prevent the bench from sinking through whatever it was sitting on? Strange how many questions a picture like that can provoke. Answers are probably to be found amongst the elders. Provided one can find someone old enough to ask.

    • “Tapered legs though? For what purpose? Elegance? Or just because?”

      This is a very typical construction from the Middle Ages and before. The legs can be tapered for a variety of reasons; one reason being that they need to be topped by a tenon that goes into the top. The leg could have been shaved down to fit the tenon but left thicker at the base. The leg could also be wedge-shaped due to the way it was rived from the tree.

      “What was usually beneath the bench? Wooden floors, stone slabs or just dirt? Maybe the large surfaces on the bottom of the legs are for weight distribution to prevent the bench from sinking through whatever it was sitting on?”

      These are shown on all sorts of surfaces including stone and dirt. As the benches were used inside (mostly), it’s unlikely that sinking was a common problem.

      The answer as to why they are shaped that way could be as simple as aesthetics.

  3. …and you’ll have to forgive the questions sound like they come from a 5 year old – historic background could be a lot better ☺

  4. David Pruett says:

    Just wondering, how would you build this bench on the other Roman bench. The other one seems a bit low.

  5. wallendoc says:

    I’m curious, do you think the screw was actually progressive (as it appears in the photo) or is that just an artifact of the illustration?

    • My guess is no. It’s merely an artifact of it being a hand-drawn illustration.

      I can’t actually envision how the nut would work if the screw did change pitch, except for perhaps a single point that rode at the bottom of the teeth.

      I could be wrong, however.

  6. waltamb says:

    This is Great Chris, keep on keeping on. Gather up every person you can to help with the heavy lifting. No need for Heroics.
    I was at a local sawmill yesterday and requested them to find the largest local log they can for some benches.
    I like the concept of some low sit down workbenches and this one you are doing makes so much sense.
    Watching your progress enthusiastically.

  7. tsstahl says:

    Any plans on putting dovetail keys into the checks?

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