Roman Workbenches. In Spain. In a Japanese Book


Furniture conservator and cabinetmaker Martin O’Brien sent us these intriguing images of low workbenches being used by Spanish woodworkers to build ladderback chairs. And, to add to the multicultural mix, it comes from a book in Japanese.

To me it looks like there are two benches at work here. In the foreground, the guy with the nifty hat is working on spindles. On the bench on the left, the other woodworker is assembling the chair frames.

And it looks like it’s all taking place in a cave.

O’Brien writes:

“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.”

I’d love to learn more about these benches. Thanks Martin. It’s fascinating to see these benches in use in southern Europe and northern Europe (Estonia).

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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20 Responses to Roman Workbenches. In Spain. In a Japanese Book

  1. Here’s my imperfect translation from what I can see (left side of a captions are blurry)

    Top: “…[person] on the right shaves [chisels?] a section, the other works on opening up a hole”

    Bottom: “ …bevels the [not readable], and smacking it without a mallet, in a jiffy they have it assembled.”


  2. Hank Cohen says:

    Unfortunately the scan is blurry near the binding so I can’t quite make out the first characters. The caption in the first photo begins … 右の職人が部材を削り、も一人が穴を開く、組み立てる。
    “… the craftsman on the right is shaving a component, the other is drilling holes, assembly”
    Better English would put the verb at the beginning, “Assembly, the craftsman on the right is shaving components, the other is drilling holes.”
    The second caption: [illegible]の先端を面取りし、当て木もせずに叩き、あっという間に全体を組み立てる。
    Pointed tennons are driven directly without a block and the whole is quickly assembled.


  3. Hello, looks like a very interesting book. Do you have its name and author? Or, more simply, its ISBN?


  4. structureboisdecors says:

    All this as to do with the visit in Spain of the great japanese cabinet maker Kuroda in 1967. He was part of the Mingei movement and had been highly impressed by Van Gogh painting of a chair, and he discoverded in Granada a green woodworking chairmaker making chairs really similar to the one in Van Gogh painting. So he shot a small movie of the chairmaker in action and brought it back in Japan where he started making similar chairs. The movie is here: And that’s how the Mingei movement was inspired by Spanish green chair maker, and I wouldn’t be suprised if these pictures were shot in Granada’s caves!


  5. Its quite clearly two benches – just look at the quantity, distribution and angle of the legs. I hope you find them.


  6. The hat…it is nifty


  7. pfollansbee says:

    it’s a book by our friend Masashi Kutsuwa – I mentioned it in a blog post earlier this year; – his book is near the end of that post. here’s what I wrote:

    “It’s about a chair he’s been studying in Japan, based on a Vincent Van Gogh painting; hence the nickname “Van Gogh chair”. Masashi’s facebook page has some details about the project, starting with Tatsuaki Kuroda’s 1967 trip to Spain to see these chairs being made…this link includes a short film of one of the Spanish chairmakers.”

    here’s the book:


  8. Brian Eve says:

    I like that they are wearing the traditional boring plates, or whatever they are called, on their chests. I’ll have to do some investigating when I’m in Granada in a few weeks!


  9. franktiger says:

    When working I have the notion to sit, not from fatigue but to use my body in a way to get more force behind the tools that need it, think fulcrum.
    Since the release of woodworkin in Estonia, I have removed the head and clamp parts from my shaving horse to use it in the way you see pictured.


    • franktiger says:

      Chris, do you remember the mexican iron wood workbench(from the forum), I didn’t, the path the craft has traveled through distance and time is most interesting to me.
      I think folks were in debate about the uses of the bench parts but I wondered about it’s origin.


  10. Hi I am the author of this book ‘Van Gogh Chair’. Peter Follansbee told me there was a discussion going on here about the photos in my book.

    As Peter already mentioned, those photographs were taken in Guadix in 1967. Tatsuaki Kuroda, one of Japan’s best known woodworker and the first ‘Living National Treasure’ in woodwork, travelled to Europe with his son Kenkichi to learn about the history and culture of chairs. At that time he was commissioned 30 chairs for the new Imperial Palace by the Japanese government, so he visited 10 countries to trace the history of chairs, from Egypt to Denmark. As you all know, we Japanese didn’t use chairs in our daily life until very recently. Kuroda himself had never used chairs at his house!

    The photos in my book were taken in Guadix by Kenkichi Kuroda, Tatsuaki’s son. And the film was shot by Tatsuaki in Granada, on their way to Guadix.

    Guadix is well known for cave dwelling, and also has a long tradition of ladder back chair making since 17th century. The film in Granada was shot on the street, as Kuroda asked the chairmaker to work outside because his workshop was too dark to shoot the film.

    There is another interesting video. The program was shot in Guadix in 1979, by the Spanish National Television (TVE).

    The chairmaking scene starts from 11 min.
    The chairmaker who appeared in the video is Manolo Rodriguez. He turned 65 this year and retired from chairmaking. I met him last year for research. He appears in page 132 of my book.


  11. casparlabarre says:


  12. casparlabarre says:

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  13. rudiguito says:

    Excellent post, Chris! And thanks to everyone who commented, lots of interesting info here!
    The shorty benches you have brought up remind me of the ones used in Asturias, northern Spain, (where i come from) to make “madreñas”, the traditional clogs peasants use. Although still used in rural areas, “madreñeros”, the dedicated clogmakers, are hard to come by. Short and low, they also double as a shavehorse and let the artisan ,ehem, ride ther work. I’ve always been uncomfortable with sharp tools dancing around certain areas of my own anatomy.


  14. A huge thank you to everyone who responded, especially for the connection to Masashi Kutsuwa. Great posts, all!


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