Roman Workbench II: The Fall of the Machines

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One of the interesting aspects of building this second Roman workbench has been how useless machines are to the process.

The benchtop is too big for a jointer and planer – and too heavy to move without a crane. But a jack plane trued it up quickly without any back strain.

When it came to the tapered legs, my plan was to cut away some of the excess on the table saw. I have a 3 horsepower cabinet saw, which usually can handle anything in furniture making. But the oak legs were too dense and wet. The saw bogged down and the thermal overload switch popped several times.

So I turned to the band saw with a fresh blade. Ditto. Once again, the jack plane and jointer plane did the majority of the work, and in fairly short order. (After wasting away a lot of material I did use my electric jointer to tidy things up with some light passes.)

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Turning the tenons was like riding a bronco at a prison rodeo. I have a midi-lathe that I clamp to my massive French oak workbench. Even though I carefully balanced each leg between centers, the entire bench jumped and wobbled as I turned the 3”-diameter 5-1/2”-long tenons at 500 rpm – the slowest speed available.

Now comes the mortises. I hope that my corded drill is up to the task.

— Christopher Schwarz

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19 Responses to Roman Workbench II: The Fall of the Machines

  1. No way will your battery chum, drill out wet wood but a brace and bit will. Better still a long bit with an eye at the end to turn the large diameter bit with a long leverage piece of round wood through it. Ash or larch is best and it’s usually two to three feet long. Thats what my Grandfather used and I still have it – hand forged of course, as its from the mid nineteenth century. Actually quite easy then!!!!

  2. No way will your battery chum, drill out wet wood but a brace and bit will. Better still a long bit with an eye at the end to turn the large diameter bit with a long leverage piece of round wood through it. Ash or larch is best and it’s usually two to three feet long. Thats what my Grandfather used and I still have it – hand forged of course, as its from the mid nineteenth century. Actually quite easy then!!!!

    Sorry to post twice forgot to tick new comments box.

  3. Paul Sidener says:

    Wow 3″ diameter mortise. Good luck with that. Better have an extra biscuit for breakfast.

  4. wurzelgummage says:

    Milwaukee do a 3″ø self feed bit, but you need their high torque, slow speed drill to turn it with.

    If you use one, don’t let go of the long handle whilst it’s turning, as you’ll break your thumb or wrist of the other hand.

  5. Rachael Boyd says:

    1 in. brace and bit, chisel and in-channel gouge, would be the tools of the day.

  6. I hear that! Trying to true up a should-be-circular/straight hole gone bad at an angle in oak or anything else is just no fun at all.

    How far back is it possible to trace the rectangular tenon? Seems to me it would be a simpler and a lot easier solution. Why the round tenons, except maybe depicted that way? Common practice in the Roman Empire? To increase mass in the tenon compared to that of a rectangular? To avoid spreading cracks in the worktop from square holes? Tightening up better? And which tools would originally have been used to make the tenons? Spring pole lathe?

    Depending on the amount of material to waste away on the taper, I probably would have started out even rougher with a healthy set crosscut saw and an axe, but maybe that’s just me.

    What awesome timbers and work to behold.

  7. John Voss says:

    not impossible- but close…stock up on your favorite poison first.
    these are compound angles, right? a vertical mill comes to mind. chocking it up might take me a week or more.

  8. mctoons555 says:

    I’m also curious why round tenons? What “technology” was available in that time period that would allow someone to drill that big of a hole? My first thought was twin through tenons with wedges because those wouldn’t have required any special tools other than a small drill and chisels, plus a saw to cut the tenons. With those gigantic sized legs you could probably just plane the tapers to give the appearance of splayed legs. Just my thoughts.

    Jim

    • When they are shown as through-tenons, they are many times (but not always) round.

      There were many ways to make the hole using the technology of the time. In addition to boring, they could be burned. Tenons could be turned or shaved.

  9. jglen490 says:

    Lots of respect is due to the ancient artisans who came up with solutions like this bench and act… I mean really implemented them.

    Lots of respect to you for figuring it out and duplicating this amazing woodworking tool.

  10. wurzelgummage says:

    Wooden water pumps made from 24″ Ø elm trunks had a central hole bored in them which were 5″Ø or more and up to 15′ long. All drilled with a massive two man auger, using technology which is thousands of years old.

    A coopers bung auger will bore a tapered 3″Ø hole too.

  11. woodewe says:

    I can loan you a 3.0-inch Milwaukee auger bit.

  12. Timber Anew says:

    Planing those massive slabs must be so satisfying, no clamps needed!

  13. woodewe says:

    OK, but you are just limited by your “old arn” blood. There are 36-inch jointers out there looking for work.

    • It’s funny…??…even in this conversation the subtle inference to use of power tools for making such items as this bench…and/or questions to…How could they (would they)??…bore such holes.

      So much has been lost, not read, or ignored about traditional…Large Scale…wood and stone boring work.

      I loved the reference by Wurzelgummage as I have bore many a length of Waterline out of logs at almost 3 meter long section with 75mm giant Spoon type augers…So though our friend Chris’s work here is very impressive and a fine example of acient craft revisited…it is not unusual, out of context or even that extreme in “boring practices” comparatively…

      • wurzelgummage says:

        Thats right JC.

        Those massive Elm hubs on timber wagons have an even larger tapered hole in them to take the timber axel. In Roman times a 3″ hole was probably a tiddler.

        Walter Rose in “The Village Carpenter” has a nice description of boring out and making timber water pumps.

        • They have opportunities to use the Waterpipe boring tools available at several museums and reenactment centers. Should you ever get a chance to try your hand at it…I think you would very much enjoy the experience. These pipes also work surprising well…they still find them all the time (with water running through them!!!) that are hundreds of years old…Question is how long all this “modern plumbing” of plastic and modern concrete will last and/or not contaminate the water more than it has…?? I further agree (and laugh)…you are correct a 3″ hole really is that large comparatively…

  14. Andy in Germany says:

    I had a similar experience regarding machines when making a bed for my son: I wanted to have through mortise and tenon joints, held in place using wedges so we could dismantle the bed easily. Well meaning colleaguees suggested different machines and I nearly wrecked the bed and lost a thumb with one chainsaw like thing that was suppose to cut the holes. Eventually I went back to a hand saw, brace, and chisels, and a #4 plane for the rounded edges. much to the confusion of my employer. The main difference was that these worked…

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