Mark Firley of The Furniture Record sent me the above photo he took at Destrehan Plantation, which is 30 minutes west of New Orleans. It’s a nicely proportioned staked bench that is supporting a crackling press, which is used to press lard from cracklings or juice from fruit.
I quite like how the cross-grain battens are oriented at the ends of the top. All in all, it’s a nice piece, despite its primitive appearance.
Despite my natural hermit tendencies, we’ve decided to again open the Lost Art Press storefront on the second Saturday of each month. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
In addition to carrying our complete line of books and tools from Crucible, we also sell blemished books for 50 percent off (cash only on those) and special T-shirts and posters that are available only at the storefront.
The storefront is located at 837 Willard St. in Covington, Ky.
March 11 (in conjunction with a Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event)
Since we bought the building in 2015, Covington has blossomed with new restaurants and developments that we are pleased to be part of. You can now stay in the beautiful Hotel Covington (a seven-minute walk from our storefront), get a drink at Braxton Brewing or one of the dozen other new watering holes. And there are new restaurants too numerous to mention.
Oh, and you can walk across the Roebling Suspension Bridge and there’s this other place, Cincinnati, to visit.
Work on the storefront has been proceeding at a good clip. By January we should have the basement all concreted and climate-controlled for wood storage (my first ever place to store wood!). I’ve been working at the back of the ground floor all month, eliminating the last of the purple glitter from the Blaze bar.
And, most exciting, we’ve upgraded the urinal with new plumbing.
This morning I had a 15-minute video chat with Joshua Klein of Mortise & Tenon Magazine about the article I wrote for him on the low Roman workbench.
The discussion ranged from how I became interested in this form of bench to how this workbench might be ideal for woodworkers in apartments or who have disabilities.
You can watch the video in its entirety for free here. And be sure to order a copy of issue two of Mortise & Tenon Magazine, which will begin shipping in about a week. It’s only $24 but contains a huge amount of coverage of traditional work that you won’t find anywhere else. And the physical object itself is gorgeous and worth keeping.
Update on the Book ‘Roman Workbenches’
This book project has taken on a life of its own and has inflated like a pool toy as Suzanne Ellison, Görge Jonuschat and I have dug up new material that hasn’t been published outside academic circles. We have flushed a lot of money down the potty for this project. But it’s a tale worth telling.
So here’s what we’re going to do.
We are going to publish a short letterpress book – about 64 pages – about our research, bench building and conclusions up to this point. That book is already written and we’re going to illustrate it with old-school line drawings from artist Nicholas Mogley. We will do one press run of this book on the vintage letterpress machinery owned by Steamwhistle Press in Newport in February.
Everyone who wants a copy will get one, but once that press run is done, that version is kaput forever.
The letterpress book will be a bit of an odd duck. It’s a book about research, dead ends, bench building, wet wood and cow sex. And it’s written in a loose style that makes academics sneer.
Then, in March, photographer Narayan Nayar and I will fly to Naples (Italy, not Florida) to visit Pompeii, Herculaneum and climb Vesuvius. If there’s enough interest, we will publish a regular offset Lost Art Press book that greatly expands the research from the letterpress book with tons of photos, illustrations and the fire hose of research from Suzanne Ellison and Görge Jonuschat.
I think Roman workbenches have a lot to teach us. And it begins with these two words: Be seated.
I hope you will join us for this odd journey. Even if you don’t, I’ll get some great meals in Italy and climb a volcano.
Here’s an old school carpenter’s (or landscaper’s) method of laying out a line, such as a foundation form or a hedge row, to a specified angle. The tools needed are simple, primitive even: A length of rope marked at a certain distance and a 10′ pole marked in 1′ increments (i.e. the once ubiquitous carpenter’s 1o’ pole). Or you can join the 20th century and use a tape measure.
Let’s jump right in and lay out an 8° angle from a baseline. The drawing above is pretty self explanatory, but I’ll explain it anyway in my hopefully not too pedantic step-by-step fashion:
Step 1: Establish the baseline (via a stretched string) and set a pin (a sharpened stick works) at the focal point where the angle will converge.
Step 2: Make a loop at the end of a non-stretchable rope (i.e. avoid nylon) and run it out along the baseline from the base pin. Measure out 57′ 2-1/2″ from the pin along the rope and make a mark with a Sharpie or tie on a piece of string. Also, set a pin at the baseline at that distance.
Step 3: Now arc the rope away from the baseline in the direction you want to lay out the angle.
Step 4: Set the base of the 10′ pole at the baseline pin and orient it to the rope. When the 8′ mark on the pole passes over the mark on the rope then the angle to the baseline is (drum roll) 8°.
So how does this work you might ask? As my friend Joe Youcha of buildingtoteach.com explained to me: “The answer is buried in the math we were all injected with in grammar school.” We were all told about the “transcendental number” called “pi” which when inputted into your calculator would provide you with either the circumference of a circle based on its diameter or vice versa.
Artisans of antiquity, however, had no knowledge of the decimal number pi. In fact, decimal numbers in general had not been described in detail in the Western world until the late 1500s by the mathematician Simon Stevin. But artisans did have an excellent working relationship with the straightforward (non-cendental?) proportional ratio system. In the case of the relationship of the diameter of a circle with its circumference, they would just step out the diameter into seven segments and know that 22 of those segments would, to a high level of accuracy, give them the length of the circumference. Good enough for government work (such as the Parthenon) as they say.
Because we apparently need to work with degrees (probably because the architect speced out the angle in degrees instead of the length of a chord as they would have in antiquity), we would need to know what number of segments the diameter would be if the circumference were stepped out to 360 segments. That number is, of course, an arbitrary but widely accepted convention since Babylonian times as a convenient way to divvy up a circle. We like it as it can be evenly divided by so many whole number divisions – though for a time Europeans were quite fond of 400 degrees.
But I digress; back to how it works: If you go to the trouble of physically stepping out along the circumference of a circle with dividers, you’ll discover that when 360 segments do the trick, 114 and 5/12ths of another segment will define the diameter. Of course, using al-Jabr (given to us by the Islamic mathematicians), we can quickly solve for this result using an algebraic equation to solve for an unknown.
For this purpose we’ll use half of the diameter segments – fifty seven and two and one half twelfths – to lay out the radius length on the rope. The bottom line: We find that a radius of 57 feet, 2-1/2″ produces a circumference length of 360 feet. So for every foot we swing the arc, we produce an angle of 1°.
Unfortunately we have no record of exactly what Studley did at any point of his employment with Smith. However, the later portrait of Studley as a piano’s action builder does allow us to propose that he had a similar role at Smith.
In his 60th year, Studley left Smith American Organ Company to work for the recently formed Poole Piano Company. The reasons, motivation and terms of that change are unknown, but the reference in The Music Trade Review of Dec. 17, 1921, to Studley’s having been hired by Poole Piano to be in charge of its “voicing” (or action) department surely means he was well-accomplished and respected for the tasks and responsibilities incumbent to the new position. Part of the larger economic reality of the organ and piano trades at that time was the falling popularity of organs and the growing role of pianos in the American home.
The 1899 illustrated catalog from the Poole Company, roughly contemporary to Studley joining the firm, emphasized its grand and upright pianos and is instructive, even given the florid prose of Victorian marketing. Three brief passages in particular caught my eye. “We make no pretensions as manufacturers of cheap instruments. Considering the fact that we use only first-class material and employ only the most skilled workmen…”
And, “[finish] may apply either to the workmanship of the action and other interior details, where it cannot readily be seen and appreciated, or to the exterior appearance. Straws indeed show the direction of the wind, and the nicety of adjustments and carefulness with which every detail of our instruments is worked out, although such things may be regarded as unimportant, certainly show the character of the final work.”
Finally, “Tone. It will be admitted that this is a much-talked-of and much mystified subject. The general public can get little knowledge of it by reading over the worn-out adjectives usually employed in piano catalogs.
“If, however, we may attribute any special quality of excellence to the characteristic of the Poole Piano, we would say that the almost freedom of vibration is insured by the well-drawn scales employed, and the nicety with which every detail is worked out.”
Of course there is no way to know how much of this is bloviation and how much is an honest statement of mission and purpose, but at least rhetorically Poole is throwing down a marker. The advertising copy is saying all the right things to describe an atmosphere that allowed Henry Studley to express that excellence in his work ensemble.
To the extent that there is any historical record of him in either the organ or piano trades, it refers to him as a prominent and respected craftsman. The indication of Studley’s stature in the Boston piano manufacturing world can be seen in an article in the periodical The Music Trade Review during the final year of his career, celebrating his 46 years in the trade. Simple arithmetic allows us to affix approximate working dates for him as 1873-1898 for Smith American, and 1898-1919 for Poole Piano. The breadth of tools in the cabinet, combined with the photographic portrait, leads us to the fully defensible conclusion that Studley was at various times both a case builder for Smith and a builder of piano actions for Poole.
In the only known image of him, Studley is seen as an 80-year-old man standing formally at a workbench, his famous tool cabinet hanging on the wall behind him. Dressed in the peculiar (to us) attire of a dress shirt and necktie that was typical for skilled tradesmen of the era, he is shown with a felt cutter in hand and an open upright piano nearby. Thus we are left with the distinct impression that he was not merely running the action department, he was still actively engaged in the trade himself.