I finished writing the first draft of “Roman Workbenches” and have been combing through the text to find all the “snakebites” – the little details that get missed when you are writing at the speed of a firehose.
One of the details relates to the only surviving Roman workbenches I know of: three workbench tops found at a Roman fort in Saalburg. The descriptions of these tops appear in many of the classic woodworking history texts, but none discuss how they were found, what species of wood they are or offer many details about the location of the holes for workholding.
I haven’t had any luck contacting Saalburg, but a German woodworking friend is on the case.
In the meantime, take a look at these two drawings from W.L. Goodman’s “The History of Woodworking Tools” (after J.M. Greber’s book on planes) and another image from Günther Heine’s “Das Werkzeug….” Both images of one of the Saalburg tops show it with two mortises in the front edge.
Goodman theorizes it could have been for a T- or U-shaped piece of wood for holding wood to the bench.
Sure. You could also put your Roman weed in it.
I’ve been thinking about these mortises for a long time. They show up on a few benches here and there from different time periods. But I have yet to find one that accompanies the appliance or device that used the mortise.
I have some theories. I’m sure you do, too. Here are a few of mine:
- We’re looking at the back of the workbench and the mortises are for a chisel/tool rack, much like what you see on French workbenches.
- The mortises are left over from when the piece of wood was used for something else. It could have been part of a timberframe construction that was laid out incorrectly. In other words, the workbench top is made from a scrap.
- It could be part of a device where you drive in wedges against stops to saw tenons. Imagine that you put a stop in each mortise. Put your work between the stops. Drive a wedge in the gap to hold it for tenoning or whatever.
If you have any sound ideas, you know what to do.
— Christopher Schwarz