Workbench Mystery No. 326


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Aliens.

If you have any sound ideas, you know what to do.

— Christopher Schwarz


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32 Responses to Workbench Mystery No. 326

  1. Definitely aliens.

  2. jayedcoins says:

    It’s December and it just snowed a bunch. I’m inclined to say that these are for removable pint glass holders, so you have a place for whatever imperial stout you’re using to keep warm and keep powered.

  3. The Goodman theory makes the most sense to me. They would have needed a way to hold wood to the bench and a U-shaped device with tenons on the end could have been wedged to hold wood to the side.

  4. 5. if these are on the back side – maybe they secured the bench to tenons in the wall so that the bench did not move while planing
    6. an extension fitted in to allow for larger boards to be worked.

  5. ptross says:

    is the extra mortise in the top outboard of the lefthand legs for a planing stop? if so, does that suggest which is front and back?

  6. Sergeant82d says:

    Similar to your comment about the wedges, what about a pair of short (ish) purpose made holdfasts, used as a (Moxon type) vise?

  7. Jeremy says:

    Since this is a sitting bench, maybe we are thinking about it in the wrong terms. While I have no real supposition, what if it was an add-on appliance similar to a shave horse or chevelet that locks into those mortises and wedges tight on the back side?

  8. joopson says:

    Maybe it’s a silly thing to suggest, but is it possible “handles” would slide in there, for when the bench has to be moved? Looks like a solid and heavy bench, and having some removable peg-like handles on the sides could aid.

  9. sully45 says:

    Did they use rope for work holding? Maybe these were used for some kind of rope cleat(s).

  10. pinusmuricata says:

    Any notion of how deep the mortises are? Might help narrow down the options.

  11. toolnut says:

    Maybe a tool tray/shelf that could be inserted and removed as needed.

  12. I’m from Washington State, lets revisit that Roman Weed comment again… (haha)

  13. paul6000000 says:

    Cup holders?

    • paul6000000 says:

      …maybe some kind of “outrigger” with it’s own leg to support it? I’m imagining cross cutting a longer board while seated, it would be a way of stopping the offcut from falling. At the end of the day, it would stow under the bench.

  14. jwatriss says:

    I kinda like the wedge clamping idea for sawing tenons. That was my first thought.

    It might be useful for leg clamping. (human leg) If you’re sitting on the bench, It’s hard to hold a board against the edge of the bench with your leg. That’s a lot of strain on the groin muscles and other adductors over the long-haul. But, using one of your legs to push the board forwards, against a stop that went in one of those mortises, seems less far-fetched somehow.

    Certainly less far-fetched than the notion of using the mortises to hook on an extension table, for those days when ye olde holy roman might need to process sheet goods.

    I’m also wondering if it was a contrivance for using a holdfast, in conjunction with a wedge, for edge clamping. I know thicker tops can make for difficult hold-fasting. (Holding-fast? How exactly would such a verb be declined?) But I’m thinking that taking the Roman hook-fast that you had forged, sliding it most of the way in, wedging, then smashing in the rest of the way, might do the trick. If the wedge doesn’t go further into the mortise than, say, the thickness of a bench-top, it might mimic that desired thickness, and allow for the hook-fast to cantilever into holding position, as it would on the top. Maybe. That one needs more head-scratching than I have time for.

    But the benches as drawn don’t have holes for hold-fasts or hook-fasts, so I’m wondering if there was an equivalent wooden version… maybe made from a fork from a tree branch? With two tenons and a connecting beam, you might be able to make something that would mimic the action of a drawer racking itself into position, to clamp something. I’m not saying it would work well, but with the addition of a rope, it might be better than nothing…

    I also like the imperial stout idea, but an apron pocket and a straw would work just as well for that.

    • jwatriss says:

      Final odd thought before I get back to homework…

      It occurs to me that tool and jig evolution is the result of accidents as much as deliberate design. Maybe somewhere along the way, someone had a bench with the stump of a branch that they were too lazy to cut off, and they found that it was good for a number of uses. Methods of work derive from the defect feature, and so it gets mimicked on future benches, but they need a mortise to graft on the new prosthetic branch stump.

      Centuries later… it looks like a crochet.

      Just a thought.

  15. I thinking it was for the Jamesfast hold fast vise. 😁 >

  16. capie001 says:

    Drawer pins planing jig?

  17. Nah they cut those holes to hold the slab so they could finish the slab. I can see them trueing that edge then cut the mortise in order to hold it and finish the slab.

  18. fitz says:

    Bench contra-nib.

  19. Luke Miller says:

    If I were using that bench I’d want a ledge on the side to ride the plane while jointing edges. Kind of like Japanese planing beams or a shooting board. That could work well in those mortises.

  20. I have a book written in Japanese about Spanish chair makers. On one page are some images of two men working on low benches with splayed legs that look like the Roman workbenches I’ve seen in your blog. The book is totally in Japanese so I don’t even know the title. I have the picture scanned and ready to send. If you are interested in seeing it, let me know how to get the image to you. I used to live in Spain and still return frequently and the workbenches there vary from Roman style to ‘Roubo’ style with leg vise.

    • Thanks Martin,

      You can send the image to

      Chinese benches are very similar to Roman ones. Most of the Chinese benches I’ve seen have a stretcher between the legs that spans the width of the top.

      • Just forwarded images. One could almost say that it is a cross between a Roman workbench and shave horse. This shop could very well be a cave in Southern Spain. Makes sense that Roman traditions would still have a serious toehold in this region.

        If you need anymore information, I can get the Japanese person who gave me this book to provide some translations. Next time I go to Spain, I’m gonna find these guys.

        Thanks for doing what you do and writing what you write. It restores my faith in humanity.

  21. Lee Hockman says:

    I’d go with the “aliens” theory, as it obviously is the most logical. Can you imagine their extreme frustration after travelling half-way across the universe in amazing technologically advanced space ships and then being reduced to making stuff here with only pieces of wood and bits of crude metal?

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